RECREATION

Surfing on the slopes

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER February 15 1988
RECREATION

Surfing on the slopes

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER February 15 1988

Surfing on the slopes

RECREATION

This winter at ski resorts across North America, adventurous fun-seekers are mounting sleek, banana-shaped pieces of Fiberglas and gliding down snowy slopes in manoeuvres that look like a winterized version of surfing. Participants in the new sport, called snowboarding, are by necessity agile and usually young. But all are united in their enthusiasm. Said Len Chisholm, president of the four-month-old Vancouver-based Canadian Snowboard Association, which already has 315 members: “It turns the mountain into a playground. You

can jump, you can go backward or forward, you can bank on a mogul.” Added Edgar Margreiter, director of skiing at Mount Norquay, near Banff, Alta.: “The boards are flashy, in fluorescent colors, and so is the snowboarders’ clothing.”

Still, the showy aspects of the sport are antagonizing traditional alpine skiers, many of whom express contempt at the antics of the flamboyant snowboarders. Declared Peter Bunce, a ski instructor at Mont St-Sauveur, 65 km north of Montreal: “I resent a snowboarder being on the same hill. On skis, I can avoid people and stop if I want to, but a snowboarder has a lot less control. They get in the way.” But the growing popularity of the sport belies the notion that it might be just a passing fancy. From its experimental beginnings in the early 1970s on

rough backcountry hills throughout the United States, miles away from the well-groomed slopes at ski resorts, snowboarding has emerged dramatically this year at ski resorts throughout North America and in Europe. And its supporters say that it is giving well-needed support to the flagging ski industry. In the past year, according to Paul Alden, president of the year-old North American Snowboard Association in Denver, the number of snowboarders has jumped to more than 200,000 from 75,000. As well, said Alden, “manufactur-

ers are reporting a doubling each year of their business—and that will continue.”

But snowboarders wanting to move from the backcountry hills to the resort slopes are often thwarted in their attempts by operators who claim that the sport is incompatible with alpine skiing. None of Ontario’s 55 alpine ski resorts allow snowboarding. Declared Josl Huter, who along with his family owns the Mount St. Louis-Moonstone ski resort, 126 km north of Toronto, and who banned the sport after a two-year trial: “Skiers think that a snowboarder is going to clobber them from behind.” A contributing factor to the problem, according to Peter Wheldrake, owner of Toronto’s Hogtown Skate and Snowboard Shop, is that most snowboarders are inexperienced. Said

Wheldrake: “When resort managers see snowboarders, most of the time they are seeing novices.”

Although the skills required for snowboarding are different from downhill skiing, they are no less demanding. Wearing ordinary winter boots, a rider straps his feet into a pair of bindings that are permanently attached to the board—which is about six feet long and a foot wide—at about an 80-degree angle. The snowboarder then rides the snow like a surfer rides the waves, controlling the board—without poles—by shifting his

body weight. Declared Mount Norquay’s Margreiter: “Balance is the most important thing. It took me three hours before I could stand up— and I run a ski school.”

Still, some snowboarders, mostly teenage males for whom the sport is a natural transition from surfing and skateboarding, display considerable expertise. And as their skills have improved, so has snowboarders’ equipment. The streamlined boards, which range in price from $300 to $700, are a marked improvement over the unwieldy planks used by the sport’s pio-

neers. “Six years ago snowboards were just pieces of plywood with rubber straps to keep your feet on,” recalls Kenneth Achenbach, an expert snowboarder who is co-owner of Calgary’s Snoboard Shop. “Now boards are safer, more controllable and more fun to ride.” More than a dozen companies, including the established French ski manufacturer Rossignol, have entered the lucrative $13-million-a-year industry, producing state-of-the-art boards with sturdy bindings and steel edges suitable for the hard-packed snow at ski resorts.

Snowboarders maintain that their sport is safer than skiing. Toronto’s Wheldrake, a former skier himself, says that two skis are harder to control than one snowboard: “Skis are narrow, they cross, they move apart.” But on a snowboard, he said, “the body is in a sideways stance. Your feet are wide apart, so you have a lot of stability.” Indeed, some resort owners do not question the safety aspects. Said Mount St. Louis’s Huter: “You don’t have to convince me. An expert snowboarder can stop faster than a skier can.” But, he added, “the average guy is not an expert. He is learning and he falls and he goes out of control. It makes recreational skiers uneasy.” And that, he said, points up the major problem resort owners face: trying to balance the demands of snowboarders and the pressure from alpine skiers to keep them away.

Still, operators are learning to solve that problem. In Western Canada, snowboarding is thriving partly because resorts offer lessons and teach mountain etiquette. “We get mostly beginners, but we have no problems at all,” said Mount Norquay’s Margreiter. “We keep it under control.” To that end, snowboarders at most resorts in British Columbia and Alberta must pass a proficiency test. Once they have demonstrated that they can control their turns and stop at a given point, they receive a photo identification card that gives them access to ski lifts at a particular resort. And in Quebec, where more than half of the 54 major ski areas allow snowboarding, some operators have resolved the unhappy marriage of snowboarders and skiers by divorcing them. “Separate trails is the way to keep everybody happy,” says Louis Dufour, owner of Mont StSauveur. Dufour added that accommodating snowboarders is good business: “We have to cater to them. The sport is going in that direction.” Downhill skiers can only hope that it is going in a direction that is different from their own.

-SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER in Toronto