Riding the Half-Pipe

By The Editors / January / February 1999
November 19th, 2007
If skiers are the buttoned-down preppies of the winter sports world, then snowboarders are the free-living slackers. But while boarders may talk like surfer dudes and sport the occasional nose rings, their event has, like, totally entered the mainstream: last winter snowboarding became an Olympic event, and ski areas all over the country have added snowboard parks to draw boarders in. "When I started in seventh grade," says Scott Klemmer '99, "I was the only kid with a board. Now when I'm out there, it's about fifty-fifty."

Klemmer, an instructor and former racer in Mountain Dew's open race circuit, and Stuart Roll '99 are the fearless leaders of Brown's Snowboarding Club, a fast-growing group of almost sixty boarders. Naturally, members are "really laid-back," according to Klemmer. Not the types to go for things like club bylaws or membership requirements, they're simply friends who travel to New England's "excellent, really challenging" ski-and-snowboard areas: Waterville Valley in New Hampshire, Stratton Mountain in Vermont, and Sunday River in Maine, to name a few.

At such slopes they find, in addition to the traditional long, open ski runs, specially designed terrain just for snowboarders. Chief among these is the half-pipe, which is similar to a luge run but with twelve-foot curving walls of ice. Half-pipes are to snowboarders what huge waves are to surfers. "You make a zigzag path down through the pipe," says Roll, "and when you want to make a jump, you can go up and off the walls very smoothly and kind of float in the air before coming down." Sounds easy enough.

Roll admits he likes the adrenaline rush that comes with jumping, "but the best," he says, "is getting off the chairlift when there's a foot of new powdery snow. In powder, snowboarding is a lot more like surfing because you don't actually use your edges." Since fresh powder is not always available at New England ski areas, Roll usually has to settle for his favorite jumping terrain: the "tabletop," a mound of snow shaped to resemble a rock mesa in Utah red-rock country. He zips down the mountain, gathering enough momentum to shoot up one side of the mesa and do tricks - such as a "360 Indy grab," which involves holding the front edge of the board and spinning in a full circle - all while flying over the mesa's flat top.

Yet even experts like Roll and Klemmer probably could not have managed such tricks on the original snowboard. Back in the late 1970s, when they were both infants in suburban Connecticut, "there was something called a Snurfer Sled," says Klemmer. "You stood on it holding onto a rope tied to the front." By the early 1990s, when Klemmer and Roll were switching from skiing to snowboarding, the boards had begun to resemble 1950s cars, with fintails in back. And instead of special bindings and boots, "you put on your L.L. Bean duck boots and cinched yourself down with fabric straps," recalls Klemmer.

In the past five years or so, snowboard accoutrements, like those for skiing, have grown increasingly sophisticated - and expensive. Today's good-quality snowboards, which cost $500 or $600, have a core of vertically laminated wood; a bottom layer of something called P-tex, a slippery plastic used in skis; and a top sheet of fiberglass for added stiffness. There are freestyle boards like the one Roll uses, which provide stability, and thinner, stiffer racing boards, which Klemmer prefers; they run faster and are more precise. "I can get my butt on the snow in a really good carve," he explains. "The board is almost vertical, then you flip it real fast and knife on the other edge."

Klemmer has competed in two types of races: the slalom, with flagged gates, and the "boarder cross," in which four snowboarders simultaneously descend a steep course of varied terrain. "You might go over a jump, up a quarter-pipe, and through some gates," he says. "You've got to be aware of the other racers. Then you get in a tuck and pray."

In snowboard racing, though, unlike ski racing, appearances can be as important as victory. "Sometimes I come in first, sometimes not," says Klemmer, who teaches snowboarding at Ski Sundown in Connecticut. "You want to impress your friends, so you may bust a trick in the middle of a boarder cross, even if it costs you some time."

Despite the antipathy that is supposed to exist between snowboarders and skiers, Klemmer confesses that he trained with the Brown ski team during his freshman and sophomore years. "They taught me about technical skills and paying attention to detail," he explains. "I've gotten a lot more comfortable being at speed and riding the edge." Traveling with the ski team had another perk for Klemmer: one morning during a training session, ski coach Sparky Anderson introduced him to Bill Enos, a member of the U.S. snowboarding team, and Klemmer spent a few hours riding with him. "It was like studying with a great artist," he declares.

There is a creativity to snowboarding, Klemmer and Roll imply, that is lacking in that other downhill sport. "I think that what Stuart and I do can be infectious," says Klemmer. "Skiers will say, hey, you look like you're having a blast. And maybe they're a little bit jealous. They know we're out there strictly because it's good for our soul."

The ski team is on the way up

As someone who did his undergraduate work at a college where you could see mountains from your dorm-room window, and where a few free hours was all it took to get in some runs down serious slopes, I've wondered about the role of skiing at ţatland campuses such as Brown's. Were downhill racers recruited from the ranks of football or ice hockey bench-warmers? Could actual competitions take place at, say, the Yawgoo Valley ski area in Exeter, Rhode Island, where the vertical drop is only 240 feet?


Brown's ski team is no joke, says men's and women's coach Sparky Anderson. "Some kids don't really believe we're for real until they visit and talk to our skiers and see us training hard in the off- season," he says. While Brown is not yet at the level of ski-bum schools such as Dartmouth or the University of Vermont, it more than holds its own in the toughest of the three Eastern divisions of the U.S. Collegiate Ski Association, racing against the University of Massachusetts, Boston College, and other middleweight ski powers. Much of this is due to the efforts of Coach Anderson, who came to Brown in 1996 after coaching the Holderness School's Eastern Cup ski team and the Junior Olympic program. An undergraduate ski racer at the University of Nevada at Reno, Anderson also coached the Innsbruck International School team to two European titles.

He and Assistant Coach Rick Stram train the team at Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts and at Waterville Valley. Last year's women's squad finished sixth out of eleven teams, but Anderson has high hopes for the Bears this winter, in part because Elizabeth DiBona '02, whom he coached at Holderness, is highly touted in both the slalom and giant slalom events. The men, who last season finished seventh out of seventeen teams at the Eastern Regionals, are led by John Van Slyke '00, who captured the giant slalom at the Boston College winter carnival and finished third at the Easterns. With this quality of skier on campus and enough snow, who knows? Maybe between classes students will one day be digging in their edges for a run down College Hill.

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January / February 1999