SNOWBOARDING DIVIDES ITSELF into two main camps: freeriding and freestyle. When Burt notches a first descent or rails a big mountain line, he pushes the outer limits of freeriding. Freestyle is the snowboarding you see on prime time—the brash cousin to skateboarding centered in manmade terrain parks where rubbery teenagers flip about like so many snowbound Tony Hawk wanna-bes.
Burt earned his status as a freeriding legend back in the late eighties, when he and Zellers, a rider from Truckee, California, became the first Americans to attempt extreme, high-altitude descents. Until that time, snowboard mountaineering was more stunt than sport, the province of brash Europeans, most of them French, who jolted down pitches by using ice axes to help them link turns. Burt and Zellers, in contrast, tempered brinkmanship with the love of a well-crafted ride. Instead of relying on ice axes, they studied fall lines, plucking smooth routes from seemingly impassable rock faces. It was the kinetic difference between bouldering and surfing. "The Europeans just wanted to get down," says Burt, "while we wanted flow and action."
He and Zellers spent most of the 1990s surfing the planet's backcountry, and for a while the snowboarding community was riveted. Their expeditions were prominently featured in snowboarding and other, more mainstream magazines—just the kind of exposure that impressed potential sponsors. They secured a high-profile endorsement from The North Face and in 1991 Burt got his first signature board—a major honor in the industry—from Kemper.
Burt's speed and smooth form distinguish him from even a world-class peer such as Zellers. He excels on slopes that he calls "peppered"—littered with rocks, chutes, crevasses, and other homicidal hazards. His affinity for finding fluid lines between obstacles has landed him in a cavalcade of snowboarding films and even a few ski features, notably Greg Stump's acclaimed Blizzard of Aaah's and The Good, The Rad, and The Gnarly. "I moved into the film world because I could pull it off," he says in an even voice that somehow doesn't sound like boasting. "I was, and still am, doing things at speed that most people can't believe. They tell me I make it look too easy."
His partner concurs. "He's better than I am, " Zellers admits. "No one can ride that good. It takes powerful mental strength. But I'm comfortable with Tom being the big-mountain guy, riding the big-mountain lines."
In 1991, Burt and Zellers made what is arguably their riskiest, most noteworthy descent on 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. They endured the usual hypoxia, crevasses, and avalanches, but were further hampered by the mountain's notoriously frigid weather.
"McKinley's one of the coldest mountains in the world," Burt says. "And the altitude kicks your ass. You stop a lot because you've got to breathe. I'd never worked so hard to snowboard such a short distance."
They finally summited and prepared for their descent of a route nicknamed Orient Express—a somewhat crass reference to the large number of Asian climbers who have fallen from the ridgeline at 19,000 feet and plummeted down a 4,000 foot headwall to their deaths. After negotiating the initial 60-degree pitch with crampons and ice axes, they found that wind had scoured the ensuing face into what Burt calls "2,500 feet of hell. There were snow ledges cantilevered back against the slope like pool-table bumpers. We had to jump our boards to get over them. If either of us had fallen and couldn't self-arrest, we would have gone off the end of the world."
A landmark feat in the annals of snowboarding, the McKinley descent netted Burt and Zellers immeasurable pride and gratification, but few tangible rewards. Because they believed, in Burt's words, that "the more people on an expedition, the more headaches you have," they traveled alone, without guides or a photographer. But in snowboarding, as in all thrill sports, the visuals rule. Without video footage or even professional photos to illustrate the pair's achievement, the snowboarding media issued quick congratulations and turned its attention elsewhere—namely, to the freestylers tearing up the half-pipes.
By the time of the McKinley descent, freestyle was gaining popularity in the snowboard industry, which realized that snowboard mountaineering, for all its drama, was damn hard work and therefore a tough sport to sell. Freestyle, with its telegenic big-air maneuvers and hip-hop clothing, offered far better marketing opportunities."The money's in freestyle," says Blaise Rosenthal, a 27-year-old professional freestyler with a long X Games résumé and multiple endorsement deals. "Way more people watch the X Games than see freeriding videos. Freestyle sells product. So the magazines and movies, which are really just the communication between the snowboard industry and the kids, reflect that."
Since the midnineties, the poster boy of freestyle has been Shaun Palmer, the aforementioned lavishly sponsored five-time World Cup champ who earns an estimated $750,000 a year. Burt, whose small posse of sponsors consists of O'Neill clothing, Avalanche snowboards, DaKine packs, and Alpine Meadows resort, laughs at the discrepancy. "Line 32 on my 1040 tax form has never been higher than $20,000," he readily confesses. The statement is somewhat misleading, given that Burt's job allows him to write off virtually all expenses and that he gets substantial funds in the guise of travel budgets. Still, he's never had anything approaching the windfalls claimed by Palmer and so many other freestylers.
"Tom's gone places on a snowboard that no one else may ever go," says Rosenthal. "He's doing the gnarliest stuff, hands down. But it's almost too gnarly for people to really get into. Few riders have that level of commitment."
Says Zellers, "I don't think people understand what Tom and I do. They see our exploits in a magazine and go, 'That's wild.' Then they just turn the page."