The rebellious nature attributed to snowboarders in the 80s and 90s is a thing of the past nowadays. Snowboarding has become mainstream, shaping an entire industry and firmly establishing itself among winter sports and action sports. An look at the development of the snowboard reveals why, even today, it remains the most versatile way to get from the mountain tops to the valley floor in the winter.
The foundation for what we now know as snowboarding was laid by surfer Sherman Poppen in the early 60s, when he invented the “Snurfer” – a plastic board with a rope to hang on to, on which you travelled down the hillside whilst standing sideways to the direction of travel. Poppen wanted to capture the feeling of surfing on snow. His invention is synonymous with the relationship between snowboarding and surfing. The combination of these two sports still plays a major role for many free-riders, and the surfing spirit has firmly established itself in free-riding.
The technology behind the idea of the “Snurfer” was optimised in the 70s by action sports pioneers like Jake Burton and Tom Sims. The results were boards with steel edges and fixed bindings, which performed far better on the slopes. This opened the door for another board sport to influence snowboarding: skateboarding. The snowboard discipline of freestyle was born – and with it endless potential for creativity.
All of a sudden, snowboarding was something you did not only on the ground, but also in the air. Freestylers delved into the comprehensive repertoire of tricks performed by skateboarders. Halfpipes were dug into the snow, kickers were built, and the sport was included in the Olympic programme for the first time in 1998.
At the same time as the strictly-regulated freestyle competitions held by sporting federations, freestyle snowboarding is also heavily influenced by the much more free and creative work of film productions. Furthermore, unconventional competition formats such as the Backcountry Freestyle Contest Ultra Natural, which embody virtually all facets of snowboarding, are also developing.
The author has been snowboarding for over 25 years and has followed the scene as a journalist since the 90s. For him, today’s fascination with snowboarding is significantly defined by its enormous versatility. Here, he presents four snowboarders who are excellent examples of the various facets and the status quo of the sport.
Nicolas Müller has defined the term “Backcountry Freestyle” more than almost any other snowboarder. There are few who can pull off freestyle tricks in open terrain with such ease, making it all look like child’s play. It makes no difference to him whether he is cutting an extremely steep line in Alaska or winding playfully through Japanese forests deep in snow, using every obstacle for creative tricks.
Anyone fortunate enough to watch Nicolas snowboarding gets a real sense of the huge fun the amicable Swiss is having. The way he is able to combine all facets of snowboarding in a film just a few minutes long is unique. Nicolas gets straight to the heart of it: Snowboarding is fun!
Snowboarding is all about free-riding, deep snow and untouched slopes. Long before Jeremy Jones began exploring the most extreme mountains in the world on his splitboard, riders like Craig Kelly, Tommy Brunner and Matt Godwill had already captured the fascination of big mountain riding in magazines and on film.
Nowadays, however, it is Jeremy Jones and his film trilogy “Deeper, Further, Higher” that embody the spirit of free-riding and the appeal of mighty mountains in their most extreme form. The American’s snowboarding expeditions are too extreme for many to emulate. Despite there can be no doubt that Jeremy Jones and his splitboard tours have inspired many snowboarders to get out there and “work” an untouched slope.
For Jeremy, it is not just about extreme sport and the pure sporting satisfaction, but also the opportunity to consciously experience nature. The manner in which he supports the charity “Protect Our Winters” in its campaigns against climate change is inspirational.
Anyone wishing to understand snowboarding and what makes the sport so fascinating should watch the film “Yearning For Turning Vol. 2” by Nicholas Wolken and the Korua Shapes Crew. Why? Because this four-minute clip gets across precisely what snowboarding is all about: having fun in the snow!
It is refreshing to see the big grin on the faces of riders like Stephan Maurer and Nicholas Wolken as they celebrate the art of snowboarding on a pristine slope. They demonstrate that snowboarding is about more than just extreme tricks, with a dizzying number of rotations off massive kickers, or negotiating brutally steep slopes at high speed. For the vast majority of riders, snowboarding takes place in the snow, not in the air, and is about nothing more than having a great time.
From this pure, unadulterated joy of snowboarding, Nicholas Wolken launched his own brand last year, under the label Korua Shapes. His gaol: “We want to design shapes that make nice turns easier. The easier it is to ride a board, the better you ride and the more fun you have. Right?”
Nicola Thost took part in the first junior races held by the DSDV (Deutscher Snowboard Dachverband – governing body for snowboarding in Germany - 1988-1995) in the early 90s. Two titles at the Youth World Championships (1995 and 1996) were followed by gold in the halfpipe when snowboarding made its Olympic debut in 1998. Despite all the fuss that was made of the 21-year-old after her medal success, Nicola always stayed true to her natural way of life and kept both feet on the ground.
Her halfpipe career ended in 2003, but snowboarding remains her raison d’être. For years she has taken an active role in promoting young snowboarders through the “Sprungbrett” (Springboard) talent scouting series, which she herself instigated. As a former freestyle competitor, she promotes talented youngsters and passes her know-how on to ambitious kids, whilst at the same time giving them space to develop personally. This unconventional involvement makes Nicola Thost one of the most active ambassadors of the snowboard spirit.
This list of charismatic and influential snowboarders could go on almost for ever. These are just four characteristic examples of the living diversity of snowboarding. What all these snowboarders have in common is that that they simply cannot get enough of standing on a piece of wood and gliding sideways down a mountain.