There’s always been something about Jake Burton Carpenter that I intrinsically liked. I never personally met the founder of Burton Snowboards, a reality that I’ll always regret after Carpenter passed away from cancer in late November at the age of 65.
Not only was Carpenter — known as Jake Burton in some circles — largely responsible for the sport that defined my winters during most of my 30s and early 40s, but he always struck me as one of those true “larger than life” personalities who defied easy description.
First, Carpenter wasn’t all that much older than me, only three years my senior. We’re both transplanted New Englanders, originally from the metro New York belt. I grew up a stone’s throw from the Washington Bridge, in northeast New Jersey. Carpenter’s formative years were spent on Long Island.
He also had lost a parent — his mother — to cancer while a teenager. He later told Sports Illustrated that the loss of his mother, and a brother who was killed in Vietnam when he was only 12, resulted in a “real independence and an ability to persevere.”
Both those traits would serve Carpenter well during the lean years, as he pursued his childhood passion with a dogged purpose to build snowboards, and in the process created a global juggernaut.
In late 2015, I came across an exceptional piece in the New York Times, by John Branch. The article detailed Carpenter’s struggles with Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare nerve disorder related to Guillain-Barré syndrome that he contracted after knee replacement surgery, leaving him temporarily paralyzed and dependent on a respirator and feeding tube. But Carpenter could write, and write he did, for six weeks in intensive care and six more in a rehabilitation center.
The act of writing, when his body was frozen, revealed Carpenter’s trademark determination. But the notes themselves revealed his indomitable spirit. He asked people to help with small, everyday tasks, from brushing his teeth to shaving. He asked visitors to turn the music up. He thanked those who came to see him, telling them how much their presence encouraged him. He refused any OxyContin.
And then there was this gem.
“I hate the Yankees.”
Perfect. The boy from Long Island had become a confirmed New Englander.
Driving the global craze
At the very real risk of sounding like a cranky old Yankee, snowboarders today don’t know how good they’ve got it. In all of New England, there’s one — one! — ski area that won’t allow them, and that’s the venerable Mad River Glen in Vermont (the equivalent of skiing’s cranky old Yankee if there ever was one).
Nationwide, there are less than a handful of North American resorts that continue to put out the “Not Welcomed” sign for snowboarders, the most famous being Alta in Utah. But the vast majority of resorts and hills now welcome snowboarders with open arms.
And every single one of those snowboarders, and ski areas, owe a debt of gratitude to Jake Burton Carpenter, because no one — not Tom Sims, not Dimitrije Milovich, not Mike Olson — did as much for the sport.
Carpenter, contrary to a widely held notion, didn’t invent the snowboard. That distinction goes to Sherm Poppen. According to legend, on Christmas morning in 1965 in Muskegon, Michigan, Poppen, an engineer, cobbled two skis together to create a makeshift snowbound surfboard for his daughters. Combining the words “snow” and “surf,” Poppen came up with the name Snurfer. When Carpenter was 14, he got one of Poppen’s Snurfers, and immediately put it to use on the hills of a local golf course.
“It was almost like a rodeo ride standing up,” he told the Associated Press years later, according to his obituary in the Washington Post. “I got passionate about it right away.”
Years later, shortly after graduating from college, Carpenter endeavored to marry the Snurfer’s “underground” appeal with more sophisticated technology and marketing to turn Snurfing into a full-fledged sport. In 1977, Carpenter founded Burton Snowboards in Londonderry, Vermont. Talk about being ahead of the curve.
While bartending at night, he toiled in his Londonderry barn, experimenting with various woods, plastics, adhesives and other materials to make a superior snowboard. He went into debt to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, but soldiered on with the commitment of a true believer.
“I did everything myself,” he said, according to the book “Snowboarding” by Patricia Oudit, “sawing and gluing with my own two hands, then doing trial runs on the slope behind my place.”
Over time, Carpenter’s singular, unrelenting passion, coupled with the unwavering support of his wife, Donna, would be rewarded a hundredfold. He would become, according to Sports Illustrated magazine, “the person most responsible for transforming snowboarding into an international craze.”
A passion evolves
By the late 1980s, I had rekindled my love affair with skiing, after finally landing a job that provided the necessary income to finance my winter sports jones. I quickly realized that my skiing had hit a plateau, and I wasn’t skiing enough to get to the next level. I absolutely loved the sport, but it had developed an annoying sense of predictability.
That changed after a chat over beers with my younger brother Mike. Mike, an exceptional skier, was dating a great gal who also happened to be an excellent athlete. She wasn’t, however, a skier, and clearly had trouble keeping pace with my brother. So Mike, in a flash of inspiration, decided to get a pair of snowboards. They both took to the sport quickly, and Mike raved about the joys of riding the frozen wave.
At the time, I was big into windsurfing, and intrigued by snowboarding. I didn’t take to it as quickly as Mike and his girlfriend, but loved the challenge of learning a new sport. When I finally started linking turns, I was hooked. People often asked, “Which do you like better? Skiing or snowboarding?” My typical reply? “Both.”
The two sports, despite some similarities, are distinct enough to constantly keep things new and fresh. The problem, though, was that snowboarding immediately got tagged with the “bad boy” reputation that many old-school skiers, and resorts, rejected. The tag, to be fair, had some element of truth. Many snowboarders were bad boys. Which made access more difficult for the rest of us.
Even Carpenter relished in the sport’s counter-culture reputation. But the reality was that the very renegade spirit of snowboarding that lit up Carpenter proved less-than-appealing to ski resort owners, who considered snowboarders as wintertime skateboarders and didn’t welcome their presence among the “established” skiers.
At first, many resorts bought the renegade stereotype wholesale, and prohibited snowboards altogether. It was an easy, and lazy, approach. It was also incredibly short-sighted. Because each snowboarder lost meant another lift ticket that went unsold.
I remember Mike and I going to a New Hampshire hill (I’ll refrain from naming the resort, because they weren’t alone in their ignorance) after a nice powder dump, and being told we could only ride three trails. Mike was ticked off, and he had every right. It was a stupid decision.
But slowly, and then more and more quickly, resorts started allowing boarders. I doubt this was an altruistic decision. It was, plain and simple, a business decision. Snowboarders brought an influx of cash at a time when resorts desperately needed more bodies on the hill. Families with young riders were particularly influential in this seismic shift.
By 1984, Burton sales had hit $1 million, according to “Battleground Sports.” By 1995, with snowboarding’s spiraling popularity, Carpenter’s company was worth more than $100 million. Sales in 2015 exceeded $500 million, according to the AP. Carpenter, his company, and the sport had arrived. Big time.
Sadly, my snowboarding days ended shortly after my second daughter was born in 1999. After all, it’s next to impossible to “ride” with a child between your legs. By the time my girls were old enough to ski without assistance, my hips had succumbed to my hockey addiction, and my beloved snowboard was relegated to the closet. But I treasure the memories.
‘Savior’ of an industry
Few people can truly claim to be pioneers. Like “extreme” and other popular adjectives, the term “pioneer” has been bandied about so often, and so loosely, that it borders on cliché. That’s not true in Carpenter’s case. He was the real deal.
“At first, we were a nuisance, then a novelty, then a threat, and finally the savior of the ski industry,” Carpenter told the Journal of Case Research in Business and Economics in 2010.
Carpenter helped establish the 1982 snowboarding competition that grew into the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championship. (Fun fact: The first USA National Snowboard race was held in 1982 at Suicide Six, near Woodstock, Vt.) In 1998, at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, snowboarding became an Olympic event. In 2007, Donna and Jake Carpenter were inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
But those were mainstream achievements. Snowboarding was, and is, about pushing boundaries, physical, social and even historical. It’s about coloring outside the lines, a role embodied by the late, great Burton rider Craig Kelley. That doesn’t mean acting like jerks. Instead, it meant refusing to be bound by convention, exploring and often surpassing our limitations.
“Someone could come up with a completely new way to slide down the mountain that’s even more thrilling than snowboarding, and I might be saying, ‘What a waste of snow! What are these kids doing?’ Just like the ski establishment said to me,” Carpenter once told Sports Illustrated. “But I hope I’ll be more open-minded.”
I have no doubt he would have been. Rest in peace, Jake. I pray the heavens have endless waves of fresh powder waiting for you.