Avalanche Snowboards: Living their pipe dreams
Explore the snowboarding history that got its start at the Lake Tahoe slo
Four years before Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Shaun White was born in 1986, one of the first snowboard companies opened in South Lake Tahoe.
The name was Avalanche, and the name itself could represent what happened in popularity to an Olympic sport that has roots in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Earl Zeller was the chief designer for Avalanche Snowboards, considered a leading innovative force in the early days of snowboarding.
Chris Renaldi, Zeller’s longtime friend who had a front seat view to the early Tahoe snowboard scene, called Zeller the “Godfather of snowboarding,” among other labels.
“Earl, he was kind of like the Dogtown of Tahoe,” Renaldi said, referring to “Lords of Dogtown,” a 2005 movie on a group of Southern California surfers and skateboarders who brought new trends to the sports in the 1970s. “You can quote me on that.”
Zeller keeps a low profile. Living at South Lake Tahoe, he still tinkers with skateboards. He uses a slalom snowboard when he goes to resorts and avoids the halfpipe.
“Carving,” he said about what he does on the mountain nowadays. “Yeah, going fast and carving because we’re old now.”
In 1982, Zeller teamed with Chris Sanders and building contractor Lester Robertson to form Avalanche Snowboards. Plate bindings were introduced. A fin used to steer the board in powder, like a surfboard in wake, was removed. Sidecuts, or edges, from skis were imposed on the boards.
“In general terms, Avalanche snowboarding gear was one of the first companies that, rather than inventing the wheel, looked at things being used in the ski world,” said Lee Crane, general manager for TransWorld Media’s Online properties which include Transworldsnowboarding.com.
Zeller had a different, albeit similar, view.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “We were just copying people.”
“They were really on the technological edge,” Crane said.
At the North Shore the snowboard scene was also in swing. In 1979 Mark Anolik stumbled upon a natural halfpipe neighboring the Tahoe City dump. People like Tahoe City’s Terry Kidwell, dubbed by some as the “father of freestyle,” gravitated to the site as well as others in the skateboarding and photography fields. It was deemed the first snowboard halfpipe in the world.
“Colorado would be upset but the halfpipe is Tahoe’s gift to snowboarding. It really is,” said Crane, who wrote a snowboard history timeline in 1996 used by the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Zeller, whose group included Tahoe residents like Shaun Palmer and Glen Plake, said the two shores of Tahoe kept mainly to themselves until 1984 at the World Snowboarding Championships at Soda Springs Mountain Resort.
“They had their own thing going on up there and we had our own thing going on down here and it all came together in Soda Springs,” he said.
Palmer referred comment to others, citing his long-standing silence to the Tribune.
“You’ll have to talk to those guys,” he said.
The event drew protests from Jake Burton in Vermont because of the halfpipe event that he viewed as impure. But Zeller said snowboarders from all regions melded and had fun.
“This one was where it just grew,” Zeller said.
Other snowboarding events and publications, such as the International Snowboard Magazine, which Renaldi and Zeller worked for, arose during the second half of the 1980s.
Dick Yost remembers those early times in South Lake Tahoe. Yost opened The Village ski shop in 1986. After his son, Shon Baughman and Palmer approached him with an early model Sims snowboard, Yost decided to carry a couple for people, mostly youth, to rent and took it to the sand pits near Sawmill Pond.
No ski resorts had yet opened their doors to allow snowboarding. Heavenly Mountain Resort and Sierra Ski Ranch allowed snowboards in 1989.
“I think it was the camaraderie and the antiestablishment fact that nobody wanted them to snowboard,” Yost said. “You know you tell a kid he can’t do something and he would want to do it even more.”
Although the company is still in existence, Zeller opted out of Avalanche Snowboards a few years after its founding and become the art director at the International Snowboarding Magazine. He’s amazed by the evolution of snowboarding but believes it can be taken further in areas such as mogul and acrobatics with inverted aerial competitions.
“Who knows what’s next?” he said. “One thing’s for sure, Lake Tahoe is the center of the snowboarding universe. You cannot doubt it with such local legends as Palmer and (Jimmy Halopoff) and now Olympians, gold-medalist Hannah Teter and Elena Hight.”
Originally published in the February 15, 2006, issue of the Tahoe Daily Tribune and regularly vetted for accuracy.