This Saturday, 13 March, will be the second annual Day for Jake – a special date in the snowboarding calendar on which lovers of the sport come together to celebrate the life and legacy of one of its founding fathers, Jake Burton Carpenter. Obviously physically “coming together” this year will be easier for some than others, but thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, there will also be virtual ways of marking the occasion.
Snowboarders who can still access the mountains are being encouraged to share their Day for Jake rides on social media using the hashtag #RideOnJake, but those who aren’t able to get to the snow due to lockdown restrictions can still take part, either by having a go at re-designing the Day For Jake logos on the Burton website, by watching their favourite snowboarding videos or by donating to Chill, the positive youth development charity Carpenter set up with his wife Donna in 1995.
Carpenter, who passed away in November 2019 at the age of 65, may not have been the first person to come up with the idea of riding down a mountain sideways, but through his company, Burton, he did as much as anyone to shape the sport as we know it today, taking the binding-less "Snurfers" he grew up messing around on as a kid and adding fixed bindings – an innovation which turned a novelty snow toy into a global industry.
To look at Carpenter's achievements in terms of business success alone, however, is to miss the point. By popularising snowboarding, he didn't just create different way of going skiing, he created a completely new way of experiencing the mountains, and in doing so he helped attract a whole new demographic to snowsports: surfers, skaters, punks, indie kids – exactly the kind of people who might have been put off skiing by its respectable, middle-class image.
Success didn't come easily to Carpenter. In his first winter operating under the Burton banner, 1978-9, he sold 350 snowboards. The following winter he sold 700. By 1981 he had burned through a small inheritance from his grandmother and was $130,000 in the red. In an in-depth interview with National Public Radio in 2017, Carpenter described these early days in terms of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.
"I was like Willy Loman," he told Guy Raz in a surprisingly emotional exchange. "I was a travelling salesman. I would load up my car – it was a Volvo [station]wagon at the time… I would visit ski shops, surf shops, skateboard shops, but nobody wanted any part of it... One time I went out with 38 snowboards and I came back with 40, because one guy had given me two back."
"Were you discouraged?" asks Raz.
"Yeah, I had a few days when it was tough getting out of bed."
"Because you were getting rejected all the time?"
And at this point you can hear Carpenter's voice start to crack as he replies: "All day long."
Part of the problem was that, in the early days at least, snowboarding wasn't something you could do in a ski resort. Indeed, to begin with even Carpenter imagined it as an activity that would take place outside resort boundaries: not for nothing was his 1977 prototype called "the Backhill."
"You could not go in a resort [with a snowboard] and, to be honest, I didn't start it as a resort thing," he told Raz. "Skiing at the time was 20 bucks a day, it was a lot of money, so this was a cheap way to have a lot of fun when there was snow on the ground."
Initially, the ski industry was openly hostile to snowboarding: by 1985, 93 per cent of US ski resorts had banned it. However, by 1995 more than 90 per cent allowed snowboarding, with many actively marketing themselves to snowboarders.
These days, with snowboarding just as much of a mainstream sport as skiing (and even upstaging its more established big brother at the Winter Olympics) it can be hard to imagine a time when snowboarders weren't welcome on ski hills. A few years ago, however, I got a small flavour of what that era must have been like – and perhaps what the present-day might have been like, too, had it not been for Carpenter’s perseverance.
On a press trip to Park City in Utah in 2013, I was invited to visit Deer Valley – an exclusive ski resort where a lift ticket now sets you back well over $200 a day in peak season, and which still operates a no snowboarding policy. Wearing all my baggy snowboard gear while padding around the "fire garden" of the swanky St Regis Deer Valley hotel (imagine a large rockery lit up like a Kuwaiti oil field during the first Gulf War) I felt distinctly out of place. I was allowed to ride a chairlift sans snowboard in order to scope out some of the pistes, but I was politely informed that if I wanted to use my plank I'd have to head back to the more cosmopolitan slopes of Park City. That evening, at the elegant Glitretind restaurant at Deer Valley's Stein Eriksen Lodge, in spite of the best efforts of my very welcoming hosts, I couldn't help feeling a little like Happy Gilmore gatecrashing a function at the R&A.
Thanks to Jake Burton Carpenter, resorts that continue to ban snowboards are now the exception rather than the rule, and there can be no doubt that the sport of snowboarding has attracted a much more diverse range of people to the mountains. So, if you’re a snowboarder – or even a skier who thinks snowboarders have made the slopes more interesting – don’t forget to raise a glass to Jake on Saturday.
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