The phone starts ringing at 6 a.m., and for most of the the 32 years that Norm Sayler has been an owner of the Donner Ski Ranch in Donner Summit, Calif., the questions have been the same.
"Are you open?" the caller asks.
"If the caller's a skier, the next question will be, 'How cold is it?' " Sayler says. "Then, 'Are the trails groomed?...What's the color of the snow?...What are the road conditions like?' You can be on the phone 2½ hours with these people."
But in recent times some of the calls go like this:
"Hey, dude, you open?"
"Now that," Sayler says, "is a snowboarder."
Hey, dude, don't be afraid.
Snowboarders don't bite, although some skiers are afraid to get close enough to find out. Skiers have an endless supply of stories about the lunatic boarders who have cut them off, conveniently forgetting that people strapped into two skinny boards and waving poles have done the same thing from time to time. Give boarders some room. They are no more crude, crass or threatening than any group in which three quarters of the members are males under the age of 25. Some use words that make no sense to you, such as "fakie" (riding backward) and "halfpipe" (a trench used for freestyle tricks, so called because it looks like a wide, concave chute up to several hundred feet long with high vertical walls), but then you might use expressions that mean nothing to them, such as "leveraged buyout" and "the ground can't cause a fumble."
Now it is true that snowboarders don't look like they should audition for the role of Father Flanagan in a remake of Boys Town. "When he was four, my son, Cole, didn't want to try snowboarding," confesses Mitzi Sayler Hodges, Sayler's daughter, who runs the Donner ski shop. "He thought his hair would turn orange, like everyone else's." Some snowboarding culturists prefer to trumpet their individuality by sporting nose rings; asked why he got one, Jeff Brushie, a top professional rider based in San Diego, said, "Because everyone else was having their tongues pierced."
Body piercing is optional, and that is the point about this sport. Snowboarders can carve turns, do tricks, catch air, even ride down handrails or picnic tables without making a statement other than, say, "This is amazing."
And what exactly is snowboarding?
Take one board about five feet long, weighing maybe six pounds, with two bindings for boots. Now throw away the poles. And go. The sport combines elements of surfing, skateboarding and Alpine skiing.
"If you look at other sports, skiing had its origins as a form of transportation, auto racing was transportation, basketball was competition," said Jim Zellers, a snowboarder from California. "But the only reason to snowboard is to have fun."
Tom Sims, founder of Sims Snowboards, a leading manufacturer of boards based in Vancouver, and, at 44, one of the sport's grandfathers, says that neither riders nor the industry want to accept the concept of snowboarding as mainstream, but they may have to. The revolution is over; snowboarding won. It ended bloodlessly when, earlier this month, Regis Phil-bin did a snowboarding bit on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. A stunt double boarded while Regis made faces for close-ups.
Until that moment snowboarders might have been able to dismiss the fact that only a dozen or so of the more than 500 American ski areas won't accept them. Or that more than 200 companies produce goods for the snowboarding industry. Or that the International Olympic Committee, through the International Ski Federation, the body that governs world skiing, is pushing Nagano, Japan, organizers to include snowboarding as a medal sport in the 1998 Winter Olympics. (Those rad IOC dudes.) Or that you can't turn on MTV without a snowboarder buzzing your head. Or that snowboard fashion recommendations have appeared in Seventeen and Elle. But once snowboarding was Reeeged, dumped into the lap of blue-rinse, sensible-shoes America and everyone got the joke, the sport could no longer cop an attitude.
"Now that it's allowed everywhere, I think it's more fun than ever," Sims says. "But it's true some people are bummed because they think it makes snowboarding uncool. It comes down to why you snowboard in the first place. Do you want a cool, underground sport or something that's fun?"
Snowboarding is already a booming above-ground sport, and the numbers are pointed straight uphill. There are almost two million snowboarders in the U.S., up 50 percent from 1993; the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) estimates that there will be close to four million boarders by 2000. The women's market is growing exponentially, more children are boarding, and there has been so much crossover from skiing that since 1988 Vail, to take just one chic destination, has increased its number of snowboard instructors from three to 72. As skiing stagnates—the NSGA says that the number of American adult skiers dropped from 10.8 million to 10.5 million between 1992 and 1993—snowboarding seems fresh.
"The feeling of boarding in deep, untracked powder is incomparable," says The Snowboard Doctor, a Santa Fe snowboard instructor who often goes by his given name, Michael Kott. "Your hands are free. It's as close to flying as anything."
"I think it's a wonderful sport," says Betsy Pratt, president of Mad River Glen ski area in Waitsfield, Vt. "I have great admiration for what they do."
But they don't do it at her mountain, the only one in northern New England that won't accept boarders. Her reasons are simple: "We are a natural mountain, and we simply don't have the ramps, the obstacles, the things snowboarders want." But other mountains keep them off because the boarders themselves are the obstacles that the skiers don't want.
"Some skiers tighten up when they see or hear a snow-boarder because those boards make more noise than skis," says Nick Badami, part owner of two ski areas, Park City, Utah, and Alpine Meadows, Calif., that are among the snowboarding holdouts. "For us [the board ban] is just a question of polling our customers, who have been overwhelmingly opposed."
Indeed, until recently not even Jimmy Carter could have made peace between skiers and boarders, but at many mountains a truce has taken hold. Skiers had better learn to live with the shredders, as they call snowboarders, because snowboarding has definitely come in from the cold.
There will be no complete glossary of snowboarding terms in this story. This is because 1) the language evolves about every 15 minutes; 2) even if you can talk the talk, that doesn't mean you can ride the ride; and 3) a solemn promise was made to Eric Kotch, North American promotions and team manager for Burton Snowboards, who says of such frequent attempts to explain the sport's flavorful lexicon, "It's weak, it's condescending, and it segregates people, which snowboarders don't want. Basically, it makes us cringe."
But there is a distinct, if increasingly diffuse snowboarding culture in the same way that there are cultures of surfing and skateboarding—snowboarding's antecedents and cousins. Itinerant boarders are the ski bums of the '90s, in search of a way of life as much as terrain on which to play, working merely to bankroll their passion.
In the snowboard culture, competition was in during the early 1990s, but it's out in 1995. Manufacturers like Jake Burton, Sims and Avalanche support stables of pro riders, many of whom race slaloms or compete in half-pipes. But some do nothing more for their subsidies than free ride for the benefit of the cameras. (There are at least 100 commercial snowboarding videos.) Imagine Nike paying Michael Jordan all that money just to look pretty dunking basketballs.
The fact that competition is not viewed favorably would seem to fly in the face of the campaign for Olympic inclusion. Mike Jacoby, one of the top American riders, who defected from the International Snowboard Federation (the original governing body of snowboarding, started 12 years ago and still run by snowboarders) to the new FIS circuit to qualify for Nagano, says the attitude is an instance of misplaced "coolness."
"There are guys who say we shouldn't go to the Olympics, that uniforms aren't cool," says Jacoby, a 25-year-old Californian. "Well, once every four years, I'd be proud to wear it."
Exactly who dreamed up snowboarding is unclear. There is no James Naismith or peachbasket, although if you look at the collection in Jake Burton's office in Burlington, Vt., the first generation of boards seems just as primitive.
Burton, whose company controls about 40% of the snowboard and accessory market, has been in the business for 18 years and is a snowboarding pioneer as well as its most successful businessman. Yet he doesn't claim to have invented the sport. Nor does Sayler, although he says he was present, as a lift operator, at Soda Springs in the Sierras when someone showed up on a wide board with a rope attached, way back in 1954.
There are others who try to pinpoint just when the sport began. Sims, then a skateboarder, built a snowboard in 1963 in Haddonfield, N.J.—as an eighth-grade shop-class project. In 1964 in Rockford, Mich., Sherman Poppen bolted two skis together for his kids and created The Snurfer, a primitive snowboard that Brunswick marketed. Whenever the sport began, it has certainly changed. Hanging on a wall at Burton's is a 1977 advertisement that offers a SNOW SURFING SAFARI. For $5 Jake Burton provided a board, instruction and transportation. No boots, no poles, no "$300 skis," the ad boasted. Today, in the factory shop, Burton boards routinely sell for $650.
By the end of the 1980s most white-bread ski resorts saw on which side their bread was buttered. Squaw Valley, Vail, Snowbird, Mammoth Mountain and other prestige ski areas opened to boarders, who no longer had to hike the back hills to free ride. Many areas built halfpipes and snowboard parks with obstacle courses for jumps and skateboard-type tricks.
And so skiing and snowboarding coexist, more similar than either sport will let on. Take injuries. The rate for both skiing and snowboarding is three per 1,000 visits. "It tends to be marginally higher in snowboarding than skiing, but there are more beginning snowboarders than skiers, so once you adjust for ability level, there's no difference," says Jasper E. Shealy, head of the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering department at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. But, says Shealy, who conducted his study over two ski seasons at 15 areas, "The injury pattern and nature of injuries are very different. The fracture rate in snowboarding is 2.3 times that of skiing, but I wouldn't necessarily say that's more severe. Considering some of those knee sprains in skiing, I'd rather have a fracture."
There have been at least five snowboarding deaths, three in three weeks in December 1992 and January 1993 in the Sierra Nevada. All three snowboarders were buried headfirst in deep snow at the base of trees, unable to free themselves from their boards. They suffocated. And this month a 16-year-old skier, Rob Baker, died at Sania Peak ski area in New Mexico after colliding with a snowboarder. Still, a fatality is less than a one-in-a-million shot in skiing and snowboarding
At Donner, as he goes about plowing the parking lot and grooming trails in the hours before sunrise, Norm Sayler thinks about snowboarders—and also about the Donner party. The Donner Ski Ranch is a few hundred yards northwest of a snow cave where approximately 40 members of the Donner party, a group of 87 homesteaders led by two Illinois brothers, perished in the brutal winter of 1846-47. Theirs remains one of this country's most remarkable stories of determination, not to mention cannibalism, and their shadows cast an eerie half-light over this mountain. As far as Sayler is concerned, it is all fitting.
"Consider what those people had to go through: snow 20 feet high, no electricity, trying to build fires with green wood," he says. "Given who they were, their ordeal, their spirit, sometimes I think if the Donner party had made it out, they would have seen this spot and said, 'Hey, dude, let's go boarding.' "