Every March, just about the time the smoke starts to billow from the sugar houses, the U.S. Open Snow-boarding Championships returns to southern Vermont, and dude, what comes with it is definitely not the Stratton Mountain your father knew. � Suddenly, jarringly, the hills are alive with the sounds of hip-hop. Ghostface Killah. Funkmaster Flex. In the Sun Bowl snowboards are sliding down rails on a stairway in a slope to nowhere. Urban culture collides with the Green Mountains, spurred by a sound system that blows the cones right off the pines. � Conversations like the following occur:
"Dude, your helmet is sick." The helmet is retro German army, riding high on the head.
"Sweet, eh? I got it from a street vendor in Taiwan."
"That thing is holy."
A festival atmosphere pervades the Open, which is just the medicine an Eastern ski resort requires in the dying days of winter. And last weekend, the first official one of spring, that's exactly what the event brought to Stratton, along with 566 of the world's best snowboarders, from more than 18 countries, both amateur and pro. A $70 entry fee was all a young hotshot needed to take his chances against an Olympic gold medalist like Vermont's own Ross (the Boss) Powers, a two-time Open champ.
Competing in three formats—rail jam, half-pipe and slopestyle—the boarders shredded their cares away to the delight of some 35,000 spectators over the three days, who watched and cheered with the ardor of believers worshipping at the cradle. For Vermont is the cradle of snowboarding, and the U.S. Open, first held in 1982 on a hill called Suicide Six, outside of Woodstock, Vt., is the oldest and rowdiest competition in this vibrant young sport.
Snowboarding wasn't invented in Vermont, but it entered the mainstream here, shepherded by Jake Burton Carpenter, who founded Burton Snowboards in the town of Londonderry in 1977. Snowboarding's nearest cousins were (and are) skateboarding and surfing, not Alpine skiing. You grabbed your board and a posse of friends, hiked up a snowy hill and rode till you dropped. No major ski resort allowed snowboards on the lifts in those early years. Stratton became the first.
"In the early '80s Stratton's mountain manager, Paul Johnston, said we could take a few runs with the ski patrol to show them that we knew what we were doing," Carpenter recently recalled. "He deserves a lot of the credit. No one else really wanted to give us a chance. The deal was, we had to give lessons and certify all snowboarders before they could ride the lifts. We had to be Nazis about it, or they'd have shut us down."
The certification process was nothing radical. A boarder had to prove he could turn both directions and stop. One student who took five tries to pass was Tricia Byrnes, now 29, whose family drove up to Stratton from their home in Greenwich, Conn., for vacations when she was growing up. Byrnes eventually caught on. She won the Open in 1992 as an amateur, and this year she took home $10,000 from the $200,000 purse by finishing second in the women's halfpipe. "This event has always been a big deal to snowboarders," says Byrnes, who has competed in every Open since '89. "This is the one event that's always been there for us. It's not about TV ratings and money, it's about putting on a good competition for the riders. The crowd that comes up from New York and New Jersey brings all this energy the riders feed off. You're like: I don't want to suck today in front of all these people. I want to be better than my best."