I recently spotted a Facebook post asking “Where has the snowboarding counterculture gone?”. The poster was angry that people buy non snowboard brands that don’t give back to the sport, that many snowboarders no longer embrace the spirit of the sport and that pros are just athletes treating it like a job.
On one hand I thought what a pretentious post. How dare one person decide that others are “not behaving like snowboarders should”. On the other hand I thought what an interesting question! Does snowboarding still have a counterculture, or is it just a sub-culture of skiing?
The counterculture element of snowboarding was everything that skiing was not. Back in the late 80s and 90s this meant youngsters doing things on a snowboard that were forbidden and hated by the ski industry. But it also represented more than an anti-skiing stance, it was a lifestyle and a way to rebel against society.
For me there was never any counterculture element to becoming a snowboarder. In the 90s I was a teenager in the UK and my family were not rich enough to take us skiing. So I never had a chance to snowboard until I was in my mid twenties and could pay for it myself.
But I watched snowboarding grow from afar and I liked it.
There was never a question of skiing and I always knew I would snowboard. I could already skateboard and surf – both badly – so it makes sense to stand sideways. What I wasn’t expecting was for snowboarding to completely take over my life.
My first trip was just a lucky break. A Dutch girl I met in Tasmania offered me the chance to help decorate her parents new ski chalet in France. So a friend and I joined her and very quickly picked up the sport. I loved it so much that I quit my job and moved to Whistler the following winter.
Living with 10 shredders I embraced the snowboarding lifestyle in Whistler. I loved it and directed my career towards adventure travel and action sports, eventually becoming a snowboard writer. These days I go on lots of press trips each winter. I review winter sports gear, ski resorts, snowboarding holidays and backcountry trips etc.
If there is powder you’ll find me off-piste. I like a park session, but equally I love snowboarding on the piste, exploring a ski area and finding fun side hits. There is no one passion that drives me, I like every element of the sport. Even in a shitty whiteout I will normally be out all day making the best of the conditions.
But while I have a huge passion for snowboarding I certainly don’t represent its ‘counterculture’. I am in my mid-forties, have kids, a mortgage and bills to pay.
Even in Whistler I had saved enough money to stay in a nice place and I didn’t need to work. It was the only time in my life that I snowboarded all day every day, smoked lots of weed (it’s legal in British Colombia!) and called everyone dude. But while I embraced the lifestyle it was less counter-culture and more ski bum.
This doesn’t make me less of a snowboarder, or mean that I don’t support the sport. I am just doing a job. I am lucky to work in an industry I love, meaning I get to snowboard lots and to be paid for it. So I am very lucky, but also about as far from the snowboarding counterculture as you can get.
Which brings me neatly onto others who earn their beans from snowboarding.
Everyone from household names like Shaun White, to relatively unknown (but well respected) pro Sparrow Knox to speed record breaker Jamie Barrow makes their money from snowboarding. They don’t represent snowboarding counterculture any more than I do – although all are infinitely cooler!
By it’s very definition counterculture has values and norms of behavior substantially different to mainstream society. You could say it is diametrically opposed to typical cultural ideals. The snowboarding counter cultural expressed the ethos of snowboarders during the sports early years which was in opposition to the ski industry.
So the snowboarding counterculture only really lasted for a brief period during it’s development. Like it or not snowboarding is a mainstream sport. It has been in the Olympics since 1998, it’s on TV and is used to promote brands that have nothing to do with the sport such as Redbull, Nescafe, Frosties and Audi.
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If you want to find out about the snowboarding counterculture there is a good Facebook group called History of Snowboarding. There are many members who were involved in snowboarding back in the early days of the sport. I really like the chat in the group, but lets face it, snowboarding is mainstream and no longer counter to the ski-culture.
In the early days snowboarding was not allowed on many mountains. You had to be a renegade to snowboard. There is no surprise that a counterculture developed. But as with anything new and controversial once there is mainstream acceptance the counterculture gets seriously diluted. But has it completely gone?
No I don’t believe it has. The ethos of putting snowboarding ahead of everything else, of taking risks, living on the edge and using what little resources you have to pursue your passion is still alive and kicking. Many snowboarders have it and in a way it has merged with the ski bum philosophy to create something far more inclusive.
The counterculture has been diluted and evolved into a form of expression. While there are snowboarders who use the sport as a way to get around a mountain there are still plenty with the original ‘snowboarder’ attitude. This is of treating a mountain, stair case, car park, fallen tree etc as a blank canvas on which to express yourself.
And plenty of skiers now also have this approach. So rather than the pre-snowboarding attitude of form over fun, and treating skiing as a way to ‘travel’ around a mountain, skiers have embraced the snowboarder attitude of using the mountain as a playground.
Back in the old days skiers and snowboarders rarely rode together, but now most groups are mixed. Ultimately it is better to ride with people who have the same attitude as you regardless of whether they are skiing or snowboarding.
So where has the snowboarding counterculture gone? In my opinion it’s become something far better. It has morphed into an attitude that encompasses skiers and snowboarders of all disciplines. It’s become freestyle and freeride, names born out of the snowboarding spirit of being free to ride how you want.
Just like punk, skateboarding and more recently veganism, snowboarding became mainstream, so by definition it can no longer be counterculture. It is also not a sub-culture of skiing, instead it has fundamentally changed skiing culture for the better.
The riding during the early days of snowboarding created freestyle and freeride now enjoyed by skiers and snowboarders. This ultimately made skiing cool again and made winter sports more enjoyable, expressive and fun.
The snowboarding counterculture is long gone. But the far stronger and inclusive freestyle and freeride culture that has evolved from it has significantly changed winter sports for the better.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my take on where has the snowboarding counterculture gone. Let us know your opinion in the comments. Oh and if you fancy a winter sports trip check out our ski vacations and snowboarding holidays.