An Adolescent Sport Grows up
by Josh Scheuerman
Snowboarding began with an uncertain birth, grew to an aggressive youth and matured to become a mainstream winter and Olympic sport. Although the first snowboard was not created in Utah, this state has played a large role in helping snowboarding become the successful, powerful force it is today. This short history explains Utah’s influence on the development of this sport and the people who helped it grow.
The Birth of a Sport – The beginning of snowboarding’s history can be traced back to Sherman Poppen, who invented the Snurfer in 1965 for his kids on a small, snowy knoll in Muskegon, Michigan. This first design was a solid wood plank, but guided with the use of a rope attached to the nose.
Near the same time, snowboards as we know them today were beginning to be developed all over the United States with different designs for various snow conditions.
In 1972 Dimitrije Milovich quit college to pursue building the first snowboards in Utah with the help and design of Wayne Stoveken, a Long Island surfer, who had created one of the first snowboards without a rope to guide the rider. Milovich arrived in Utah in 1972 and hitched his way up to Snowbird to inquire about a job for the following winter to work on his design. He happened to catch a ride with the wife of Ted Johnson, Snowbird’s then owner, and she arranged a meeting with Johnson for him. After showing Johnson the snowboard design Milovich asked if he could test the board at Snowbird and Johnson agreed.
Milovich also talked to Chick Morgan, Alta’s then general manager, to get approval to ride there as well. Morgan and Alta’s Ski Patrol agreed to let him ride at Alta after a screw and a leash were attached to the board. This was one of the first leashes for the snowboard and was for the safety of the sport and of those sharing the slopes.
Milovich worked on his design, shaving down the board from 2” thick to 1/2” and added a swallowtail for control in Utah’s powder. In 1974 Stoveken moved to Utah and he and Milovich founded Winterstick Snowboards. Winterstick rolled out its first boards in 1977-78 with the help of the three other passionate employees: Renee Sessions, Don Moss and John Griffins.
As momentum grew around the country, pockets of snowboarders took to the hills from coast to coast, and people across the nation began making snowboards. Tom Sims made SIMS boards in California, Jake Burton made Burton boards in Vermont and Mike Olson handcrafted Mervin boards in Colorado. Here in Utah, Winterstick snowboards grew in popularity and resorts allowed them on a limited basis. By the late 1970s this new sport continued to grow with a core base, but at trade shows there was still little support for it.
Unfortunately, a skier crashed at Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont and sued the resort. Consequently resorts had to create by-laws, ski-at-your-own-risk instruction and ban nontraditional ski sports. This prohibited anything besides downhill Alpine skis; goodbye to telemark skis and snowboards. In 1981, with resorts banning snowboarding on the hills, Winterstick was forced to close its doors with only a few customers hiking and riding Utah’s powder. However, Milovich and Dwain Bush opened up a small windsurfing shop, called Milosport, which later became a core snowboarding shop. Winterstick was resurrected in 1994 as a Utah sports retailer and continues to make snowboards today, including the famous swallowtail.
The Tumultuous Teenage Years – When resorts unanimously banned all sports besides downhill Alpine skiing, there was one exception, Alta Resort. If you wanted to load and unload on skis and then switch to a snowboard, you were allowed to do so, but not on groomed runs. Alta’s holdout on banning snowboarding ended in December 1984 when complaints about snowboarders leaving boot holes in cat tracks and their unruly behavior outweighed the value of their ticket purchases, and they were asked not to come back to Alta.
In 1982, before the closure of Utah resorts for the season, Jake Burton-Carpenter said this in the first issue of Snowboard magazine, “I’ve had the most fun in resort areas, but I don’t think it should be pushed for resorts to have to allow snowboarders. After all, there is always the backwoods type of snowboarding. I think it should be stressed that if you can find a resort that allows you to ride there, courtesy must be used at all times. It will just help out in the long run.” The truth in this statement remains today: maintaining mutual respect is the only way to keep the sport available at public resorts.
In 1985, snowboard manufactures Barfoot, Flite, SIMS and Burton were just starting to make a profit and organize snowboarding. The Southwest Surf Skiers Association was campaigning for snowboarding to be accepted at resorts around the country with chapters in each state talking to resorts to gain access to their slopes again. Between 1984 and 1986 Dennis Nazari formed the Utah Chapter and helped certify boarders. A Certification Card was proof that a snowboarder could make turns and had a leash on his board. But when a skier collided with a certified snowboarder in Colorado, the snowboarder sued the resort because the skier wasn’t certified to ski. Instead of certifying Alpine skiers, the Certification Card policy was dropped, which allowed snowboarders to buy lift tickets without the restrictions of certification.
With the campaigning of Nazari in Salt Lake and Tim Strong and Kevin Champagne in Ogden, Utah resorts slowly allowed snowboarding back on the mountains. In 1986, Beaver Mountain in Logan, Utah became the first resort to open its lifts back up to snowboarding full-time. At the time only 7% of all resorts in the world allowed snowboarding. Brighton, Park West and Powder Mountain followed in the next two seasons.
With years of riding under their belts, local Utah filmmakers Mick Worthin and Mike Lookinland (a.k.a. Bobby Brady) shot “Tallest Wave” and showcased Utah talent. In 1987, Salty Peaks, the first specialty snowboard shop, opened its doors in Utah, and snowboarders finally had a place to purchase boards and equipment. Today Salty Peaks is home to the Utah Snowboarding Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of vintage snowboards.
Each year there was more pressure to allow snowboarding at resorts, and by the late 1980s Sundance, Elk Meadows and Brian Head offered full access to snowboarders, which left Snowbird, Park City, Deer Valley, Solitude and Alta as Utah’s skiing only resorts.
In 1989 the Utah Snowboard Association was formed with a contest circuit between Park West, Powder Mountain, Sundance and Nordic Valley. The first pipe and slalom contests were hosted at Park West and Powder Mountain and helped gain recognition for Utah boarders, allowing them to enter the national circuit of events taking place in California and Colorado.
Snowbird had a short trial for snowboarding in the spring of 1990 then allowed it full-time the following season, leaving just four Utah resorts as skiing only.
Documenting snowboarding in Utah became a full-time job for two friends who set out to make a snowboarding magazine in Utah. In 1994 Andy Wright and Jared Eberhardt founded Medium magazine and covered snowboarding’s furious evolution, both locally and abroad. In 1995, Solitude opened its slopes to snowboarding.
The Twenties – By the late 1990s there were between 300-350 snowboard companies worldwide and nearly 4 million snowboarders. In Utah, Shift and Caution made snowboards and Bilt made outerwear. In 1998 Mack Dawg released the movie “Decade,” which featured rails and freestyle snowboarding–all of which happened in Salt Lake.
Snowboarding took a huge growing step when it became an Olympic sport at the 1998 Nagano Games. Full of controversy and media-induced hype, snowboarders lived up to their image by destroying rooms and nearly being stripped of a gold medal. Despite these problems, snowboarding has remained an Olympic sport and grown in popularity. Currently, there are six Olympic snowboarding events.
In 1998, Whitey McConnaughey returned to Utah after a year hiatus and filmed “The Revival”, featuring many up and coming riders who would be snowboarding’s new stars. Utah’s part in snowboarding’s history is undeniable. As the century came to an end, Utah was one of the biggest influences on the world snowboard scene. Utah had more footage in snowboard videos and magazines than any other single location in the world and many pro snowboarders rode in Utah.
Adulthood – Now over 30 years old, snowboarding’s influence in mainstream media has turned the sport into a money-making machine. The new millennium saw money flowing into snowboarding. It reached its biggest popularity in 2004 at 6.6 million participants and was accepted at 97% of resorts worldwide. Although snowboarding has decreased to roughly 5 million boarders today, global sales are still climbing, despite recession worries. During the August – October 2008 pre-season $507 million worth of snowboarding product was sold, up 9% from last year.
The Winter X Games have also been a money-maker and have received over ten years of television, newspaper, magazine and video coverage. Also, legends are being made. Shaun White dominates as king of the promotional machine with mega sponsors and larger than life paychecks. While Travis Rice, considered one of the world’s best snowboarders, is setting a new standard of where snowboarding is heading with possibilities stretching beyond what was once thought possible.
On March 18, 2008 Taos Ski Resort in New Mexico opened its slopes to snowboarding, leaving just three resorts in the United States that have kept the 1984 ban, two of which are in Utah. Whether these resorts ever allow snowboarding isn’t important: it’s the strides that have been made to allow snowboarding to become the worldwide, popular sport it is today.
Utah has played an important role in the history, growth and development of snowboarding and it will continue to influence the sport’s future as it advances in unimaginable ways.
Josh Scheuerman is an avid snowboarder and a blogger for Ride Utah. www.rideutah.com