This week in “that’s over-rated:” Freestyle snowboarders

Guest Article BY: TheOneAndOnlyDARREN

Clearly, this excellent blog is primarily focused on ball sports (and perhaps the occasional puck).  But I am here to write about something which many might not be interested in (and will probably be largely ignored). I am talking of course, about snowboarding and I promise there will be nothing about Backside Triple Cork 1440.[1]

With the 2011 Winter X Games over, we can finally say goodbye to Sal Masekela, Flying Tomatoes and 3D Mega Mo.[2] That is, until next year when it returns to provide many with the only window into the world of snowboarding that they will ever see. Because of this, many see riders like Shaun White or Mark McMorris as the best, most proficient snowboarders in the world. But that is simply not the case.

First I need to make one thing clear. I will be the first to admit that Shaun White is incredibly talented. Few can tear up a half pipe like he can and his success at the Olympics for the US team should never be overlooked.  At events like the X Games, Shaun and others wow viewers while generating ad revenue, helping their sponsors and collecting large cash prizes (the winners anyways). While many welcome this attention to the sport, I wish it weren’t confined to such a narrow subsection of it.

Each year, in the midst of yet another Winter X Games, a small cadre of snowboarders are pushing the limits of the sport in ways which largely go unnoticed. Where they ride there are no roaring crowds, no judges, no cash prizes and no ski patrol. I’m talking about the backcountry riders.

While people all over the world ride in the backcountry, some of the main professionals in this area are Jeremy Jones, Jonaven Moore and Travis Rice.[3] Three names which you probably have never heard of but deserve recognition none the less. Rather than ride generic half pipes or slope style courses, these athletes travel to remote areas and find mountain pitches which have never been ridden. Jeremy Jones alone has spent more than a decade racking up first descents. [4]

Pushing deep into the backcountry is no easy endeavor. The backcountry community is notorious for keeping their favorite spots a secret which forces each rider to grab a map and explore to find their own. The average backcountry rider will spend most of his day hiking for just a couple runs down powdered slopes.  All the while, one must be cognizant of snow conditions[5] and be properly equipped. Even ducking the ropes at your favorite ski resort requires specialized equipment.[6]

Professionals typically rely on snowmobiles and helicopters to ascend mountains though among the best, even this is going out of fashion. Led by people like Jeremy Jones, many are returning to the roots of the sport. For every line you want, you have to hike it. The idea among them is that even if you have a helicopter at your disposal, you should earn each and every line you take. And you’ll appreciate those once in a lifetime drops for having done so.

The point of all this is that the backcountry riders represent the soul of snowboarding better than any other group. By exploring new and difficult to reach areas, these athletes are doing something which no terrain park rider can claim. They are tapping into the human drive to explore which gave birth to snow sports in the very beginning. And they are doing this at great personal risk. Many die every year to further this segment of snowboarding[7] and while the park riders get much of the attention, they don’t deserve half the recognition.


[1] An incredible feat though it may be.

[2] http://hd.engadget.com/2011/01/26/espn-kicks-off-winter-x-games-15-broadcasts-in-hd-3d-and-on-mobil (Mega Mo is a stupid name for an “Ultra-Slow-Motion device, also know as I-Movix, [which] records up to 4500 frames per second allowing for incredibly clear and detailed replays. Mega Mo technology will be used in all Winter X Games 15 event telecasts. Two separate I-Movix cameras will be used as part of the larger telecast.”)

[3] In the interest of full disclosure, Travis Rice last competed in the Winter X-Games in 2009 where he won the big air competition. He has since moved on from the competitions and is known as one of the “pioneers of the big mountain freestyle movement.” http://www.tetongravity.com/athletes/Travis-Rice-7239901.htm

[4] This includes countless first descents in Alaska, Antarctica, Central Asia and other locales.

[5] Snow pack accumulates in layers and the relationship between those layers dictates the stability of the snow. If a rider drops into an unstable snowpack, the whole top layer can rip out causing an avalanche.

[6] Which at a minimum includes an avalanche shovel, transceiver and probe.

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One Response to This week in “that’s over-rated:” Freestyle snowboarders

  1. bret says:

    pretty good article. contests are the most visible aspect of snowboarding for the main public and the small segment of riders that can consistently do well at contests certainly do get a lot of play. but to say that backcountry riders are underrecognized is a bit of a stretch, especially in snowboarding. guys like jeremy, jonaven and t-rice are some of the best taken-care-of riders in the industry, longtime pros still making a good living off snowboarding well past the age when most contest kids burn out. take travis rice, for example: he’s hugely hooked up by redbull, one of the top 10 best paid athletes in all of action sports, and is currently filming for his second two-year film project. his first project, “that’s it that’s all,” is arguably the most influential and high-budget snowboard film ever made. and of course even the once-a-year-sal-lovin’-x-crowd knows about him; he won the fan vote in x-games big air two years ago!

    which is another aspect that the author overlooks: in current snowboarding, freestyle and backcountry aren’t necessarily separate entities. most everybody who is a ‘backcountry’ snowboarder these days (jeremy excluded) got their start through freestyle competition. indeed, a huge goal for many contest riders is to parlay the visibility they get through competition into sponsor support for taking their riding to the backcountry. that’s why most of the backcountry riding you see is heavily freestyle influenced, and why the sharp delineation the author draws is just too much; the majority of the dudes you’ll see in the x-games (shaun definitely excluded… ha!) spend most of march and april out in the bc, seeking that ‘soul’ of snowboarding as much as anybody else.

    i can’t help but agree, though, that shaun white is played out and overrecognized, oversupported, and overhyped. but if you really wanted to write about who’s on the losing end of snowboard industry contest-centrism, do some research and check out some of the rail riding going on these days: think thank, fodt, tahoe dangerzone… on a whole ‘nother level and with not nearly as much to show for it.

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