The other Cold War
Twenty years ago, some Sun Valley skiers feared a snowboarder invasion. Today, the old snow foes live in relative harmony. Michael Ames investigates how the Sun Valley Snowboard Team helped the sport hold an edge in America’s oldest skiing community.
The whole skiing versus snowboarding debate is more or less played out. The dust has settled at the nation’s mountain resorts. Long gone are the days when skiers wore "Snowboarders Suck" T-shirts and scuffles broke out in Summit County, Colorado lift lines.
Today’s snowboarding is mainstream, an Olympic event that draws larger American audiences than ski racing. Shawn White lands promotional deals on par with Tiger Woods. At most mountain resorts, boarder shops are bigger than their two-planked retail brethren. Peruse any sports magazine rack and it’s clear: the former foes have joined together as one force, known as The Industry, and each side of the old divide now supports the other.
Along the way, snowboarders viewed their sport as a movement, nothing short of a revolution. And as with any revolution, even ones fought within the measured confines of an expensive recreational pursuit for suburban kids, there was a period of struggle.
It took a while for Sun Valley skiers to warm up to snowboarding, and the Sun Valley Snowboard Team—a fertile proving ground for many of the area’s top winter athletes—has fought what team veterans see as a constant uphill battle against a conservative ski community, fiercely resistant to change. "It’s really been slow here," said Cally Galpin of Hailey. Galpin crossed over from skiing early on, in the late 1980s, and her snowboarding story is illustrative of the sport’s Sun Valley evolution.
A boarder’s tale
Christmas, 1984: 8-year-old Nate Galpin—who in 20 years would go on to win gold at international snowboardercross races in Chile and Zermatt, Switzerland—asked his mother, Cally, for a snowboard. She did some research and found the only thing available, a Burton Performer. Part surfboard, part stand-up toboggan, the swallow-tailed board had wooden edges, skegs to rudder it in the snow and a leash to grip, white-knuckled, as the rider negotiated with gravity. Cally was not optimistic: "I saw them on Dollar (Mountain) and thought, ‘That is going nowhere.’"
Not long after that first purchase, Cally stumbled upon something strange in her garage. Leaning up against the wall was a Hooger Booger: a 164-centimeter board with metal edges and a plate on which her son had mounted ski bindings. Nate had been working on the thing in secret and like any good mother, Cally decided to test it out herself. "I took it to Dollar and damn near died." Nate was less than pleased. "I was all excited for my first day on my new board, and when I came home, it was gone. My mom stole it."
Despite the battering her body took, Cally was hooked. "I was like a dog getting into a porcupine," she said. So she went out and bought herself a Hooger. A European company, who had just been acquired by Ketchum’s Scott USA, manufactured the snowboard. Dave Robrahn, who was working at Scott at the time, recalls that his company shortened the board’s name from its original "Hooger Booger" to something which they "felt was a bit more appropriate," he said.
Cally soon became one of the few snowboarders to ride Bald Mountain, or at least most of it. For a few years, the Sun Valley Resort treated snowboarding much like Eisenhower treated Communism: with a strict policy of containment. Some rogue elements had ridden in Elkhorn to the east, and on Galena Summit to the north. But when the boards first descended on the resort, veterans recall that they were restricted to Dollar. Soon, Baldy fell, but at the behest of some longtime guests—holdouts from an earlier regime—the resort guarded Seattle Ridge as a boarder-free zone into the early 1990s.
Cally managed to bypass this rule. "I was on a chair with Wally Huffman, and he gave me personal permission to go on Seattle Ridge. He said, ‘If anyone gives you a hard time, just have ’em call me.’"
Unlike most mountains where snowboarding was a youth movement, Bald Mountain’s consistent pitches drew a lot of adult skier crossovers looking for the deep carves of alpine boarding.
Cally had joined up with a phalanx of local riders including Dave Daluiso and Jim Slanetz. They were an experienced bunch: Daluiso was an alpine racer in Oregon; Slanetz was the first and only snowboard instructor at Vermont’s Bolton Valley and the owner of Ketchum’s first snowboard shop, the Board Bin. The boarders soon sought official sanction from the venerated Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. In the fall of 1991, Lane Monroe, the director of the foundation, gave snowboarding a cautious green light.
To Cally, it was a method of self-
Watanabe and Caldwell have gone on to stellar post-foundation careers. Both are X-Games athletes. Caldwell was featured on the cover of Transworld Snowboarding, a major industry publication, and was a national halfpipe champion when he was just 17. Watanabe, a Jeep King of the Mountain Champion and boardercross World Cup gold medalist, made headlines when he rode for the U.S. Olympic Team in Bardonecchia, Italy, in the 2006 Winter Games.
Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley Company’s straight-shooting director of public relations, is firm that the resort "embraced snowboarding from the start." He looks back on the early containment policies as palliatives meant to calm the frazzled nerves of "some older longtime guests who did complain."
Though she says it took far too long to build a halfpipe, Cally sees logic in the delays. "The adult skier population was their bread and butter. To maintain a pipe and park just didn’t seem attractive financially to them." Cally, along with Sibbach, also cites Sun Valley’s geographic isolation as a crucial factor in its slow snowboard evolution.
Ask them about it now and Sun Valley’s early snowboarders are unanimous about their early persecution. "There was a lot of animosity. You would get on a chairlift and the person with you would scoot to the other end of the chair and sulk," Cally recalled.
On empty days, Dave Robrahn, both a snowboarder and part-time ski patroller, would poach the skier-only runs, drawing verbal assaults from the Seattle Ridge lift. "They would call you all sorts of horrible names," he said. Nate Galpin agreed: "Of all the places I’ve been all over the world, I’ve never seen a more hostile place to snowboarding."
The fact that riders like the Galpins and Robrahn and Slanetz were skiing crossovers, and therefore attuned to codes-of-mountain conduct, did not deter some skiers from confronting them. To make matters worse, there were rumors from California, Colorado and New England of roving gangs of unskilled teenage snowboarders slamming into innocent people, causing mayhem and basically ruining skiing in America.
As those tales spread, they were soon matched by an equal folklore in the snowboarding counter culture. The tales took on the cartoonish dimensions of fables. There’s the one about the older skier in a shimmering one-piece outfit, snarling in a lift line at rosy-cheeked children out for a day of fun on their snowboards. Or the one about Sun Valley Company’s crazy rules. Such as when it said all snowboards had to be off the mountain by one o’clock (true, but only briefly). Or the notorious Dollar certification test: For years (it was actually just a couple of months), the Sun Valley Ski School brought in a bunch of Austrians (it was actually just one woman from Salt Lake City) to administer a test to every boarder wanting to ride on Baldy.
Most older snowboarders now concede that the cold war was understandable from both sides. With no instructional infrastructure, thousands of unskilled and unaware riders flocked to crowded mountains and did cause problems. Likewise, with no knowledge of the sport beyond the jaw-clenching fear of the sound a snowboard makes when it hits a sheet of ice, skiers were quick to judge their new neighbors.
Andy Gilbert, who has been at the helm of the Sun Valley Snowboard Team (part of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) for five years, sees a "night and day" contrast between the current situation and earlier "adversarial times."
Twelve-year-old standouts Ryan Roemer (top) and Chase Josey (bottom) are "bright spots on the horizon" in the deep and talented roster of riders that comprise the current Sun Valley Snowboard Team. Photos by Mark Oliver.
Gilbert could, but doesn’t, claim responsibility for a lot of those changes. In 1993, he landed his first job coaching the program’s youngest riders on the Development Team. Fifteen years later, the one-time heavy metal freak has become the leading figure, organizer and rapid-fire mouthpiece for snowboarding and skateboarding in the valley. Slanetz, a prophetic figure in his own right, talks about Gilbert as some sort of visionary: "He sees the big snowboard picture."
"He’s simultaneously stubborn and charismatic," Nate Galpin said, adding that Gilbert’s success as a negotiator with the resort cannot be overestimated; in 2003 he helped secure the resort’s first competition-worthy halfpipe. "It seemed like nobody had any luck making any progress before Andy got in there," Galpin said. "It’s a bit of a mystery. But whatever he does, he definitely gets it done."
The Sun Valley Snowboard Team’s 2006/2007 season was highlighted by Kaitlyn Farrington, one of Gilbert’s top riders and a Wood River High School junior, being named to the U.S. Snowboarding Team. Meanwhile, a deep and talented roster of riders is winning medals in all disciplines and at all ages.
Chatham Baker, former C-Team head coach, points to 12-year-old standouts Chase Josey and Ryan Roemer as "bright spots on the horizon." At the 2007 nationals in Northstar at Tahoe, Josey finished second overall for his age group and both performed tricks normally seen from athletes with twice their experience, not to mention body mass. In a long season of traveling to regional competitions, Josey and Roemer sit atop Utah, Idaho and Wyoming podiums week in and week out. "They just love to snowboard, which is something you can’t teach," Baker said.
The team has earned its stripes, but holds on to its outsider status. In addition to turns and jumps, coaches initiate young riders into a brotherhood of the dispossessed: You are unwanted, you will be assumed guilty. Gilbert "still subscribes to that feeling: we have every right to be here, so let’s prove it." The 21st century may have brought an end to Baldy’s cold war, but there are still, astoundingly, some older skiers who refuse to ride on chairlifts with snowboarders. "We tell kids this every winter … when you have a snowboard on your feet at Sun Valley you have to act with more respect … you have to be more polite," said Baker. Combined with camaraderie and talent, this kill-’em-with-kindness ethos has created one of the foundation’s most successful teams.
Up in the Sun Valley Company offices, Jack Sibbach is not just doing his job when he says he supports the snowboarders. His son, 12-year-old Riley Sibbach, is a team rider and his dad is an enthusiastic supporter. Sibbach thinks that a great mountain with few crowds has spoiled people in Sun Valley. "They have it pretty good. A lot of locals think it’s their mountain, but it’s everyone’s mountain."