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

THAT NIGHT, AFTER Tahoe's terrain parks have closed for the day and Rose Knob has been returned to the marmots, Burt drives the Subaru to Hiro Sushi, a popular locals' hangout not far from his house. The joint is packed and the sashimi is flying. Burt sidles through the crowd to greet a friend, pro freestyler Victoria Jealouse. He gravitates to a spot between tables where he won't block traffic, and keeps his long arms to his sides. The animated Jealouse, an elfin wisp of a woman, takes more of the room's perceived space.

"Tom Burt has the worst farts!" she squeals, when asked what separates Burt from other riders. This train of thought runs a surprisingly long way. Burt's flatulence is legendary in snowboard circles. A magazine piece that listed anagrams of riders' names tagged Burt as "Mr. Butto." At one infamous Tahoe house party, his methane expulsions twice forced revelers out onto the street—which led the neighbors to call the cops. Burt himself jokes that he was "born with giardia."

He settles at a table in the middle of the room. All around him, young Californians deftly work chopsticks while stirring up the ideal soy-wasabi-ginger blend. In the comfortable world of a Tahoe freestyler, good sushi aptitude counts as a survival skill. None of them share Burt's ability to tease a boil out of a wheezing camp stove at 17,000 feet in order to cook dehydrated noodles, and it's doubtful that any of them care. They know they can go farther in snowboarding by making the scene at resorts than by enduring the inherent woes of alpinism.

These days, the only snowboard mountaineer to make a blip on the radar is Stephen Koch, a boarder from Jackson, Wyoming, who's attempting to ride the highest peak on each continent. Koch's Seven Summits quest (he's successfully ridden McKinley, Aconcagua, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, and Vinson Massif) has drawn considerable attention among the general public. "Stephen's Seven Summits deal is more a media event," says Zellers. "What he does is undeniably rad. He's a really good ice climber, so he gets to things we wouldn't touch. He looks stable, but his descents are slow. He's picking routes apart piece by piece. He looks completely different than Tom, who's riding beautiful lines with speed and fluidity." In other words, Burt and Zellers seek to balance achievement with aesthetics, which might be too subtle a notion for many in the snowboard industry to grasp. "When you're the best," says Blaise Rosenthal, "it's almost hard to get credit, because people expect you to keep topping yourself."

Perhaps the darkest day in Burt's career came in 1994, when The North Face terminated his sponsorship after he and Zellers had spent six years working the company's products and logo into virtually every photograph chronicling their landmark expeditions. Though their endorsements came in the form of gear rather than cash, The North Face was a prestigious sponsor and it was a blow when Burt was dropped. "All of a sudden they decided they wanted a new image and new, younger riders," says Zellers, who managed to keep his own sponsorship through hard lobbying, even producing a slide show for North Face execs. "They told me I could stay, but they were dropping all the other backcountry snowboarders. It didn't matter that Tom was the foundation of snowboarding to a large degree, the guy who brought the sport out of the plastic-sled era and took it to the max in big mountains."

Years later, the sacking still makes the normally placid Burt uncharacteristically testy, but he doesn't dwell on it. "I've been in snowboarding long enough to know that it's cyclical, that every year or two some part of the sport will get emphasized," he says. "TV-motivated freestyle is hot today, because it's easy to play the promotion game on TV. And it's difficult to play that game in the backcountry. But the X Games and such don't bother me. They don't take away from what I do, which is still the heart and soul of boarding."

Burt doesn't know what he'll do after his freeriding career ends. For now, he says, "There are always more mountains to see." He and Zellers will soon depart for Bolivia. Alaska and British Columbia loom on his calendar, and he talks about potential adventures in China and Rwanda.

Maybe the industry will pay attention. Maybe it won't. Burt doesn't worry about it much. If he can survive the if-you-fall-you-die steeps, he can surely weather today's freestyle-heavy culture. After all, the future's just more uncharted territory. Expect Burt to flow through it by following the code he always obeys in unfamiliar backcountry. As he puts it, "Be self-reliant. Take care of yourself and the people you're with. Because there's no one else there to help you out."  

Correspondent Rob Story chronicled the exploits of the ski filmmakers at Teton Gravity Research in the November 1999 issue.