Monday, December 15, 2008

The Snowboarder Menace

Cross-posted from Taki's Magazine.

In honor of the 2008-09 North American ski season, I give you the following rant.

As of March 18, 2008, Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Mad River Glen in Vermont were the last skiers-only resorts in North America. The next day, Taos Ski Valley opened up its slopes to snowboarders. Now only three resorts free of snowboards remain. 

The fall of Taos—as alarming to North American skiers as the fall of the Bastille to the ancien regime—typifies everything obnoxious in American life today: the sacrificing of the will of the majority to the complaints of the obstreperous few, the cloaking of every cause in the phony garb of victimhood, the wanton destruction of the traditions that make life worthwhile, the relentless homogenization of the cultural landscape in the name of “diversity.”  Even non-skiers may take it as a warning.

To review, skiers get down the mountain on two planks facing downhill.  Snowboarders get down on a single board facing sideways. The difference means nothing to snowboarders but everything to skiers.

First, while skis make a euphonious swishhhh, snowboards pollute the atmosphere with a cacophonous crrrrunch!

Second, snowboarders make wider turns than skiers, thereby leaving less room on the slope for others.

Third, while skiers face downhill, snowboarders make half their turns blind, forcing everyone on the slope to get of their way to avoid getting hit.  A trial lawyer in Colorado once told me that he makes all of his money litigating injuries from snowboard-skier collisions. 

Fourth, while skiers rest standing up, snowboarders plop their bottoms on the ground every time they need to catch their breath.  Clusters of snowboarders now obstruct almost every slope in North America.  Indeed, snowboarders have cultivated whole ethos of loafing.  A pack of them can be found menacing passers-by at the base of almost every resort in America.

The foregoing harms are ultimately forgivable What makes snowboards truly intolerable is that they destroy great snow conditions.  While skiers carve turns, snowboarders (even the best of them) plow.  Groomed trails turn to ice under the snowboards’ punishment.  Worse, fresh powder disappears the instant the first snowboarder slides his way down the mountain.

Fresh powder!  One day of powder skiing—nay, one run of powder skiing—makes up for years of inflated lift ticket prices and disappointing weather.  In the past, almost all North American resorts had powder days. No longer. With grooming, high speed lifts and slope-side development to lure more and more skiers onto the slopes, new snow these days gets packed down or skied out within minutes.

Until recently, only three resorts in North America still gave you a fighting chance of finding untracked snow: Alta, Mad River Glen, and Taos.  Each limits the number of skiers on the mountain at any one time.  Alta—William F. Buckley Jr.‘s favorite American resort—gets so much snowfall that to prevent avalanches it has to fire canons for days before opening its terrain.  As soon as they stop firing, almost every skier can hike or traverse to an untracked run. 

The only way to get to the top of Mad River Glen in Vermont is via a 1948 diesel-powered single chair lift.  Riding it is the skiing equivalent of driving a Model T.  Meanwhile, Mad River barely grooms its trails and keeps them only about as wide as a closet. While novices go to Killington or Stowe, experienced skiers can thread through the woods at Mad River and find untracked runs for days after a snowfall. 

Then there’s Taos. Owned by the Blake family since 1955, Taos operates under an agreement with the United States Forest Service that caps the number of ticket-holders who can ski each day. Until recently, the agreement dampened Taos’s enthusiasm for development. To this day, you can’t get to the top of the mountain with a lift; instead, you have to hike. My wife and I once took four hours hiking to the top with reluctant friends of ours from Nebraska. It was one of the best days skiing of our lives, even if our Nebraskans might not agree. Above the ski lifts, Taos features some of the finest drops to be found anywhere in the world.

In sum, up until March, skiers in North America had three resorts where they could find great conditions.  (Deer Valley, which also bans snowboards, grooms its trails relentlessly and has therefore never really counted as a great ski resort).  Snowboarders, meanwhile, had already overrun almost 500 North American resorts, where their very presence now makes great skiing impossible. 

You would think that they would be content to leave Taos alone.  But you would be wrong. Instead, snowboarders did what all aggrieved groups do these days:  They formed a pressure group! “Free Taos” they called it, by which they really meant that snowboarders were unfree because not allowed at Taos.  They accused Taos of perpetrating a grave injustice against snowboarders—all of whom, like skiers, hail from the whitest, most privileged backgrounds imaginable.  Open your minds!  Equal rights!  Sign the petition!  Down with elitism! Winter sports diversity!  No slogan was too rebarbative for the Free Taos movement.  I once read a sports columnist liken, with a straight face, Taos’s policy of banning snowboarders to the African slave trade.

We cannot know what went on in the board meeting where the corporation decided to turn against its most loyal customers.  Some speculate that the younger scions of the Blake family want to turn Taos into an insipid profit center like Vail in Colorado. Given Forest Service restrictions, however, it is unclear how Taos can ever make much money.  All it had to offer was great skiing and eccentric local tradition. It is far from clear that Taos will make more money abandoning its market niche and instead offering what one can find at every other resort in America already. The Taos that generations of skiers loved is now gone—sacrificed, like everything else that is charming and worth preserving in America, to the demands of the impudent few.

Even if you care nothing for skiing, be forewarned: Eventually, the vandals will overrun even the most beloved and stalwart institutions.