When I was 10 years old, I entered a raffle at a school down the street from where I lived in Montreal. For $2 I was given eight tickets to gamble away into whichever prize-boxes I desired. I entered every one of them into a box marked “Snoboard.” The misspelling bugged me even then.
I received a phone call some days later, after I had all but abandoned hope, informing me that I had won the raffle. I was so happy that I cried. And then I cried some more, after realizing that snowboarding was an awful lot harder on both my tailbone and brittle prepubescent psyche than I had ever anticipated.
It was a plastic, binding-less, edgeless Black Snow snowboard available for about $30 at Canadian Tire. It had an arbitrary weight restriction of about 20 kg — not that it was actually capable of gliding over snow. But none of that mattered. I owned a snowboard, and I had the stickers to prove it.
For the next two years I saved all of my birthday, allowance, paper-route and Christmas money to muster the funds toward buying a real snowboard. Using my rudimentary arithmetic skills, I calculated that I needed around $500 for a full snowboard set up including a deck, bindings, boots and (begrudgingly) helmet.
And then, one day, it happened. I bought my first real snowboard.
It was a Lizard 148 with Apocalypse bindings. Both of those companies have been defunct for about a decade, and for good reason. It was an absolute piece of shit, but I loved it with all my still-developing, artichoke sized heart.
For much of the ’90s, snowboarding was outlawed from many ski-hills altogether. It was the sport of choice for bored skateboarders and impressionable, Sorel-wearing 10-year-olds like me who for some reason just thought it “cooler” than double-planking. Unlike skiing, snowboarding was founded as a reactionary sport — it was an alternative to the haughty, elitist culture of alpine skiing, and it was proud of its unkempt roots.
Those who chose to pursue the still burgeoning sport had to make do with poorly designed and often self-fashioned, makeshift equipment.
But at some point — beginning circa 2000, around the same time as skateboarding entered its hyper-popular Tony Hawk phase — the focus of snowboarding began to shift. What we are left with is an unrecognizable mutation of the sport’s former self.
Snowboarding isn’t about snowboarding anymore — it’s about flaunting obscure and expensive outerwear, advertising brand loyalty by stickering one’s top-sheet like a billboard, and constantly updating one’s
gear to keep up with the newest and hottest trends.
Unfortunately for anyone looking to get into the sport, and fortunately for anyone with a stake in the retail aspect of it, the commercial side to snowboarding is deeply ingrained, a cruel side effect of operating on a clearly defined seasonal system. Resorts have an opening day and a closing day, and weather dictates that it is simply impossible to snowboard for much more than three-fifths of the year, at best. And given the rough nature of the sport, gear frequently needs updating or fixing anyhow.
As a result, snowboard hardware and outerwear companies have a convenient marketing window at their disposal: “this season’s” gear is hawked as being infinitely more user-friendly, of higher quality, and, crucially, more desirable than the previous season’s.
What we are left with is a spectacle of consumerism gone wild. The biggest athletes in snowboarding can count Toyota, Microsoft, and RedBull as sponsors, and frequently have signature clothing lines. The sport’s so-called edgy and cool attitude has been harvested and pressed into production, and snowboarders everywhere are only too willing to oblige, lest they suffer disapproving sneers for their uncoordinated, out-dated set-up.
The website of snowboarding super-company Burton — by far the industry’s largest and most influential manufacturer — provides a perfect example of the farcical pageantry that snowboarding has become. “The Great Outfitter” is a feature which allows users to “create the ultimate outerwear setup” by mixing and matching pants and jackets before uploading it to a gallery. Pre-made pairings include “Straight Up Thuggin,” “Pink! Snow” and “Punk Boarder.”
On average, a shop-purchased basic snowboard kit will cost a minimum of about $500, including deck, bindings and boots — and that would be a very entry-level set up indeed. There are, of course, plenty of limited-edition, artist-series or otherwise “premium” snowboard decks costing upwards of $1,000 on their own.
The initial price tag of even the most basic snowboard set-up is a limiting factor to the sport’s accessibility. You won’t find too many inner city kids in line at Aspen or Fernie. Then there are the lift tickets, helmet rentals, inflated food prices and accommodation and travel costs for anyone who lives outside the immediate resort vicinity.
Beyond that, there is an implied sense of superiority that is subtly enforced through social comparison in the lift line itself: an atmosphere where one’s dedication to, interest in and skillfulness at snowboarding are judged based on the price tag and coordination of one’s outerwear and gear. While choosing the right outfit might be important to Malibu Barbie’s chances of securing a date with Varsity Ken, it won’t improve your riding. It does, however, close the door on anyone who can’t afford to buy a new set-up year after year.
While I love snowboarding as a pastime, I am embarrassed to call myself a snowboarder. To align myself with that identity is to associate with a sport whose elitism is of the same magnitude as fox hunting and polo, that turns its back on its own kind and whose popularity has come at the expense of the commodification of its very essence.