Snowboarders struggle to find acceptance

After the first few snowboarding competitions began to pop up around the country in the early and mid-1980s, the struggle to allow snowboarders at ski resorts began. Although Ski Cooper opened their slopes to snowboarders after hosting the first snowboarding competition in 1981, many ski resorts were resistant to the idea for years to come.

Smaller resorts (like Ski Cooper) were more open to the idea of allowing snowboarders, and they also needed the additional visitors to boost their revenue. But the larger ski areas were wary, trying to keep snowboarders from “annoying” their skiing visitors, as snowboarders were generally younger and acted less risk-adversely than the skiing population did. With no knowledge of the sport and unpredictable bindings, boards and gear, many resorts were scared into banning everything but skis, fearing accidents that were not covered by their insurance policies.

Dave Alden, a professional snowboarder on the Burton team during the 1980s, recalls his father, Paul Alden, and Jake Burton calling up insurance company representatives. After making their pitch for snowboarding, the insurance company representative “revised their policies to allow boards and allowed the ski areas to do what they wanted.” Paul Alden, an executive in the snowboard industry, was the driving force behind many of the larger ski areas allowing snowboarders on their slopes, and was a “catalyst for all things (for the snowboard industry), and instrumental off the snow.”

After one of the first snowboarding competitions was held at Berthoud Pass, Richard Christiansen, who organized the event, says they “contacted Aspen Ski Corporation to see if they would allow us to come to Aspen with a contest.” Aspen agreed to a camera shoot in lieu of a contest and gave the event organizers some free lift tickets to hand out around the Denver area. Christiansen remembers, “This all worked out very fine until our riders realized that they had lift tickets that allowed them on any hill in Aspen. Shortly after noon we began losing riders at a rapid pace. … That evening, Aspen Ski Corporation told us that we would not be invited back and it was 12 years before they ever sold a lift ticket to a snowboarder.”

Breckenridge was the first major ski resort to allow snowboarders, and Dave Alden worked as the area’s first snowboard instructor in 1985. He had an “unusual clientele” and says snowboarders “were a spectacle for the first couple of years. We took to wearing headphones even without music so no one would ask us questions.”

Other large ski areas soon followed suit, seeing the enormous attraction snowboarding and the competitions offered. During the 1984-85 season, only 40 resorts allowed snowboarding, but by 1990, 476 ski areas had opened their slopes to snowboarders.

Today, there remains three ski resorts who have not lifted their ban on snowboarding: Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Mad River Glen in Vermont. (Aspen allowed snowboarders in 2001 and Taos in New Mexico caved as well in 2008.) With no indication that these three ski areas will include snowboarders anytime soon, they use their “skier-only” designation as a marketing tool, with positive guest reviews, and still are posting strong skier numbers despite the ban.

As snowboarding began to explode in popularity, the resorts opposing the sport quickly began to accept riders throughout the 1980s, in an effort to increase revenue and keep numbers up. The influx of new snowboarders has boosted ski resorts’ profits and visitor numbers, especially during a time when resort costs have risen due to grooming, snowmaking, expansion and new lift technology. Not just relegated to the backcountry, poaching ski lifts or convincing small resorts to allow boards, snowboarding was quickly gaining worldwide acceptance.

Sources for this story included:

• Snowboarding’s Holy Grail, video produced by First On Board

• “Snowboarding: It’s Older Than You Think,” by Paul J. MacArthur. Skiing Heritage Journal, March 2009.

• “When The Ski Business Got It Wrong,” by Seth Masia. Skiing Heritage Journal, December 2007.

• “How Long Can Ski Only Resorts Last?” by Mike Lewis. Transworld Business, March 8, 2009.

• “NSAA Conference Focuses on Future,” by Transworld Business. May 12, 2001.

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