Mountain mania: ski hills give way to a new breed on the boards

Snow Boarding

The sport of freestyle snowboarding is becoming increasingly popular among young people, but some older skiers resent the snowboarders because of the potential for accidents. Some ski resorts welcome the snowboarders, while other resorts ban the snowboarders.

His yellow-and-black snowboard makes scraping, scratching noises over the tightly packed snow as 13-year-old Jay Magis manoeuvres into position atop Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park. Clad in baggy Gore-Tex pants, a padded purplish jacket and a woollen tuque, Magis noses down into the ski slope’s “half-pipe,” a 100-m-long, groomed snow run that looks like a wide bobsled track. With both his boots strapped onto his board, he surfs across the flatter mid-section of the pipe, gathering speed as he heads up the curve, flying over the edge, turning in midair and gliding back down. This is freestyle snowboarding – a fresh counterculture sport that has captured hordes of young skiers. “I like it better than skiing,” enthuses Magis, a Grade 8 student. “You do more stuff, more tricks on a board.” You also make more enemies. On hills across North America, snowboarders are coming at old-style skiers from unpredictable directions–and touching off predictable conflicts.

The Best Winter sport

Think of it as the winter equivalent of cottagers versus jet-skiers–a clash of cultures, styles and generations. What annoys many skiers stems from inherent differences between the two sports–the boarders tend to crisscross the hill rather than carve tight turns. Then, there is the hip-hop fashion and hotshot attitude–at least among the wildest bunch. “Freestyle snowboarding is definitely a youth movement,” says Bacchus Van Loo, 21, a ski and snowboard instructor at Olympic Park. “They can hop and slide around a ski hill and basically scare the hell out of everyone.” Calgarian Justin Helton, 22, a devoted skier, calls snowboarders “pretty goofy–and they have this superior attitude towards skiers.” The feeling appears to be mutual. “They have all these spinny tricks,” adds Helton. “Big deal.”

Resort operators have been struggling to cope with the phenomenon since snowboarders first hit the slopes in the mid-1980s. In Ontario, at least three resorts have banned snowboards entirely, while a handful of others have built pipes and other jumpy terrain that boarders favor. More recently, the sport has been making waves on the West Coast. British Columbia’s Whistler Mountain, where snowboarders account for about eight per cent of the 600,000 lift tickets sold annually, announced a “zero tolerance” policy to eliminate reckless snowboarding in January after two dozen collisions on the hill. “This is only a small percentage of snowboarders,” says David Perry, Whistler’s marketing director. “They’re very proficient, but they’re interfering with other people.”

Perry is quick to add that Whistler is only weeding out the disruptive boarders, while encouraging the rest to ride safely. Resorts, of course, are loath to give up potential revenue–boarding is growing rapidly, while the mainstream ski market has been flat for years. Peter Williams, director of the Centre for Tourism Policy and Research at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, says that snowboarders account for about 17 per cent of downhill equipment sales, and the number is expected to hit 30 per cent within five years.

Some of that growth is likely to come from an older market. At Alberta’s Lake Louise resort, where about five per cent of ticket sales are to snowboarders, deputy area manager John Shea says he has noticed increasing numbers of middle-aged boarders. “That’s exciting,” says Shea. “Obviously, we’re in the business of selling lift tickets and we feel snowboarding’s here to stay.” The older snowboarders may also help smooth the bumpy slope of skier-boarder relations. “Like most new activities,” says Williams, “it starts with the explorers, those who don’t fit into the traditional mould. But as it evolves into an activity that’s more central to mainstream thinking, it will become more integrated.”

The price of accessories

So far, freestyle snowboarders retain a unique identity. They have their own language, although terms differ between hills. At Canada Olympic Park, “biff” and “slam” mean wiping out. An “alley-oop” is a 180-degree turn off a half-pipe; a “1080” is three complete turns. (“One guy here can do it,” says Magis. “But he is nuts.”) There are terms, too, to describe manoeuvres done in midair: words like “Indy,” “melon” and “stale fish.” And the snowboarders have their own dress code–a pricey one at that. Magis sports $200 pants, a $150 jacket, $150 boots and an Austrian-made, 153-cm Avalanche snowboard that cost about $850.

Snowboarders are most common at small local resorts where kids congregate–accounting for 30 per cent of the revenue at Olympic Park. The hill’s public affairs co-ordinator, Carla Yuill, concedes that she is scared of some boarders when she skis at bigger resorts. “Snowboarders are fearless on regular slopes,” she says. “Some of them leap out at you from a bump. Having a `half-pipe’ makes the difference for everyone.” Not everyone, of course, is delighted with the latest winter sport. But as more and more snowboarders jib and jump their way across Canadian slopes, skiers might as well get used to them.

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