Grand Unified Theory: The merging of snowboard and ski cultures
Amid a tumultuous history, the two sports are more similar now than ever
Steamboat Springs — Almost everything about Brian Erhart screams snowboarder. From the grunge clothing to the general company he keeps, there is little reason to doubt he hits the powder on anything but a single piece of wood and fiberglass.
But on a recent November evening in downtown Steamboat Springs, Erhart made it clear to me he finds no joy in strapping onto a snowboard.
“The funny thing is, I went to a ski academy for one year in Vail, and the whole year, everybody called me a snowboarder,” Erhart said. “We are out there for the same reasons. We love the same thing. We just do it a little bit differently. One of us points downhill, the other points sideways.”
Erhart, a 20-year-old originally from northern Michigan, is a skier. Specifically, he is a freeskier, one of the disciplines at the heart of an ongoing unification between snowboard and ski cultures. It wasn’t that long ago when skiers and snowboarders pursued their sports with a figurative canyon between them, separated by everything from their upbringing to their wardrobe and general views on rules and mountain etiquette.
That divide, as I am finding out, is fading as quickly as today’s teens and 20-somethings move into parenthood. They are creating a generation that will likely never know of the struggles that took place to unite the two sports.
“I think it’s not snowboarders against skiers anymore,” said Tori Koski, snowboard program director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. “In the past 10 years, I think it’s changed like crazy. Snowboarders and skiers are friends now and go ski and ride together. They go ski powder together.”
My interest in today’s snowboard and ski cultures began with a single question. The question seems innocent enough, but deep down, it’s clear the answer would have implications beyond the obvious.
“So, do you ski or snowboard?” I’ve been asked.
It’s a valid question for someone like myself, only a handful of months removed from my Kansas upbringing. I’ve never spent a winter in the mountains, and until recently had no background in either sport. Now, living in Steamboat, it’s almost impossible not to take part in some sort of outdoor winter recreation.
There are plenty of people who both ski and snowboard, but at the end of the day, almost everyone associates more closely with one or the other. For some, snowboarding was the attraction because of a general desire to stray from the expectations of society.
“I remember my first couple years I was snowboarding, I was super rebellious about wearing a jacket,” said Kristina Edwards, a New Hampshire native who is entering her fourth season in Steamboat. “So, I would wear like seven sweatshirts just to not wear a jacket. No idea why. I didn’t think they were cool, apparently.”
So, if people like Edwards are attracted to snowboarding because of its rebellious reputation, where does that leave skiers? Are they, in fact, those posh kids you see in the movies? What about that animosity between the two factions we’ve always heard about? Does it still exist?
These are the questions I wanted to explore . I started by studying the origins of skiing and snowboarding.
A History Lesson
The unification of ski and snowboard cultures has a lot to do with history. While the concept of “walking on snow” goes back millennia, modern-day sport skiing dates back to 1800s Europe. The oldest ski club in the U.S. is New Hampshire’s Nansen Ski Club, founded in 1872.
Snowboarding, on the other hand, only goes back a few decades. The start of the sport is widely believed to have developed from the brain of Sherman Poppen in 1965 when he fixed two skis together, a present for his 10-year-old daughter on Christmas. Two of the original “Snurfers,” as they were called, are currently on display at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat.
Modern-day snowboarding fought its greatest battles beginning in the ’70s, with innovators like Jake Burton and Tom Sims leading the way. Much of snowboarding’s culture developed from skateboarders in that era.
“If you think about skateboarding in the ’70s and ’80s, you are talking about youth that are sort of renegades to begin with,” said Mike Martin, associate professor of ski and snowboard business at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat. “Skate has that urban grittiness to it.”
In the early ’80s, only one out of every 10 resorts in the U.S. allowed snowboarding. This changed quickly throughout the next decade, especially with the advent of snowboarding parks within ski resorts. These parks were originally designed with a hidden intent to isolate the snowboarders in one specific area, but ironically, it might have been what helped save the snow sports industry at the time and would eventually help unite the two sports.
“Snowboarding helped pump the youth back into snow sports, because it was cool and it was different and the kids identified with that,” Martin said. “If resorts could pull the snowboarders into one part of the resort, it would help the overall feel of it. But then skiers wanted to go in the park, so you see melding happen there, and it kind of transformed the sport.”
Today, you are just as likely to see a bunch of skiers in the snowboard park as you are snowboarders cutting fresh lines down the mountain. The park scene and the development of freeskiing, which culturally has more in common with snowboarding than traditional Alpine skiing, have created a bridge between the vast canyon that once separated the sports.
“For years, I hung out with snowboarders because I was less likely to get kicked out of the snowboarding park. I think freeskiing was sort of born out of a dislike of the original competitive circuits,” said Tony Lodico, SSWSC freeskiing head coach. “On a bigger scale, as a general rule for the most part, it’s a good sibling rivalry. Clearly, we are going to make fun of each other.”
A Ski Bum Life
The change in mindset between snowboarders and skiers is centered on today’s 20-somethings — people like 21-year-old Tommer Wallace, who is originally from California but has found a home in Steamboat.
Unlike his friend Erhart, Wallace is all about snowboarding, especially in a park environment. What unites the two is their passion for what they do.
“Snowboarding and skiing is not a hate-fueled sport. It’s all about having fun and shredding on whatever you are riding on,” Wallace said. “It’s cool because skiing on powder and snowboarding in the park is completely different. But we are one in the same.”
It’s people like Erhart, Wallace and Edwards who are bringing the sports together. It’s not the Olympians or the competitive athletes; it’s those who work full-time, squeeze in a few classes at CMC, then spend the rest of their time and money grinding rails or searching for fresh powder wherever they can.
“To be a snowboarding bum, you are not really a bum. You are working pretty hard, even if you are not going to school. You are working to shred,” Wallace said. “In the eyes of the public and the people who don’t live it, they don’t see the little guys like us that are doing it because it’s a passion for us.”
That passion is at the heart of what is driving them, not their differences. Erhart, who grew up ski racing, recently lived with six snowboarders. Despite the difference in opinion on what to ride, Erhart said his experience with snowboarders has made a big impact on how he approaches skiing.
“I found more inspiration and style from snowboarding than I did from any skier. And I’m not trying to sell out skiing because that’s who I am and what I love,” Erhart said. “I think it really improved my skiing because I started watching snowboarders.”
The days of the posh skier and hood rat snowboarder, which tend to be the stereotypical way people think about each, are on their way out. Neither sport is likely to fully lose those characteristics, but to say there is a major division between the two is becoming less true by the season.
“We are all here because we want to be on the mountain,” Edwards said. “I have a bunch of friends who ski or snowboard. As long as you are having a good time, that’s all that matters.”
Head up to Rabbit Ears Pass in the weeks before Steamboat Ski Area opens and you will find dozens of likeminded individuals tearing up that little bit of powder and grinding rails. Most are snowboarders, but every now and then you will see a skier grinding those same rails.
“Definitely being someone different in the sport, being a single one, appeals to me,” said Steamboat’s Bryan Radevicz, a former snowboarder who moved over to freestyle skiing last winter. “I definitely like riding with boarders, though. It pushed me. … We definitely push each other and accept each other with what we are doing.”
The day I met Radevicz, I was snowboarding. But what we were doing didn’t seem to matter. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone, in fact. There was more to the experience than what you rode on or how you dressed. The animosity that may have existed once upon a time between the sports seems long gone.
“I think it all comes from that inner confidence and what you want to do and what your personality tells you that you want to do,” Erhart said about choosing between snowboarding and skiing. “If you can throw down on either one, you are still rad. People aren’t going to judge you, especially out here.”
There will always be exceptions, but for now, most of those exceptions tend to be with the older generation — those who grew up in a less friendly time as snowboarding was pushing its way into the resorts.
Even 10 years ago, answering the question of, “Do you ski or snowboard?” would have been traumatic. But today, it’s as simple as choosing which one you love. The present youth aren’t worried about how you get down the mountain. It’s about a shared experience in a new world they helped create.
“We live the lives we live just to snowboard and ski,” Wallace said. “Everyone thinks you have to make money to be successful at something. But for me, whether you ski or snowboard, if you are having a good time, that’s success right there.”
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