Every march, just about the time the smoke starts to billow from
the sugar houses, the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships
returns to southern Vermont, and dude, what comes with it is
definitely not the Stratton Mountain your father knew. ¬∂
Suddenly, jarringly, the hills are alive with the sounds of
hip-hop. Ghostface Killah. Funkmaster Flex. In the Sun Bowl
snowboards are sliding down rails on a stairway in a slope to
nowhere. Urban culture collides with the Green Mountains, spurred
by a sound system that blows the cones right off the pines. ¬∂
Conversations like the following occur:
"Dude, your helmet is sick." The helmet is retro German army,
riding high on the head.
"Sweet, eh? I got it from a street vendor in Taiwan."
"That thing is holy."
A festival atmosphere pervades the Open, which is just the
medicine an Eastern ski resort requires in the dying days of
winter. And last weekend, the first official one of spring,
that's exactly what the event brought to Stratton, along with 566
of the world's best snowboarders, from more than 18 countries,
both amateur and pro. A $70 entry fee was all a young hotshot
needed to take his chances against an Olympic gold medalist like
Vermont's own Ross (the Boss) Powers, a two-time Open champ.
Competing in three formats--rail jam, halfpipe and
slopestyle--the boarders shredded their cares away to the delight
of some 35,000 spectators over the three days, who watched and
cheered with the ardor of believers worshipping at the cradle.
For Vermont is the cradle of snowboarding, and the U.S. Open,
first held in 1982 on a hill called Suicide Six, outside of
Woodstock, Vt., is the oldest and rowdiest competition in this
vibrant young sport.
Snowboarding wasn't invented in Vermont, but it entered the
mainstream here, shepherded by Jake Burton Carpenter, who founded
Burton Snowboards in the town of Londonderry in 1977.
Snowboarding's nearest cousins were (and are) skateboarding and
surfing, not Alpine skiing. You grabbed your board and a posse of
friends, hiked up a snowy hill and rode till you dropped. No
major ski resort allowed snowboards on the lifts in those early
years. Stratton became the first.
"In the early '80s Stratton's mountain manager, Paul Johnston,
said we could take a few runs with the ski patrol to show them
that we knew what we were doing," Carpenter recently recalled.
"He deserves a lot of the credit. No one else really wanted to
give us a chance. The deal was, we had to give lessons and
certify all snowboarders before they could ride the lifts. We had
to be Nazis about it, or they'd have shut us down."
The certification process was nothing radical. A boarder had to
prove he could turn both directions and stop. One student who
took five tries to pass was Tricia Byrnes, now 29, whose family
drove up to Stratton from their home in Greenwich, Conn., for
vacations when she was growing up. Byrnes eventually caught on.
She won the Open in 1992 as an amateur, and this year she took
home $10,000 from the $200,000 purse by finishing second in the
women's halfpipe. "This event has always been a big deal to
snowboarders," says Byrnes, who has competed in every Open since
'89. "This is the one event that's always been there for us. It's
not about TV ratings and money, it's about putting on a good
competition for the riders. The crowd that comes up from New York
and New Jersey brings all this energy the riders feed off. You're
like: I don't want to suck today in front of all these people. I
want to be better than my best."
After two years in a little-known ski area called Snow Valley,
just east of Manchester, the Open moved in 1985 to Stratton,
where it has found a home. "We were showcasing the sport at a
time when many ski resorts in the state didn't allow
snowboarding," says Stratton's communication manager, Myra
Foster. "In the early days it was mostly an adolescent male
Hmm. What do adolescent males like, phenomenally? Let's just say
the lads didn't let the partying ruin their snowboarding fun.
Kegs were rolled up the hill at night and buried near the
halfpipe during the Open. Snowball attacks were annually waged on
helpless VIPs perched on elevated platforms.
"But what makes the event unique is that it's put on by riders,
for riders," says Maria McNulty, the event's director at Burton
Snowboards, one of the Open's sponsors. "We try to reinvent
ourselves each year, to be progressive by polling the riders to
see what new formats they'd like to try."
Two years ago that meant throwing out the quarterpipe and adding
the rail jam, a highly technical competition that is a direct
link to the sport's early skateboarding roots. "People are, like,
hitting the rails," says 17-year-old Hannah Teter of Belmont,
Vt., who finished fourth in the halfpipe at Stratton and will be
a name to watch at the 2006 Olympics. "Freestyle is definitely
where it's at in snowboarding. That's where you find the cool
kids. Not many people race gates, even though that's in the
Olympics. Boardercross, [a racing event that] will be in the
Olympics in 2006, is already simmering out. It's just not as
exhilarating as freestyle."
And exhilaration is what it's all about. "There's a place in
snowboarding for structured formats like the Olympics'," says
Kelly Clark, the West Dover, Vt., native whose halfpipe gold in
2002 further propelled snowboarding into the cultural heartland,
since it was the first won by a U.S. athlete in Salt Lake City.
Last Saturday, Clark won the U.S. Open halfpipe for the second
time, pocketing $20,000. "But it's nice to have events like this
to balance it out. It's fun."
Which is why the Open prefers to use a jam format for its
competitions. In a jam a rider takes as many runs as he can fit
into a given time period, similar to surfing. It encourages
riders to try new tricks. Only your best run counts. The jam
format led to a breakthrough men's halfpipe competition on
Saturday, in which both Danny Kass and Ross Powers, the silver
and gold medalists, respectively, at the 2002 Olympics, became
the first to land back-to-back 1080s (three-revolution spins)
during the same final. "The jam allows you to try what you most
want to try but doubt you can land," said the 21-year-old Kass,
who is from Vernon, N.J. "Growing up in the East, the Open is the
most sought after, looked-up-to contest of the season. The
technical level today was higher than at the Olympics."
"For snowboarders the Open has more prestige than the Olympics,"
said Colin Langlois, a rail jam winner in Mammoth in 2003, who
grew up in Morrisville, Vt. "You win here, and you've won the
oldest snowboard competition in the world."
It's holy, dude. Totally holy.
This is the 36th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Illinois
For more about sports in Vermont and the other 49 states, go to
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HUBERT SCHRIEBL TEEN SPIRIT Fourteen-year-old Mikkel Bang of Oslo, a halfpipe competitor, was one of the 566 snowboarders vying for $200,000 in prize money.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HUBERT SCHRIEBL BOTTOMS UP Olympian Kass toasted his Open halfpipe win.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HUBERT SCHRIEBL GET ON THE BUS Fans at Stratton perched everywhere to watch boarders riding the rail.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMES H. SCHRIEBL (INSET) [See caption above]
"This is the one event that's always been there for us," says
Byrnes. "It's not about TV ratings, it's about putting on a
good competition for the riders."