No-go zones for snowboarding down to a final three

A rack full of skis at Alta is emblematic of the resort for what is not there...snowboards. True to its motto,"Alta is for skiers", the resort still does not allow boarders.
(Paul Fraughton / Salt Lake Tribune)
Special to The Times

He strolled across the snow at 3 o’clock on a brilliant February afternoon, his goggles warding off the high-altitude glare that makes Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon glow.

But his dark lenses couldn’t combat the laser-beam stares, which suddenly homed in on his head from all directions. At the crowded base of Alta Ski Area, one of the last remaining North American resorts to ban snowboarders, what you don’t want to be at this time of day is a scruffy twentysomething with baggy pants and a board under your arms.

In other words, exactly the mold this guy fits.

It wasn’t his first time as the only cat in a houseful of dogs, that much was obvious. He challenged the stares in silence, gazing in their direction with pursed lips but maintaining his stride. When a man on the outskirts asked him to explain his choice of equipment -- “What’s with the board, dude?” -- the snowboarder ignored the question and walked right by, shaking his head.

After a minute, he was gone, and the winter revelers returned to the scene before them: another bluebird day in a vanishing, and controversial, brand of paradise -- one that has incited civil rights arguments for years, but which also attracts some of the most devoted powder seekers on the planet.

On Wednesday, Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico will open to snowboarders for the first time in its 53-year history. Operators of the storied family ski area cite the business they’ve turned away for decades -- nearly 30% of lift tickets these days are paid for by snowboarders -- as well as the need for fresh energy.

The significance of the move, however, is broader than introducing a more inclusive Taos. It means there are now only three remaining holdouts that enforce a snowboard ban: Mad River Glen in Vermont, and Deer Valley and Alta, located eight miles apart outside Salt Lake City.

The effort to protect such exclusivity dates back more than two decades. When snowboarding first went mainstream in the 1980s, the war between knuckle-draggers (snowboarders) and two-plankers (skiers) raged -- with snowboarders considered the renegade bunch.

Only a few resorts in the nation allowed boarders back then; the vast majority found strength in unity, denying the existence of something that was radically different than what they’d grown up with.

But over the years they gave in, one by one, until finally only four remained. Taos, a remote, expert skier’s utopia founded in 1955 by a tough, bearded German named Ernie Blake, became something of a mecca for skiers intent on making turns sans snowboarders.

When Blake’s 90-year-old widow and descendants decided to drop the ban in December, the cozy little culture they helped create became a national issue.

Word spread through the industry like celebrity gossip. On the front lines, longtime Taos skiers did everything but organize a revolution. In one instance, an aggressive local confronted a visiting media member who was using a snowboard to get around the mountain, explaining in terms more blunt than these, “Your kind isn’t welcome here.”

Adriana Blake, Ernie’s granddaughter, who runs Taos’ marketing department, said she refunded five season passes for locals peeved at the change in policy, even though it wasn’t going into effect for four months.

“I think we knew it would be a huge deal, but I don’t think we realized the extent of how huge a deal it would be,” she said.

The fiercely protective sentiments aren’t confined to Taos. Although Alta spokesman Tyler Jackson said he fields his share of nasty phone calls and e-mails from snowboarders, the volume pales in comparison to the number of complaints he got a few years ago when a group of local skiers spotted a snowboarder descending an Alta trail -- by permission -- during an early morning tour organized in conjunction with sister resort Snowbird.

At Mad River Glen, a nonprofit co-op with 1,800 shareholders, old-school ski patrollers have been known to call the cops when they catch boarders poaching off-limits terrain.

In response to it all, snowboarding icon Jake Burton and his Burton Snowboards team launched a competition this winter in which they offered $5,000 per holdout ski area -- $20,000 total -- to the rider or riders who produced the best video of a poach in action.

Burton called the remaining bans “fascist,” pointing out that in some cases the areas lease public land, then discriminate by not allowing snowboarders to use it.

(Adriana Blake dismissed that claim, saying, “It would be like the government coming into your restaurant and telling you what kind of food to serve. We’re only required to treat the forest well.”)

Still, hard feelings persist among snowboarders. Alta local Dylan Crossman, 27, a five-time national champion extreme skier, says when he visits other Utah resorts, he’ll often see a mutation of the classic Alta snowflake sticker plastered on riders’ boards, with the snowflake turned into a swastika.

“You tell people you ski at Alta,” said Crossman, “and they’re like, ‘Oh, so you’re one of those guys.’ ”

Indeed: an Altaholic, as they’re known, consistent with the almost cult-like following that characterizes Mad River and Alta devotees. Deer Valley is on the opposite end of the posh scale, employing a “five-star” approach that includes ski valets who help guests click into their bindings next to slope-side mansions; yet the fundamental bond among the three remains: no snowboarders allowed.

The stakes are different for each. Whereas California’s busiest resort, Mammoth Mountain, averages more than 1 million visits per year -- including 400,000 by snowboarders -- Mad River is happy if it hits 85,000. Nevertheless, the goal, to turn a profit, is the same for all.

Deer Valley, which allows its guests to vote on its skiing-only policy, is coming off a third consecutive season in which it set records for revenue and skier visits.

At Mad River, lift lines are a half-hour long when it snows -- a welcome sight for shareholders, among whom only a two-thirds opposition vote would overturn the ban.

And at Alta, without disclosing numbers, Jackson said the policy remains “strictly a business decision,” one that’s reevaluated every year by resort officials but which he doesn’t foresee changing any time soon.

“If we look out the window one day and no one’s here,” Jackson said, the snowboard ban “is one of those things we might consider, among others.”