In 1985, less than 40 ski areas in the United States allowed snowboarding. Today, more than 450 welcome the activity, Hsieh said.
From Stratton Mountain in Vermont to Mt. Baker in Washington to June Mountain and Snow Summit in California, snowboarding has been brought into the fold of ski-area operations. For the first time, the Professional Ski Instructors of America are certifying snowboard instructors. Many areas are sponsoring clinics and amateur and professional competitions, which usually feature slalom, giant slalom, moguls and half-pipe free-style events.
"We consider them snowboard skiers and treat them as skiers in all respects," said Dick Kun, president of Snow Summit. "They are subject to the same safety rules."
Some of the major areas that forbid snowboarding include Killington Mountain, Vt.; Aspen Mountain, Colo.; and California's Mammoth Mountain, all of which fear potential overcrowding on already busy slopes.
Killington, the largest ski area in the East, had a million guests last season.
"We reevaluate our policy every year and, right now, we do not feel snowboarding is compatible with alpine skiing at Killington," said Dick Courcelle, a resort spokesman. "A lot of skiers we speak with are very glad we don't allow it here. They have been to other places (that allow snowboarding) and say they felt overwhelmed."
Aspen and Mammoth both allow snowboarding at neighboring, company-owned areas.June Mountain, just north of Mammoth, has been welcoming snowboarders for two years.
"We've used June as a testing area," said Evan Russell, marketing director for Mammoth. "The jury is still out. June doesn't get quite the (skier) pressure Mammoth gets. We want to be sure before we allow them here."
Primitive snowboards were nothing more than pieces of wood with rubber straps and ski operators considered them snow-play devices, such as toboggans and inner tubes. All ski areas have an exclusion clause in their insurance policies forbidding the use of such equipment on their slopes.
"The ski industry has had all kinds of half-baked attempts at other ways to get down the hill," said Brooks Chase, an account executive with New Hampshire-based Kendall Insurance Co., a brokerage firm that, along with Seattle-based Pettit Moory Company, supplies liability coverage to about 80% of the nation's ski areas. "I think operators were just suspect that this was a fly-by-night gimmick."
The snowboard industry, however, has enjoyed 80% to 120% growth each year, according to David Schmidt, national sales manager for Burton Snowboards, which along with Newport Beach-based Sims Snowboards controls about 90% of the market. The slick boards of today feature wood cores, P-tex bottoms and steel edges and can reach speeds of more than 60 miles an hour. The high-tech boards have their roots in the Snurfer, a snow toy that was manufactured by the Brunswick Corp. in 1966.
"I just wanted to make a very good version of the Snurfer," said Carpenter, 34, who founded his company in 1978. "I didn't imagine that snowboards would ever be on ski slopes."
Tom Sims, 38, founder of Sims Snowboards, also sought to improve upon the Snurfer, and one of his own inventions he called a skiboard.
"They (snowboards) were prehistoric until 1983 when metal edges were introduced," Sims said.
Metal edges enabled snowboarders to carve turns, which has allowed them to venture from soft snow in the backcountry to mainstream hardpack slopes.
But regardless of the advancements, most snowboarders say it takes a few tries--and some time sprawled in the snow--to get the hang of the sport. Once they get the feel, however, many snowboarders say it is easier than skiing.
"You don't have skis crossing and going all over the place when you fall," Elliott said. "And you don't have poles hitting you in the head."
Despite fears that an influx of snowboarders would cause more collisions on the slopes, ski-area operators say there has not been an increase in accident reports. "We've had some collisions between skiers and snowboarders," said Mary Jane Spencer, spokesperson for the Snowbird ski area in Utah, which opened its slopes to snowboarders for the first time this season and limits access to three lifts. "But to this date, they've all been the fault of the skiers."
And, although it has a reputation for attracting and breeding aggressive participants, some officials say the risk factor in snowboarding is about the same as skiing.
"Snowboarders are probably no more dangerous than beginning skiers," said Doug MacKenzie, ski school director at Snowmass in Colorado. "They don't seem to cause damage to anyone but themselves sometimes."
Two studies that sought to examine injury rate and types of injuries suffered by snowboarders seem to bear MacKenzie out.
Jasper E. Shealy, who has been doing ski-injury research since the 1960s, authored a paper titled "Snowboarding Injuries on Alpine Slopes" after reviewing snowboarding accident reports from three ski areas during the 1986-87 season.