Surfing the powder wave at Lake Tahoe
Special to the Tribune
This story originally appeared in the 2013-14 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine. Check out the free publication on stands now.
Are you obsessed with riding powder and the feeling of floating over fresh snow? Do you dream of taking your surfing skills to the mountains? Does the possibility of pulling off the first ever kickflip shuvit in the backcountry excite you?
If so, powdersurfing could open up a world of possibilities. The pioneers of this new industry are learning what shapes and sizes work best for surfing powder without bindings, and they are pushing the limits of what people think is possible.
“Landing a kickflip on snow was always a fantasy I had while snowboarding, and now it’s a reality,” South Lake Tahoe photographer Jason Hogan said. “Riding a powsurf board is a totally unique experience — it floats differently than a snowboard and you have to be more calculated in your lines. I just love the challenge and the sensation.”
Chris Gallardo, Tahoe resident and owner/founder of splitboard.com, has been riding bindingless for four seasons and powsurfing for two. He said the new sport has been challenging.
“You have to rely so much more on technique, weighting, foot placement, speed, balance, etc,” Gallardo said. “There’s something genuinely fun about adding that challenge back to snowboarding … It’s hard not to grin like a kid again and it quickly becomes addictive.”
Snowboarding has its roots in bindingless riding. The original snowboards, developed in the 1960s by Sherman Poppen and Dimitrie Milovich, had no fixed bindings — the riders stood on the board like a surfboard.
Hogan grew up skateboarding, and the first time he tried to ride snow sideways was on an old skateboard deck turned backward. When Burton re-birthed Steve Fink’s idea of a bi-deck snowskate, he knew he had to get one. Hogan started snowskating in 2002 and progressed to powder snowskating and powdersurfing.
Where to ride
Snowskates are currently allowed at all of Lake Tahoe’s resorts except Alpine Meadows, Granlibakken, Squaw Valley and Tahoe Donner. Powsurfs are newer on the scene, and many resorts have not deemed them acceptable snow-riding devices.
Russ Pecoraro, director of communications for Vail Resorts Mountain Division, said the resorts are often a step behind when it comes to finding out about and authorizing the use of new snow-riding devices.
“We take these things on a case-by-case basis,” Pecoraro said.
While things like snowbikes and snowskates have been tested and proven, powsurf boards have yet to be approved for use at Heavenly, Northstar California or Kirkwood, Pecoraro said. Without metal edges, powsurfs are nearly impossible to ride on groomed runs. So for the time being, powsurfers have to make their turns in the backcountry.
“Powsurfing is a way for riders to take those skills (from skateboarding and snowskating) into the backcountry, still keep their feet free from bindings, and take advantage of the freshly fallen snow and the thousands of acres of beautiful terrain,” said Jeremy Jensen, owner of Grassroots Powsurf.
For Jensen, powsurfers turn the mountain into a giant wave or a huge skate park. He said they make the small drops feel big and the steeps feel steeper. The boards allow riders to perform tricks that have never been done before in powder conditions. Jensen said he’s come close to riding out of 360 flips, backside 180 kickflips, pressure flips and kickflip shuvits.
“All that stuff is possible, it’s just a matter of finding the right feature and conditions to make it happen,” Jensen said. “It’s not like skateboarding or snowskating, where you can try a trick over and over until you get it. The takeoffs and the landings get ruined quickly, so you only really get a couple of good tries on a feature.”
Jensen said there is a freedom that comes from riding in the backcountry instead of at the resort, and it enables people to enjoy riding powder days after the end of a storm. He said powsurfing will be a natural fit for backcountry riders who feel that the rewards of floating through powder outweigh the effort it takes to get to the top of the mountain.
Hogan accesses Tahoe’s backcountry terrain using either snowshoes or folding approach skis. Depending on conditions, he said he’ll either bring his powsurf (for perfect powder) or his powskate (for variable snow).
“Tahoe is known for its stable backcountry snowpack, so along with the featured terrain it’s great for backcountry powsurfing and powskating,” Hogan said. “Last season, I took a powsurf tour from Talking Mountain to Flagpole Peak that was a lot of fun. I was amazed at how well the powsurf handled the steep, technical section I rode out on Talking Mountain.”
benefits of bindingless
Riding bindingless can be a good alternative for riders who have suffered knee or leg injuries in the past. After having multiple ACL and ankle surgeries, Jensen said he feels some discomfort when he straps into his snowboards.
“My knees get sore being locked into the same positions all the time and my back takes a beating when the runs get bumped out,” he said. “Having your feet free takes a lot of pressure off your knees and ankles. Wearing shoes or waterproof boots can be a lot more comfortable than wearing snowboard or ski boots.”
Searching for the feeling of surfing in the backcountry, a number of riders have started powdersurf board companies. Jensen, who lives in Utah, makes his own powsurfers featuring various shapes and designs for different terrain and riding styles. Jensen said he wanted to make something unique, not necessarily a bindingless snowboard.
“I wanted a board that provided a different feeling in the way it turned, floated and popped… something that set itself apart from snowboarding,” Jensen said.
Grassroots Powsurfs are shorter and wider than traditional snowboards. Some have traditional sidecuts and tapered shape, while others have reserve sidecuts or hybrids of the two. The combination of shape and profile of the boards gives them incomparable float and responsiveness.
“I wanted an agile board that floated and turned really well,” Jensen said. “Something that you could ride both forward and backward on. A board that could actually ‘ollie’ and open up freestyle progression in powder conditions … No such board existed at the time. I started designing, building and shaping my own so that I could make the type of riding I wanted to do a reality.”
Jensen said after making boards for himself and his friends, he knew that anyone who tried them would be instantly hooked. He thought that if he didn’t start a company, someone else would take their ideas and develop a similar product. The company has been doubling production and sales every year for the past four years.
“All the positive feedback and seeing the looks on the faces of the first-time riders got me super stoked,” Jensen said. “I started the company out really small and tested the waters for interest. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the people watching the films and seeing the photos.”
A growing industry
On the West Coast, Tim Wesley makes hand-shaped bamboo snowsurf boards in Leavenworth, Wash., called Snowshark Snowsurf. This year’s boards will have P-Tex bases and metal edges. He has been experimenting with different shapes for four years now.
“Coming from a skateboarding background, bindingless always seemed like the way to do it to me. The problem was, the shapes weren’t there,” Wesley said. “I looked into purchasing a snowsurf board, and I could not find one to buy. I’m a woodworker myself, so I figured I could make a decent board if I tried. It took a long time, but totally worth it now that the shape is refined.”
Wesley said because snowsurfing is a new sport, it’s been tough selling boards no one has ever tried before, but he’s getting the word out and spreading the stoke through photos and videos on his website and Facebook. Wesley said he hasn’t ridden in Tahoe yet, but he has plans to take his boards on a demo tour, and Lake Tahoe is on his list of stops.
“Tahoe is fortunate enough to share the maritime snowpack that we in the Northwest enjoy,” Wesley said. “So I’m positive that there’s good surfing in that set of mountains. I can’t wait.”
On a global scale, professional snowboarder Wolle Nyvelt has a company called Aesmo, which produces powsurfers. His website says his boards are handmade pieces of riding art intended for riders of a high skill level. Japanese rider Taro Tamai founded Gentemstick to enhance the connection between the rider, their board and the mountain.
Jensen said snowboarding has had a huge impact on his life, and he wanted to pay tribute to the soul of the sport and its original intentions by creating a powsurf line. He said every day during the winter brings something new, and progression in the sport is constant. Snowsurf designers and pioneers keep moving into bigger and steeper lines, dropping bigger cliffs and pushing the limits in every way possible.
“We have already far exceeded what we initially thought would be possible on our boards,” Jensen said, “so it’s pretty exciting to see what the next season will bring.”