As you sit here, holding in your hands a beautifully curated, considerately crafted physical manifestation of our collective love of snowboarding, it is hard not to be drawn backwards to another time – a time when ink and wood pulp had a huge influence on our view of the world.
In fact the chances are that anyone holding this annual is of a certain vintage, and has at least some wistful feelings of nostalgia for that era. For it was with the help of magazines that many of us found snowboarding weaving itself into our DNA and becoming an intrinsic part of our identity.
As I have said before, nostalgia is like a bathtub full of syrup laced with methamphetamine. Once you have slipped in, there is no getting out. It delivers a sickly but ultimately pleasant death, as the rose-tinted glow of “back in the day” anaesthetises the degenerative chronic pain of getting older.
“For the average joe, snowboarding is simply way better now than in the past”
You might therefore assume that by printing these words at all – in this brand new edition of Whitelines – I too have succumbed to nostalgia, pathetically seeking to relive my youth and cling to the dissipating fog of past glories.
But you’d be wrong, because I don’t believe it was better back in the day. I believe that right now, there has never been a better time to be a snowboarder.
I’ve no doubt that for those inside “the industry” there will have been easier times; times when the cash rolled in from corporate sponsors, Japanese bar owners ordered snowboards by the dozen to adorn their walls, and the breakneck pace of product releases kept the tills ringing loud in stores. But for the average joe snowboarder (i.e. you, me) snowboarding is simply way better now than in the past.
There are a bunch of reasons why you could disagree with me (which I will try to logically and dispassionately dismiss as we go), but let’s tackle this argument one step at a time.
When I started snowboarding, the gear was terrible. I bought my first board in 1991 – it was 165 centimetres of solid plank, weighed roughly the same as the Millennium Falcon with a full cargo hold, and you couldn’t adjust the width of your stance. If I remember correctly (caveat: my memory is not what it was), the bindings only really had two settings for the angles: a ‘mellow’ 30 degrees (for your common-or-garden eurocarving) and 45 degrees – aka full blown Russian hardboot racing style.
My Northwave boots (which I still have somewhere) were well suited to clearing snow from the driveway or mucking out stables, but were about as supportive as a pair of slippers and had the same waterproofing qualities as a ball of cotton wool. Meanwhile, my pants were so baggy that I could have smuggled several Romanian orphans over the border in them without arousing any suspicion. And my coat? That was just awesome… until it came into contact with snow or I tried to move – at which point, I became instantly soaked from either precipitation or my own perspiration. It was like an anti-snowboarding jacket.
What’s more, all of this cost a fortune. My board set me back £450, second hand, which at the time was my life’s savings. In today’s money, that is well over a grand. Yes folks, I paid more for a shitty board that didn’t work (unless you wanted to go dead straight and plough through a line of five-year-olds in ski school) than you would now spend on a hand-made artisanal Japanese powder board that has been built to your exact specifications using rare earth materials from a sacred forest.
So today – thanks to gear that just works and doesn’t cost very much, relatively speaking – we really should be thanking our lucky stars. I mean, many riders these days even have a quiver, so that they can optimise their riding experience in a variety of conditions. That would have seemed like the most ludicrous idea in the world back in the early 90s, when it was just accepted that your board would suck and you would have to pimp out your mother, sister and – in all likelihood – at least two of your own orifices, to pay for it.
If you are standing in a 45 minute line at the base of Breckenridge, having just paid nearly $200 for your day pass, and are looking forward to eating the exact same burger that you had at every other Vail resorts-owned hill, being shouted out by overzealous uniformed pisteurs for going too fast on slopes that are designed for going fast, and are rubbing shoulders with a strange mix of entitled shit-head park rats doing their best to hide their trust funds and judgmental septuagenarians spending their ill-gotten gains from the postwar boom… then you might be forgiven for thinking that resorts just ain’t what they used to be.
However, I would disagree.
Parks are infinitely better. Consider that back in the 90s, most resorts didn’t even have a park. The best anyone yearning for air-time could hope for was hucking yourself off a cat track into a mogul field, or trying to navigate a hand-shaped quarterpipe with zero transition and walls made of mashed potato (or ice). These days most decent resorts will have multiple parks, capable of supporting progression all the way from groms and beginners to seasoned Olympian.
Yes, if you are riding in France, you could quite possibly complain about the indolence of the shapers or the fact the angles are slightly off on the landings for the red jumps, but “back in the day” you either had to be satisfied with mangled sun-soaked kickers that bucked you off like a bull on heat, or chasing Romain de Marchi straight into 60-foot road gaps – there was nothing in between.
Lift tickets are much better value. Although I can hear you moaning about the crazy price of day passes in America, you will get no sympathy from me. If you are stupid enough to turn up on the day you want to ride and buy a day pass for $200, then you deserve everything you get – especially when you could have had a season pass for $600 if you’d just got your shit together in September, or saved $10 a week for a year. Yep, for all the dipshit millennials, that’s the equivalent of just one portion of gluten free banana bread on avocado with chia seeds.
With more resorts clubbing together, season passes can now offer incredible value. The Epic Pass and Ikon passes not only give you access to more than 20 resorts in the US on just one ticket, they also give you days on the hill in places like Verbier, Hakuba and Perisher. So you can travel the world for a whole year and ride dozens of resorts for half the price of an iPhone. That is amazing. Stop moaning and buy a Nokia instead.
Lifts work better too, so you get more laps in. If you have had the joy of sitting on a heated, hand-stitched leather seat that also automatically pivots to face into the sun, or frankly any modern “express” lift, then that means you travel faster uphill than you could walk whilst dragging a fridge; sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the majority of chairlifts in the 90s. And when you do come across old school infrastructure (as I did in Park City a couple of years ago, when I caught a lift which passed 100-foot above the town, but without any safety bar to hold down my wriggly 7-year-old) it just makes you realise how shit things were all those years ago.
Travel today is easier than ever, and adventure is thus more accessible than it has ever been.
I recently bought a return flight to Vancouver, travelling at Christmas time, for £210. I also bought a return flight to Geneva for March for £30. That is almost an order of magnitude cheaper than the cost of travel 20-plus years ago. Yes, I had to be well organised to get those prices (I booked my flights on Boxing day), but for anyone else so inclined, the ability to ride new mountains and see new faces is just a “Buy Now” click away.
Now, it would be sub-Trumpian dumb to herald this new age of cheap travel without recognising the impact it is having on the planet, and it is no small irony that the carbon dioxide emissions to which I regularly contribute will be serving to accelerate the disappearance of glaciers and the very snow on which I want to ride. I guess, like just about every pro snowboarder or anyone who doesn’t live completely off-grid and protests about global warming, I am a hypocrite. The solution, as someone who doesn’t live in the mountains (I have instead chosen to be battered by storm swells off the Atlantic sea), is to either move my home so that I can walk to the hill with my splitboard… or stop snowboarding – because to snowboard is to travel. Anything less is just somewhere different on the sliding scale of hypocrisy.
So whilst I celebrate the possibilities for adventure that cheap air travel delivers in this modern age, I am also acutely aware of the seemingly finite period in which our ridiculously frivolous passion can continue to be enjoyed. Maybe there are 50 more years of snow, maybe 20 – who knows – but here’s hoping that humankind can find an answer to the greatest challenge in our history, because not being able to snowboard would literally be the most insignificant of all the consequences if we don’t.
For riders of my generation, magazines were the foundation on which our love of snowboarding was stacked steadily over time. VHS, though, was the icing. Videos provided us with a massive sugar-hit each autumn when the footage of our heroes’ exploits exploded all over our cathode ray TVs.
Those movies were so small in number that they created a common bond between all snowboarders. Everyone saw the TB movie. Everyone saw the Mack Dawg movie. Everyone saw the Absinthe movie. As such, there are a handful of screen moments that are seared onto our collective consciousness, and which have become shared memories. Ingemar’s backside air. Johan’s descent. Romain being showered in cash and boosting…
Whilst this scarcity of footage had the positive consequence of building a coherent singular narrative in which we could all share, it also meant that we spent 11 months of the year being frustrated that we couldn’t get our hands on any new content. Our videotapes wore thin as we pined for something – anything – that could keep us plugged into the scene, and find out which new tricks or lines had been conquered that winter. To be a snowboarder at this time was therefore to be denied, desperate and in a constant state of content starvation.
Today, in contrast, we have access to an infinite body of fresh snowboarding content at any time, in any place, delivered on demand – in high definition – to a device that fits neatly in our pockets. We can gorge on videos whenever we want, instantly satiating our desire for something new. Now, to anyone who built their love of snowboarding on the starvation rations of the 80s and 90s, this is nothing short of incredible.
It is tempting to dismiss the plethora of content as a throwaway modern phenomenon which has made us spoiled and lazy. It is certainly true that much of the content cluttering our feeds wouldn’t have even made the cutting room floor back in the day, let alone the finished movie. And equally, it is hard to ignore the decline in ‘proper’ movies which hold our attention beyond 3 minutes. Nevertheless, if you had told me 25 years ago that I could one day access all the amazing footage I can today, I would have given you a massive kiss on the lips and started getting crazy like Animal from the muppets.
“If you had told me 25 years ago that I could one day access all the amazing footage I can today, I would have given you a massive kiss on the lips and started getting crazy like Animal from the muppets”
The democratising impact of digital platforms and (relatively) cheap video cameras has underpinned this content explosion. I also think this is a good thing. Any industry where there are significant barriers to entry works for the few, not the many; it helps keep incumbents in place and slows down the pace of progress. Snowboard movie-making was previously an oligopoly, because only a few people had the right equipment. God knows how much amazing talent went untapped because they couldn’t get the money together for a decent camera. That talent has almost no barrier to entry now, which is good.
With the plummeting cost and increasing capability of technology has also come new possibilities.
Mike Basich had to go to incredible lengths with remote triggers and duct tape to capture ‘selfies’ and POV footage, but now even a 100-dollar GoPro gives us cinema quality images. Drones have also opened the door to mind-melting follow-cam perspectives; no longer does a rider need to be a tiny speck in the distance on a huge Alaskan face, we can chase them down the hill as if we were there ourselves. It is unequivocally, undeniably better to be a videographer (and consumer of said video) today.
The other corollary to the democratisation of technology and lowering of barriers to entry is that we have a much broader church.
Because snowboarding is no longer defined by a small clutch of tastemakers with the right equipment or job at a magazine, what it ‘is’ is open to much broader interpretation and representation. This has given rise to a much richer and more diverse culture. No one can claim to represent all of snowboarding and say what is cool and what isn’t cool any more. We decide. The beardy middle-aged men splitboarding can reach their acolytes on Instagram just as easily as the shell-suit wearing, bum-bag sporting, knuckle buttering kids in Laax. Their depiction of snowboarding could not be more different, but thank The Good Lord Terje that we are not all forced into the same box any more. Snowboarding is more diverse, so I can eurocarve and no one thinks I am a dick. OK, that’s a flawed argument because carving is cool now and people think I am a dick for countless other reasons…
And of course, while we’re thinking about diversity, female snowboarding is much better represented now than was the case in the past. Yes, certain clipboard-wielding FIS delegates forced the riders into a force 9 gale at the recent Olympics, which didn’t help – but the feats of Chloe Kim and Anna Gasser are not only more readily appreciated, they are objectively riding at an incredible level. No longer is it the ultimate compliment to “ride like a guy”; we’ve moved to a place where female snowboarding is every bit as compelling and entertaining as what we see being done by the men.
“If you dropped X Games 2019 into the middle of 2005, people would have gone absolutely nuts and thought aliens had come to earth in the form of little rubber people”
Style is way better now too. I am sure there are a bunch of you spitting your coffee onto this lovely book as you read this, thereby ruining the lovely full-bleed printing and making the pages go all wrinkled. “It’s all spin to win!” you shout, “What happened to doing a big floaty front 3?” But here’s my argument: The best riders can now make 1440s look good. The best riders can throw shifties into the middle of a 1260 and make it look as mellow as a Jamie Lynn cab 5 used to be. And if you go back and watch the ‘legendary’ footage of Terje busting out 900s on a hand-shaped quarterpipe, the honest truth is his style was pretty stinky – there was a lot of arms above the head action which made even a Shaun White boot grab look steezy.
Yes, the method has remained a timeless and beautiful calling card for all riders (Mr. Haakonsen representing the high-water mark), and wouldn’t it be great to have a comp where you could only do no grab backside 180s, but spinning style is infinitely better now than it was in the past. People knocking out 1800s can be accused of looking whack, but that was true of those busting out 1080s not that long ago. Hell, I’ve seen 11-year-olds make 1080s look good these days.
And finally, thank goodness, snowboarding isn’t cool or particularly lucrative any more.
The great thing about all the hype fading away is that the only people left snowboarding are the ones that really like it (and their kids, whether they like it or not). You can’t buy a Chanel snowboard anymore, you won’t see Posh Spice sideslipping in Courchevel, and most lawyers will now stick to skiing in between their slopeside conference calls. The number of people snowboarding who really belong in 90s Calvin Klein adverts has diminished to almost nil (Stale being one of the few who could still inhabit both sides of that Venn diagram) and when old middle class people from Surrey say to me in lift queues with great relish that “most children are taking up skiing now” I say “good”. Because if you don’t feel this in your bones like I do, if it doesn’t run deep into your veins, if it doesn’t seep through the pores of your skin and radiate through everything you do… well, it’s probably for the best that you ski.
No one is snowboarding to get rich, so by definition they are doing it for the love. The oversized cheques getting handed out to riders have massively depreciated in value, and the champagne that gets spaffed on the podiums is actually discounted prosecco from Lidl. Pro riders are having to live in campervans and poop into composting bins but that means they can at least dedicate themselves to the shred without having to accept a sponsorship deal from Dubai, or a caffeinated drink, or a nuclear waste disposal company. Riders can look themselves in the mirror and see someone with integrity staring back. Yes, they may have holes in their socks and be eating dogfood to save a few quid, but you can’t beat having self respect.
OK, so maybe I am being slightly one eyed. Not everything is completely rosy in the garden.
Competitions are boring now – but then, that’s just because we’ve become jaded and de-sensitised. If you dropped X Games 2019 into the middle of 2005, people would have gone absolutely nuts and thought aliens had come to earth in the form of little rubber people. Yes, we may well see a wave of Chinese gymnasts funnelled into the sport who should really be – well, gymnasts, and who will perform perfectly executed 1620s without ever having seen a RobotFood movie, but there are just as many park rats in Mammoth who wouldn’t have a clue who Tex or Johan Olofsson are, and we don’t bitch about that (well, I do…).
And OK, the Olympics threatens to eat the competitive aspect of our sport and spit it out into a wastepaper basket along with ski ballet and aerials – but then, does anyone hitting street rails in Montreal or hiking the backcountry in interior BC really give a crap about that? And should they? I don’t think so. The Olympics can’t kill that love.
So, there you have it. There really has never been a better time to be a snowboarder. Gear works. Resorts are better. Adventure is more readily available. Content is plentiful. Snowboarding is a broader church and more diverse. Steez is way higher than it used to be. And we’ve ditched all the hangers-on.
Now, if we can just stop burning coal and flying to the mountains to snowboard, we might just have a future.
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