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Once resented snowboarders fly high

January 27, 2009|By LAWRENCE WALSH / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Snowboarders, once the scruffy-looking and shunned stepchildren of the ski industry, have come a long way since they were banned from many slopes in the late 1970s.

Across the nation, there has been a noticeable growth in snowboarding, particularly within the past decade. According to the National Ski Areas Association Journal, the trade publication that covers the ski industry, the ratio of skiers to snowboarders nationally is currently 71.9 to 29.1, with the highest percentage of snowboard activity in the Pacific West at 46.9 percent.

"They're not just the stereotypical teens and 20-somethings," said Troy Hawks, the journal's managing editor. "We're seeing more fathers and grandfathers, men in their 40s and 50s who are adventuresome. A lot of them ski and snowboard."

At Pennsylvania's Seven Springs resort, for example, snowboarders now are as welcome as a sustained snowfall. For the most part, the resentment skiers once had for them has waned, especially since skiers learned to give them plenty of room because most snowboarders have a blind spot over their right shoulder.

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"As a general rule, snowboarders are the first to arrive in the fall and the last to leave in the spring," said Dick Barron, director of ski/snowboard operations at Seven Springs. He has been with the resort in various capacities since 1969.

"When I came to work the morning after that 5-inch snowfall we had in late October, I saw a snowboard track -- and a few sitzmarks -- on the Avalanche slope. We weren't open, of course. Someone had climbed up there to take a run. That's how anxious and dedicated snowboarders are. When we opened (on Nov. 21), a group of them were lined up to get on the six-pack," the high-speed, six-passenger chairlift at the bottom of the Wagner slope.

Chris Pelliccione, manager of the ski/snowboard shop at Seven Springs, said there were three snowboards in the shop when he arrived in 1990.

"We had a huge increase in snowboard rentals during the 1992-93 season, then it hit a plateau, and now it's on the rise again," he said. "We now have 1,200 snowboards. We're changing over to Burton snowboards and their strap bindings because they are more adjustable, and that's what our customers want."

He said the shop has rented snowboards to everyone from pre-schoolers to retirees.

"I'm much more of a skier than a snowboarder," he said with a laugh. "I was out snowboarding one day and fell on Phillip's Run (a novice trail). I'm lying there, exhausted, and a 5-year-old boy on a snowboard slides up to me, stops and says: 'Get up. You can't learn if you don't get up.' "

Pelliccione said the number of snowboards and boots "can get pretty thin on busy days.

"We're definitely seeing more snowboarders. There's no doubt about that. We've renovated the shop multiple times and expanded it twice to accommodate all the snowboards and boots as well as 4,000 sets of skis, boots and poles."

Greg Klein, who owns and operates what is now known as Willi's Ski and Board shops, said the ratio of ski and snowboard sales is about 70-30, respectively.

He said the initial slow but steady interest in snowboarding "increased during the 1989-90 season. That was when grunge (clothing) began with the browns, blacks and other dark colors. Within three or four years, the number of snowboard manufacturers jumped from about eight or so to 70. It has since dropped back down because a lot of brands never held up under warranty. We carry about 10 snowboard brands."

Klein said novice snowboarders can outfit themselves for about $500 for a snowboard, boots and bindings. Add another $200 for helmet -- "the warmest hat you'll ever have" -- wrist guards, "especially if you work with your hands," and hip pads. Another $250 should cover a parka and pants.

If you're interested in trying snowboarding, everyone interviewed for this story agreed on one piece of advice: Take a lesson.

"That's what I should have done," said Michael Valach, director of skier and rider services at Wisp, the resort that overlooks Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland. "I tried to teach myself to snowboard the first two times I went out, but I quickly found out that a lesson from a professional instructor makes all the difference in the world."

Valach, a veteran of 22 years in the snowsports business, said the best time to learn is on a warm day when the snow is soft, and so are the unplanned -- but always to be expected -- landings.

"Skiing is easier to learn but takes longer to master; snowboarding takes longer to learn, but is easier to master," he said.

"It's pretty amazing how snowboarding has taken off in the last four years, especially here at Wisp," he said, where the ratio of skiers to snowboarders is 60-40. A Burton Learn-to-Ride program there has experienced a 45 percent increase this year over last year.

Mike Demao, who owned and operated Center Ski & Board in suburban Pittsburgh for 24 years, said snowboard sales were minimal when he and his wife, Nancy, started out. "We didn't place an order until the late 1980s. We started with two to three manufacturers and grew to eight or nine."

He and his wife now operate the Sport Shop at the Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort in Hidden Valley, Pa., where the ratio of ski to snowboard sales runs about 60-40.

Hawks, of the National Ski Areas Association, said there were a record-setting 60.5 million skier and snowboarder visits to the nation's resorts last season, thanks to "improved winter weather conditions" (read snowmaking) and "abundant snowfall" in all but the Southeast region.

- Scripps Howard News Service

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