THE crunching sound of snowboards can now be heard at 85 percent of the ski areas in the United States, in addition to many in Europe. At first unwelcome or segregated, snowboards are increasingly courted at ski areas as one of the few growing segments of skiing.
In 1991, the US had 1.6 million snowboarders, 8 percent more than the previous season, according to a recent National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) study. They accounted for 7.8 percent of all skier visits in the US.
Many skiers who may have mistakenly thought they had exclusive rights to the mountains have had to adjust to this new breed. More than 73 percent of snowboarders are under age 25, with 36 percent between 12 and 17, according to the NSGA study. Many have never been skiers, although a number are children or younger siblings of skiers. With a language of their own, like surfers, most of them seem to be making a statement about challenge and lifestyle that reflects their own sense of identity.
Boarders can be found "ripping" and "shredding" not only regular ski slopes and trails but also new, specialized snowboard terrain - "halfpipes," "quarterpipes," "whales" of snow.
"The thing about snowboarders is they're so good!" observes Wildcat, N.H., general manager Stan Judge, who plans to make one of his ski patrollers a snowboarder to help skiers and boarders live in closer harmony.
It hasn't hurt snowboarding's growth that the parents of many are skiers, including a famous one: Jean Claude Killy, 1968 Olympic triple gold medal winner, is among those working to make snowboarding an Olympic sport.
Older skiers who are again willing to fall a lot are also learning to snowboard. At Okemo Mountain, Vt., 50- and 60-year-olds were among those in 900 lessons last year. "We're seeing people who once `hated those guys' now accept snowboarding," says silver-haired snowboarding instructor Gordon Robbins.