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

THE WORLD OF snowboarding according to Tom Burt reveals itself on the pristine slopes of Rose Knob. The sun has cooked the wet Sierra snow into grabby molasses; globs of it cling to the climbing skins Burt has affixed to his skis, stubby hybrids that, when snapped together, convert into a snowboard. Nonetheless, he surges skyward, arms chugging with the rhythm of a metronome. He's not picking his feet up; he's kicking them forward, maximizing the distance of each stride.

At a lean 170 pounds, Burt's body blends a strong engine with a light chassis. He still wears the jeans of a high-school basketball player: size 33 by 38. While there's allegedly a torso in there somewhere, Burt owes his height primarily to femurs and tib-fibs; his long, attenuated limbs swallow altitude in big, hungry gulps. Balance comes easily atop the platforms of his size-13 feet. He moves with such spare economy, it's hardly surprising that he gave up skiing, with its mandatory clutter of two skis and two poles, for the simplicity of a snowboard—a solitary plank that asks little of his hands.

Burt's father, Dale, who served as a civil engineer in the army, constantly preached the virtues of efficiency to his son. When Tom first started snowboarding off backcountry cliffs, his dad advised, "Try to land on your head; that way, you can walk out." From that smartass remark, Burt extracted a few timeless morsels of wisdom: Avoid friction. Stay loose. Keep moving. These remain Burt's touchstones, the principles behind his signature fluidity. "Above all, I try to flow," he declares. "Growing up, I was taught to do things simply, without wasting a lot of energy. As my dad always told me, 'When you go to dig a hole, try to be smarter than the shovel.'"

The Burts lived on the shore of Lake Tahoe in a house built in 1902 by Dale's great-grandfather. Tom, the baby of the family, jostled for space in the cramped rooms with two sisters, two brothers, and mementos from the Burt General Store, located on the ground floor until the business closed in the forties. "It was rough living here full-time," says Tom, referring to the vagaries of Tahoe's seasonal economy. "I shopped at Goodwill a lot. My parents just didn't have much money." The household's seven inhabitants shared a single bathroom with no shower. Tom's father often used his hunting rifle, rather than a shopping cart, to put food on the table. Unable to afford lift tickets, Tom and his siblings hauled their outdated wooden skis up undeveloped backcountry slopes.

Burt entered the University of Nevada in Reno with money he'd earned working odd jobs, and it was there, in 1983, that he first tried snowboarding. He realized immediately that this fat, surfboardlike slab, which floated freely above the snowpack instead of torpedoing beneath it as skis do, was his kind of ride. Burt was soon snowboarding five days a week, zooming down nearby Slide Mountain with fellow UNR student Zellers, both of them dividing their time between school and snow. By his sophomore year, Burt had secured some low-grade sponsorships while competing on a ragtag racing circuit that would, in 1987, coalesce into a bona fide World Cup series.

After graduating with a dual degree in math and education, Burt took a job teaching algebra and geometry at the public high school in Sparks, Nevada. He stuck with it for a year, entering whatever races he could squeeze into his work schedule, until footage from one particular freeride video shoot appeared in that Juicy Fruit commercial. The ad, which ends with a cheesy freeze-frame of Burt going airborne in a pink sweater and red pants, paid him $24,000 over two years, a minor fortune for someone who lived as frugally as Burt. He promptly declared riding his full-time career, even though "professional" and "snowboarder" rarely appeared in the same sentence back in 1987.

Though Burt continued to race and compete in freestyle contests through 1991, his interest was drawn more and more to out-of-bounds steeps. With Zellers, he searched out descents that challenged his mind as well as his legs. While the polyhedrons he encountered in the mountains were a little less uniform than those in school, they still lent themselves to math and physics. "I pick out major terrain features and logically place them in order," he says. "It's just a matter of computing general downward and forward vectors and applying those formulas to snowboarding."

Burt's ability to make rational sense of insane slopes is best displayed by the painstaking effort that went into the ride that set the record for the steepest snowboard descent ever made. Burt scoped the line, located near Donner Pass in the Sierra, for seven years. He rappelled it with a clinometer to accurately measure the pitch: a sickening 72 degrees. Finally, in 1998, the conditions were right. He nudged the tip of his board over the lip, somehow grazing the snow and connecting a few turns in what was essentially a near-suicidal free fall down a couple hundred feet to the bottom.

Though Rose Knob offers little by way of mathematical challenge, it gives Burt a chance to show off his exceptional navigational skills. On the descent, he swerves rapidly around majestic white pines and Dr. Seuss–like mountain hemlocks. He comes into his turns hot, losing very little speed. When he nears a turn's apex, his long legs bend deeply, pulling the board up into his center of gravity. Storing energy like a coiled spring, he makes an instantaneous transfer from one edge to the other. Then his legs uncoil—whipping him out of the turn and accelerating down the mountain. It seems like a paradox, but aggressiveness—speeding through turns, sucking up variations in terrain and snow—is what makes Burt so smooth. He's carving Rose Knob into flawless, silky parabolas.