Crisis averted

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by Iain MacMillan from Winter 2013 issue

Anyone who skis off-piste knows how terrain choices often must be altered if you want to keep a boarder on board.

There was a time, 10 or 15 years ago, when the worriers and hand-wringers in the world of skiing were fretting about the inevitable total collapse of our sport.

Whether it was because of progeny who’d seemingly just moved up from their little skis and Velcro-closing boots to pull the big switch as tweens, teens who hadn’t been born on skis so bypassed two planks without even trying, or yet another 30-something dentist who’d crossed to join his buddies on the dark side, there was certainly cause for concern as the colour for snowboarder numbers on graphs and pie charts began to pour toward skier territory. The black hole of snowboarding was made even more obvious with ad campaigns in all forms of media pushing the iconic skier off his high-and-mighty podium to make way for this new and even cooler brethren: the baggie-panted snowboarder.

If fretters aren’t doing so already, they can breathe a sigh of relief. The alarm was called off some time ago—indeed, listening to friends in the snowboard industry over the last few years, it’s now ringing loudly in their fire hall. It’s not as if snowboarding is sliding off a cliff like the once pervasive but now esoteric sports of windsurfing or inline skating, but as far back as a decade ago, surveys have been circulating that suggest snowboarding is not only stalling out but dropping consistently in participation. Annual numbers collected south of the border from the National Ski Areas Association show snowboarders under the age of 24 continue to trend down, and have been for at least five seasons.

The reasons aren’t earth-shattering, with the most obvious being freeride and twintip skis—and corresponding mystical genres—that exploded onto the scene long ago. They’ve managed to keep a generation of youts seemingly rebelling, yet happily on two boards, at a period in life when not long ago conversion seemed inevitable. “Why strap onto a snowboard when I can do so much more on twins?” Looking back nostalgically, the period of time before “snowboard parks” were quietly renamed “terrain parks” was as short as the era of car phones.

Anyone who skis off-piste knows how terrain choices often must be altered if you want to keep a boarder on board. I suppose some have simply realized split boards and snowshoes aren’t the answer—skis are. On some icy patches of eastern skiing, racing cliques still rule and their influence has always been significant on potential riders. Skiing has never been so fractious with more big fish in more little ponds.

Defining actual numbers of skiers and snowboarders in Canada and abroad is certainly malleable. I have friends who say they ski, but haven’t in two years, nor been on a ski holiday for a decade. Other keeners, who religiously hang out in the race ruts nearly every weekend at their club in Ontario, haven’t gone on a week-long trip to real mountains for a decade. Thankfully, I also have passionate ski friends and acquaintances who call me to plan their vacations or choose their gear to the point that I sometimes have to hide from their distracting calls and e-mails during the workday.

Canadian Ski Council data from last season puts one-plankers at 25 per cent, but the numbers vary hugely with geography, with a higher percentage at, say, Whistler over Ontario hills. Close to 25 per cent of visitors to eastern U.S. and Colorado ski areas are on snowboards, while the highest numbers, 44 per cent, are in California. The National Ski Areas Association says that across the U.S. snowboarding numbers plateaued some time ago and are now slowly but steadily dropping.

Back in the 1990s, ski gear was dominated by a few core brands, while snowboarding was shooting off in its Wild West. I remember being astonished when a snowboard-industry colleague told me he had a list of almost 1,000 “manufacturers.” Somehow, today the reverse seems true, with so many garage brands of ski-makers around that technical editors Marty, Ron and I can’t keep up; meanwhile, Burton and Ride have continued to dominate the once rebel kingdom. Sounds a bit like Google and Facebook.

Now, it’s time to fess up. No, I’m not a snowboarder. Someone at Ski Canada the other day was saying how the amusement of teasing snowboarders in magazine copy in us-and-them gags just doesn’t produce the satisfaction (nor the letters to the editor) it once did. But whether it’s out of respect or just plain indifference, I’m proud to say I hang out in a mixed group. In fact, Art Director Norm, the guy responsible for making this magazine look so great issue after issue, wears big, old soft boots beneath his baggie pants. And even a couple of writers bat for the other team (although I won’t out them here).

I tried to find a photo of Normie on his board sliding sideways through life beside me on my skis, but together we’re evidently as elusive as a couple of yetis. Maybe we’ll snap one on our next road trip.

Iain MacMillan
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