In front of Jesse Burtner is a plate loaded with grilled salmon, ceaser salad and crispy garlic bread. He looks at it complacently and then digs in, finishing it quickly without taking any time to appreciate the variety of flavors.
Burtner can’t taste any of the food. He can’t smell it either. He lost the two senses when he fell to his head trying a trick down a 20-stair handrail this fall in Kent, Wash.
Any non-snowboarder would not hesitate to put on a helmet before trying to slide a 20-stair kinked handrail with no snow on either side, but for Burtner, standing at the top waiting to drop in, it wasn’t even a consideration.
“It was not a big deal. Just a normal rail, but I would suggest going out and making a few turns in the beginning of the season before you try to slide a hand rail,” Burtner jokes.
The bangs of his brown hair hang in strips across his forehead, but the back of his head is shaved closely, revealing a horseshoe shaped scar where a tube was inserted to drain the fluid that had surrounded his brain. The whole thing could have been prevented had he been wearing a helmet.
Snowboarders don’t deny that wearing a helmet is a good idea, but for most of them it’s not something they think about. The pressure to ride without one comes from sponsors, magazines, photographers and friends.
Photographer Cory Grove attributes a lot of hesitance to wear helmets to the age of most snowboarders. “When most of these guys started riding, they didn’t even make snowboard helmets.” Grove said. “It’s hard to start wearing a helmet when you haven’t for so long. The only person who can pull it off is Shawn White.”
Maxx vonMarbod, the sales manager for Option snowboards and a close friend of Burtner agrees with Grove.
“You’re never going to see a (magazine) cover shot of someone wearing a helmet,” he said. “Maybe Shawn White, but no one else. I know I can’t see one of our riders wearing a helmet.”
Before his injury, Burtner only wore a helmet when he had to for a contest.
“I hated it,” Burtner said. “I like to be as simple as possible and I like wearing hats. I’d also never really had a lot of fear. In retrospect, I hit my head wearing a helmet in a contest once last year and I was really glad I had it on. I started thinking maybe I should wear a helmet every time I’m riding an icy park.”
Now that he has to wear a helmet, Burtner said he isn’t excited about it, but he’s putting things into perspective.
“I have to wear a helmet now or I’m not going to be able to snowboard with the same amount of confidence as before because of my injury,” Burtner said. “I’m kind of stoked because I don’t have to think about hurting my head as much when I’m at the top of a rail or a jump. It’s one less thing that I have to worry about – I can just concentrate on doing the trick.”
As far as pressure from his sponsors, Burtner isn’t worried. “I don’t think companies care,” he said. “There are a couple people who are really good who wear helmets and they do just fine, like Shaun White and Chris Dufficy. I think of those guys when I think of wearing a helmet for the rest of the season.”
Jesse has also been talking to helmet companies about possible sponsorship. Boeri, Protec and Red all have lines of snowboarding-specific headgear. Getting people to wear them is another story.
Helmet companies often target riders like Burtner, who’ve had highly publicized falls. Scotty Whitlake is notorious for smashing his face. At a recent trade show, Whitlake said he was approached by a helmet company who offered him sponsorship.
The snaggle-toothed Whitlake, with dyed black hair and cross tattoos on his neck laughed at the concept. “I told him I always fall on the front of my face, so I didn’t see what good a helmet would do,” Whitlake said. “I’m too macho to wear a helmet.”
Whitlake said he doesn’t think about how wearing a helmet will affect his career. It’s just not something he’s willing to do. “I think I was so scarred of snowboarding that I felt like I needed to wear a helmet, I just wouldn’t go snowboarding,” Whitlake said.
For Rahm Klampert wearing a helmet wasn’t an option. When he was 19, the clean-cut snowboarder was known for being one of the top halfpipe riders at Killington, Vt. He could boost huge airs out of the pipe and do tricks other people only dreamt about. But he was also accident-prone. He took a series of falls in the halfpipe that left him with concussions. After falling from about 18 feet in the air to the flat of the halfpipe on his head, his doctor told him to put on a helmet or quit snowboarding.
Klampert wasn’t ready to give up snowboarding, so he started wearing a helmet, and still does to this day.
But it wasn’t long after he started wearing a helmet until he had to start looking for a new sponsor. No one denied Klampert’s riding wasn’t up to par, but his style wasn’t. Burton dropped Klampert from its team and he still hasn’t found another sponsor.
“No one will admit Rahm doesn’t have a sponsor because he wears a helmet, but it’s a possibility,” Burtner said.
Burtner’s main reason for donning a helmet this year, though, is his new wife Christina. “She’s none too pleased about the prospect of me dying snowboarding,” Burtner said. “It’s just not worth it. I’ll be pro for a few more years and then what? I have a whole life ahead of me.”
Christina is doing her best to see that he wears a helmet. She’s spent the pre-season urging everyone she knows to encourage Burtner to wear his helmet.
“Everyone has to wear their helmets this year so Jesse will wear his,” she said to a group of Burtner’s friends.
A few of Burtner’s friends have agreed to wear helmets, but he’s not holding it to them. For him it’s a personal decision. Burtner will wear his helmet this year, but doesn’t expect anyone to follow his lead. “I don’t think there should be any helmet laws or anything. It should be something the snowboard community grows into just to prolong the life of its members,” Burtner said.
He attributes most of the reluctance of snowboarders to wear helmets to the rebellious nature of snowboarding.
“There are probably a bunch of reasons (people won’t wear helmets), but one of them might be that helmets are safe and they are something that’s a good idea to use,” Burtner said. “If it’s going to become cool in snowboarding to wear helmets, pros have to wear them and you can’t tell people ‘you have to wear a helmet.’ Lots of adults and authority figures push wearing helmets and that goes against the grain of why most people start snowboarding. Most people don’t start because its something their parents want them to do.”