Off The Grid: The Cyclical Nature of Cool

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Off The Grid: The Cyclical Nature of Cool

I can tell you the exact moment snowboarding became cool. It was in 1985 when James Bond fastened helicopter shrapnel to his feet and rode down a mountain on a makeshift snowboard while a bunch of goons on skis struggled to keep up.

I can also tell you the exact moment it became uncool—at least in my world. While discussing the upcoming winter season recently with two millennials, I doubted my age after both of them grew up skiing since, “snowboarding is what my old man does.”

“If I still snowboard, does that make me an old man?” I asked myself.

In search of answers, I soon discovered they were mostly right. Over the last 10 years, snowboarding has declined an estimated 10 to 20%, down from its peak of 40% of snow worshippers. Meanwhile, skiing has enjoyed a renaissance, thanks to wider shaped skis that can easily be ridden forwards or backwards (like skinny snowboards).

Granted, “Snowboarding is here to stay,” admits Czar Johnson, head of mountain operations at Sundance Mountain Resort. “But it needs to find its equilibrium again.”

What contributed, then, to snowboarding’s dimmed star? Many of the professional snowboarders, manufacturers, and insiders I spoke to cite inconsistent winters first, which favor skis on groomed trails better than powder-loving snowboards. The most decorated professional snowboarder Shaun White put it to me like this: “If there were no ocean, there would be no surfboards.” So too it is with snowboards and a lack of recent powder.

The deeper answer, however, seems be, simply, growing pains and culture wars. Doing what your parents did will never be cool—in this case snowboarding and downloading MP3s. But doing what your grandparents did—in this case skiing and vinyl records—is far enough removed to be cool again.

On top of that, the sport might have an image, if not perception problem. “Many people see snowboarding as an activity that takes place predominantly in the air,” says Thomas Delago, co-founder of Nitro Snowboards. “This is obviously a self-inflicted problem, as we (the industry) have mainly shown the extreme side of sport, which often doesn’t appeal to casual riders.”

Indeed, one rider I spoke to expressed embarrassment and shame that he couldn’t “go big” anymore, a feeling that ultimately converted him to skiing. I asked Travis Rice about this, who is regularly shown and known for going bigger than just about anyone else today, and his humble response is as refreshing as it is encouraging.

“I still love the joy of linking simple turns on cold groomers or sloppy spring days,” he told me from his Jackson, Wyoming, home. “With the right group of friends, everyday snowboarding can be just as fun and memorable as the perfect powder day.”

What can snowboarding do, then, to encourage nature and thrill lovers to seek out the cold outdoors again? John Hales, owner of my local board shop, is quick to remind me that today’s gear is a lot more forgiving and fun to ride than the crap you rode in the 1990s. “Boots and boards especially,” he says of the last decade. Rice says the same: “You can’t buy a bad setup today unless you really try.” Having recently upgraded my setup, I can vouch for both.

For his part, Delago wants snowboarding to expunge its cliquishness, counter-culture, and extreme perception once and for all. “Snowboarding needs to be more welcoming and open-minded so it can peacefully co-exist with skiing,” he says. “People shouldn’t be labeled or put into a box by how they choose to slide down a hill. My kids understand this better than most adults.”

Rice concludes that snowboarding’s differences are actually its greatest strengths. “Skiing face first just makes sense, which is why every boarder starts on skis,” he says. “But there’s this amazing feeling in mastering the asymmetry and awkwardness of a snowboard. That ongoing challenge, if not dance, is what makes it so beautiful.”

Will snowboarding ever be cool again? If my 10-year-old daughter is any indication, the answer is yes. After all, she already thinks snowboarding is cool, even if her old man rides one.

Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter

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