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Adventure Pioneers: Snowboarding

By Kirsti Smouse

December 21, 2015

Adventure Pioneers: Snowboarding

By Kirsti Smouse

December 21, 2015

The Sport without an Official Inventor

Like many sports, snowboarding came about from a motley crew of innovators who saw life a little differently. Why walk down a hill when you can ride it? And why use two of something when one will do? The basic rudiment of snowboarding has probably been around as long as snow, planks of wood, and thrill-seekers have graced this earth — but we only know what made it to the history books.

Early History

Officially unofficial history (AKA — folklore) has murmurings of 16th century Austrian miners whiling away an afternoon by throwing themselves down snow-capped mountains on wooden boards with handles or ropes. The contraption was known as a ruariser knappenroesser, or knappenross for short.

Around the same time, riders in the Swiss Alps were purportedly using an invention known as the ritprätt, which allowed the rider to both sit and stand. In 1914, Austrian Toni Lenhardt is rumored to have ridden a monogleider down a mountain in Bruck an der Mur. Despite their impressive snow pedigrees, neither the Swiss nor the Austrians can provide substantiated proof that these inventions were precursors of today’s modern board and its sideways stance or just variations of a monoski.

And then there are the indomitable Turks in the Kackar Mountains who, it turns out, have been using a board known as the lazboard for well over 400 years. The lazboards feature a rope tethered to the front of the board for balance, and a stick held by the rider to assist in steering. It’s almost just likmage snowboarding . . . but then, not exactly.

Speaking of almost but not quite, there’s the mythical story of a M.J. “Jack” Burchett. Steeped in internet lore, but without any fact-based substantiation, legend has it that this man strapped a piece of plywood to his feet using clothesline and horse reins and ripped through the snow way back in 1929. The story originated from a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy, so, it's best taken with a grain of salt. Sorry, Jack.

19th Century

Moving back into the realm of rubber stamp official history, 1939 ushered in the dark horses of Gunnar and Harvey Burgeson and Vern Wicklund. They introduced the “Sno-Surf” — a curved sled of solid white oak which featured an adjustable strap for the left foot, a rubber mat for the right foot, and the same rope and stick design as the lazboard.

Sadly, the Sno-Surf never took off commercially, and nobody really knew about these guys until long after snowboarding had become a wintertime staple. In 2000, Burton popped up at the Snowsports Industry of America (SIA) Trade Show in Las Vegas with the original patent, a Wicklund sled, and a film of Wicklund riding it, thus bringing them into the recognized snowboarding fold.

While these stories have a certain gravitas in the history of the sport, the real roots of the activity now officially known as snowboarding get their start on Christmas Day in 1965. In a desperate bid to get his hyperactive daughters out of his pregnant wife’s hair, Sherman “Sherm” Poppen cross-braced 2 skis together, and sent his children out to give the new board a go on the dune behind their house.Soon, neighborhood kids of Muskegon, Michigan started requesting their own boards, and Poppen realized he had gold on his hands. Dubbed the “Snurfer” by his wife, Nancy, Poppen trademarked the name, added a rope to the front end, and licensed his creation to the obvious choice — bowling manufacturer Brunswick Corporation.

Snurfer Patent sketch
The "Snurfer" Invented by Sherman R. Poppen, assigned to Brunswick Corporation uploaded by User:Lar GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By the following Christmas in 1966, Snurfers were sliding down hills all across the country, helped in part by an ad in the Sears Roebuck catalogue. The sport grew in popularity to the point that by the mid-70s, Snurfing competitions were being held around the country. 1979 saw a publication devoted entirely to the sport, the “Snurfing News,” rolling off the presses. The speed and freedom the board offered soon caught the attention of a 14-year-old competitive skier from Long Island — Jake Burton Carpenter.

After graduating from New York University in 1977, Carpenter moved to Londonderry, Vermont where he started creating his own versions of Snurfers, “Burton Boards” — which he built out of his barn. Although he originally had marketed the boards as “Snurfboards,” Poppen’s lawyer put an end to that trademark infringement, and thus snurfing became snowboarding. In a 2014 radio interview, Poppen said,

"That was probably one of the dumbest things I ever did, because he stopped making 'snurfboards' and started making 'snowboards.'"

Determined to turn what many considered a passing hobby into a legitimately recognized sport, Carpenter created over 100 different prototypes before finally landing on a final design with single strap bindings. He dubbed his creation the “Backhill” and hoped to sell 50 boards a day.

By the end of the first year, he’d sold 300 in total and had burned through his $100,000 inheritance. Fortunately, Carpenter wasn’t deterred, and he continued to pursue his passion, financing his venture by tending bar by night and teaching tennis in the summer. Slowly but surely, his tenacity paid off, and Burton now commands a 35% market share in snowboarding equipment in the world today.

While Burton was developing his version of the snowboard, so was skateboard legend Tom Sims. Sims claimed that he was the original inventor of the snowboard, having constructed a version in his shop class back in 1963. The thirteen-year-old never applied for any patents, so those claims are technically groundless. However, that first successful prototype is on display at Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum, so it’s probably fair to give a pass to Sims’s adolescent short-sightedness and honor that claim.

What is indisputable is that Sims was integral to the sport. While Burton worked the east coast and promoted alpine riding and racing, Sims was pushing snowboarding on the left coast with free style and the halfpipe.

Together with Chuck Barfoot and Bob Weber, Sims launched the now legendary Flying Yellow Banana Skiboard and what eventually became known as Sims Snowboards. Under his helm, the brand released the first board with a kick-up tail, the first pro model (Terry Kidwell), the first boards built for women, and the first halfpipe competition.

Before either Burton or Sims were on the scene, Dimitrijie Milovich was “skiing” down hills at Cornell University using cafeteria trays. In 1970, Milovich read a letter to the editor about something called “snow surfing” in Surfing magazine. Intrigued, he contacted Wayne Stoveken, the letter writer and maker of the boards, and borrowed a 6 foot, 20 pound piece of redwood and gave it a try at a local ski area. He was instantly hooked.

Milovich dropped out of Cornell in ’72, and together with Stoveken, started producing boards. In 1974, they received two Snow Surfboard patents that are generally considered the first modern snowboard patents. They named them Wintersticks. A year later, they had earned the attention of Newsweek, SKI, and Playboy Magazine.

Despite the favorable press, the future of Winterstick would prove to be ill-fated. In the end, Milovich was ahead of his time, and his company petered out before the sport took off. But the decade spent trying to revolutionize snow sports didn’t go unnoticed. In 2000, TransWorld Snowboarding magazine gave him a “Tranny Award” for his contribution to the sport.

The legacies of these men go far beyond snow equipment. Their passion, perseverance, and business acumen pushed snowboarding to the forefront of snow culture. From fledgling roots as upstart mountain bums who had to poach runs from skiiers to Olympic athletes with their own official courses, snowboarders are now a resort mainstay, and have now overtaken skiing as the most popular sport of the season.

Cover Photo by Ripley119 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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