Burton pays tribute to pioneer who opened doors
by Matt Boxler/
This article originally appeared in the February issue of New England Ski Journal.
If there were a magical door somewhere in the mountains that opened up into the pure soul of snowboarding, it would have Craig Kelly’s name on it.
Everyone who has ever strapped on a snowboard and — no matter how fleeting — experienced the harmonic union of cold-mountain air, soft snow and the joyful freedom of dancing with earth’s gravitational forces has had the privilege of passing through this door.
Leave it to Burton Snowboards to honor this hallowed spiritual entrance by building a permanent physical tribute to everything Kelly represented.
In January, next door to Burton’s global headquarters in Burlington, Vt., employees celebrated the grand opening of the most sophisticated snowboard prototyping facility ever built.
The name on the front door, quite simply, is “Craig’s.”
“I owe so much to that guy about teaching me how to listen to riders and just what he did himself — pushing our board designs — there’s no other name that should be on the door than his,” said Jake Burton, founder and CEO of Burton Snowboards.
Kelly’s life was cut far too short in 2003, when, at the age of 36, he was killed in an avalanche on the Durrand Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. In his relatively short time as a snowboarder — he started at age 15 as a founding member of the seminal snowboarding posse Mount Baker Hard Core, near his hometown in Mount Vernon, Wash. — he revolutionized the sport.
Turning professional at age 18, Kelly’s early years were spent dominating the competitive circuit. He amassed four world championships and three U.S. championships, gaining wide acceptance as the best snowboarder to ever ride. He led the fight for snowboarding to be accepted during a time when most ski resorts prohibited this obnoxious “fad” from sharing its slopes.
At the peak of his competitive success and popularity, Kelly turned his back on the growing prize money and endorsement opportunities for competitive riding by choosing to take his pursuits into the backcountry.
“There’s just a feeling you get from certain things you do in life that just kind of feel pure and independent of what’s actually, physically, going on,” Kelly told MountainZone in 2000. “All of a sudden, you have this feeling of clarity. Backcountry snowboarding has really done a lot to boost that feeling in me.”
His legend grew as he appeared in countless films and photographs, his fluid riding style on awe-inspiring backcountry lines stretching the concept of what was possible. He also was pushing the concept of what was possible in equipment design and development.
“Craig was a guy that I always had a good relationship with, even before he rode for us,” Burton said. “I remember him coming to visit, and we had just built our first, sort of higher-end factory where we were making molded boards with steel edges and all that. It was very similar to what is going on in this facility right now, and it was really what made Craig convinced that he wanted to ride for us, and partner up, and get involved in working with us.”
Kelly was responsible for the design and development of many of Burton’s signature model snowboards, including The Mystery Air, The Craig Kelly Air, The CK Slopestyle, The Cascade and The Omen.
“(He) was an engineer at heart, and one of the big reasons he chose to ride for Burton back in the late ’80s was because he saw how committed we were to R&D and taking snowboard technology to the next level,” Burton said. “During the 15 years that he rode for Burton, Craig had a huge impact on snowboard design, technology and the sport as a whole. So it was an easy decision to name the new prototyping facility after him. I think that Craig would be proud that every new board that comes out of our new R&D space reflects his spirit and legacy.”
Craig’s is “the” place where the company can get ideas from riders and from engineers. It’s the place where the company can get feedback from the market and the dealers to make sure its products are heading in the right direction. It’s the place where R&D can translate into a completely new board or plastic binding with new specs being built in a matter of hours.
The new facility is more than 10,000 square feet and houses the best of Burton’s high-end, custom-built machinery. Although capable of producing thousands of snowboards, Craig’s is purely dedicated to R&D and will only build a handful of experimental snowboards a day.
Craig’s also features a machine shop where engineers can create and test custom tooling parts and manufacturing processes, which is critical to evolving Burton’s manufacturing techniques around the world.
The best part is that Craig’s door is always open.
“We want to set it up so there are a lot more tours at this facility so people can come up and check it out,” Burton said. “So if you’re wondering about the soul of this company, come check it out.”
Craig’s is located at 152 Industrial Parkway in Burlington and is open to the public for scheduled tours. During these tours, visitors can check out the whole R&D facility by following “Craig’s Trail” to watch Burton development in the making.
Craig’s Trail also will lead visitors to “The Barn,” where people can take a self-guided tour of archived photos, products and videos from the first 30 years of Burton’s history. Inspired by Burton’s original Burton Manchester offices and featuring its actual original sign, the Barn is a key hallmark of the new facility.
Finally, Craig’s features a walk-up warranty window, where riders can bring their gear and interface directly with Burton’s warranty crew.
Matt Boxler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org