by Dan Egan
Did you ever picture yourself executing a 360 on skis but never had the guts to try it? Or did you ever wonder what it actually feels like to launch some serious big air on a snowboard? Me neither. But many people do, and thankfully, there are people like Bob Legasa to help them satisfy those urges without the need for an extended stay in the orthopedic ward or brain-injury unit.
Legasa, a former member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, founded the Freeride Institute at Schweitzer about three years ago. With the help of eight "celebrity coaches," they'll teach skiers and snowboarders the fundamentals of "riding the half-pipe, launching huge air and ripping the steeps."
"That's the whole reason I came up with this program," he says. "About four or five years ago, when terrain parks started, we started seeing a lot of injuries, just due to unqualified and unskilled skiers and snowboarders trying to do these types of tricks. I thought this needed to be addressed because this is a great sport, and I don't want to see it go away."
This will be the third year for the three-day camp, which brings in some of the best athletes in the sport as coaches. This year's staff includes 21-year-old Anthony Boronowsky, one of the country's premier rail sliders, along with ski film vets like Josh Loubeck.
"Training and coaching are important," says Legasa. "That's why we bring in these celebrity coaches. Letting them see and meet and ski and ride with these coaches -- it's been a huge success." The Freeride Institute has had to limit enrollment to 50 students this year.
Freeriding is a general term that includes skiing and snowboarding with an emphasis on creativity and individual style. It's what happened when the freestyle and mogul skiers started hanging out at the terrain parks and sharing ideas with snowboarders.
"They started putting together all these new, cool tricks, and the sport has just blossomed -- it's gotten huge," Legasa explains.
The liberating name speaks to the philosophy of the sport. "You're not bound by the typical rules of competition. It's more of an expression of yourself. Freeride is kind of the new catch-phrase now. The term 'extreme' has gone by the wayside."
One of the Institute's highlights is the media tent, where participants and coaches watch videotape and instantly evaluate their form.
"The video is one of the greatest teaching tools there is. You can tell them something, but when they see it on video, it's so apparent. It's like they got hit on the head with a stick."
One of the big things people want to learn is the 360 off a jump. "Spinning is a biggie for everybody," says Legasa. "It's one of those moves where there's really not a lot of room for error. You have to be committed when you go into it, and when you accomplish that trick, all of a sudden it's like 'boom' -- you can do it all the time."
He says it's entirely up to the campers what they want to focus on. They break up into smaller groups depending on interest area: jumping, steep terrain, terrain park or rail slides. Legasa says his goal is to instill confidence. "You walk away from the three days tired but happy, because you progressed a lot, you've learned a lot and that's going to translate into bettering your abilities throughout the season at your own pace."
Split Personality -- For backcountry snowboarders, the days of strapping the board to your backpack and snowshoeing up thousands of vertical feet may be over.
The reason is something called a split snowboard. It's a snowboard that can literally split down the middle to create two short, super fat skis, which can be used for backcountry approaches and ascents. When you get to the top you just clip the two skis together to form a snowboard that you can ride back down. Although they may not offer the same performance as a regular board, they save the weight and hassle of carrying extra gear. After years of refinements and the continuing trend to push further into the backcountry, the time may be right for split boards.
"I think the market is definitely ready for them," says Nick Simmons, a twenty-something sales rep for Burton Boards. Because of the price (between $700 and $900) and its relatively unproven history, he says it's still a niche product.
"It's definitely for the aggressive backcountry enthusiast who has no qualms about spending top dollar for a product that's going to perform better for them out there. We're seeing a lot of popularity in places like Alaska, where they don't have so many resorts but have a ton of access to backcountry terrain."
Conversion from uphill skiing mode to downhill snowboarding mode is simple. The board is clamped together with several circular snaps or sliding pins. Bindings are easily repositioned with rotating plates that switch from the sideways configuration of a board to straight-ahead angle of skis. With a little practice, I'm told, it can be done in about two minutes, even with freezing hands or bulky gloves.
Early versions were a disaster, but current technology has helped create a solid piece of equipment. "You can't get crazy on it," says Simmons, "and it's definitely not like a freestyle board where you can do big huge jumps. But it's a solid board. It's built to take spills, steep transitions and steep terrain, and it's built to handle impact from rocks. It's definitely a pretty strong board."
He says split boards are not just the latest fad. "With the growing trend and popularity of backcountry, it's only going to get bigger. I think we'll be seeing more of these and start seeing them in a lot more shops."
Right now, Burton and Voile are the only two companies that manufacture the split boards. In a recent issue of Backcountry magazine, two of the newest and most innovative splitboards were reviewed and the consensus was very positive: The Burton "Custom Split Snowboard" and the Voile "Split Decision." And both got rave reviews -- Burton for its solid design and Voile for its innovative technology.
After calling a number of local ski and snowboard shops in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, I was unable to find an retailer that was carrying any splitboards -- yet.