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.

Rob Story

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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.




SNOWBOARDING DIVIDES ITSELF into two main camps: freeriding and freestyle. When Burt notches a first descent or rails a big mountain line, he pushes the outer limits of freeriding. Freestyle is the snowboarding you see on prime time—the brash cousin to skateboarding centered in manmade terrain parks where rubbery teenagers flip about like so many snowbound Tony Hawk wanna-bes.

Burt earned his status as a freeriding legend back in the late eighties, when he and Zellers, a rider from Truckee, California, became the first Americans to attempt extreme, high-altitude descents. Until that time, snowboard mountaineering was more stunt than sport, the province of brash Europeans, most of them French, who jolted down pitches by using ice axes to help them link turns. Burt and Zellers, in contrast, tempered brinkmanship with the love of a well-crafted ride. Instead of relying on ice axes, they studied fall lines, plucking smooth routes from seemingly impassable rock faces. It was the kinetic difference between bouldering and surfing. “The Europeans just wanted to get down,” says Burt, “while we wanted flow and action.”

He and Zellers spent most of the 1990s surfing the planet’s backcountry, and for a while the snowboarding community was riveted. Their expeditions were prominently featured in snowboarding and other, more mainstream magazines—just the kind of exposure that impressed potential sponsors. They secured a high-profile endorsement from The North Face and in 1991 Burt got his first signature board—a major honor in the industry—from Kemper.

Burt’s speed and smooth form distinguish him from even a world-class peer such as Zellers. He excels on slopes that he calls “peppered”—littered with rocks, chutes, crevasses, and other homicidal hazards. His affinity for finding fluid lines between obstacles has landed him in a cavalcade of snowboarding films and even a few ski features, notably Greg Stump’s acclaimed Blizzard of Aaah’s and The Good, The Rad, and The Gnarly. “I moved into the film world because I could pull it off,” he says in an even voice that somehow doesn’t sound like boasting. “I was, and still am, doing things at speed that most people can’t believe. They tell me I make it look too easy.”

His partner concurs. “He’s better than I am, ” Zellers admits. “No one can ride that good. It takes powerful mental strength. But I’m comfortable with Tom being the big-mountain guy, riding the big-mountain lines.”

In 1991, Burt and Zellers made what is arguably their riskiest, most noteworthy descent on 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. They endured the usual hypoxia, crevasses, and avalanches, but were further hampered by the mountain’s notoriously frigid weather.

“McKinley’s one of the coldest mountains in the world,” Burt says. “And the altitude kicks your ass. You stop a lot because you’ve got to breathe. I’d never worked so hard to snowboard such a short distance.”

They finally summited and prepared for their descent of a route nicknamed Orient Express—a somewhat crass reference to the large number of Asian climbers who have fallen from the ridgeline at 19,000 feet and plummeted down a 4,000 foot headwall to their deaths. After negotiating the initial 60-degree pitch with crampons and ice axes, they found that wind had scoured the ensuing face into what Burt calls “2,500 feet of hell. There were snow ledges cantilevered back against the slope like pool-table bumpers. We had to jump our boards to get over them. If either of us had fallen and couldn’t self-arrest, we would have gone off the end of the world.”

A landmark feat in the annals of snowboarding, the McKinley descent netted Burt and Zellers immeasurable pride and gratification, but few tangible rewards. Because they believed, in Burt’s words, that “the more people on an expedition, the more headaches you have,” they traveled alone, without guides or a photographer. But in snowboarding, as in all thrill sports, the visuals rule. Without video footage or even professional photos to illustrate the pair’s achievement, the snowboarding media issued quick congratulations and turned its attention elsewhere—namely, to the freestylers tearing up the half-pipes.

By the time of the McKinley descent, freestyle was gaining popularity in the snowboard industry, which realized that snowboard mountaineering, for all its drama, was damn hard work and therefore a tough sport to sell. Freestyle, with its telegenic big-air maneuvers and hip-hop clothing, offered far better marketing opportunities.”The money’s in freestyle,” says Blaise Rosenthal, a 27-year-old professional freestyler with a long X Games résumé and multiple endorsement deals. “Way more people watch the X Games than see freeriding videos. Freestyle sells product. So the magazines and movies, which are really just the communication between the snowboard industry and the kids, reflect that.”

Since the midnineties, the poster boy of freestyle has been Shaun Palmer, the aforementioned lavishly sponsored five-time World Cup champ who earns an estimated $750,000 a year. Burt, whose small posse of sponsors consists of O’Neill clothing, Avalanche snowboards, DaKine packs, and Alpine Meadows resort, laughs at the discrepancy. “Line 32 on my 1040 tax form has never been higher than $20,000,” he readily confesses. The statement is somewhat misleading, given that Burt’s job allows him to write off virtually all expenses and that he gets substantial funds in the guise of travel budgets. Still, he’s never had anything approaching the windfalls claimed by Palmer and so many other freestylers.

“Tom’s gone places on a snowboard that no one else may ever go,” says Rosenthal. “He’s doing the gnarliest stuff, hands down. But it’s almost too gnarly for people to really get into. Few riders have that level of commitment.”

Says Zellers, “I don’t think people understand what Tom and I do. They see our exploits in a magazine and go, ‘That’s wild.’ Then they just turn the page.”




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.



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.