The History of Snowboarding
It’s difficult to imagine early humans shredding mountain slopes on primitive snow equipment of any kind, and certainly not a snowboard. Early civilizations in the colder northern latitudes did develop methods for movement and transport over snow, and the human cultural impulse for play suggests even the earliest humans must have enjoyed sliding down snowy slopes. Though there are early versions of sleds ridden standing up, the history of snowboarding emerges out of the skateboard culture and surf fantasy lifestyle of the 1960s. Within two short decades, snowboarders were in a battle for acceptance at the world’s ski resorts. By the end of century, snowboarding achieved the highest level for a sport and was enjoyed in numerous countries across the globe—but success came only after years of struggling to find its identity.
The Early History of Snow Recreation and the First Snow Boards
The sport of snowboarding is young but it has a lot in common with ancient modes of snow transport The history of snowboarding is actually rather young in the history of snow sports, but the sport shares a lot in common with its predecessors. While it is true that people innovated travel across snow very early in human civilization, much of the evidence suggests such movement was accomplished by skis. A peat bog in Sweden preserved a ski dating to the third millennium B.C., and cave paintings that are even older depict what appear to be ski planks (Dawson). Siberians appear to have matched or beat the Scandinavians in the development of wooden skis (Fry). Credit ultimately goes to mid-nineteenth-century Norwegian settlers in Wisconsin for bringing alpine sports to United States, where snowboarding originated. They used ski planks initially for transport, but soon for sport in the form of downhill racing (Dawson).
That impetus for play, out of which cultures create games and diversions, has examples in every civilization throughout time, but none perhaps is more well known than the Olympic Games originating in Ancient Greece. But in the sport’s early years, snowboarding struggled to receive even a second glance from the governing board of the Olympic Games (Corbet).
Once considered a fringe, extreme form, snowboarding seemed to emerge out of nowhere in the 1980s, but its history can be traced back a little further. Single planks (like a broader ski) or sleds roughly resembling snowboards were experimented with, developed, and even patented in the early decades of the twentieth century. Featuring a hinged stabilizing handle, the “skiboggan” was among the first snowboards to hit the snow in the 1920s, to be followed a decade later by “an improved type of” sled that was ridden sideways (Ballard, Fry).
The Rise of Modern Snowboarding: 1965 – 1980
The unofficial father of snowboarding, Sherman Poppen, with his snow surfer, or "snurfer" Many historians of the sport give Sherman Poppen of Michigan credit for launching the modern sport in 1965 after watching his daughter go down a hill on her sled while standing up. He united two skis and attached a rope at the tip for balance. The “Snurfer” (snow + surfer) was thought of as “a skateboard without wheels” and was licensed by the savvy inventor to a sporting goods corporation in. Snurfers were mass produced and sold as a novelty winter pastime. It was particularly popular among surfers and skateboarders, who lent some of the cultural vitality and innovative spirit of those sports to a nascent sport that was only a few short years from being coined as “snowboarding.”
The sport was simply a natural blend of surfing with sledding and was finally the answer to the age-old question of how to effectively stand up on a sled moving quickly across snow. That question was precisely the inspiration for Poppen’s Snurfer, which sold over half a million in the decade after its invention. As the novelty became popular, Poppen began organizing competitions, which were the biggest catalyst in the history of snowboarding for two reasons. One, the concept had taken shape in a competitive format as a precursor to the sport achieving a respected place among winter sports. Two, it also found fans across the nation, and those fans became the collective force behind the sport’s emergence. One of those fans was Jake Burton Carpenter, whose Burton Snowboards would become the biggest snowboarding company in the world by the end of the twentieth century (Howe, Fry).
Some of the best snowboards of the 1970s were manufactured by Dimitrije Milovich. Milovich innovated the now-standard metal edge to snowboards, which the surfboard shaper had been making and evolving since 1969. Milovich launched his Winterstick snowboard in Utah in 1972 and would go on to sell his boards in 11 countries within three years (Howe). One of Milovich’s Wintersticks made Ski Magazine in 1974, the first time snowboarding appeared there. (The first dedicated snowboard magazine, originally called Absolutely Radical,didn’t appear until 1985.) Milovich identifies the rider in the Ski Magazine as Wayne Stoveken, whom Milovich identifies as “the first true snowboarder,” riding without a stabilizing rope or handle. But the Winterstick had limitations, did not incorporate his metal edge, and was intended for deep snow and powder. As designs evolved, Milovich moved on from the sport (Fry).
From his early enthusiasm for Poppen’s Snurfer competitions, Jake Burton Carpenter grew up a ski bum in Vermont. A car accident derailed his competitive ski dreams, but a few years later he wandered back into winter sports and launched his company. He began experimenting with materials for his boards. His first “Backyard Board” resembled a Snurfer and sold for just under $50 (Fry). But it was his subsequent board, which sold for $88 (a little more than the first Wintersticks and about three times that that of the Snurfer), added a key innovation in the history of snowboarding. Burton’s new board added a rubber binding from a water ski for the front foot. Burton began using his new product at a Snurfer competition, though his board was no longer technically a Snurfer. Burton had created a new category and increased a rider’s control and maneuverability because of the bound foot. Burton’s early boards were still very heavy and mostly limited to deep snow (Howe).
Other innovators throughout the United States were working toward the same basic end. Mike Olson’s Gnu Snowboards in the Pacific Northwest began as a hobby in his garage. Avid skateboarder Tom Sims was a major innovator in board equipment and design in California during the 1970s. Sims launched a business and brought on his surfer friend Chuck Barfoot, whose skill as a carpentry would soon combine with Sims’ obsession to master board maneuverability to translate almost effortlessly to the slopes. Maryland inventor Bob Weber enlisted the successful team to help make his Flying Yellow Banana “ski board” design a reality. The contoured design still lacked some of the modern board technologies, but the team was almost immediately hooked to the idea. Their first runs in 1978 at resorts in Utah brought that team into contact with the Grells, a brother snowboard development team credited with inventing “high-back bindings,” which allowed riders to lean into their bindings for unprecedented control (Howe, Gallagher).
The 1970s was a major decade in the history of snowboards and snowboarding, if only for the innovations of the board makers who dedicated themselves to a passion. The board appeared to have been legitimized by the declaration of the snowboard as a legal “directional ski device” (Howe). But the snowboard’s image was directly tied to the surf and skate fantasy lifestyles of the 1960s, and by 1980, the still young and unrefined device faced serious opposition from a somewhat elitist skiing industry.
Despite its improved maneuverability on slopes, most resorts reacted by banning snowboards. The tool was perceived as dangerous and lacking control—and the riders, well, were products of a culture that many skiers felt didn’t belong on the slopes (Gallagher). Meanwhile, a cultural clash, of sorts, between Sims on the West coast and Burton on the East coast helped sustain the momentum and build the sport during the 1980s, even as resorts and the mainstream struggled to understand the radical sport.
The 1980s and the Push for Legitimacy
Burton’s two-strap design improved rider control of the board and helped spur the sport’s popularity Mike Olson, like Burton, was committed to the sport and the fun of the sport. Olson used his skiing and windsurfing construction experience to pioneer the modern carving snowboard which, like the Grells’ board, was designed for shorter, more aggressive turns suitable for snow, in contrast to the more surf-like boards Sims designed. On the East Coast, Burton developed new models with heel straps that for the first time attached both feet to the board (Howe). In short, the board had come into its own, and was simply awaiting access to terrain.
In the early 1980s there was an explosion of competitive boarding. 1982 and 1983 saw both Jake Burton’s first National Snowboarding Championships at Snow Valley, Vermont, and the first World Cup of Snowboarding in Soda Springs, California, which was hosted by Tom Sims. The World Cup included the first half-pipe, which displayed the array of freestyle tricks and maneuvers being pioneered by early riders from a skateboarding background.
A debate ignited about the identity of the sport between the two divergent visions, Burton’s downhill racing and the freestyle half-pipe snowboarding of Tom Sims. But the subsequent decade would prove there was room within the snowboarding identity for both visions. That became especially clear as more and more people gravitated to the sport as riders, crowds at the events grew immensely, and snowboarding personalities emerged. Craig Kelly was one of the first professional snowboarding celebrities, who dominated the sport for a high-exposure, well sponsored tenure of 15 years. And the snowboarding boom eventually proved good news even for previously reluctant ski resorts, which had experienced a decline in the 1980s (Gallagher).
Still, early tension on the mountains resulted from a riding style that was perceived as undisciplined and unpredictable. Early board advocates worked with resorts to certify riders, ensuring they would behave on the mountain, even so far as discouraging foul language. Over the years, snowboarders gradually earned respect as able riders, but skiers still had to adapt to their presence. Tensions grew as resorts opened to snowboarding, which provided a vital, young demographic to revitalize a struggling industry. It proved the right move as hundreds of new snowboarding companies emerged in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.
The Surge of Popularity in the 1990s
Among the major recognitions within the industry during the 1990s was the degree to which manufacturers could incorporate ski technology into modern boards. In addition, the stance moved forward and became more aggressive and the shape of the board shifted even further away from the surfboard. Meanwhile, the materials lightened and the bindings improved. Burton had sold 20,000 boards in the winter of 1987-1988 and Sims sold 100,000. Those numbers caught the attention of the major players in the ski industry, which began to look for a way to capture a share of the emerging market in the early nineties.
Additional sporting icons and celebrities were emerging out of the ranks of professionals, and not just in America anymore. The Norwegian Terje Haakonsen rocked the freestyle snowboarding world in the late 1990s and 2000s (Gallagher). Around the stars of the sport arose an all-encompassing culture of print, broadcast, and online media to drive an industry with a legitimate identity, even as skateboarding cycled back into popularity and re-emerged its identity with snowboarding under older brands like Quiksilver, Billabong and, in the 90s, Volcom. Volcom’s “brandifesto” identifies a “youth against establishment” as the rallying call of its founder and strives to remain in the avant garde. Indeed, the snowboard identity for a time “revolted” against the skiing identity, moving in with the skateboarders and further developing its own personality (Howe).
The alienation of snowboarding from the mainstream stems from obvious ties to the lifestyle of its earliest pioneers, who embraced a leisure-seeking philosophy for living detached from the mainstream (Howe). But from a more scholarly perspective, the sport falls clearly within the class of glisse alpinism, from the French glisser (“to slide”). Indeed, snowboarding is, at its simplest, movement across mountains by sliding—only, this sliding was faster and, in many ways, more extreme. And though the impulse behind that movement was early relegated to an extreme class of snow sports, by 1998 snowboarding found its way onto the world’s biggest stage (Dawson).
1998 to the Present: The Olympics and the Culture of Snowboarding
After struggling for recognition, riders finally earned their place at the Winter Olympics for the first time in Nagano in 1998 An Olympic presence did not come without some controversial cooperation on the part of snowboarders. The International Snowboarding Federation had been formed in 1989 by over 100 competitors from five countries, but the International Olympic Committee did not recognize the ISF. Snowboarders were forced to organize under alpine skiing governing bodies in order to earn recognition, but at least it allowed riders to participate in and earn medals at world championships.
That drive for competition in sport that helped spawn snowboarding from the early models was alive and well, and snowboarders played along—with more than two million Americans alone riding by the end of the year 2000 and its popularity surging in cold-climate countries around the world. And that was just in time for the last major milestone in the history of snowboarding: recognition by the IOC and its formalization as an Olympic sport for the first time in the Nagano, Japan, Winter Games in 1998, where the first gold medal was won by Canadian Ross Rebagliati. In Nagano, riders competed in both the half-pipe and giant slalom competitions . In 2006, the Olympics added the snowboard cross competition. Out of the last decade emerged one of the defining figures of the sport, American Shaun White, who took gold in the men’s half-pipe in both Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010, and is a highly sponsored, heavily branded athlete with a clothing line, video games, and a worldwide fan base.
While the mainstreaming of the sport of snowboarding seems counterintuitive to its origins, the sport retains its culture even amidst the corporatization of the sport as many of the independent business that were the spirit of its emergence disappeared (Howe). Arguably, in fact, the strong presence of national and international corporate sponsors of snowboarders is a definitively American model of sporting. And while those growing up in the sport and embracing it as a career may not be the leisure-seeking boarders of the founding generation, the very act of entering the snowboarding culture seems to entitle one to its heritage. It has been, after all, only a few decades.
The current generation of professional boarders, notes Jake Burton, grew up after the tension on the slopes died out (Ballard). All things considered, it has been a fast ascent: the New York Times Scrapbook Encyclopedia of Sports History volume, called The Complete Book of Winter Sports, makes no mention of the sport in 1980, but a 2010 Snowsports Industry America fact sheet shows snowboarders numbering over seven million, contributing to the multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States alone (Snowsports.org).
It’s a shame early human civilization in cold climates didn’t conceive of snowboarding—the sport may have made the long winters more bearable. At least today the vast majority of resorts allow snowboarding, so finding a place in the lift line won’t be any trouble.
-- Posted May 17, 2009
Brown, Gene, ed. 1980. The Complete Book of Winter Sports. New York, NY: Arno Press.
Corbet, Elise A. and Anthony W. Rasorich, eds. 1990. Winter Sports in the West. Calgary, Canada: The Historical Society of Alberta.
Dawson, Louis W. 1997. Wild Snow: A Historical Guide to North American Ski Mountaineering. Golden, CO: The American Alpine Club.
Fry, John. 2006. The Story of Modern Skiing. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
Gallagher, Liam. 2009. Learning to Ride from All-Mountain to Park and Pipe. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers Books.
Howe, Susanne. 1998. (sick): A Cultural History of Snowboarding. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
“SIA Snow Sports Fact Sheet.” Snowsports.org. Accessed February 28, 2011.
“Snowboard Equipment and History.” Olympic.org. Accessed: February 28, 2011.Volcom.com. Accessed: February 27, 2011.