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How WA played a key role in snowboarding’s explosion in the U.S.

Dec. 6, 2022 Updated Tue., Dec. 6, 2022 at 4:31 p.m.

A snowboarder rides on Chair 8, with outstanding views of Mount Shuksan in the background at Mt. Baker Ski Area.  (John Nelson/courtesy)
A snowboarder rides on Chair 8, with outstanding views of Mount Shuksan in the background at Mt. Baker Ski Area. (John Nelson/courtesy)
By Gregory Scruggs The Seattle Times

On a fateful Sunday in February 1980, Burien teenager Mike Olson and a friend gingerly approached Dave Moffett, the president of Ski Acres (now known as Summit Central), and asked for permission to ride up the Bonanza chairlift toting snowboards they had made in junior high shop class.

Moffet sized up the teens, who he knew through the ski school program, and called the lift operator. “I’ve got a couple crazy dudes with these surfboard-looking things, just let ‘em up,” he said over the radio, then turned back to the aspiring snowboarders with a caveat: “Let’s see how it goes today.”

It went well, at least well enough that permission to snowboard wasn’t revoked, and with that simple radio call, The Summit at Snoqualmie as it is now known likely became the first ski area in North America, and possibly the world, to allow snowboarding. Not that the sport’s official histories acknowledge Washington’s groundbreaking role in the once-renegade, now mainstream snow sport. Most snowboarding legends begin in Vermont, where Jake Burton started what became a global brand, or in southern California with Tom Sims’ namesake rival company.

Olson and his ilk were a decade behind those pioneers. “We were the youngsters, but this is also a birthplace of snowboarding,” said Olson, co-founder of snowboard maker Mervin Manufacturing, in November during the grand opening of the permanent exhibit on snowboarding at the Washington State Ski and Snowboard Museum in Snoqualmie Pass. Featuring a small assortment of artifacts and a four-minute-long video with archival footage, the new exhibit makes a strong case for the Evergreen State’s pivotal contributions to the sport.

While snowboarders fought for the right to ride chairlifts in other parts of the country – to this day, snowboards are not allowed at Utah’s Alta and Deer Valley as well as Vermont’s Mad River Glen – Washington ski areas took an enlightened approach to the newfangled invention.

“It was good business,” said Moffett, now president of the museum he co-founded. “Youth were an important segment of customers. You want to encourage them, not discourage them.”

A similar progressive attitude prevailed at Mt. Baker Ski Area, which quickly became one of the sport’s global hot spots. Its reputation was buoyed by the Legendary Banked Slalom, a swooping racecourse first run in 1985. While Sims, the New Jersey-born Californian, started the event, Cascades shredders frequently hoisted the infamous duct tape trophy – the 1994 version of the quirky award is on display – on home turf. The exhibit cites two-time winner Amy Howat, whose family runs the North Cascades ski area, and three-time winner Craig Kelly, who tragically died in an avalanche near Revelstoke, B.C. in 2003, as local snowboarders who pushed the sport in its early days.

Olson credits our often derided Cascade concrete for fostering ideal snowboard conditions. “We have bottomless mashed potato snow, which is better than Utah or Colorado featherweight powder because it feels more like surfing,” he said. “You get that body of snow that feels like water and gives you push back against your board.”

The exhibit also makes a compelling argument that sea-level Puget Sound has been fertile ground for minting professional freestyle snowboarders, from Vashon Island-raised Jamie Lynn to Gig Harbor resident and Olympian Barrett Christy to six-time X Games gold medalist Peter Line. “The experience of having Snoqualmie Pass as my home mountain made it that much more attainable for me,” said Line, whose 1999 X Games gold medal is on display. “The Northwest scene took snowboarding to hitting bigger and more technical jumps with lots more spin. It was a groundbreaking movement for the sport.”

That on-mountain progression fueled a flourishing local snowboard business. CAPiTA Snowboards, Union Bindings, and Coal Headwear, along with those brands’ distributor C3, are all based in Seattle, while Line is busy with his recently-revived Forum Snowboards brand.

As the exhibit film’s narrator justly concludes, “If it weren’t for the Evergreen State, the world of snowboarding wouldn’t be nearly as rad.”

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