Legend of the Fall Line

How did a mellow, mop-haired, lackadaisically unfashionable snowboarder achieve freeride immortality? First he lifted his carve to a fine art. Then he linked turns down impossibly steep terrain on some of the planet's highest peaks. Now he bucks industry trends, eschews money, and foreswears fame. But most important, he just rides.

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

IT TAKES A BRAVE MAN, IN THIS DAY and age, to wear white Vuarnet sunglasses. Owlish and blatantly French, white Vuarnets are so 1986. Maybe they got you lucky at Hands Across America, but now? They look clunky and cartoonish, especially next to the metallic-toned, aerodynamic polycarbonate wonders from the 2001 collections of Smith, Spy, and Oakley. You know, the brands elite young snowboarders wear.

Tom Burt, the snowboarder grinning broadly beneath a pair of white Vuarnets this idyllic morning on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, is not young by snowboarding standards. But at 36, he's beyond elite. More like legendary. So legendary that his sunglasses are beside the point. In the course of his 17-year career, Burt has answered every challenge his sport can issue. He jumps 50-foot cliffs and threads tight couloirs. He's competed on the World Cup circuit and placed high in half-pipe contests. He rode the steepest descent in snowboarding history. He's even caught the fickle eye of the mainstream media by appearing in a Juicy Fruit commercial and the pages of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines.

Burt is best known, though, for the unique talent of getting himself down mountains that are a deadly challenge with a rope and climbing harness, let alone a snowboard. With a graceful style not typically associated with such extreme endeavors, he has defined the still-esoteric genre of snowboard mountaineering. With longtime riding partner Jim Zellers, Burt has chalked up more than 40 first descents. Big ones: He and Zellers are the first humans to have surfed Peru's Cordillera Blanca, Nepal's Mount Pumori, Mexico's Mount Orizaba, and Alaska's Mount McKinley, among other 20,000-foot giants.

Today, however, closer to sea level, Burt looks pretty much like every other dirtbag ski bum in the area. With his shoulder-length brown hair tumbling from under a skullcap and his strong chin blooming whiskers, he could easily pass for one of Tahoe's thirty-something dishwashers. Like so many members of the indentured leisure class toiling in ski-resort service jobs, he drives a high-mileage Subaru, complete with the obligatory cracked windshield. Only Burt's is more pathetic than most: a dull gray '82 four-door with worn fuzzy seat covers and a decaying dashboard riddled with crevasses. To see Burt's six-foot-two-inch frame crabbed awkwardly behind the steering wheel of this geriatric little econobox is to see, well, a loser.

This is Lake Tahoe, after all, snowboarding's ground zero, where pro careers are made or squashed, where the trendiest of the sport's trends are born. It's here, on the streets of Squaw Valley, that perennial X Games snowboard champ Shaun Palmer gets his tattoos and pilots his 12 Cadillacs. This conglomeration of formidable Sierra Nevada peaks and the resorts snuggled among them—Squaw Valley (waggishly nicknamed Squawllywood), Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, and Heavenly—is such an image-conscious, clique-ruled schoolyard that a schlub driving an '82 Subaru ranks about as high as a chambermaid with a bus pass.

Burt, whose family has lived in Lake Tahoe for four generations, laughs at the pretensions and excesses of ski-resort culture. "Wealth is not my mission in life," he says while motoring down the pine-lined streets near his home, adding yet another click to the 250,000-plus miles on his odometer. "There was never any pressure in my family to make money or own a good car. It was more like, 'How many smiles have you had today? Have you gone fishing?'" For the last five years, he's lived out this Thoreauvian idyll in a tidy cottage abutting Tahoe National Forest with his girlfriend, Tricia Maloney, an ecologistwho shares his gentle demeanor and his affection for cooking and gardening. No wonder Burt lacks the punk credibility that has made Palmer rich and famous. His upbringing and lifestyle have cheated him out of the very qualities that alternative-sports marketers value most: rage and petulance.

The Subaru whines to a halt at an intersection with California Highway 28. An armada of gleaming SUVs is speeding west toward Squawllywood, as they always do when brilliant, cloudless skies coincide with a healthy snowpack. On days like this, Tahoe resorts crackle with activity: cinematographers documenting freestyle tricks in the terrain parks, still photographers rehashing money shots of time-tested cliff jumps, pro boarders and skiers pocketing modeling fees and anticipating the bonuses their sponsors will pay when the movies and magazines come out next fall.

Burt, however, turns east toward some lonely, undeveloped mountains near the Nevada line, where he plans to climb and then descend a little-known 9,500-foot peak called Rose Knob. It's hard not to wonder if Burt is heading the wrong way on the literal and figurative two-way street that is Highway 28. The snowboard industry is cranking at the resorts, churning out new styles, images, and heroes. Then there's Burt: closing in on 40, in a business where careers never extend into middle age. Instead of peeling out for the boonies, maybe he should dive into the Tahoe fishbowl and nurture his fame.

Maybe, but riders who wear white Vuarnets just don't think that way. "I could have chased big dollars," says Burt, "especially in the heyday of the sport, when there were 300 snowboard companies and lots of opportunity. I was riding instead. And I'm a pretty happy camper because of it."

By rolling east, Burt is, in essence, turning his back on the snowboarding industry. Call it poetic justice, for in many ways the industry has turned its back on him.