In a unique exchange between two snowboarding legends.
Snowboarding’s life story has yet to unfold in full, but it’s a tale rooted in a battle for civil rights. In a unique exchange between two old friends, big-mountain legend Tom Burt connects with fellow pioneer Tom Hsieh, founder of the world’s first snowboard magazine, to back-track through snowboarding’s radical past.
In 1982, eighteen-year-old Tom caught a glimpse of his future. It came in the shape of a yellow plastic plank. This guy called Bob* who he’d known since sixth grade handed it to him, saying it was a Sims Lonnie Toft. It was big – real big – with no wheels, no trucks, just a skate deck mounted on a big old plastic board and a bungee cord you could strap over your feet. Bob called it a snowboard. Tom had seen one before – a Winterstick back in seventh grade – but this one, said Bob, was for him to keep. Tom was familiar with snow, all right. He had been messing around on skis since the age of four, because, well, that’s just what you did when you were a Lake Tahoe kid. And, naturally, he knew all about boards. Every summer he’d dust off his skateboard, pack away his skis and hit up the rickety ramp in his parents’ backyard – with Bob and whoever else – because, well, that’s just what you did when you were a Lake Tahoe kid. But those two things together (snow and a board? A board for snow?) simply blew his mind.
On the streets of San Francisco, meanwhile, another skateboarder called Tom got wind of this new-fangled toy. He’d travel to Lake Tahoe to ski now and then, and if his buddies over there were nowskating on snow then, hell yeah, he wanted in.
Over the following years, Tom and Tom would see and do things that became the stuff of lore; the people they met, the battles they fought, the stories they wrote, the travels they took, the lines they rode, the tricks they tried, the falls they fell, the industry they watched metastasise and grow – the good, the bad, the pure unadulterated fun – formed the foundation stones for a new way of life. The history of snowboarding was being written before their eyes.
Lake Tahoe Tom became an unwitting pioneer as revered professional snowboarder Tom Burt. San Francisco Tom, having cottoned-on early to the fact that something was kicking off, did what every excitable documentarian would have done. He launched a magazine. Exactly one year after the idea first hit him at the second World Snowboard Championships in March 1984, nineteen-year-old self-publisher Tom Hsieh presented his buddies with issue no.1 of Absolutely Radical – later christened International Snowboard Magazine (ISM). Through the radical pages of the world’s first snowboarding mag, he started bottling a movement as it was being born.
Tom Burt was also all about firsts. Throughout the 1980s, he led the way into the backcountry, pushed, one might say, by iron-fisted ski areas that felt snowboarding should be banned. While his neon-clad compadres tried to legitimise snowboarding as a bona fide sport, complete with rule-book and trophies, Burt saw a light outside of the contest scene: powder riding – something he did ‘just because’. Now all he needed was a way to share it with the world. Enter Tom Hsieh. In 1989, ISM named Tom Burt ‘Rider of the Year’ – a radical move in a primitive pro scene where sponsorship still hung on competition results. And Burt found other ways to send his message around the globe, most notably through seminal parts in Standard Films’ TB movies. So as Tom Burt made history out in the back of beyond, the snowboarding diaspora tagged along for ride, mobilised by what they witnessed on video and in print.
Without Tom Burt, big-mountain riding would never have reached such heights; but without guys like Tom Hsieh, the world would never have known they existed. The history-maker and the history note-taker, both inadvertently birthing a microcosmic scene that would go from being hated-on by the masses to becoming mass-produced.
That journey, however, would become far more political than either Tom could ever imagine…
What were those first days of snowboarding in the early 1980s really like?
Burt: Here in Tahoe, if you saw someone with a snowboard strapped to their car, you pretty much stopped and said, ‘Hey.’[Laughs] It was that small that you were so stoked to see someone else with a snowboard! But we were also limited by where we could go. Very few resorts allowed snowboarding so it pushed all the snowboarders into the backcountry, to the same place – this small group of people that would soon become the future professionals of the sport. They wereso good, I mean, it was more fun watching your friends ride than riding yourself. That’s the spirit that was happening like, ‘I’m so stoked for your run!’ It was about watching your friends push boundaries together, just stepping it up every time you went out. Maybe someone came out with a different piece of equipment – like, the high-back binding – and that changed everything. It was just this constant excitement… Every time you showed up at the mountain, something new was going to happen. Something outrageous.
Hsieh: Coming from San Francisco, it was so interesting to watch the raw culture that was developing… We were like an oddity. People asked ridiculous questions like, ‘Are you strapped onto that thing or are you just standing on it?’ But you could walk up to another snowboarder and just relate, right off the bat. It was like a brethren, you know? […] Then people came together for the first contests, and all of a sudden you had new influences coming in.
Burt: Guys were showing up from Australia, Europe and Japan and suddenly we realised, ‘This is not just a Tahoe thing – this is aworldwide thing.’ It started dawning on everyone very clearly that, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be worldwide – wherever it snows.’
Did you feel like you were making a statement or rebelling against something at the time?
Burt: It’s not necessarily that you were rebelling; it was just that you were so stoked on what it was. The rebellion came because of resistance from the ski world, which was like, ‘You guys are idiots, what are you doing out here on the snow? This is not a sport.’ And so in a sense, you were rebelling against the current machine. The first time I ever went to a ski show, there were five snowboard companies there and all the ski companies just laughed at us like, ‘What are you talking about? Snowboarding? We don’t want anything to do with you.’ Because we stuck out, we had to make our own way – our own culture.
Hsieh: I feel that, literally, it was a political struggle for the right to use the mountain in the way we wanted to. None of us at the time knew that we were going to become political activists but we all became political activists because we cared so much about snowboarding and about being treated fairly – which we weren’t. At least in America we weren’t. It had all the hallmarks of any political struggle; a sub-group was trying to gain all the rights the mainstream enjoyed… We didn’t get into the sport to be political activists, but we knew we were fighting for the future of snowboarding when we went against this ski industry machine that was very unfriendly to us -extremely unfriendly.
Burt: [Laughs] I’ll give you an example. When we went out to Steam Boat, Colorado, one year, to meet with the ski area, they wouldn’t even allow us in. The next year we went back and they started to give snowboarders access. Anyway, you have to take a bus from the car park to the resort. So we got on the bus and the bus driver was like, ‘Oh you’re a snowboarder, you have to sit in the back of the bus.’ [Laughs] Seriously! It was like we were back in 1960s America, when black people were forced to sit at the back of the bus! It was so political. Crazy.
So you were literally fighting a civil rights battle?
Hsieh: It was, for our generation… It was our first real experience of being shut out from something we wanted to do. Of course, it was about snowboarding, it wasn’t about true civil rights, but it was about accessibility, about the right to pursue our version of happiness… [The ski areas] were in cahoots with the insurance companies – two or three major worldwide carriers – and it was made known to these ski resorts that, ‘We will not insure you if you allow snowboarders on board.’ So at the very highest multinational insurance level, they were against us. It was a fight of the little guy against the establishment. I think that we all knew that we were going to win – we really didn’t say it out loud because the numbers were so overwhelmingly against us, but just like any political activist, we believed in our cause so much that we were completely unstoppable… The ski industry would’ve died a very early death if it were not for the snowboarders.
Burt: It changed perceptions, it changed the persona of skiing, it changed how skis are shaped – it changed everything, after it finally started to be accepted that snowboarding was going to stay.
How was that battle actually fought?
Burt: It was a collective effort. I worked with Avalanche Snowboards back in those days, and we aggressively campaigned ski resorts to allow snowboarding. I went to ski resorts all over the country, to meet the owners and show them that in snowboarding you could actually make turns and control yourself… They just couldn’t believe it when they watched snowboarders rip perfect carves, better than skiers. Our technology was ahead of theirs, because skis weren’t designed for fun, they were designed for the racer. And a racer could make perfect turns on them, but a normal person couldn’t… Snowboarding was made for fun, it was made to be easy, and it was completely mind-blowing to these people that there was a tool out there that actually could be better. So we changed a lot of attitudes just by meeting people… And I did that for years.
Hsieh: We were spreading our word around the country, around the world, one ski operator at a time. I think there were about five hundred ski operators in the entire country at the time, and when we started publishing a list in our magazine [of those which allowed snowboarding], there were only thirteen.
Burt: Now there’s only like two that don’t! [Laughs] It was a clubby little scene. The resort owners all knew each other… They were all pioneers themselves in the late forties. They started all these ski resorts when they came back from WW2, and so they were like us, only forty years older. They built up this ski industry by themselves and did a phenomenal job, but they forgot how exciting it was to have something new and to be stoked to be in the mountains. In their mind, skiing was the only way to do it and the snowboard wasn’t right.
Hsieh: The other issue is that they didn’t like the /type/ of people who were coming up and snowboarding… A lot of the guys from San Francisco were just skateboard rats, surf rats. They went to Tahoe for the first time and showed up in jeans. They didn’t have a lot of equipment; they didn’t understand what it meant to get sunglasses for sun protection… And the ski resort operators took one look at these people and were like, ‘I don’t want you guys anywhere near my ski resort or my patrons.’ There was a real culture clash.
Burt: Also, the ski industry tried to push people into their norm and that’s when more rebellion came from the snowboarders, who were like, ‘No! We’re not going to fit your mould, we’re going to be ourselves.’
Hsieh: I remember having conversations with snowboard manufacturers who really believed we needed to conform to the ski industry. They wanted to develop clothing that looked similar to the ski industry, and to make sure that articles published in my magazine showed people completely in control and on the ground. As a publisher, I was like, ‘You know what? That’s not snowboarding. We should show the world what we do and who we are and I don’t care if they like us or not.’ And that’s what our magazine did; we showed the real culture of snowboarding and all its rawness and rough edge, and that’s why we had such a great following, because we were real. We were basically the people’s publication. A lot of our stuff came in unsolicited in the mail. Photos, stories – we’d just publish it and boom! Suddenly people learned about Tom Burt because they read about him in ISM and they lived in Japan. So when they would come over to America and see him in a contest, they’d be like, ‘Oh my God, you’re Tom Burt!’ The magazine was the Facebook of snowboarding back then… That was how we organised ourselves.
At what point did things start to gain momentum; when did you notice snowboarding was being accepted?
Hsieh: When the James Bond film came out featuring Tom Sims and Steve Link as stunt doubles. James Bond blew up his ski and put a snowboard on… That little scene was the biggest major media usage of snowboarding. It was exciting, seeing people we knew in a big movie… It took snowboarding to the masses in a really unique way.
Was there an element of protectionism from people wanting to keep snowboarding quite niche?
Burt: I think the culture was winning out because we didn’t try and protect it, but instead showed people how to have fun without having to conform. It’s insane to me that, when we started, you would get kicked off the mountain for building a jump. And now they build you jumps! [Laughs] We had to do everything in the backcountry when we started.
Hsieh: And this was a universal condition… Every snowboarder could relate to each other not only because they loved snowboarding, but because they were being oppressed around the world by the ski industry. It was amazing.
Burt: [Laughs] Kids who start today, they go out and jump in parks – they think it’s all part of how it’s always been.
Do you think those kids appreciate the battles their forefathers fought?
Burt: I don’t think they do.
Hsieh: I don’t think the story’s been told yet, because we haven’t had enough time to actually have history in snowboarding… We’re reaching that thirty-year milestone of when the first World Championship happened – and going forward, the story of how this culture developed will become very important… The story is unique and it is political; of course, we never knew it at the time because we weren’t coming into it with a political agenda. But when I look back on it now, it was a political struggle… You may be the first to tell the story from this point of view. And will kids appreciate that? No, kids don’t appreciate anything, you know? Kids are kids. I didn’t appreciate the people who opened up things for me when I was eighteen. But when kids learn about it down the road, if they love snowboarding they’ll think, ‘Wow, that was unique. They went through a very interesting struggle to create this sport that we all love.’ And it makes snowboarding that much more special because it wasn’t a given – it wasn’t like [there was] a big red carpet rolled out for us. It wasn’t easy to start this industry and grow it into what it is today.
And when you look at that industry today, are you happy with what you see?
Burt: Right now there’s a bigger market for smaller companies that have integrity, which is good. Some integrity will always get lost, that’s how business goes. When the first true businessman came to snowboarding it was mind-boggling to me that someone could see snowboarding as a commodity and not care one iota about the sport. Business helps and it hurts – it brings money, but it hurts the soul.
Hsieh: One thing I’m concerned with is the cost of snowboarding, which is extremely high. Accessibility for people who would not normally be on the mountain due to their economic background is going to shape snowboarding. That’s why skiing started to die in the 1980s – they catered for too small a market. Snowboarding helped grow the numbers rapidly, but it could fall into the same trap. If it caters for a finite group of people, things will get stale and it’ll lose that creativity. We had nothing but creativity to offer the world; when you lose those people who can’t afford it, you lose a lot of what drives snowboarding. But generally I think it’s progressed exceptionally well. We all knew it was going to be big… We just wanted to make sure that it entered the mainstream with its integrity intact. Meaning that we didn’t have to conform to fit in. We showed the world what we are, who we are. We bring the spirit – it’s punk rock, it’s aggressive, it’s adrenaline. That’s exactly what snowboarding is… Had we gone down the other direction and created a milquetoast image of snowboarding – that it is safe and sane, that we wear conservative-coloured clothing and we don’t fly through the air – then I think snowboarding would not be what it is today. Because there is so much about snowboarding that is part of a culture, rather than just a sport. We kept the integrity of this culture intact, but we had to fight to do that.
The ‘poster child’ marketing model, in which brands iconise team riders in order to push gear, has turned pro riders into celebrities. Were professional snowboarders revered in the same way back in your day?
Burt: When I started there were no mags, no videos – so the only way you could appreciate how someone rode was live. Then the magazine started, and you could know someone though a magazine; then in the 1990s video started, and you could know someone through a video. Then TV coverage came with the X Games and the Olympics and it became a worldwide thing. So you’re talking about a change in accessibility. My heroes were people I could watch ride. Now, people’s heroes are someone they can watch on television. It’s changed the marketing dollar, and today you can have a corporate brand that has nothing to do with snowboarding, like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Target – all they’re doing is putting money into it to sell to that mass market. So these people become huge icons amongst the population that gets to see them. We had icons, but we had to see them ride live. So it was the same thing, but on a totally different scale.
What impact has that celebrity culture had on people’s reasons for turning pro? Do you think kids approach a professional career today with different expectations?
Burt: As far as my pro career, I was stoked to get a free board! Today, if you’re working towards professionalism, you’re expecting free gear, money, everything paid for all the way down the line. When people are making million-plus dollars a year, it does attract people wanting to make money, whereas in my day the best pro rider made basically nothing. There are kids out there training, trying to tap into that professional status as a business. When we started there was no business. I’ve semi made a living out of it, but I snowboard because I love to snowboard.
Do you think the cogs driving the industry always have the riders’ best interests at heart?
Hsieh: One thing I think needs to happen is that the riders, if they want to control their future and not be controlled by big corporations, will need to organise themselves as an association – a union of riders – to get a bigger share of these fat contracts… Right now the so-called competitors are just cattle – they either make it or they don’t… But if they were to organise themselves, get representation and go and negotiate with the powers that run these commercial enterprises – TV events with large corporate backers – they could probably do better for themselves and protect the little guy trying to make a living. Riders need to control the sport as we did in the beginning. That is something we’re probably gonna see some day. Maybe.
If you had to pinpoint the heyday of snowboarding – when it encapsulated the spirit it should – when would that be?
Burt: For me, it’s the early 1980s. [Laughs] It didn’t matter what board you were on, you were just stoked to ride with anyone with a snowboard tied to a car.
Hsieh: We can still go for a powder ride now and have that same feeling of camaraderie we had thirty years ago – only now we have mortgages and kids in tow.
*Endnote: As for Bob, well, you’ll find him in the history books under Bob Klein – the guy who proved life as a professional snowboarder can evolve into a career. Through Sessions, Santa Cruz, Palmer Snowboards and his own athlete agency BK Sports, Bob has helped millions of people discover the joy of a big flat plank. Just like he did for Tom.