Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Skiing vs. boarding
February 22, 2013
The biggest newspaper in my town, circulation 3,119, had headlines today declaring that the interest in snowboarding was starting to fade out. Then they went into a long discussion about why it had become so popular in the first place.
Originally, a snowboard was just a piece of wood about the same size as today’s snowboards, but it had a rope through a hole in the front for the rope that the rider could hang onto and hold the nose up so it would not dig into the snow. It was called a Snurf, with its roots coming from surfing.
Back in those days, people used to send me footage of their latest invention. The first good movies I saw of snowboarding were from Salt Lake, Utah, with two distinctively different boards in them.
One was shaped almost exactly the same as a small surfboard, and the other one had a split tail with a big V shaped notching in the tail. The photography was good, the powder snow was light, and the riders were very talented. There was only one thing wrong with the sequence:
Every single turn was interrupted by a spectacular crash.
When the inventor and the cameraman asked me what I thought, I suggested that he put bindings on his boards. He did, and before long I was getting footage from him of his riders climbing to do things on their boards that I had never seen a skier do.
The one remaining problem was that the ski resorts refused to let snowboarders ride their lifts.
The fact was that a few of them were wrecking it for all of the rest by having fights in the lift lines with resort employees. There were incidents of a stabbing with a Phillips screwdriver, and this only offended the skiers and resorts more.
Unlike skiing with its hundreds of years of heritage, there were no safety or politically correct social rules for a snowboarder to follow, such as the overtaking skier was responsible for missing the slower skier.
It took a long time, but with the influence of snowboarders in my movies for quite a few years for skiers to relax and quit fighting the inevitable, so positions loosened.
Mike Wiegele in Blue River, Canada, let them ride in his helicopters and here and there the occasional resort was letting snowboarders on their lifts.
My theory on why it became so popular among the younger skiers that it let young guy, with almost no girls in the picture yet, help unload all of the gear from the family car and then ask Dad for lift ticket money and 20 bucks for lunch and not have to listen to Dad nag at him all day about how he was skiing.
The young people began to have freedom from their parents for the first time. They began to have plenty of people to complain to among other snowboarders who had the same complaints of parental suppression. Finally the occasional snowboarder who was old enough to have a serious girlfriend found a keeper among the few young ladies who began to ride.
When truly spectacular snowboard footage began to be gathered by my own cameramen, I was putting it in my movies for a decade before they got to ride chairlift instead of having to climb.
I was not surprised one day when some Vail executives asked me my opinion. I told them, “I think you should form your own opinion of riding snowboards by hiring the best snowboard rider you can find and hire he or she for a week or 10 days. Then equip at least 10 ski instructors to take lessons in riding one. I think right now you are threatening job security for instructors who have spent their entire life learning their profession.”
Within a week, the same Vail people were asking me: “Where and how big should we build a half pipe?”
This is when I came up with the statement, “If snowboards had been invented before skis, the ski resort owners would not let me ride their lifts with a funny thing on each foot.”
Even more important: Are you going down the hill with a smile on your face?
While all of the snowboard growth was happening, I left the hotel or condo every morning with 35 to as much as 50 pounds of camera gear in my rucksack so my skiers and I could find untracked powder snow somewhere. While they were climbing on skis or a snowboard from the top of the ski lift, I would be climbing the counter slope to get the best camera angle. It would have been impossible for me to do that whole having one foot in a snowboard binding. When there was the occasional best bad day for snow and clouds, I was in no mood to try and learn an entire new sport.
While the snowboard industry was being invented, there were a lot of young riders who thought it would be a good idea to make snowboards in the garage or basement. Many of them gave up when they found out that if they were busy making snowboards, they did not have time to ride them and they quit.
Freedom has a price to pay whether you are skiing or riding a snowboard or filming other people showing off their freedom on 16mm film.
Recently, we had a house guest who was obsessed with setting the record for vertical feet snowboard riding in one day. He kept track of it on his cellphone and managed 70,090 feet in one day. He would just get off at the top of the lift and point the snowboard straight down the hill.
After he set the record, I suggested he could get close to it if he had just duct taped his cell phone to the chairlift instead. Then, I asked him if he saw my favorite porcupine eating the bark off of a tree half way down the hill. I think a good balance of those two things is the way to enjoy your freedom on skis or a snowboard.
If I was a shrink, perhaps I could come up with a better description, but nothing really matters, except this: Are you enjoying freedom more and better freedom with that or those things on your feet?
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.