If you wish to start snowboarding, you may get a variety of reactions. Some people may say, “Woah, you don’t look like you’re the kind of person who would do spins and flips and such,” as if all snowboarders sought to emulate freestyle athletes Shaun White or Kelly Clark.
In times past — and perhaps in the present, in a few places — you’d find some a less positive reception stemming from negative stereotypes. Consider, for example, a letter-to-the-editor published by the Aspen Times in 2007. The letter-writer wrote about an incident involving a friend of hers. The letter was published nearly a decade after snowboarding entered the Winter Olympics, not to mention mainstream acceptability.
The friend, she relates, was in the gondola with a ski instructor and some of his students. “The instructor began talking about the X Games and how snowboarding was such an ugly sport and that it was a good thing that they ‘wear baggy clothes’ to cover up the ugliness that is snowboarding. One of them even said, ‘It’s a good thing there aren’t any snowboarders in here’ (the gondola). They looked at Nancy, and ignored what they obviously knew, that she was indeed a snowboarder.”
Where did such attitudes come from? Long ago, for one thing. The Economist, the news magazine from London, noted the conflict back in 1993, with its article “Battle of the Piste.”
Humorist Dave Barry took a more lighthearted view of matters in 1995 when he summed up the conflict this way: “Skiers view snowboarders as a menace; snowboarders view skiers as Elmer Fudd.”
While attitudes are changing and skiers and riders are mixing it up, a short history lesson may be useful.
The snowboarding innovation was met with some resistance, to put it mildly. Most ski areas forbad snowboarding and some that permitted it required riders to pass a competency test. For their part, some snowboarders were afflicted by the proverbial chip on the shoulder.
For the longest time, snowboarders agitated to get access to the slopes. But today, you can count on one hand the number of U.S. ski areas that do not permit snowboards.
The Origins of the Conflict
Opposition to and wariness of snowboards, historically and today, comes from a number of sources, including a variety of fears.
Early snowboarders did not fit into the ski culture
Many of the early riders, especially in California, came from a skateboarding culture and thus did not have a knowledge or history of ski etiquette. This early clash grew into stereotypes on both sides, poisoning relations for years to come.
While many skiers have made their peace with riders, some percentage of skiers see the two sports as fueled by two incompatible impulses. In this view, skiing emphasizes social and natural ambiance over an athletic challenge, and snowboarding, by contrast, is dominated by an “adrenalin-rush” population that puts traditional skiers at risk.
Snowboarders tend to be younger than skiers
In its early years, snowboarding was owned by the teenager demographic. The got-to-be-different imperative of the adolescent years spilled over into an “attitude” that looked less than fondly upon adults, who dominated skiing. Skiers, for their part, often returned the favor (“young punks”). Happily, snowboarding is now a sport for all ages.
Media sensationalism promoted a clash
News reports may have played a part as well. Lowell Hart (author of “The Snowboard Book”), reminds us that members of the news media sell articles and attract viewers through controversy. It’s not that they create a story where none exist (though, if you remember Janet Cooke and Jason Blair, that sometimes happens); rather, conflict sells stories, which in turns may increase the magnitude of the conflict in the public’s mind.
Some skiers think that snowboarding poses a risk of physical harm to them
The complaint that snowboarders go too fast, endangering the skier, also has a long history. The fact that riders tended to be younger (and hence more risk-accepting, or even risk-seeking) only compounded this objection.
This fear was observed by snowboarding pioneer Chris Sanders, who noted in 1985 that some ski areas had come to accept that “we [snowboarders] aren’t a bunch of reckless idiots.” This means that some people thought that riders were in fact “a bunch of reckless idiots.” Accept the fact that some people still think this way, and do what you can to live down the reputation.
Early on, resorts feared increased liability from snowboarding
Of course, early snowboarding equipment itself did not inspire confidence in the safety of the sport, which fueled the resistance of some insurance companies — and subsequently, ski areas. Looking back, it is easy to see how snowboards themselves could be seen as a dangerous piece of equipment. Features that we expect as standard today — metal edges, secure bindings, and specialized boots most notably — did not exist.
Controlling a snowboard then was more difficult than it is today, and combined with the risk-seeking attitude of the early riders, made for an understandable reluctance on the part of ski areas and many skiers.
Some skiers claim that snowboarders make the snow unskiable
Other objections (then and now) to snowboarding stem from the fear that snowboards would create ruts (especially in groomed snow) and thus disrupt skiing. At the margins, this can cause problems for some skiers. Oddly enough, skiers sometimes lodge the contrary complaint: Snowboard riders “push all the snow to the bottom of the hill.” Either claim rests on the assumption that snowboarding somehow makes the snow unskiable rather than accept the fact that snow conditions change based on human usage.
Snowboarding brought changes to some ski trails
As snowboarding gained in popularity, many areas put in tricks-oriented features (e.g., rails) to appeal to freestyle-oriented snowboarders. This has also caused some animosity on the part of some skiers, who cite the terrain features as proof that snowboarding is taking away “their” slope. And in some case, it has.
Some of the resistance to snowboarding — and conversely, today’s embrace of it — comes down to dollars and cents. Or perhaps Euros.
According to one website devoted to skiing and snowboarding in France, under current law, individuals who wish to teach snowboarding in France must first be certified as ski instructors. (I spotted this years ago; the site is now defunct. Perhaps the law has changed.) While this appears to be a case of “ski snobbery,” it can also be seen as a case of protectionism. By imposing an additional requirement on would-be instructors, France limits the ability of instructors from Britain, Germany, and other countries to compete against French instructors.
Is acceptability good or bad for snowboarding?
Over time, snowboarding has become accepted within the ski industry and the broader society. Yet for various reasons (none good, that we know of), a few snowboarders think that’s a bad thing.
Resorts that once banned snowboarders now woo them with terrain parks, signaling a dramatic change over time. Most ski areas are profit-seeking operations; the initial ban (and subsequent attempts to actually attract snowboarders) was and is motivated by the desire to prosper, financially. Seeing the increased interesting in riding, more and more areas opened up to snowboards. Though snowboarders represent a minority of lift-ticket buyers, they spend enough money that they can’t be ignored.
Snowboarding made it “big” in media during the 1990s, as a backdrop to television commercials. It also gained entrance into that most commercial of sporting events, the Olympics. Reflecting the rebel portion of snowboarding’s past, some snowboarders refused to participate in the games, fearing that they would further erode what they saw as the spirit of the sport. Most riders, however, rejected this concern, and rightfully so.
In short, snowboarding has gone from the countercultural lifestyle of a few to something much bigger. The Snowboard Journal (now defunct) captured the situation well: “With over 7 million snowboarders in the United States alone, it has become much more than a lifestyle for a dedicated core of riders. Snowboarding not only has evolved into a legitimate sport, it also is a hobby for countless people throughout the world. .… Such rapid growth of acceptance can be interpreted as either a boon or a bane to snowboarding, depending on one’s point of view. The purists claim the culture is being diluted and commodified by corporations, while most others insist that the gains instilled by this surge in popularity can only mean bigger and better things for snowboarding in every regard. In effect, snowboarding is going through growing pains, learning how to deal with all the attention without losing sight of what drove most of us to slide sideways down a mountain in the first place: sharing good times with good friends, absolutely no rules except having fun.”
Interacting with Skiers
While snowboarding is widely accepted, you can still do a few things to promote the harmonious use of resorts. Call it wisdom through age or old-fashioned personal maturity, but Grays on Trays can play a role in promoting multiple uses of the slopes.
Take the compliment, and issue the invitation
If your skiing friends applaud you for your courage at taking up a new sport, accept the compliment, and invite them to take a lesson.
Acknowledge skier grievances
If skiers grumble about snowboarders, recognize that they have legitimate concerns, but point out that as snowboarding “grows up,” its manners improve.
Remind skiers of business realities
Remind skiers that for-profit businesses do what they think will appeal to customers. In this case, it means making room for snowboarders. It’s not a question of values or aesthetics, but simply business. Most people will recognize that.
Demonstrate on-slope manners
Practice a little kindness on the slopes. If a skier falls and suffers a “yard sale” the equipment goes scattered far away), stop and pick up a ski or pole, if you are within a location that allows you to do this. Take special care to stay far away from beginning skiers. Look for other ways to show consideration.
Explain how snowboarding works
Sometimes sharing how snowboarding works can help weaken hostility to riding. Some skiers, for example, may complain that riders are always sitting down. “Are they just lazy?”
It is easy to forget that when it comes to stopping, skiers have it easy. Balancing while in a stopped position is easier on two boards rather than one. Skiers also have poles available as a balance aid. Given those facts, then, riders are not lazy.
If you explain this, a skier might better understand what’s going on, if not necessarily approve. (It would help if riders, and skiers, would do their resting at the edge of trails.)
Practice tighter turns
Even though you should, by terms of the responsibility code, have the right-of-way if you are further downhill than someone else, some skiers get nervous seeing snowboarders riding from one far side of the trail to the other.
Skilled skiers should have no problem dealing with this kind of behavior, but even they can be upset by it.
Here’s one way to address this objection: next time you stop on the mountain near a group of skiers, be the first one to resume heading down the hill. If your skill and setup, as well as the terrain permits, make tight turns down the fall line. The gentle back-and-forth as you shift from heelside to toeside, and back, will give the skiers a chance to see how graceful riding on a board can be.
Live in peace
Roughly 2,000 years ago, St. Paul told the early Christians “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18). Use the same logic today.
Some skiers will remain hostile no matter what you do or say. If you come across such people, leave them alone. But otherwise, gently share your enthusiasm and you’ll be doing your part to promote the widest possible enjoyment of the slopes.
Riders and Skiers Have Common Ground
Remember, regardless of what equipment you use, skiers and riders share similarities:
- Enjoying the outdoors, making the most of winter.
- Scanning the terrain as you go, looking for places to avoid–or seek out.
- Skillful use of both forms of equipment involves linking turns.
- Using the edges is critical.
- So is being aware of and maintaining balance.
- In both activities, a person alternates between being parallel to the fall line, perpendicular to it, and everywhere in between.