Snowboards invade another ski shrine
The Wall Street Journal
Vail, CO Colorado
Date: 12/24/2007 11:17 AM
(AP) And then there were three.
Taos Ski Valley, one of the last bastions of snowboard-free skiing, caved to commercial pressure last week and said it will allow snowboarders on the slopes starting at the end of the season. For the family that owns the storied resort, it’s an effort to expand the business and retain customers whose children or grandchildren prefer snowboards to downhill skis. But it’s a crushing defeat for some lifelong Taos fans, who now are threatening to pack up and sell their New Mexico real estate. It leaves just three major resorts standing against the snowboarding juggernaut: Alta and Deer Valley in Utah and Vermont’s Mad River Glen.
Relations between skiers and riders (as snowboarders are known) have never been chillier. An age gap helps put the groups at odds. The majority of skiers who skied more than a day at a U.S. resort this past year were older than 25, according to the National Ski Areas Association; the majority of snowboarders weren’t old enough to rent a car. The divide has led each side to generalize about the other: Boarders cast skiers as old, stuffy and conservative; skiers say boarders are young, reckless and rowdy.
Taos, built to resemble Switzerland’s St. Moritz, opened in 1955 and is known for its steep terrain, gorgeous scenery and laid-back vibe. Skiers fuel the local economy, buying art, real estate and fancy dinners; some locals say boarders won’t bring the same kind of money to town. “They bring their lunch to the mountain instead of buying it,” says Liz Jamison, a real-estate agent and ski instructor at Taos for 22 years.
The announcement “Opens to Snowboarding March 19, 2008” appeared last week in red letters on Taos Ski Valley’s Web site; a snowboarder’s silhouette still obscures the word “ski” in the slogan “Ski Taos.” Within hours, hundreds of people had posted comments, ranging from “How can this happen?” and “NNNOOOOOO!!!!” to “‘Bout time!” and “This world is so full of prejudice and hate, why bring it into the world of snow sports?”
But with ski revenue sliding and offspring of even the most hard-core skiers gravitating to boards, skiers-only destinations find it hard to keep refusing. Skier and snowboarder visits dropped in the 2006-2007 season to a combined 55 million, from close to 59 million in 2005-2006, the national ski areas group says. Industry revenue of $4.9 billion in 2005-2006 was down slightly from the previous season, according to the group’s latest data.
To boost sales, Aspen Mountain began allowing snowboards in 2001; now 10 percent of visitors there come to snowboard. Keystone in Colorado, Park City Mountain Resort, in Utah, and California’s Alpine Meadows began admitting snowboarders more than 10 years ago; now 30 percent of visitors to Alpine Meadows are snowboarders.
The nation’s remaining three public resorts that ban snowboarders haven’t ruled out a change of heart. Deer Valley says an overwhelming majority of guests still prefer the ski-only experience but it re-evaluates the issue every year. Mad River Glen says it would take a two-thirds vote of the co-op’s shareholders to change its ban. Alta says the snowboard ban is a business decision.
With a ski-only policy, “you’re not just losing the snowboarder. You’re losing the family or in some cases the whole ski club,” says Gordon Briner, general manager of Taos Ski Valley. His answer to local real-estate investors’ complaints is that “in every community that’s adopted snowboarding, the real-estate values go up significantly.”
Dianne Robbins says she plans to put her Taos ski home on the market at the end of the season because of the policy change. She and her husband, Larry, who owns a Pensacola, Fla., swimming-pool company, bought a 10,000-square-foot chalet in 2005 for slightly more than $1 million, with an indoor pool, steam room, sauna and a two-minute walk through the woods to the lifts. The Robbinses invested $1 million more in remodeling, a project Ms. Robbins says they won’t continue.
“The whole reason for buying and investing there was the no-snowboarding policy,” says Ms. Robbins, a 38-year-old dance instructor. Snowboarders, she says, “are careless a little bit”; she fears they will shorten the season by pushing snow off the resort’s signature steep slopes. “There comes a point when if it’s scraped away, it’s definitely not coming back,” she says.
Alejandro Blake, events coordinator and a grandson of Ernie Blake, the resort’s founder, says Taos Ski Valley has been weighing the change for seven years. Skiing clans who came to Taos for generations began writing letters to say they couldn’t return because a child or a grandchild wanted to snowboard. Four years ago, the Blakes asked resort guests to rate the importance of the no-snowboards rule in their decision to visit, on a scale of one to five. For the past two years, more than half the respondents gave it a one, two or three ” indicating dwindling support. “It is a business at the end of the day,” says Mr. Blake. “We weren’t forced into this, but we needed to do it in order to grow.”
Mr. Blake says the decision to eventually accommodate snowboarders was made two years ago, when the resort finalized plans for a major expansion of the base area. The resort decided to enlarge rental shops to handle snowboards, install snowboard-size racks outside and build more hotel rooms to house an expected 10 percent to 15 percent increase in visitors.
Diane Grob, a Miami author, bought a house last year in Santa Fe in large part to be closer to her favorite Taos slopes. She doesn’t plan to sell, but she is talking with friends about spending some time next season in Alta and Deer Valley. “I understand it, but I hate it,” she says of Taos’s decision. “What makes Taos so wonderful is there are no snowboarders.” She says she has been hit by snowboarders on several occasions at resorts in Colorado and Argentina and has had many close calls.
Skiers’ list of complaints about boarders also include that they make more noise and displace more snow than skiers when they ride and that they make erratic turns and obstruct paths by sitting down in the middle of slopes. At Mad River Glen, which banned snowboards in 1991, the governing co-op fears boarders would ruin the resort’s character, mangle the legendary moguls, and scrape natural snow off the sinewy trails, the resort’s marketing director, Eric Friedman says.
Fighting back for what some call “equal snow,” snowboarders say the same accusations could be leveled at skiers. Jake Burton, founder of snowboard company Burton, based in Burlington, Vt., says, “I feel the same way about a 15-year-old out of control on a pair of skis. And poles are pretty dangerous, too, especially when they’re swinging them up the stairs.” And boarders say that use of fat powder skis has hurt slopes by luring more skiers to the powder.
Mr. Burton has committed $20,000 to a campaign for equal access for snowboarders. Earlier this month, he said he would award $5,000 to boarders who submit the best footage of themselves riding at resorts that prohibit them ” a practice known as “poaching.”
The National Ski Patrol counts three major U.S. resorts that ban snowboarding, though it says there might be some private resorts doing so that the patrol isn’t aware of. April Darrow, a patrol spokeswoman, says there isn’t any evidence that snowboarders scrape more snow off mountains than skiers. And the notion that boarders are more reckless is outdated and unsubstantiated, she says. “Snowboarding and snowboarders have matured since the sport was first introduced.”
As other resorts have been snapped up by giant corporations and refashioned with high-rise condos, residence clubs and retail chains, Taos still looks and feels like an Alpine village. Barbara Henricks makes the 12-hour car ride to Taos with her three kids every year from Austin, Texas, for the ski school and 1950s ambience. “The purist in me moans, but the parent with teenagers is happy,” she says of the decision to allow snowboarders.
Equipment, essential and otherwise, for the ski-to-board convert
Nomis Heated Hoodie, $180
This hooded sweatshirt comes with heating coils and a rechargable battery that can keep snowboarders warm for eight hours.
Freestyle Audio Sport MP3 Player, $129.95
The large buttons on this MP3 player can be operated even with thick gloves on. It’s shock-proof enough to take a big spill and still work.
Lib Tech Skate Banana Snowboard, $429
Lib Tech designed the Banana to ride like a skateboard. It bends up slightly near the front and back to reduce caught edges and make turning easier.