Derek Johnson developed a passion for skiing as a child in Minnesota, but like many teens of his generation, he jumped on a snowboard in high school and rode it through his 20s. Then, three years ago, Johnson, now 35, tried a pair of shaped skis and was amazed at the carving ability. He has both skied and boarded since. “To be honest,” says Johnson, “I don’t know what I am now.” Blame Johnson’s identity crisis on the ever-evolving relationship between skiing and snowboarding. At one time, the cultural divide was a chasm. Boarders were young, reckless and eager to shock. Skiers derided snowboarding as a fad. But like a rebellious son and a stubborn father who reconcile after years of tension, boarders and skiers have begun to realize they have much in common.
Drive to virtually any ski hill in the country and you will see cars with both boards and skis on the roof. In the terrain parks, kids are sliding rails on boards, alpine skis and twin-tips, a hybrid of both. Various surveys indicate anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of mountain visitors have tried both sports.
“The two worlds are coming together,” says Tom Collins, executive director of the United States of America Snowboard Association, which allowed skiers into its previously boarder-only events for the first time this season. “When I started boarding, it was skateboarders who were joining the sport, and the first thing they said was: ‘Let’s go jump off something!’ They didn’t know how to stand in a liftline, didn’t know the etiquette. That has changed, and now there is mutual respect.”
Even so, lines of division remain. In some cases, boarders cling to the notion that their sport is inherently cooler. Sims Snowboards ran ads last year that claimed borders ride “the pipe” while skiers ride “the pole.” Some skiers, in turn, continue to stereotype boarders as dimwitted slackers. “How many snowboarders does it take to screw in a light bulb?” asks a skier in a joke posted on an online forum. Answer: “Seven. One to hold the bulb and six to get high and make the room spin.”
An even more visible divide is the fact snowboarders are still banned from four U.S. resorts: Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, Vermont’s Mad River Glen and Taos in New Mexico. Officials at these resorts are quick to point out that they have nothing against boarding. (Deer Valley President Bob Wheaton sometimes boards elsewhere.) Rather, they say, the policies are economically motivated. “Our guests tell us they enjoy a ski-only experience,” Wheaton says. Park City experimented with segregation last season by designating certain trails for either skiers or snowboarders, but just five days later the policy was scrapped. Customers resented being told where they could go and with whom they could mix. “It was splitting up families,” says spokeswoman Michelle Palmer. “There was total outrage.”
By and large, the resort industry has embraced boarding. Aspen ended its ban last season, while resorts such as New York’s Windham Mountain, formerly Ski Windham, have changed their names to welcome boarders and their dollars. Indeed, the National Sporting Goods Association ranked snowboarding the fastest-growing sport in 2000 and 2001. Retailers sold 463,485 boards last season, compared to 687,440 pairs of skis.
Overall, 30 percent of ski area visitors are on snowboards. Most children still ski, perhaps because parents are primarily skiers. Some say skiing is easier for toddlers to learn, though boarders disagree. Of those coming to snowsports in their teens, a majority choose snowboards. Through age 17, slightly more than half are on boards, according to RRC Associates, a Colorado-based research firm. And the so-called “grays on trays”-those 55 and older who board-comprise less than 2 percent of mountain visitors, but they are breaking stereotypes.
While boarders had to fight for access to some mountains, it is skiers who have had to overcome prejudices to gain acceptance with the extreme sports crowd. Skieers were denied entry into the first Winter X Games seven years ago because ESPN considered skiing too mainstream, says Don Bostick, who oversees snowboarding competitions for the X Games. This despite the fact that skiers have been hucking themselves off cliffs for ages. During an ESPN meeting in Crested Butte, Colo., six years ago, Bostick stood up and said: “Hey, there are guys on skis who are going big, doing amazing things, and they are being ignored,” he recalls. Skiers have been gradually included in more events every season since, leading up to inclusion in the SuperPipe in 2001. One gear executive says that skiers are now, in fact, outdoing their boarding counterparts in coming up with fresh moves.
The revolution in equipment-namely fatter and shorter skis and twin-tips-is allowing skiers to push the boundaries in parks and pipes, formerly the exclusive domain to boarders. For their part, boarders are now learning from skiing’s brash new-school movement.
In retrospect, the boarder-skier clash of a decade ago was a classic example of youth butting heads with the establishment rather than a war between two tribes. “I always try to remind people that when young ski bums were going to Aspen in the 1970s to live in buses and smoke pot, they were also disliked,” says Jon Foster of TransWorld Snowboarding magazine. “That’s the nature of change.”
Johnson, the boarder-skier with the identity crisis, is all for change. “The bad-boy image helped grow boarding. Now there’s a balance. Young punks who grew up boarding realize skiing is cool, too, and many will take it up.”