Is it really a thing? Animosity between skiers and snowboarders has been around since snowboarding first emerged from California in the early 1980s, but is it relevant any more?
Maybe it was due to the cheeky attitude that prevailed among snowboarders from the very start, exacerbated by the stuffiness of the ski culture, but ever since there seems to have been a tension between skiers who respected the ancient art, and snowboarders who liked to break the rules and toss tradition.
When snowboarding emerged onto the scene, it didn’t take long for the new snowsport to take off, with a major competition established as early as 1986 in Breckenridge. While the tech had improved by 1986, the surf origins of snowboarding were still very obvious in the competitors’ style.
The early adopters were very confident about the sport’s future. Tom Sims, inventor of the snowboard, said in 1986: “It’ll become the mainstream winter sports for teenagers and guys in their twenties within five years I believe.”
He might have been a bit ambitious in his timing, but it’s true that snowboarding has been an entry point for a new breed of younger snowsports enthusiasts.
The resurgence of skiing
Skiing has had a resurgence since the introduction of snowboarding, with new technology like parabolic carving skis, which revolutionised ski racing. The innovation didn’t stop there, with the development of the rocker profile for easier turning in powder, twin tips, ‘fat’ skis for deep powder, and all-mountain skis that sit somewhere between racing skis and powder skis.
There’s also the massive interest in new categories of skiing, such as freeskiing, which usually consists of aerials, moguls, halfpipe, slopestyle and skicross, and backcountry skiing.
Backcountry skiing refers to skiing in remote areas outside of resort boundaries, where skiers take on a lot more responsibility for their own safety thanks to higher risk of avalanche, and the lack of chairlifts and ski patrol support. However the rewards for having to hike or skin out include untouched powder and no crowds.
There's enough room for two
The end result of all these developments appears to be a normalising of snowboarding as an equivalent snowsports option to skiing in Australia – and the new generations of enthusiasts just aren’t buying the old ‘skiers versus snowboarders’ division any more. In fact, many do both sports, enjoying the different experiences and ensuring they have more options to suit both the conditions and their mood.
We spoke to some Hotham locals who have mastered the arts of skiing and snowboarding and love them both for different reasons. While their stories provide a range of views, one of the most amusing common factors among many people we spoke to was the influence of a generation of skiing fathers who refused to let their kids snowboard "until they could pay for it themselves / until they were able to ski double black runs / EVER or they'd be cut out of the will" and a variety of other reasons. It's possible that the 'skiers versus boarders' divide only ever existed within the generation of skiers that experienced the rise of the upstart snowboarders and didn't like the change.
Whatever the reality, there's no doubt that snowboarding is here to stay, and it's great to see that visitors to the snow now have two well-developed options that provide different experiences for a whole range of conditions and tastes.
Emma - 25 years old, ski and snowboard instructor, all about balance
At 25 years of age, Emma is already a snowsports veteran, having started skiing at 3 years of age. Her parents took her to Mt Buller every year, for just a couple of days per season until she was 12. She was aware even at the time that it was a special and hard-earned experience that her parents were giving her, and she appreciates it to this day.
She started participating in the Interschools, then did a student exchanges to the US, where she taught herself how to snowboard. "I just bought a cheap snowboard and off I went!" It fuelled her desire for snowboarding, so much so that she quit skiing (temporarily) at 16 for a few years to focus on the newer sport.
She returned to skiing back in Australia a few years later, when she took part in a university snow trip, where all the other participants skied – not a single snowboarder among them.
Now she not only does both, but instructs in both sports at Mt Hotham. Does she have a preference?
"I love the speed of skiing! It's exhilarating, I love going full pelt. But I also love the relaxed feeling of boarding; you can really express yourself on a board, it's a lot less rigid in terms of technique," she says. "It's really obvious when you watch boarders, that they have more flexibility in terms of style on top of their base skills."
She also believes, from her experience as an instructor, that while skiing is easier for beginners to pick up, it's much easier to progress with boarding. There's also the difference in terms of physical impact on the body.
"Skiing is much harder on the knees and the body generally," says Emma.
What does she think of the so-called animosity between skiers and snowboarders?
“The whole ‘bloody snowboarders’ thing is a joke now, just people joshing each other. Snowboarding has grown so much over the past 20 years, I think there’s a pretty even split now between the two sports,” she says.
“As an instructor, I think kids should start with skiing, as they are unable to separate their upper and lower body movements when young due to the way the body develops, and being able to do that is essential for boarding.”
But after that, picking up snowboarding is a great thing to try, she thinks. And how does she split her time?
“I spend all my free time boarding, and most of my work time skiing,” she says, smiling “and I won’t be giving up either of them.”
Jos Hughes – 16 years old, all-rounder and early-adopter
Jos Hughes’ family were definitely die-hard snowsports enthusiasts, travelling from Adelaide every year to visit Hotham and Falls Creek from when Jos was very young. By the time he was school-age, his parents had decided to take the leap and start spending winter seasons at Hotham, with Jos attending the Dinner Plain school campus and getting a wonderful immersion in our unique winter environment.
Despite that fact that his father was a snowboarder, he wanted Jos to learn skiing first.
“So I started by learning to ski, but when I was about 10 I changed to snowboarding,” he says, a decision largely influenced by his father’s snowboarding. In fact, he had wanted to try it from the start, but was told by Dad “When you can ski well, then you can try snowboarding.”
His early passion for snowboarding was so strong, he has photos of himself trying to ride a toboggan at a very young age. Now, he skis as well as he boards, and has skied the whole of Hotham. He also skis and boards the terrain parks very comfortably, and he and his mates have set up their own rail park at home in Dinner Plain, so they never miss out on an opportunity.
His activity has been curtailed a bit due to a serious knee injury after his kneecap dislocated when he went over a jump, but he’s hoping to be back out on the slopes and parks before the end of the season.
His view of the ‘snowboarders versus skiers’ issue is that it’s now a joke, rather than true competitiveness.
“My workmates [at Hotham] board, my school mates ski,” he says. “There’s the flexibility to do both. I think the newer generation is interested in doing jumps and trying new things, we don’t want to limit ourselves to one thing.”
He uses the X Games as an example, and reels off some of the other snowsports innovations he’s seen and tried, like snowbikes, snow-motorbikes, snowblades and snowskates. What is a snowskate? It’s a skateboard with skis or a snowboard where the wheels should be – in fact, you can remove the skis or board and fix wheels when the snow is gone.
He shows me his snowskate, and smiles when I ask him whether he thinks this will be the next thing to annoy snowsports enthusiasts.
“I don’t know,” he says, “But it’s cool to try it out.” And indeed, as we leave the Genny where he works, a man stops him to ask him about this weird thing he’s carrying out under his arm, with a “Cool!” when he finds out what it is.
Hamish – 34, skier, boarder, back-country addict
Hamish is a unique example of someone who started off as a snowboarder and, fairly ‘late’ in life, discovered the joys of skiing. His parents were not snowsports enthusiasts, though they took him tobogganing a few times, which was probably enough to spark some interest.
“I started snowboarding in the early 2000s, when I went to college in the US and visited a mountain with a fellow student who was a snowboarder,” he says. He was an instant convert.
“I came back to Australia and immediately bought a snowboard, then spent five seasons just snowboarding,” he says.
It was a swap day at Mt Buller that opened his eyes to the benefits of skiing, and he is particularly keen on skiing for back-country, though he does take the board out back on powder days.
“You mostly need to use a split board for back-country, so you might as well just ski it,” he says. “It’s usually a lot easier to skin back up a run, taking boards off and trying to boot it up can be really difficult and slow.”
He believes it’s probably a good idea to learn to ski first, to learn edge control, which is beneficial for today’s modern boards, and he rates himself as being about the same standard now in both sports.
However, his view of the relative benefits of skiing and snowboarding are the opposite of Emma’s, illustrating that part of the joy of snowsports is the wide range of experiences that people can have.
“I think snowboarding is a bit one-dimensional, with skiing giving you a lot more variety of terrain and more techniques to choose from to suit the conditions.”
Zoe – 16 years old, big mountain and park rider, zen
When you start skiing at the age of one year old, you’re pretty much an old hand by the time you’re a teenager. It’s doubly impressive when you can do both, and you’re one of the few among the people you know who can do this.
Zoe was barely aware that snowboarding existed until her cheeky former Nanny visited and introduced her to the sport.
“But once I found out about it I wanted to do it,” she says with a grin. “We found an old snowboard and started using it like a toboggan around Little Higgi, then I started hiring gear.”
Now, she’s comfortable in both sports, doing ‘big mountain’ and steeps on skis, but focussing on snowboarding in the terrain parks for afternoon fun. She’ll sometimes swap it out, cruising Heavenly Valley’s black runs on her board, or having a ski in the parks.
Like Jos, most of her friends don’t do both sports; she is the only one in her circles that do both on a regular basis, splitting her week pretty evenly between the two.
“Every now and again my friends swap equipment with each other, but it’s more just to try it out for a bit of a change,” she says.
Zoe agrees that skiing is more technical: “It’s always about technique! I’m always aware that people are watching and assessing your technique. Snowboarding is more easygoing and very enjoyable, there’s no stigma around having the perfect form.”
However, she also thinks snowboarding gear is getting more technical now, with edges and new components.
“Snowboarding is also cooler to watch – it relates to a lot of other things that people do, like surfing and skating. Skiing really isn’t like anything else.”
She also agrees that the Winter Olympics have stimulated interest in different disciplines in both skiing and snowboarding, as well as the surge in back-country interest.
And the new novelties like snowbikes and motorbikes?
She shrugs. “They’re good to watch, I see people trying them, but I think they’re more of a novelty, an extra holiday option. I don’t think they’re really likely to become a real sport.”
We’ll see – in about 20 years!
Some fun videos
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zDoEM2-LQA - Great footage of the first ‘streaking’ of skiers by a snowboarder.
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/from-the-archives-snowboarding-1985-1.3864935 - classic discussion with skiers who thought (hoped?) that snowboarding would never take off.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOSXBdi_c6E - Check out the 1981 snowboarding tech! Just a couple of straps to fit your sneakers into, and a rope at the front to hold onto, just like a toboggan. You can see the surfing origins of snowboarding in the techniques. Note: this video is in German!