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 Regular skiing not dangerous enough? Columnist Dave Barry recommends snowboarding.
 Snowboarding section


Snow's Up! The Totally Rad Sport of Snowboarding

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 1989; Page E3

"Did you feature that totally rad dude on the pink Switchblade? He was shredding an incredibly gnarly run down Peak 8 with this toe-side carve and he caught wicked air off the pipe. All of a sudden he flames out in this amaaaazing wipe — and when he comes up, the board's trashed and his Sorrel is buried and he's hiking to the shred shed. And I'm, like, 'Totally awesome!' "

The language you have just read is English — albeit a new and unusual species of English that is common to a new but not so unusual species of snow jock found in increasing numbers on the nation's ski slopes.

The paragraph just quoted was overheard one crisp, sunny day last winter on Peak 8 at Colorado's Breckenridge Ski Area. The speaker was a teenager engaged in the sport of snowboarding — in essence, surfing on snow. Practitioners of that burgeoning winter sport use a 5-foot-long, 10-inch-wide wood and fiberglass board — bigger than a skate board but smaller than a surfboard — to traverse the nation's ski slopes.

Since its birth not much more than five years ago, the fast-growing alternative to traditional downhill skiing has been booming in popularity. Anybody who can ski can also snowboard, but the sport seems to attract mainly athletic young men between junior-high and graduate-school age — a subset of the population that speaks the strange brand of English recorded above.

"Over the past five to six years, the snowboard industry has been almost doubling each year," says Emmitt Manning of Burton Snowboards, the Vermont firm that makes the Switchblade and the Pocketknife, two of the best-selling snowboard models. Fran Richards, marketing manager of Snowboarding Magazine (a publication based in — of all places! — San Diego), estimates that annual snowboard sales increased from 5,000 in 1984 to 110,000 last season.

American Sports Data, a Hartsdale, N.Y., research firm, estimates that 1.3 million people tried snowboarding at least once during the 1988-89 season. About 350,000 — roughly 5 percent of the skiing population — were "serious snowboarders," meaning they went snowboarding at least 10 times during the year.

The A.S.D. research data show that more than 95 percent of serious snowboarders are male, and 82 percent are younger than 25. That figure includes Homer Reid, the athletic young man at our house, who took up snowboarding two years ago at the age of 12. Despite a broken arm he incurred at Vail after "catching awesome air" — in English, that means making a long jump — he now declares forcefully that he'll never go back to skiing.

"It's better than skiing," Homer says, "and better than skateboarding because you get such long runs. Shredding moguls is awesome."

At a time when the universe of traditional downhill skiers is aging more and skiing less, the arrival of the snowboarders has been an economic boon to ski resorts. As a result, ski areas across the country — most of which haughtily refused to allow the boards to taint their slopes a few years back — have now embraced this new winter market with open arms.

"Five years ago," says Richards of Snowboarding Magazine, "only about 10 percent of U.S. ski areas allowed snowboards. Now it is the exact opposite — only about 10 percent don't allow snowboards."

"There were early fears of the danger of snowboarding," explains Kathe Dillmann, marketing director of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group. "But it has not become a reality in places where both skiing and snowboarding are offered; they coexist pretty well.

"We haven't seen a higher number of injuries from snowboarding."

If you're already a downhill skier, snowboarding — known to its mainly youthful aficionados as "shredding" — can be an interesting diversion in the midst of a week's vacation on the slopes. The sport uses different muscles and movements than standard skiing requires, so some adjustment is necessary. But if you have any experience at skateboarding, surfing or sailboarding, you'll find snowboarding technique instantly familiar.

For folks who have so far resisted the temptation to take up skiing, the new sport of snowboarding has somewhat lower barriers to entry. You can get much further along from a single day's lesson in snowboarding than you can from one day in downhill ski school. Moreover, equipment costs are considerably lower.

A decent snowboard will cost between $200 and $500 — a little less than a pair of skis of comparable quality. You don't have to pay extra, as skiers do, for bindings; the simple plastic binding strap is built into the snowboard when you buy it. You don't need poles, though a few shredders use them.

Most important, you don't need those stiff, often painful and always expensive boots that skiers wear. You can snowboard in any pair of warm hiking boots. The boot of choice among most young shredders in the West is the padded rubber winter boot made by Sorrel, the big Canadian bootmaker. Sorrels cost about $65, and you can wear them off the slope when your shredding day is over. Recently, the ski boot companies have started producing special plastic boots for snowboarding at prices in the $200-plus range, but the shredders we know sneer at such excess.

The board itself, known as the "shred sled" and available for sale at any ski store or snowboard shop ("shred shed"), is really just a short, wide ski, with metal edges and a small curve upward at the tip. You buckle your boots into the bindings — quick-release bindings are not yet common in this sport — and find yourself standing half-sideways, in the surfing or skateboarding position.

Shifting the upper body and hips swivels the board from left edge to right, and fairly soon you can be carving swivel turns down fairly steep hills. To stop, you turn uphill (or, in a crunch, take a deliberate "wipeout," or fall). Without poles, snowboards can be a real pain to negotiate on flats or at the bottom of the hill. If you can't maintain your momentum all the way to the lift line, you remove one foot from the binding and skate, scooter-style, across the snow. Snowboarders, incidentally, have to buy the same lift ticket that skiers need.

With more and more resorts promoting snowboarding and more and more manufacturers producing the boards — there are now 64 snowboard makers, according to the North American Snowboard Association — the industry has considerable interest in getting you to try snowboarding.

More than 400 U.S. ski areas now permit snowboarding, although it still probably makes sense to call ahead and check before you set off for some mountain with your board. More than 100 areas have special schools just to teach the art of shredding. Many resorts offer package deals designed to lure new snowboarders; typically, these deals provide a rental board, a lesson and a lift ticket for about $35. That's about half the price of what the package would cost if bought separately.

In Colorado, arguably the ski capital of the world, all the major resorts and most of the smaller ones permit snowboarding. But that's an understatement. They don't just permit shredding, they go out of their way to accommodate, encourage and promote the new sport. Most of the areas in Utah and around Lake Tahoe are also wide open to shredders. Some New England areas still turn snowboards away, but the big ones have all embraced the shred sled.

To win over the snowboard market, resorts are building features into their slopes just to appeal to shredders.

One thing the youthful board skiers seem to love is a moderately steep hill dotted with immoderately huge moguls — a configuration that tends to earn the adjective "gnarly," perhaps the highest encomium in shredder lingo. Of course, many skiers can enjoy a gnarly slope as well. But some resorts have gone even further by building in features that serve only snowboarders, and are off-limits to those on skis.

Ski areas are adopting a favorite form of architecture from the skateboard world, the "half-pipe." Essentially a long, cylindrical trench with high, curving walls, the half-pipe, or "pipe," is built into the hillside before snow falls and then carefully packed through the winter. Snowboarders slide into the pipe at the top of the slope and then swerve back and forth from one curving wall to the other. When they have enough speed, they go flying off over the lip of the pipe, a process that leads to "awesome air" — and, occasionally, amaaaazing wipeouts.

The two areas that seem to have given snowboarding the fullest embrace are Breckenridge, in Colorado's Summit County, and Stratton Mountain, Vt. Both resorts have full-fledged snowboard schools and long lists of local shred sheds where you can buy or rent a board. Both have adapted much of their terrain to provide for the particular whims of snowboarders. And both host world-class annual competitions: The World Snowboard Championships are held at Breckenridge each winter, while Stratton is the site of the snowboarding U.S. Open.

At Breckenridge, where we overheard that weird subset of English last winter, there's a long half-pipe midway down Peak 8. It's fun — albeit somewhat frightening for us grown-ups — to shred it and fly off over the lip.

Even if you don't want to indulge, it's fun just to ski past and watch the kids flying over the snow, grabbing awesome air and twisting through flips and twirls in mid-air. But why spend life as a spectator? Put on your hiking boots, rent a snowboard and go out shredding one day this winter. It's, like, totally awesome.

© Copyright 1989 The Washington Post Company

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