get a RUSH with a QUIRKY emerging SPORT

You might have noticed something different on the slopes in Vail last year. Out of the corner of your eye, you saw someone zip up to the lift line, hop off, pick up his board and walk to the chair. Only later that day, while sipping a beer at The Red Lion, did it hit you that the guy didn’t have any bindings, and his board was a really funny looking double-decker thing. What was it exactly, and how did it work?

You are not alone with your questions. Bi-deck snowskates have been around for several decades – from Burton’s early budget-model Junkyard “snow deck” to the high-end boards produced by snowskate-specific companies today – but they have only recently been gaining popularity and widespread acceptance at resorts. The name “snowskate” itself has long been a source of confusion: in the past it has applied to everything from single-deck “trays” to cross-country skis to odd little hybrid ski/ice-skate-type footwear. Today the term applies most often to the bi-deck snowskate, composed of a skateboard-like deck mounted via metal trucks to a ski, it resembles a stacked or two-sided skateboard and rides like a snowboard without bindings.

Snowskating has recently exploded in popularity, with rider groups, manufacturers and competitions springing up across the U.S. and Canada as well as in Japan, Norway, France, Austria, Germany, Argentina and even Dubai. Resorts across the globe – including those in Vail and Beaver Creek – have responded by opening their doors to the quirky sport. While preferring the term “snow deck,” Beaver Creek’s Chief Operating Officer Doug Lovell says bi-deck snowskates have definitely been “an emerging industry trend and we’ve been aware of them for several years.” Snowskates had already been permitted at some of Vail Resorts’ other properties in Colorado and Tahoe, he says, before Vail and Beaver Creek officially put out the welcome mat in the 2011-2012 season. And while some resorts still limit snowskaters to certain runs or chairs, Vail has given them open access at all of its affiliated resorts. This is a move that has not gone unnoticed – or unappreciated – by the burgeoning snowskate population.

“Vail and Beaver Creek were nice enough to give [us] full range on their mountains and it’s awesome,” says Matt Quam, a champion snowskater who has appeared in several Warren Miller films and logged over 150 days on the slopes last year. “I love these mountains,” he says, “and I’m super stoked on getting to snowskate them.”

Indeed, more and more people have been getting “super stoked” about snowskating in the Vail area according to Spike Eiseman, manager of the snowboarding school at Beaver Creek. “It had been really accepted in other areas – Washington State, Tahoe – for years,” he says, “but now we’re seeing a big boom in Colorado, lots of people.” While Eiseman used to take his instructors out on a private snowskating trip to Breckenridge once a year for a morale boost, as “a way to kind of find a new passion and love for the mountain,” he says they now can skate every day at work. Beaver Creek’s ski school had several dozen people take snowskating lessons over the past year and those numbers are only going to grow exponentially, in Eiseman’s estimation, as people gain more exposure to – and a better understanding of – the sport.

Until then, however, snowskaters are still a novelty wherever they go and find themselves enjoying a bit of celebrity on the slopes. Even average riders get followed by gawkers and fans, asked to pose for photos and peppered with incessant questions in every lift line. While some of the inquiries can be downright surreal – Quam was once asked if he was riding “one of those hoverboards from Back to the Future?” – the most common questions are pretty simple: “How do you stay on?” and “Can you really ride that thing down the hill?”  The answers are rather simple, too. A combination of gravity, balance, and grip tape keeps the rider on the board – much like it does for a surfer or skateboarder – while a leash attaching the board to the rider keeps the skate from getting away in the event of a bail out. And snowskates can indeed be ridden down any hill in any terrain and any conditions – riders simply drop their skate, ride off the lift and carve down the mountain.

Even intermediate snowskaters can hit moguls, powder or park features  – or simply take leisurely, arcing sweeps down the slopes – just like anyone else with a lift ticket – while the sport’s most celebrated riders and competition champs have been steadily pushing the envelope every year with more spectacular and complex moves.

“In the past two years I have seen a large amount of progress in trick difficulty,” says Sean Davis, a top rider in his own right and the man behind Strapless Entertainment, which produces snowskate videos and DVDs. “We are starting to see common skateboard tricks executed on a snowskate, everything from 360 kick flips and big spins to huge Christ airs and massive method grabs. We are also seeing more air time and the ability to hit average slopestyle features,” he says, noting that this has been made possible by the growth of the snowskate community in general and the vastly improved equipment of recent years.

Indeed, every snowskater concurs that the right gear is of paramount importance. While a few big snowboard makers still dabble in snowskates, most riders today favor skates created by small snowskate-focused companies out of cutting-edge materials and sophisticated, precisely engineered designs. For beginning snowskaters interested in jamming down the mountain and perhaps attempting a few park elements, a small to medium-sized board – a size 96 or 105 – would be an ideal place to start, while dedicated riders often assemble a “quiver” of different skates for changing conditions and riding styles. The size of the ski mounted under the snowskate deck varies according to the terrain ridden, with small skis fitting parks, tricks and general riding, while large skis carve all-mountain easily and float through powder, so a well-curated quiver contains a range of boards. Snowskate-specific companies like Boyd Hill, Pioneer, Predog and Ralston have obliged by producing a variety of sizes, widths and shapes, from super-small skateboard sizes to wide “phatties” to giant swallow-tailed powder skates the size of snowboards. A growing number of companies are also designing snowskate-specific leashes (retractable and coiled styles being some of the most popular) and increasingly high-tech hinged-style snowskate trucks. While experimenting with different brands, accessories, sizes and shapes is part of the fun, when ultimately committing to a skate or skates Quam says bluntly “don’t buy a snowskate from [the] big box stores online. You may pay more from a legit snowskate company,” he says, “but it’s been tested and proven to rip and last.”

This sport after all, is all about ease and freedom. The portability, unencumbered stance and limited gear of snowskating give it an economy and versatility that is addictively liberating. Snowskates don’t require specialized boots – or any particular equipment beyond a leash – and there are no dangling and dragging heavy boards. Riders cruise right off a lift and down the hill, so they never need to waste time strapping in and out, and they don’t clump around all day in heavy footwear. Riders say snowskates are lighter and more easily packed than snowboards, plus since they have no bindings and don’t require special shoes, they are easy to take backcountry or to keep in the trunk of the car for spontaneous shred sessions.  They’re also the bomb on crowded powder days, says Quam. “On a pow day anywhere, for anybody, it’s easy to walk through the crowds…You know the mad rush for first chair? No worries on a snowskate!”

In the end, it’s not hard to see how this edgy offspring of two X-Games favorites – skateboarding and snowboarding – has developed “legs” and an enduring appeal. “We’ve all lived in the Valley for years,” says Eiseman, “but snowskating is something that regenerates you – it makes the experts into intermediates, and you get that little rush again.”  For the moment the sport is holding proudly to a rough underground glamour – still clearly evident in its nascent films, blogs and magazines – but as it is increasingly being compared to “what snowboarding was 25 years ago,” it seems only a matter of time until everyone will be chasing that little rush again. Now’s the chance to be at the relative forefront of a sport, so if you’re ready, check out these companies: Fuse Snowskate Company, Parole Boards, Pioneer Snowskates, Ice Decks and Cold Trucks Ltd., and Predog Snowskates, which also produces events around the country if you’re ready to compete.

Skates are popping up in stores, lessons, rental shops and now on the slopes near you, so you may want to get your snowskate and get on it this season, before everyone in The Red Lion has one propped up outside already.