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From the archives

Jake Burton’s innovation has fostered a snowbound sensation

Jake Burton at the top of Stowe riding one of his boards.
Jake Burton at the top of Stowe riding one of his boards.Globe staff/File

This story was originally published on Dec. 18, 1997.

There is little truth to the notion among fanatical followers that Jake Burton is God.

“Patron saint” sometimes sticks to him, but Burton (nee Jake Burton Carpenter), the 43-year-old whose very name is synonymous with snowboarding, does not even claim to be a visionary. Or creator. Or inventor. Or, for that matter, revolutionary.

Yet is is hard to imagine that snowboarding would ever have happened without Burton, who, despite his simple tastes, is president of the largest pure snowboard manufacturer in the world.

The word “pure” differentiates Burton Snowboards from the ski manufacturers who, after seeing the Burton bandwagon on its way by the early ‘80s, recognized at some point that this was no passing fad and jumped aboard.

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“I just saw snowboarding as an alternative to skiing and the expense,” says Burton. “It was just a back-hill kind of thing. That’s how we used to go boarding in the beginning.”

But snowboarding became bigger, much bigger, than that. Not only has the 20-year explosion in boarding - once designated by Time magazine as “America’s worst new sport” - changed the face of the ski world, it is now becoming plausible that boarders will one day (soon?) outnumber skiers, as some in the sport always have claimed they would.

“In the first year,” says Burton, “we sold 300 boards, then for about 10 years went up 100 percent a year. Now we’re going up around 25 percent a year. Eventually, boarding will be bigger than skiing. I think the sensation that snowboarding offers is simply more fun.”

Burton is quick to point out that there were snowboards before his: A prototype was invented in the 1920s, and soldiers returningfrom World War I spoke of troops standing sideways on barrel staves, sliding down hills on the battlefield.

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Then in the ‘60s, a tinkerer named Sherman Poppen from Muskegon, Mich., fastened a couple of short boards together to make a single board he called a “snurfer.” It was a standup sled with a rope on the front to hang on to, and riding it was somewhat terrifying. No edges, no turning. Brunswick picked up the patent and sold more than 800,000 Snurfers.

Though largely a children’s sled-toy, the Snurfer fascinated Burton, who as a 14-year-old freshman at Brooks School broke a finger snurfing into a tree. He began skiing, and for years tinkered with various forms of the Snurfer, eventually adding metal edges and a P-Tex bottom surface.

Burton attended the University of Colorado with hopes of making the national champion ski team. But a series of accidents - first while in a car, then while walking on campus, and finally while riding a skateboard - left him with a broken collarbone and changing plans. With no hopes of making the ski team, Burton bailed out of Boulder, and by the late ‘70s, he was in Vermont, still tinkering with his Snurfer.

Burton Snowboards was founded in 1977 in Londonderry, Vt., and within two years and “a couple of mistakes” was $ 100,000 in debt. Burton taught tennis by day, tended bar by night, but never lost his fascination with refining the snowboard. In 1979, Burton recalls, when Snurfer sponsored a competition in Michigan, he entered and won the open division.

“Snurfer got a lot of product out there and turned a lot of people on to the sensation of the sport,” says Burton. “If the Snurfer hadn’t been out there, snowboarding wouldn’t have happened.”

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Other Snurfer aficionados were working on board designs all over the country. The most significant pre-Burton board was designed by Dimitre Milovich, whose problem was that snow conditions in the Utah backcountry area where he lived were too good to be an ideal research-and-development lab. With copious amounts of “champagne powder” in the high country, Milovich did not work on edge development on his Winterstick boards, though the designs were said to be the best boards of their day. Still, metal edges were needed for the board to carve.

Another big name in early boarding was skateboarder Tom Sims, who along with his designer, Chuck Barfoot, was developing snowboards by 1978. Sims claims to have turned a skateboard into a snowboard as early as 1963.

But by the early ‘80s, Burton had jumped into a significant lead in snowboard development, and early on saw the potential for a European market. He and his wife, Donna, studied German at Middlebury, then opened an Austrian operation.

“I wasn’t a visionary or anything,” says Burton. “We think long-term here, but I only take one year or two at a time. Still, I just knew that more and more people would enjoy boarding - the sesnsation, the whole way of relating to winter and the snow. It was bound to keep growing. For one thing, skiing I think made a mistake when it insisted on going for performance rather than feel and sensation.”

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Case in point: the boots. Though one side of boarding does use rigid boots for carving and performance riding, the essence of boarding, for Burton, is the soft, comfortable, warm, thick, fuzz-lined boot. In comparison to the rigid plastic molds of ski boots, he says, “You have to conclude that ski equipment is just not very user-friendly.”

Sensation is at the heart of Burton’s vision. Asked to describe his favorite boarding experience, he says, “The biggest rush for me continues to be the sensation of riding through tight Vermont trees just a little too fast. On one hand, you don’t know what’s coming up next, but if you’re on, you’ve got so much rhythm that you can absorb anything that comes your way. It’s also real quiet in the woods, and the whole experience is very private, which only adds to the intensity of it all.”

Though Burton insists he did not imagine anything like the growth snowboarding has enjoyed in the last decade, he acknowledges that growth has not come without problems. There was, for starters, the culture thing. In their efforts to distance themselves from skiers, some young boarders brought a punk rock image onto the slopes. In the 1988 “worst new sport” article, Time called boarding “a breezy fad . . . clumsy intrusion on the sleek precision of downhill skiing, but to some 100,000 enthusiasts, many of them adolsecent males, it is the coolest snow sport of the season. . . . Of course, there are holdouts. Complains a veteran Vermont skier: ‘Snowboarding is not about grace and style, but about raging hormones.’ “

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Similarly, a slightly hysterical episode of the TV show “American Journal” entitled “Where’d all these snowboarders come from?” drew a wholly inaccurate picture of boarders “knocking down skiers like bowling pins.”

Like many lifelong boarders, Burton is angered by this rap. Critics, he says, have been too nearsighted to realize that the first waves of boarding appealed mainly to young males.

”If a kid’s a jerk, he’s a jerk,” Burton says. “The fact is, early boarding was mostly kids, and kids hadn’t been at ski areas for years. When I was a kid at a ski area, I used to spit off the chairlift. Then no one was spitting off chairlifts because there were no kids at ski areas anymore. Then suddenly, there were some boarder kids spitting off chairlifts and eveyone freaked out. It was crazy. It’s just that kids were back.”

Olympic acceptance might have been a dream come true, says Burton, certainly in the early days. But as the sport becomes institutionalized in Nagano, Japan, next February, the regimentation of the International Ski Federation looms as a threat to the freedom and individualism at the heart of snowboarding.

“Snowboarding isn’t skiing and it isn’t a team sport,” says Burton. “Accepting and recognizing individualism is what the sport is built on. The concept of an American snowboard team traveling around the world, year in, year out, all dressed up in red-white-and-blue uniforms, is enough to make me gag. Forcing these ‘team athletes’ to compete on a single World Cup tour is even more whacked.”

And though his company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season, and despite its evolution into the spotlight of recreational sport, Burton says his concept of snowboarding has not changed a bit.

“Accepting and recognizing individualism is what this sport is built on,” he says. “It’s about individual expression, how each one relates to winter and snow.”