Friday, March 1, 2013

Freedom and the rise of snowboarding


The biggest newspaper in our town, circulation 3,119, recently had a long discussion about why snowboarding had become so popular in the first place. I suspect it had something to do with enjoying your freedom.

Let’s say you were a young guy, with almost no girls in the picture yet, and you went with your family to a ski hill. You helped unload all of the gear from the family car and then asked dad for lift ticket money and $20 for lunch. You wanted to take off on your snowboard so you didn’t have to listen to dad nag at you all day about how you were skiing. This kind of young person would begin to have freedom from parents for the first time. They would find other snowboarders with the same complaints of parental suppression. Now, let’s say girls were in the picture. A snowboarder old enough to have a serious girlfriend certainly found a keeper among the few young ladies who had begun to ride.

Originally a snowboard was just a piece of wood about the same size as today’s snowboards but it had a rope through a hole in the front for the rope that the rider could hang onto and hold the nose up so it would not dig into the snow. It was called a Snurf and its roots came from surfing.

Back in those days, people used to send me footage of their latest invention. The first good movies I saw of snowboarding were from Salt Lake, Utah, with two distinctively different boards in them. One was shaped almost exactly the same as a small surfboard and the other one had a split tail with a big V-shaped notching in the tail. The photography was good, the powder snow was light and the riders were very talented. There was only one thing wrong with the sequence—every single turn was interrupted by a spectacular crash.

When the inventor and the cameraman asked me what I thought, I suggested that he put bindings on his boards. He did and before long I was getting footage from him of his riders climbing to do things on their boards that I had never seen a skier do. The one remaining problem was that the ski resorts refused to let snowboarders ride their lifts.

Unlike skiing with its long heritage, there was no safety or politically correct social rules for a snowboarder to follow. It took a long time for skiers to relax and quit fighting the inevitable. Positions finally loosened. Mike Wiegele in Blue River, Canada, let them ride in his helicopters. Here and there the occasional resort let snowboarders on their lifts.

When truly spectacular snowboard footage began to be gathered by my own cameramen, I put it in my movies for a decade before they got to ride chairlift instead of having to climb.

Some Vail executives asked me my opinion one day and I told them, I think you should form your own opinion of riding snowboards by hiring the best snowboard rider you can find for a week to 10 days. Then equip at least 10 ski instructors to take lessons in riding a snowboard. I told the executives, right now I think you’re threatening job security for instructors who have spent their entire life learning their profession. And within a week, the same Vail people were asking me “Where and how big should we build a half pipe?”

To me the most important question was, are you going down the hill with a smile on your face?

While the snowboard industry was being invented there were a lot of young riders who thought it would be a good idea to make snowboards in the garage or basement. Many of them gave up when they found out that if they were busy making snowboards they didn’t have time to ride them. Freedom has a price to pay whether you are skiing or riding a snowboard or filming other people showing off their freedom on 16mm film.

Recently we had a houseguest obsessed with setting the record for vertical feet snowboard riding in one day. He kept track of it on his cell phone and managed 70,090 feet in one day. He would get off at the top of the lift and point the snowboard straight down the hill. After he set the record I suggested he could get close to it if he had just duct taped his cell phone to the chairlift instead. Then I asked him if he saw my favorite porcupine eating the bark off of a tree half way down the hill?

I think a good balance of those two things is the way to enjoy your freedom on skis or a snowboard.

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