Travel Stories

Tom Stone and the Hawaiian History of the Snowboard.

Tom Stone and the Hawaiian History of the Snowboard.

Hawaii is a spectacularly beautiful place. The temperature never varies far outside the mid to high 70’s, the water is always warm, there are always waves to be surfed and, even though millions of tourists visit the islands, there are still places to be found that are utterly untouched. It isn’t, however, a very famous snowboarding destination. Granted, there are some surf/snow crossover companies like DaKine that have their base in the islands, and yeah, there is a bit of snow on the biggest island in the chain during the winter months (in fact Terje Haakonsen rode some of it in the 1992 film Scream of Conscience, and that same mountain still plays host to an annual Hawaiian Snowboarding Championships), but it’s not exactly what you’d call a powder rider’s dream destination. It’s Hawaii for crying out loud – it’s a Surfing place.

Which is why I found myself wandering around in a pair of shorts in September of 2005 wondering whether my theory – that the very earliest snowboards had been developed in these islands – was little bit ridiculous. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe I’d been trying a little too hard to find the first snowboarders? Maybe I’d finally lost the plot?

Perhaps I should go back a while. About three years ago I started a project that rapidly developed into an obsession. Spurred on by watching the historical skate documentary DogTown and Z Boys, I wanted to go a step further: I wanted to find out where the whole boardriding lifestyle had started out. My first task was to buy all the books I could on the subject, which led me to work out that the root of all board sports is surfing. You may have second-guessed me on that one. I then wondered where surfing had come from, and at this point I hit my first major stumbling block. To cut a long story short, the origins of surfing are lost somewhere before the advent of writing, and are therefore incredibly hard to pin down. One thing, however, is clear – surfing was first practiced by the Polynesian race who have inhabited the islands of the Pacific for the last three millennia or so. To find out when exactly, in those three thousand plus years, they might have invented the sport, I took a bold leap and went to Hawaii in the spring of 2004 to investigate. It was here, in the bowels of the University of Honolulu, that I find what I was looking for – and it was very different from what I’d expected to find. But that is for the history of surfing, and is not the story to be told here.

Whilst on that initial research trip though, a thoroughly unexpected bonus turned up: I found evidence to suggest that the commonly accepted beginnings of snowboarding might be way out. I found documents that implied people were stand up sideways and sliding – on land – way back into the 15th century. And in all probability, they were doing it on snow.

As I’m first and foremost a snowboarder myself, this raised my eyebrows somewhat. I was even more amazed to find that there were even people living in Hawaii today who had extensively researched – and actually built – some of the primitive boards I’d read about. However, the problem I had was that time was ticking away, and I’d stumbled on this find late in the trip. So I came home armed with all the historical documents I needed yet slightly disappointed that I couldn’t have looked into this theory in any greater detail. I did however get some phone numbers, and I made a mental note to follow the leads up the first chance I got.
As it happened, that opportunity presented itself this year, when I was asked to go to Hawaii to cover the Red Bull King of the Air contest for the Guardian newspaper. Whilst there, I knew I needed to meet and talk to a man named Tom Stone. I just hoped his number hadn’t changed from when I was first in the islands.

Let me go back a little more. Common snowboard history states that all modern snowboards stem from an invention by a man called Sherman Poppen. In 1965, Poppen made a stand-up sledge for his daughter Wendy, and in keeping with its surfing and ‘snowy’ roots christened it the ‘Snurfer’. Or rather, his wife christened it so. For the next few years, Snurfers – licensed to a toy manufacturer named Brunswick – sold remarkably well. But Snufers were cheap, made only to withstand the pressures that small children put on them, and hence pretty breakable. The thought of turning snurfing into an adult pastime was first realised by Dimitrije Milovich, who started Winterstick Snowboards in Utah in 1972. Others quickly followed: Tom Sims, Chris Sanders, Mike Olsen and Jake ‘Burton’ Carpenter all created their own brands in the mid to late 70s, and by 1979 the toy snurfer was dead, while their larger boards – by now renamed ‘snowboards’ – went from strength to strength.

But it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find out that – although he hadn’t known it at the time – Sherman’s idea of merging surfing and snow together had been hit upon many times before. As I explained in an article for White Lines last year entitled ‘A Brief History of Snowboarding’, various inventors had developed primitive snowboards (and even patented them) as far back as 1914 – and all of these pioneers were undoubtedly inspired by the exploits of a Polynesian surfer by the name of Duke Kahanamoku.

As a swimmer, Duke swept the gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, and attributed his ability to the fact he spent all spare his time in the ocean catching waves. His wins were the stuff that newspaper editors dream about – a dark-skinned, handsome and strangely named islander from the relatively quiet Hawaiian chain, who absolutely trounced all those who came before him and made it look like he wasn’t trying. Essentially, he was the anti-Tarzan, and was so famous that crowds of up to 40,000 people gathering to watch him swim. It was no joke: Duke invented the front crawl – quite an accolade – and quite rightly became the most famous athlete of his era.
Thus, in a very short time, and with Duke’s recommendation, the sport of surfing went from being completely unknown in the western world to something that many people knew about. The sport’s popularity, its subsequent column inches and media coverage, and its impression upon various crackpot inventors who wanted to re-create the same feelings of board riding on land or snow, is undoubtedly the reason why we have so many board sports from which to choose.

But Duke hadn’t invented surfing, he had merely rescued it from extinction. Indeed there were other Hawaiin sports that had seemingly sunk without a trace. One of them – named Papa Holua – was a land based version of surfing, and is what I believe to be the first ever instance of anyone riding on snow. It’s pretty old too. As far as I’m aware, it was long since dead and buried by the time Duke and the 20th century came around.

My interest in ‘Papa Holua’, or ‘Ti Leaf sledding’ as it is sometimes known (after the running surface of the sleds, which were often covered in Ti leaves) was first piqued by those articles I found, over in the microfilm department at the Hamilton Manoa Library of Polynesian Antiquaties. Searching in the index under ‘surfing’, ‘history’ and ‘ancient sports’, I began to turn up random articles by long forgotten authors. Throughout the 1930’s, the two main newspapers on the islands, The Honolulu Advertiser and The Honolulu Star Bulletin, ran several features on traditional sports which contemporary Hawaiian youths – already turned on to surfing – had resurrected. “Honolulu Youth Reviving Ancient Ti Leaf Sledding” wrote Isabella Aiona in June of 1938. “Ti Leaf sledding has taken many former swimming enthusiasts from the beaches to the mountains.” She wasn’t alone. In 1933, a researcher named Thomas Miles found that sledding was second only to surfing in popularity.These guys were only talking about a resurrection of the sports. William Ellis however, was the real deal. During a tour of the islands in the 1820’s he came upon a holua which he claimed “has for many generations been a popular amusement throughout the islands, and is still practiced in many places.” He even went on to describe the boards in question and noted an instance in which he had witnessed a festival where the riders took turns in riding down a slope.

So there were people who surfed on land at the beginning of the 19th century, and according to their legends and stories had been doing so for hundreds of years! To find out more I needed to speak to an authority on Papa Holua. And I already knew that the world authority on the sport was a professor of Hawaiian history named Thomas Pohaku Stone.

Tom, as most people know him, is an absolute legend in surfing circles. Now in his middle years, he was part of a hardcore surfing movement in the 70’s and 80’s. As well as appearing on magazine covers the world over, wrapped up in the dangerous but photogenic curl of Hawaii’s most famous wave, Pipeline, the group were also heavily concerned with the intrusion of white surfers taking over what they saw as their birthright. Tom’s love of surfing has naturally led him into the political aspects of Hawaiian history. He is a fierce defender of Hawaiian culture and traditional values and is also the world’s leading expert (and principal builder of) Holua sleds. If there was anyone who could let me know whether my theory that the Holua sleds were the first riders to have taken to the snow, Tom was that man – so I arranged a meeting at a coffee shop a few blocks back from Waikiki beach.

Tom arrived at the coffee shop right on time. Any nerves I had had about meeting this living legend were soon dispelled by his easygoing manner. Naturally, after making some small talk, I wanted to ask him how he got into Papa Holua, or as it was more informally referred to – holua sledding.

“It came to me in a dream.” Tom told me ” Well, actually my Grandfather used to tell stories, and then I started attending a cultural class that took me to this place that I’m at now. I had to choose a project, so I chose this project. Although admittedly, still not knowing that much about it.”
“So how did you go about building one?” I asked.
“I didn’t see any sleds – everyone has this misconception that I copied them out of a museum – but I didn’t copy anything. Peter Buck was a curator at the Bishop Museum who wrote a lot about the traditional practices and that’s one of them. What he recorded were the actual dimensions of the papa holua. But what they don’t say is how to tie the thing together – so you have to learn how to tie the thing so you have to learn how to do it. It’s pretty tricky. But after you learn it it’s not so hard.”
“Were there any old versions still around that you could have a look at and work things out from?” I asked.
“You mean prior to the 20th century?” asked Tom. “There are. The Bishop Museum actually has two, and there are families who have old holua sleds. I haven’t visited those family members but I have talked to them and what they describe is very clear.”

It was pretty remarkably that Tom had rebuilt the sleds from scratch with only an idea of what was needed – and those sleds actually turning out to be virtually identical to the original artifacts – but what I really wanted to know was where this sport had been practiced. I had heard about the old sledding sites, essentially huge tracks on which the sleds were slid on, still existing in various forms, and I asked Tom to point out where they might me.

“On the big island there’s one,” said Tom, motioning towards the island of Hawaii. “There’s a few on that island that are actually intact. We restored one enough that we could actually utilize it for sledding. So I was sledding on that one for a while, but it’s a fairly small one and we could do with something bigger, so we’re working on building one now.”
“Is the biggest one still on the big island?” I asked. I’d heard there was one that measured over a mile in length, although I still couldn’t actually picture what the ‘track’ might look like.
“Still existing, yeah. The slides came in variations. The big ones were strictly – not strictly, I shouldn’t use that word – but they were actually for people who were willing to sacrifice themselves. One mistake on one of the big slides and you’re gonna die, or near death. The big island was the last of the big spots left. There’s about 2700 feet left of what was originally a mile-long sledding site.”
“So they must have taken a huge amount of man power to build?” I asked.
“It’s pretty clear it took a lot of man power to make the site.” said Tom. “It took seven of us three days just to restore 50 feet, so you can imagine what it’s like to actually build it.”
“How long do you think it would it have taken?”

Tom thought for a minute. “You’re talking about thousands of people, building over a couple of years. For some of the big sites, you’re talking a 2-5 year project that was everyone’s focus.”
“Which means that its importance is huge for the common people?”
“Oh yeah” said Tom. “The big slides – you’re preparing to perform a ritual. Someone was willing to sacrifice themselves to Pele – to the goddess of the volcanoes.”
“You mean the sites are a ritualistic place?”
“Yup.” said Tom. “It’s a very ritualistic thing. You willing to die for it? That was the point. If you survived then the Goddess looked favourably on you. You’ve got to remember that we live in a volcanic zone. Earthquakes and eruptions all the time. So you’ve got to come up with some idea or some way of appeasing the Goddess that controls the volcano.”

I also needed to ask Tom about when the sport was in its heyday. I just needed to get a handle on how old it was. “The last official recorded event that took place was in 1825”, said Tom. “In May I think? May the 24th or something.”

We talked some more of the origins of the sport. It’s almost impossible to say when the sport may have first come to fruition, but by taking references in oral legends and comparing them with genealogy of kings and queens, it’s possible to say that it was up and running by at least the 16th Century AD. Which makes it, even at a conservative estimate, well over 500 years old.

But sliding on leaves is not snowboarding. For that, we require snow, and this is where my next line of questioning was heading. I asked Tom about the location of the sledding sites. Where were they located? And more specifically, were they near the snow line that inhabits the highest peaks of Hawaii – Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa? “Yeah,” said Tom, broadening to a grin. “On Mauna Kea, on the northern side there’s ‘Ku’uhaha’, which is a crater where Pele and Polyahu competed against each other. And on Mauna Loa there’s the Abolua o Pele. And then on the south point side there’s a place that has about a 1000-foot slide.”

I was getting near to what I needed to know. “How far are the sites underneath the snow line?” I asked. “The snow line?” said Tom. “Our snow lines are at almost 14,000 feet down to about 9,000 feet. Many of the slides are up at about 4,000 feet.”
“So there’s still quite a gap between the snow and the highest slides?” I asked somewhat disappointedly.
“Yeah.” said Tom.
I had nothing to lose, so I just asked him straight out. “Do you think anyone ever took the sleds up to the snow and tried them out?”
Tom didn’t pause to think. “Sure,” he said. ” I’ve done it. You have to do it.”
Wow. I was amazed he had tried that. But it wasn’t really what I was asking. “Do you think that happened in the past too?” I asked.
“Yup.” said Tom confidently. “That’s why we have the ancient mythologies of the competitions between the snow Goddess Polyahu, and the Pele – the fire goddess.”
“But do you think the people went and ride the snow? If you’ve done it, do you think it’s gonna have been obvious for people in the past to have tried it out?”
“They have a lot of shrines up there that show we revered our female goddess,” said Tom. “And you know we worked up there? We also spent time collecting our adzes, all the harder stone that’s up at that 11,000 feet level or higher.”
“So there’s a practical reason for people being up that high?”
“Yup,” said Tom. Then he told me something that I think says a lot about whether people rode their Papa Holua in the snow. “If you go to Hale’akala, which is a bit lower than the peaks of Mauna Kea – it’s what 11,000 feet? – there’s an ancient place for sliding up there in the crater.”

I was astonished. Tom took a sip of coffee. The only thing I had left to ask was this: “And would that have had snow in it all those years ago? Would have ridden their boards on the snow?”
“Yeah,” said Tom. “It snows up there all the time.”

I left Hawaii the next day, happy with the idea that these Pacific islanders were the very first people to have experienced the thrill of riding on snow. What I couldn’t do, however, was give a definite date as to when that was. Like surfing, the quest to find the origins of the sport delve back into an area named pre-history, the grand swathe of time before the invention of writing reached the people we need to investigate. To unravel that particular thread is the task I still have to follow.

Sidebar: A Second Polynesian Mystery

From the 1860’s onwards, a man named Elsdon Best became obsessed with the native Maori tribes of New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as we must learn to call it). His experiences formed the basis of his life’s work – a documentation of the Maori traditional way of life. In the late 1890’s he commenced writing a book named Games and Pastimes of the Maori, which includes a description – and drawing – of what is very clearly an old snowboard. “A form of toboggan as used by young native folk, the pastime consisting of sliding down a steep slope on a small piece of plank. In the Tuhoe district this board was known as a reti and the sliding ground as retireti. Papa reti might be applied either to the plank or the slide itself. This plank sled was about six or eight inches in width and perhaps thirty inches in length. Two projections were left on the upper surface, when being hewn out, and these served as shoulders to brace the feet against – one foot being placed behind the other. In some cases these planks were embellished with carved designs. A slide was made on a steep slope, the surface of which was rendered slippery by means of throwing water on it. Fig 39 shows a toboggan board made by Te’Puia Nuku of the Tuhoe tribe.”

What does this mean? Well clearly this snowboard was used long before any of the modern variations on the theme had been dreamt about. When Elsdon Best wrote of it in the 1890’s, it was already an ancient artifact. Is it connected to the Papa Holua of Hawaii? Was it forged from that original fire that burnt in the Pacific for so long? I believe it is. But that’s another story…


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