Burton Snowboards founder and CEO Jake Burton says that once a decision was made last year to move the US Open Snowboarding Championships after 30 years at Stratton, Vt., the new venue was really a no-brainer.
“We have been coming to Vail as a family for close to 20 years,” Burton told the Vail Business Journal in an email interview. “I ride over 100 days a year and the majority of them are at my home mountain in Stowe, Vt., but we all need places to get away to for pure riding fun, and for our family that is Vail.”
The US Open kicks off this week on its new home mountain in Colorado, with X Games and Olympic medalists such as Shaun White, Kelly Clark, Gretchen Bleiler and Peetu Piiroinen competing in slopestyle and halfpipe. Practice sessions run through Tuesday, followed by semifinals Wednesday and Thursday and finals on Friday and Saturday.
Burton says the move had been talked about for years and came down to access to the venue for both athletes and spectators. Vail’s Golden Peak area, right at the base of the mountain just off of Interstate 70, is home to a massive snowmaking system, including training facilities for the U.S. Ski Team and athletes like Lindsey Vonn.
“First of all, Golden Peak, where the event will be held, is an ideal location for the Open because we can build the halfpipe, slopestyle course and event village right there in one centralized zone,” Burton said.
“Secondly, both Vail Mountain and the Town of Vail have been very supportive and excited about having the US Open move here, and it’s incredibly inspiring to have new energy, ideas and enthusiasm around one of snowboarding’s most important events.”
Burton, 58, says he and his wife Donna love riding Vail and consider a perfect day on the slopes one where they ride the front-side trees, followed by a few runs in the Back Bowls and then an out-of-bounds run down the Minturn Mile to the old railroad town off the backside of Vail. His children, he adds, have had some of their biggest breakthrough days either freeriding or in the terrain parks at Vail.
Sports and life are all about progression, says Burton, who’s coming off a year in 2012 in which he battled testicular cancer and declared the disease “toast” after successful treatment.
And while Burton’s Vermont roots still run deep (the company is based in Burlington and he built his first boards in his garage in Londonderry), Burton also has longtime ties to Colorado and its rich snowboarding history.
Burton attended the University of Colorado, where he wanted to ski race for the Buffs but was injured in a car crash. After then graduating from New York University, the Cedarhurst, N.Y., native revolutionized the sport of snowboarding and helped bring it into the mainstream and beyond.
At one point in the early 1990s Vail and other ski mountains around the country were the subject of petition drives from skiers to keep boarders off the slopes. But the sport survived and even thrived over the next two decades.
Boulder’s RRC Associates last year presented a report to the National Ski Areas Association showing that between the 1991-92 and 2009-10 ski seasons, snowboarding in the United States increased from 7.7 percent of all skier days to 32.6 percent. But over the last two seasons, snowboarding decreased for the first time ever to just over 30 percent of all skier days.
Burton remembers the uphill battle in the early 90s and that Colorado was a big part of the sport’s competition history.
“The state has a long history of hosting snowboard events,” Burton said. “If you look back as early as 1981, there was the ‘King of the Mountain’ competition at Ski Cooper near Leadville. And in the mid-80s, the World Snowboarding Championships took place in Colorado. So the sport has deep roots in Colorado, and the US Open fits right into this legacy.”
Vail is known as an alpine ski-racing Mecca, having hosted the World Alpine Skiing Championships twice and preparing to do so again in 2015. But it’s also known as a center of snowboarding innovation – a place where the Honda Session produced groundbreaking tricks during its six-year run between 2002 and 2008.
“So many good things came out of the Vail Session, and to make a slopestyle course like that is going to be huge,” said Mark McMorris, an X Games big air and slopestyle gold medalist. “Everybody’s really excited about it -- just because they had the biggest jumps to ever be built back to back to back to back.”
Kelly Clark, a double Olympic medalist (including gold in halfpipe in 2002) and a four-time X Games gold medalist, grew up watching the US Open near her home of Dover, Vt. She says she’s sad to see it leave but understands moving it to a bigger stage where even more kids will get a chance to see the event.
“It inspired me [watching the US Open as a kid], so I think from that perspective it will be inspiring to the local youth to really show them what’s possible to do on a snowboard and inspire them to pursue their dreams,” said Clark, whose Kelly Clark Foundation has provided about two dozen scholarships to kids in need over the past three years, including some in the Vail Valley. The Burton-sponsored athlete adds it’s important to keep growing the sport in all demographics.
The much larger Snowboard Outreach Society, based in the Vail Valley, has similar youth outreach goals aimed at at-risk kids. And Burton has its own Chill Foundation set up to “provide opportunities for at-risk and underserved youth to build self-esteem and life skills through board sports.”
Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz, whose company supports all of these endeavors and has a retail partnership with Burton and also sponsors Burton rider White, says it’s all about freedom of expression on the slopes – no matter what form it takes.
“Part of that is snowboarding -- there’s no question -- that’s the history of it,” Katz said. “But part of that is new equipment – twin-tip skis, rocker skis, park skis. So whether someone’s on a snowboard or twin-tip skis, or freeriding, the specific equipment that you’re on may be less important than the way you express yourself on the mountain.”
Katz adds that any talk of banning snowboarding on Vail Mountain was part of the resort’s ancient history: “The company has always and will continue to take a perspective that this isn’t about banning some group or another.”
The “SkiEO” of the nation’s largest ski company, as he’s sometimes referred to after moving his family from New York to Boulder, also isn’t too concerned about declining numbers in snowboarding.
“Apart from Burton, there are a lot of other people in the industry wondering about snowboarding and is it declining or is it going up, and we’re focused on how are kids getting up on the mountain and are they connecting to our sport? And there’s no question right now they absolutely do,” Katz said.
In addition to four days of intense competition, the Open promises to be a youth-culture festival to rival Aspen’s X Games, with free concerts in Vail Village by acts such as Santigold and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.