Snowboarding has come a long way since the early days of the original Snurfer. No longer just for rebellious teens in baggy pants, the sport is now attracting more sophisticated adults—affectionately referred to as grays on trays, whether they’re in their thirties or their sixties. “You definitely see a lot more baby boomers out there boarding on the slopes,” says Troy Hawks, communications manager for the National Ski Areas Association, which calculates that riders aged 35 to 65 make up a third of the estimated four million snowboarders in the United States.
Still, if you are new to the sport, you may find yourself taking advice from a kid. “Choose a board that is about chin height,” says 19-year-old Rob Millon, who has been riding since he was ten and now works at Salty Peaks Skate & Snowboard Shop in Salt Lake City, which has one of the best selections in the country. “Also, pick one with a slightly set-back stance so you are not centered over the board but instead have more nose and a smaller tail,” he explains. “That will make turning easier.”
Aside from such basic guidelines, choosing the right board can be complicated. The Transworld Snowboarding 2009 Buyer’s Guide features no fewer than 625 models, divided into categories like directionals (good for rough terrain) and twins (with symmetrical ends that allow the rider to go both forward and backward without turning around) as well as boards made specifically for women or younger kids. While Burton and other established names dominate the market, “these days there are small companies coming out of everywhere,” says Millon.
All this competition has spurred a lot of technical innovation. Boards were once shaped from simple hardwoods, such as birch, maple, or poplar. Today they incorporate everything from space-age aluminum and Kevlar to the ecofriendly bamboo used in Salomon’s new Sick Stick ($600; www.salomonsnowboard.com), winner of an international design award from Volvo.
Burton spent years perfecting its Alumafly Core technology, which is causing a big buzz on the slopes. The innards of the T6 ($800; www.burton.com) and the Vapor ($1,000) are made of aluminum honeycomb that Burton purchases from the same supplier that provides material to NASA for the space shuttle. “They also use the stuff in F-16s and Sikorsky helicopters,” says Todd King, boards business unit director at Burton.
The aerospace industry was skeptical that Burton’s design wizards would be able to cut the aluminum into the required millimeter-thin slices. Burton proved them wrong. “They are the lightest boards you will ever pick up,” says Millon. The HKD ($550; www.dcshoes.com) by boardmaker DC Shoes has a similar design, with a honeycomb core surrounded by strips of Kevlar.
Beyond the materials, there are other subtle design details hidden in the latest boards. Both the Altered Genetics from GNU ($600; www.gnu.com) and the Skate Banana from Lib Tech ($470; www.lib-tech.com) have Magne-Traction, or scalloped edges that give the boards seven contact points on each side, as opposed to just the tip and tail. “The new edges make rough ice feel like a groomed trail,” says Millon.
Snowboarding is not just about boards, of course; boots and bindings are equally important. Boots with the ingenious Boa lacing system feature steel cords that tighten with the simple twist of a knob. On its Circuit Boa ($330; www.thirtytwo.com), ThirtyTwo has two knobs, one on the boot’s side and another on its tongue, which gives the rider greater control over the fit and helps to alleviate pressure.
Introduced last year on only four boards, Burton’s Channel binding mounting system was such a hit, the company added it to 15 more boards this year—close to half of all its models. While most bindings are attached with screws to predetermined increments, the Channel technology allows riders to slide bindings along the board, giving them infinite possibilities for fine-tuning their stance. Whether on powder or slush, when married with Burton’s superresponsive Extra Sensory Technology bindings, such as the Cartel EST ($250) and the CO2 EST ($390), it makes for some excellent snurfing.
Getting On Board
It’s not exactly clear who built the first snowboard. Some say the sport was born in 1929, when a fellow named M. J. “Jack” Burchett constructed a board out of plywood and attached it to his feet with clothesline and horse reins. While that tale has yet to be fully verified, it is certain that in 1965 Sherman Poppen of Muskegon, Michigan, created the prototype for the original mass-produced board, lashing two skis together for his daughters on Christmas morning. His wife named it the Snurfer, and it became a hit.
Soon a young rider named Jake Burton Carpenter began toying around with the Snurfer design, and in 1977, after graduating from New York University, he founded what would later become the biggest snowboard company in the world. Meanwhile, in 1970, a surfing fan named Dimitrije Milovich started working on another design, inspired by his sledding down a hill on a cafeteria tray. Winterstick, the company he formed in 1976, is still around today. Around the same time, Tom Sims, who had already made a name for himself in the skateboard world, began producing snowboards as well. The industry was on its way.
The first national snowboard competition was held in 1982 at Suicide Six near Woodstock, Vermont, and five years later, during the 1987–88 season, the four events that made up the first snowboarding World Cup took place. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the ultimate outsider sport received the establishment’s highest recognition: inclusion in the Olympic Games at Nagano, Japan.
Like album covers, snowboards are known for having wild artwork. Last year Burton came out with a line featuring Andy Warhol designs and paintings, and the company’s Series 13 boards (one shown here) can be customized with the rider’s choice of art or photographs. D.C.-based Monument Snowboards (www.monumentsnowboards.com) maintains an international network of painters and illustrators who contribute images to its boards. And Arbor has developed the Coda snowboard ($550; www.arborsports.com) using an image of a samurai from the Etsuko and Joe Price collection of 17th- to 19th-century Japanese art, which happens to be on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through early January.