Ski enthusiast Ron Elliott ascended mountains via chairlift, gondola and helicopter while traversing the western United States and Canada in search of perfect powder. Few slopes were unreachable and even less were unconquerable for Elliott, who hungered for speed and life-on-the-edge sensations.
But on New Year's Eve, the 40-year-old visited a local Southern California resort and suddenly discovered that the downhill thrill was gone.
He was a bored ski bum.
That's when Elliott decided to try snowboarding, the newfangled winter sport that combines elements of surfing, skateboarding and skiing.
"I've been skiing for 25 years," the Simi Valley resident says, "and I'm going to give up skiing and go to snowboarding. It's like surfing an endless wave." Elliott is not the only one smitten by snowboarding--an activity that has taken the mountains by storm. According to industry officials, it is the fastest growing winter sport in the world. And although the Beach Boys have yet to write a song about it, many consider snowboarding to be the wave of the future on the slopes.
Dominated initially by teen-age male surf punks and skateboard rats looking for new thrills, snowboarding no longer is considered a fad and has begun to attract a growing number of women, children, snow-bored members of the thirtysomething crowd and even senior citizens.
High-tech engineering has eliminated safety concerns about equipment and ended the snowboarding industry's uphill battle to gain access to ski-area slopes. Mountain operators who once gave the cold shoulder to the young and aggressive clientele have warmed to a sport that has boosted profits and provided a shot in the arm to an otherwise dwindling skier base.
"Eighty-five percent of the people doing this have never been on snow before," said Paul Alden, president of the Denver-based North American Snowboard Assn., which sanctioned about 60 amateur and professional competitions this winter. "It's putting people on the hill who had no interest in going to the mountains."
Standing sideways on a foot-wide board that ranges from 4 1/2 to six feet in length and retails from $300 to $500, snowboarders lock themselves into high-top bindings and descend powder and hardpack slopes--without poles--much like a surfer working a swell.
"When you experience carving a turn on a snowboard, skiing is rather lifeless by comparison," said Jake Burton Carpenter, one of the founding fathers of snowboarding and the owner of Vermont-based Burton Snowboards, the largest manufacturer in the industry. "It's so much simpler and the sensation is so much purer."
Four years ago, just 7% of the ski areas in the United States allowed snowboarding, according to Thomas Hsieh, Jr., editor of International Snowboard Magazine. Some resorts continue to forbid the activity because of already crowded conditions, but more than 75% of the nation's ski areas embrace what has become a multimillion dollar industry with an estimated 225,000 participants in the United States and about 150,000 in Europe and Japan, Hsieh said.
"Snowboarding is going to the mainstream but it's not going to get there as a mainstream sport," Hsieh added. "We firmly believe we are the future. We firmly believe we're having more fun (than skiers)."
It is difficult to miss snowboarders, whether they are in the lodge or on the slopes.
Skiers attired in traditional red, black or navy blue outfits literally pale in comparison to the majority of their snowboarding counterparts who prefer a rainbow spectrum of day-glo spandex.
"Snowboarders definitely feel like different individuals," said Don Szabo, a 21-year old former skateboard pro from Reseda who has been snowboarding for four years. "I wouldn't say we're rebels. We're just people on the mountain who want to have fun."
Nevertheless, snowboarders do have a certain air about them. In fact, much of the cultural jargon involves the definition and description of \o7 air\f7 (the area between the bottom of a board and the ground during a jump). \o7 Method Air, Mute Air, Rocket Air, \f7 even \o7 Slob Air \f7 are acrobatic, skateboard-influenced aerial tricks performed by snowboarders when they venture into a \o7 half-pipe\f7 (a banked, man-made gorge). Swiss Cheese, Roast Beef and Burnt Toast are some of the latest acrobatic tricks invented by snowboarders hungry for more air.
"It's so addicting," said Brian Pitchford, a 19-year-old snowboarder from Granada Hills. "You can go as fast as your heart desires and get a heck of a lot of air."
Before 1983, snowboarders were forbidden at all ski areas. They hiked the back country and took pride in their image as free-wheeling, freestyling renegades. "For a long time, there were perceived problems in terms of liability and concerns about its (snowboarding) mix with alpine ski operations and guests," Alden said. "The question was, 'Could skiers and snowboarders co-exist?' "
Increasingly, the answer was yes.