The Lost Origins of Snowboarding

A new film from pro snowboarder Alex Yoder takes viewers to northeastern Turkey, where locals have been snowboarding for centuries.

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Mary Fenton

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Old school barely begins to describe Petranboarding, which might be the world’s earliest form of snowboarding. The gear hasn’t changed much from the 18th century, when it originated in Petran, Turkey: riders use a snow-sliding apparatus that’s not much more than a piece of plywood with a rope handle. In Petran, a small logging village in the foothills of the Kaçkar Mountains, some locals still ride Petranboards every winter. That's the subject of Foothills, a new short film by pro snowboarder and Patagonia ambassador Alex Yoder, along with friends Wade Dunstan and David Cleeland of production company WRKSHRT

Yoder, 27, is a Jackson Hole native who eschewed the advice of loved ones and traveled to eastern Turkey last February to document the Petran scene, which he fears is in danger of extinction. 

OUTSIDE: How did you discover this “lost” snowboarding civilization?  
YODER: [Pro snowboarder] Nicolas Mueller went to Turkey on a heli trip with Absinthe Films and stumbled upon this town. There was a clip of him riding one of these boards in the movie 12. It made me realize there was more to snowboarding history than the 40 years I thought existed. This really stuck out as something we could make special. 

It seemed you were able to immerse yourselves into the community and culture.  
We were there for three weeks and definitely dropped right in. We planned to stay with this guy Ismael, who I connected with on Facebook, but an avalanche closed the road to his lodge, and we had to change our plans very last minute. Like “at the beginning of the road to the lodge” last minute.  

Ismael suggested we go check out this winter festival on the west side of the Kaçkar Mountains, in northeastern Turkey. The people were so welcoming and helpful, and the festival was basically a bunch of people dancing around in a circle, a bagpipe player in the middle, holding hands and arms and shuffling their feet. We show up with our fancy snowboards, and people were sliding down a little hill on garbage bags.  

One of the guys in our crew went on an exploratory mission, found a snowcat, talked to the driver as much as he could, and set us up with a day on the cat to get farther into the mountain range. We spent the next five days on our splitboards going as deep as we could get with this sketchy old snowcat. That’s how we found the sheds in the movie—people live in them during summer while their livestock grazes, but they’re vacant in the winter. 

Did they have any kind of local snowboard scene where you were, or were you guys total aliens when you showed up? 
In this area, it wasn’t something the locals did. There isn’t a backcountry culture, and there are only a few resorts in the country. In Petran, those guys hike into the backcountry a little, but nothing like it is in the States. Coming from Jackson, it was a welcome reprieve. 

What kind of impact do you hope this film has?  
Hopefully for Western snowboard culture, it’s an opportunity to step back, look at the world in a different light, and see that there’s more to snowboarding history than we think. Hopefully people realize it doesn’t have to be a serious sport. It’s more of a toy if you want it to be.  

I also hope we’re challenging our xenophobic nature in America. Going to Turkey right after a terrorist attack and right before another one was challenging. I had a lot of people in my ear asking why I was going, what was the point, why was it worth it. But everybody we met was welcoming and excited that Americans were visiting the country.  

For Turkey, I hope it gives them a little visibility and helps maintain and spark interest in the culture so that it becomes a thing that seems worthy of preserving. Kids in those villages are more influenced by popular culture, and it seemed like this wasn’t destined to survive. 

Watch Petranboarding here