by JOEL SMITH & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t wasn't too long ago that snowboarders were the riff-raff of the mountains. Rarely seen on the ski-dominant slopes, they were -- in the eyes of some ski purists -- young, baggily dressed, loudmouthed troublemakers.
That's not the case anymore. With snowboarding an Olympic sport, the pursuit of gold a multi-bazillion-dollar industry, and athletes like Shaun White becoming minor national celebrities, snowboarding today is every bit as credible as skiing. Not only that, but snowboarders are no longer even the minority at many resorts. Mount Spokane General Manager Brad McQuarrie says the skier/snowboarder split at his resort runs at about 50-50 these days. "Maybe even leaning a little more toward snowboarders," he says, noting that while Mount Spokane retains a long skiing tradition, he's begun to notice that even middle-aged folks are starting to take to the boards -- "which is pretty exciting."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "E & lt;/span & xciting" is a word on a lot of local boarders' lips these days. Nate Wagner says local resorts are finally reaching a level where they can begin to compete with other mountains in the Northwest and throughout the country. "We are still behind, I believe," he says. "[But] we're just now getting to that point where mountains are getting recognized -- and when the mountains start getting recognition and they start putting money toward athletes going toward national events, that's when it happens."
As a 24-hour, live-in snowboarding life coach, Wagner (who worked as an instructor at Schweitzer for six years) is responsible for several of the local athletes heading to nationals. And soon he'll be responsible for even more. Two of his charges -- 10-year-old Kix Kamp and 15-year-old Dash Kamp, brothers -- are routinely cited as being among the best young freestyle boarders in the region. "Dash will be professional this year," Wagner says. "Two years ago, he was 34th in the country. Last year, he was seventh. This year, he'll be at nationals, hopefully in the top three."
Not only that, Wagner is also the new executive director of the Northwest Winter Freeride League, a nonprofit group assembled to produce snowboard and ski events that will funnel into the U.S. Snowboard Association's system of national competitions. It was possible to work your way through the system before, Wagner says, but local organizers "never submitted any results, so I don't know how they got to nationals." The Freeride League aims to host seven slope-style, half-pipe and boarder cross events this season.
But Wagner credits much of the success of the local snowboarding scene to the resorts, which are offering more amenities to freestyle snowboarders and building more exciting terrain parks. And much of that phenomenon, he says, is owed to Ben Spinney, a snowboarder and metal fabricator who builds rails and snowboarding features and who has had a hand in the development of almost every local resort's terrain park.
Spinney, who learned to weld in Montana, got his start building snowboard rails at Schweitzer. Since then, he has worked on terrain parks all along the West Coast (including Mount Hood's Timberline Lodge) and has added monster trucks to his metal fabrication portfolio. Despite that, he takes his work seriously.
"It's an eight-man operation. It takes every one of our team members to pull it off," he says of the expansion and design work he's now doing at Schweitzer. "You concentrate on creating a good flow, features that link up together. You come off a feature, you have to have the right amount of speed to make an easy adjustment to hit the next feature. Feature placement and design is a huge part because you need to use your snow efficiently or you run out."
Wagner says Spinney's sense of flow is legendary. "They're built so well," he says. "They're solid. They progress faster than other rails. Their jumps are dialed in just perfect. It's a big, huge deal. Every mountain has those rails." Of local snowboarding facilities, Wagner says, "They're getting up there. They're starting to push the envelopes on the terrain parks. Honestly, a lot of that is from Ben Spinney."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & pinney doesn't boast, but he says local resorts' willingness to embrace snowboarding -- and get creative with their facilities -- is ushering in a renaissance in the scene.
"It blew up in 1998, 1999," he says. "That's when I noticed it blowing up. That's when I started building rails, and terrain parks were starting to come up. And now there's a whole new phase, a whole new level, with man-made features and the rails, as opposed to just jumps and features. Gigantic rails, staircases. We're taking it to a whole new level.
"You get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of snowboarders and skiers coming [to Schweitzer]. A huge following, probably in the hundreds, that come to our events, just to hit our rails," Spinney adds. "Everybody knows each other and sticks together. If you can create an icon, people will come from everywhere to ride it."
Which is good news to people like Mount Spokane's McQuarrie. "From a business standpoint, without snowboarding, this business would've been hard-pressed to survive," he says, pointing to flat revenue in the 1980s (following a surge in the '60s and '70s -- "James Bond skiing got a lot of people excited about it").
"Snowboarders are what saved us," McQuarrie says. "We're seeing record numbers in the industry now, all the way through. You really gotta attribute that to the growth of snowboarding."
That's something for the dwindling number of ski snobs to think about next time they thumb their noses at the bass beats thumping across the mountain from over at the terrain park.