Bored? Board!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998

Bored? Board!

The time has come to ride wide
By Rob Story


When I first tried snow-boarding, in the Aspen-area resort of Snowmass, it beat me senseless. Time and time again I got slapped to the ground with the same torque with which a flyswatter creams a bug.

Post-ACL-surgery trial-by-fire course: KT-22 lift area, Squaw Valley USA, California
Two years ago, the famed long, steep KT-22 lift was replaced by a high-speed quad, allowing steep freaks with more adrenaline than sound cartilage to ski the frighteningly steep West Face twice as often in the same day. Do it four times without stopping and you can not only proclaim the knee sound, you can basically take the rest of your life off. — R.C.J.
Afterward, I could barely lift a fork. Eating became a pitiful act wherein I'd hoist plate to chin and drag bits of food into my whimpering mouth. If one is going to look pathetic, though, there's no better place to do it than Aspen. Don Henley, John Denver, and other earnest rockers live there; if only I'd milked my condition a bit, I'm sure I could have wangled a benefit concert. Which goes to show that in snowboarding — as in life and Starbucks franchises — location matters.

For instance, I got better at the sport largely by making repeat visits to my closest hill, Snow Summit, California. It's a small, tame mountain that, when navigated on skis, can make slow-pitch softball seem like a rush. On a snowboard, though, Snow Summit kicks. I surf its sun-curdled slush instead of catching edges on it. I play around in the terrain park and forget my skiing id's hunger to log big vertical or speed around in fourth gear. The modest charms of Snow Summit teach an important lesson: Although they still call them ski resorts, a snowboard resort is something completely different.

These days, most resorts are scrambling to portray themselves as snowboard-friendly in order to cash in on the sport's boom, which explains snowboarding's presence in everything from "Melrose Place" to cheese billboards. Which, on second thought, may not be such a wide spectrum. But how do you tell the pretenders from the pre-eminent?

For one thing, know that some trappings are good — like lift-ramp benches where you can buckle up in comfort. Others are meaningless, such as the increasingly popular "Snowboard Ambassador," which is essentially a deep-pocketed resort's attempt to garner credibility by hiring a big-name boarder to ride its slopes and wear its logo. On the remote chance you actually encounter the ambassador, you might care. But the quality of your experience most likely will owe much more to the skill of a graveyard-shift snowcat driver named Larry who personally embraces only those sports that can be performed with a motor and a six-pack.

Go where the boarders go. It figures that a California resort like Squaw Valley, whose customer base naturally includes lots of skateboarders and surfers, has more incentive to build snowboard tool stands and wide lift ramps than some New Hampshire ice factory. Blessed by warm weather and geologically characterized by dramatic volcanic spires, Squaw has become a magnet for snowboard filmmakers, who call it Squawlywood. Prototypically Californian, Squaw blithely fosters fashion trends, new jargon, and ever-more-shocking snowboard tricks. Attitude matters at Squaw, just as it does in snowboarding generally. People in the industry have an almost paranoid fear of the inauthentic.

We expect nicer treatment and better riding at places like Breckenridge, Colorado, or Stratton, Vermont — where snowboarding has been gracefully allowed and loyally supported forever — than at Keystone, which only opened its lifts to boarders in 1996, for the stated reason that "snowboarding is considered quite mainstream these days."

One common mistake is to snowboard where you've enjoyed skiing. A good mountain is a good mountain, right? Wrong. I once lugged skis and a board to Telluride for a long weekend. Telluride's one of my favorite peaks, and the skiing ruled. Then I got on the snowboard and woke up. Snowboards are not built to ride moguls, and Telluride's world-class bumps damn near rattled the tongue out of my head — which made it harder to scream in frustration when Telluride's mandatory, flat traverses slowed my gravity-dependent board to a crawl. Telluride will be unveiling a state-of-the-art snowboard park this year and has otherwise improved its layout for riders, but back then it was inadvisable to go wide-planked and pole-less there.

If you want the intrinsically Colorado feel of a Victorian mining town plunked into a stunning subrange of the Rockies, go to Crested Butte. Like Telluride, the whole town of Crested Butte is a National Historic District. The mountain, which isn't nearly as mogul-crazy as Telluride, houses aspen groves, natural half-pipes, extreme couloirs, and wide-open bowls.

Then there's Vail, the 4,644-acre ski resort megalith with wide trails striping its broad, low-angled massif. Vail doesn't enjoy a fraction of the purist skier mystique that Telluride or Crested Butte does, yet it's a great place to ride. Called, with some justification, the McDonald's of skiing, Vail's the kind of place that would obliterate a long-cherished picnic spot to put up a more efficient lift. As a longtime Vail skier, I hate that; as a new Vail snowboarder, I appreciate not having to traverse to catch the lift. Resorts like Vail also groom slopes constantly, which means hard-booted, carving snowboarders can fly. Mostly, though, Vail has tons of varied terrain, most significantly its back bowls. The result of forest fires a century ago, the bowls are burnished of moguls by the wind. Better yet, they're rife with both open faces that embrace a snowboarder's long turning radius and natural half-pipes that encourage a snowboard's innate need to pendulum.

Above all else, think snow. My two all-time best days of snowboarding came at Brian Head, in the southwest Utah desert, and at Washington's precipitation magnet, Mt. Baker. At Brian Head, the snow is so light and dry that it's literally impossible to pack it into a snowball. At Mt. Baker, the snow's wet enough to harbor tadpoles. Such varied moisture content means everything to skiers — and almost nothing to boarders. We float over snow, wet or dry. We don't consider Washington's "Cascade concrete" inferior to Utah's "champagne powder" because, hell, we don't have to keep four edges from snagging in it. To any snowboarder who's splashed joyously through the deep, damp dumps of the Cascades — past skiers with torn ACLs riding down in ski patrol toboggans — it's no mystery at all that the Pacific Northwest claims the highest rate of snowboard participation in the country.

While some ski resorts still don't allow snowboarding — Alta, Taos, and Aspen, to name a few — most now do. For all the battles snowboarding's pioneers once waged on the resorts, the ultimate detente is actually due to family economics: Resorts that allow Junior to board get return trips from Mom and Dad's credit cards. Early snowboarders may never have expected help from families to win their holy war, but no matter. Ski resorts are becoming snowboard resorts, proving the truth of the bumper sticker you used to see a lot: snowboarding is not a crime.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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