Burton, whose company controls about 40% of the snowboard and accessory market, has been in the business for 18 years and is a snowboarding pioneer as well as its most successful businessman. Yet he doesn't claim to have invented the sport. Nor does Sayler, although he says he was present, as a lift operator, at Soda Springs in the Sierras when someone showed up on a wide board with a rope attached, way back in 1954.
There are others who try to pinpoint just when the sport began. Sims, then a skateboarder, built a snowboard in 1963 in Haddonfield, N.J.—as an eighth-grade shop-class project. In 1964 in Rockford, Mich., Sherman Poppen bolted two skis together for his kids and created The Snurfer, a primitive snowboard that Brunswick marketed. Whenever the sport began, it has certainly changed. Hanging on a wall at Burton's is a 1977 advertisement that offers a SNOW SURFING SAFARI. For $5 Jake Burton provided a board, instruction and transportation. No boots, no poles, no "$300 skis," the ad boasted. Today, in the factory shop, Burton boards routinely sell for $650.
By the end of the 1980s most white-bread ski resorts saw on which side their bread was buttered. Squaw Valley, Vail, Snowbird, Mammoth Mountain and other prestige ski areas opened to boarders, who no longer had to hike the back hills to free ride. Many areas built halfpipes and snowboard parks with obstacle courses for jumps and skateboard-type tricks.
And so skiing and snowboarding coexist, more similar than either sport will let on. Take injuries. The rate for both skiing and snowboarding is three per 1,000 visits. "It tends to be marginally higher in snowboarding than skiing, but there are more beginning snowboarders than skiers, so once you adjust for ability level, there's no difference," says Jasper E. Shealy, head of the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering department at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. But, says Shealy, who conducted his study over two ski seasons at 15 areas, "The injury pattern and nature of injuries are very different. The fracture rate in snowboarding is 2.3 times that of skiing, but I wouldn't necessarily say that's more severe. Considering some of those knee sprains in skiing, I'd rather have a fracture."
There have been at least five snowboarding deaths, three in three weeks in December 1992 and January 1993 in the Sierra Nevada. All three snowboarders were buried headfirst in deep snow at the base of trees, unable to free themselves from their boards. They suffocated. And this month a 16-year-old skier, Rob Baker, died at Sania Peak ski area in New Mexico after colliding with a snowboarder. Still, a fatality is less than a one-in-a-million shot in skiing and snowboarding
At Donner, as he goes about plowing the parking lot and grooming trails in the hours before sunrise, Norm Sayler thinks about snowboarders—and also about the Donner party. The Donner Ski Ranch is a few hundred yards northwest of a snow cave where approximately 40 members of the Donner party, a group of 87 homesteaders led by two Illinois brothers, perished in the brutal winter of 1846-47. Theirs remains one of this country's most remarkable stories of determination, not to mention cannibalism, and their shadows cast an eerie half-light over this mountain. As far as Sayler is concerned, it is all fitting.
"Consider what those people had to go through: snow 20 feet high, no electricity, trying to build fires with green wood," he says. "Given who they were, their ordeal, their spirit, sometimes I think if the Donner party had made it out, they would have seen this spot and said, 'Hey, dude, let's go boarding.' "