Why you should care
Because this is less about speed, more about reading the ride.
Back in 1965, when Sherman Poppen lashed two skis together for his daughter, and then three years later when Tom Sims tried using a skateboard in the snow — snowboarding was born. And then, based on the whispers we’re hearing, there’s been another change and an evolutionary step to this magical, mystical thing: snow surfing.
Not just an ersatz, quasi-cool way of describing snowboarding, snow surfing — though it uses boards — is about a frame of mind, and has been since about 1985 when Japanese snowboarder Taro Tamai watched kneeboarders working a slope. Rather than seeing the mountain as something to be acted upon — carved, ripped, shredded — snow surfers describe it as something that must be worked with, involving a “flow” that must be embraced. Much how water surfers see the ocean.
And an even weirder twist: “Both can happen on the same mountain at the same time too,” says snowboarder and snow surfer Ron Isa. While snowboards are larger, more in keeping with single-fin traditional surfboards, snow surfboards are shorter, sometimes with blunt tails. Snowboarders go wherever they want, but snow surfers let the mountain suggest their run. Increasingly, resorts worldwide are grooming their runs to accommodate the more surf-oriented style. Especially after some favorable precipitation, with hillsides full of light, powdery and less-dense snow, maneuvering your board is less about the speed generated by the steepness of a hill — like with snowboarding — and much more about reading the ride right.
… it’s funny to think about a sporting event being designed with creative flow in mind.
“Powder is cool,” says Isa, “but gently groomed stuff works well too.” So with an eye toward a line down the mountain, snow surfers hunker down and further back on the board, typically lower and closer to the ground than snowboarders, and sweep into wide S-curves, with hands trailing, sometimes touching the ground. To the untrained eye? Probably virtually indistinguishable from normal snowboarding, but snow surfing — ever popular in Japan — is increasingly making a mark in the U.S. with special resort runs on the Eastern Seaboard as well as the West Coast’s Lake Tahoe.
“I don’t know if it’s because after you hit 30 you start thinking stuff like this, but I like the easy flow of it all,” laughs Isa. Unlike snowboarding when it first hit big, there’s no mountain flow disruption like there was when skiers first had to make room for the more squirrelly snowboarders. In fact, there’s a laid-back mountain ease, more like surfing. So then it’s no surprise that competitions have started to pop up — The Big Wave Challenge, Holy Bowly, Rally for Rocker and the Gerry Lopez Big Wave Challenge — far as far can be from the over-caffeinated X-Games.
“If you never thought about the beauty of a perfect turn, you might start,” Isa says. So at competitions where both riders and designers come together to craft runs from certain sections of ski resorts, it’s funny to think about a sporting event being designed with creative flow in mind. And in a winter season that’s expected to bring some serious weather with it, specifically, El Nino finally coming back, and the possibility of the hills being powered up with powder, we guess that Isa is right: We might start — snow surfing, that is.