DENVER — It may be a cruel reality - that those who conquer get to write the history books. To the chagrin of skiers, snowboarders may well be the ones penning the history pages of the downhill recreational industry.
In the past, snowboarding has been seen by some irritated skiers as a vehicle for rebellion. Most of their ire has been aimed at younger boarders who ride the slopes in packs like feral beagles, shredding, as they call it, with wild abandon, cutting off slower skiers, and hopping fences to go out of bounds.
But that image is changing as the less daring masses swap skis for a single wide plank. Boarding is now the fastest-growing winter sport in the world.
"I think there's a much better acceptance of snowboarding now," says Mark Yoder of the Keystone Resort in Summit County. "In the early days, snowboarders were considered rebels, so they acted that way. Now the sport has really changed, it's a lot more professional."
Of 2.3 million Americans who snowboarded last year, approximately one-quarter were 25 or older. Nearly 10 percent fell into the 35-to-44 age range.
By the year 2000, the ski industry estimates 35 percent of all lift tickets will be sold to snowboarders.
"Snowboarding has become a lot more demographically diverse. It's a very accessible sport, very easy to learn," says Rachel Biederman, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, an industry trade association.
A decade ago, only a handful of ski areas in the United States let snowboarders onto their slopes. Today, only four ski resorts in the nation still turn snowboarders away. Most large ski resorts now avidly court the board crowd. Even the tradition-steeped Aspen Skiing Company - which includes Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass resorts - welcomes snowboarders on almost all of its terrain.
This month the skiing company hosted BoarderFest - a snowboard-only weekend. And in January, the US Snowboard Grand Prix will be staged at nearby Snowmass.
Another growth spurt is expected when the board industry settles on a standard for the device that connects the board to boots. Newer systems are similar in concept to bicycling shoes that clip onto pedals. At least half a dozen systems are currently competing.
But if you think snowboarding is booming now, wait 'til it makes a debut as an Olympic sport at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Surprisingly, the growing presence of boarders at ski resorts hasn't heightened the traditional tension with skiers. Past intolerance seems to have mellowed into a mostly peaceful coexistence.
Until this season, Keystone was Colorado's only ski resort with a totally no-snowboarding environment. But seeking to cater to families, the resort changed the rules.
"We saw the emergence of families [in which] some skied and some snowboarded and of families who wanted to snowboard together," says Jim Felton, Keystone communications director. "Families have been our bread and butter for 25 years. So we took the plunge."
Keystone not only let boarders in, they invested $5 million to build a 20-acre terrain park with a 450-foot half-pipe and dozens of "hits," or ramps off which boarders can launch jumps. The shift was an instant success, says Mr. Felton: On opening day, snowboarders bought 60 percent of all lift tickets.
AS Mr. Yoder sees it, "The whole thing of skiers versus snowboarders is [about] some punks out there who will cut in front of you. But that's more about who they are than the fact that they're on a snowboard. These are the same people who used to do that on skis."
Not everyone skiing the slopes sees it that way, or likes the trend of coexistence. "If there were two ski areas I liked equally, and one allowed snowboarders and one didn't, I'd go to the ski area that didn't," says Michael Clay, a Minnesotan recently skiing at Keystone.
But for the ski industry, catering to snowboarders is ultimately a matter of survival. According to Felton, ski industry studies show that 80 percent of youths who pick up a snow sport will either start on or switch to a snowboard. With that in mind, Colorado's 23 ski areas this year gave free lift passes to all 58,000 fifth-graders in the state.
Lift-ticket sales have remained flat over the past decade as the momentum of the ski industry faded.
With mergers and takeovers an increasing reality in the ski business, most resorts feel the financial pressure. The industry's current priority, then, is to capture the "echo boom" generation. These baby-boom offspring - from infants to 18-year-olds - represent the future of ski resorts.
Snowboarders Are Ski Industry's Salvation