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Hidden in Petran: Turkey’s Unlinked Snowboarding Heritage

This feature originally appeared in the November issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine. Subscribe here. 

Words: Alex Yoder | Photos: Wade Dunstan | Captions: Nick Russell

People in Turkey have been snowboarding for thousands of years, maybe. At least a few hundred from what we found out. By we, I mean Nick Russell, the visual wizards who make up WRKSHRT—Wade Dunstan and David Cleeland—and myself, with a brief cameo from Nathaniel Murphy as our spiritual safety net in the backcountry.

A few months prior to landing in Turkey, Nick and I were hanging out, talking about snowboarding, as usual, when the topic of these Turkish snow-sliders came up. We'd both seen the Absinthe movie Twel2ve. In it, a couple of shots appear with Nicolas Müller and some Turks riding toboggan-esque pieces of wood down mellow hills in an old-timey village. Nick had seen an article in the magazine formerly known as Frequency— now The Snowboarder's Journal—from a trip Jeremy Jones did probably over a decade ago, but beside that we couldn't find much out about these snow-sliders. At least not enough to satisfy our collective curiosity.

Gore-Tex is not part of the garb in Petran. Handmade gaiters keep the snow out during sessions.

Amidst the planning phase, we caught a scent of unease when the news of the Blue Mosque attacks in Istanbul and the crisis in Syria came to our attention. There were a few breaths restricted by fear of the unknown before we corrected our posture and continued forward on a path we knew to be worthwhile.

My research on the subject proved futile. I dug as deep as I could into the dregs of the Google-sphere to find out anything I could about the history of what I had come to know as the Lazboard—the most common moniker for these Turkish snowboards on the internet. There wasn't much out there. A couple videos, a few translated articles. Not enough to satisfy my hunger.

Until this point in my life, my thirst to understand the history of snowboarding was quenched by the stories of an evolution beginning with the Snurfer, a couple of early Dimitri Milovich videos that Taro Tamai showed me, and the back-in-the-day stories I've heard from all the dudes who still kind of have it, still totally love it, but also kind of hate what it's become. By the time I started asking Hizir Havuz how old snowboarding was in Turkey, I was humbled by the reality that there is much more history to drink.

A man of many skills and a quiver of numerous unique boards, Hizir Havuz showed us the craftsmanship of building a Petranboard, taught us the history of his deep-rooted culture, and graciously shared his favorite slopes with us. All of this was done without understanding more than three words of each other’s respective languages.

Hizir is an unassuming Turkish gentleman in his early forties who owns a mini-mart sized hardware store in a little town called Ikizdere. He grew up a short distance up the hill in a small village called Petran, where locals have been logging and milling their healthy surplus of evergreen lumber for a very long time. I got right into it with Hizir and asked him how this whole Lazboard thing started. He said he didn't know exactly and advised strongly against using the term Lazboard based on it having some level of derogatory reference to a native people called Laz. He didn't explain more, just left it at that, and we happily obliged.

Hizir demonstrates proper technique on a two-tiered rolling zone below his house.

Hizir continued to share a couple stories his father had heard from his grandfather, who heard them from his father, and so on. One of which was fairly basic and lacked the romance I was hoping for. He told us that maybe it was just a piece of freshly milled wood and some logger was bored and sat on it, slid down a snowy hill, tried to stand up, and voilà—snowboarding was born. Though a bit more primitive, not exactly that special and not too far off from the Snurfer.

Another story Hizir told spoke of a young Muslim boy who had to clean his father's prayer mat every week. He told us that a few hundred years ago some prayer mats were made out of wood, especially in a logging town where lumber is more plentiful than textiles. Muslim prayer, or "Salah," happens five times a day—the times orchestrated by a complex calculation of the declination of the sun, and the difference between clock time and sundial-clock time—so it's not hard to deny the necessity of a weekly cleanup.

They say the original Petranboard came from a young boy tasked with the chore of cleaning his father’s prayer mat. He realized one day that with the right slope angle, he could glide down the hill with it beneath his feet. This gives a literal meaning for those of us that practice religion in the mountains.

At some point in the story, the boy decided to unravel his go-to cleaning technique. Typically, in the winter months he would take the board outside, grab a couple handfuls of snow, and scrub the board until his hands were numb. After, he'd have no choice but to offer his paws a warm reprieve in his armpits. This time, for some reason, was different. As I'm puzzling this translated story together, I had to logically deduce that this was the moment that insinuated the boy's urge to utilize his lower extremities. When he first stood on the wooden mat, nothing happened; it didn't even move an inch. The boy began to scoot and push and kick and jump in hopes of getting a little action out of the mat. Still, nothing. Then he looked up the road to the top of the hill, above all the houses in Petran. After a grueling hike in waist-deep snow, he went on a date with gravity he'd never forget.

The locals of Petran know how to make a low angle field look good.

Surprisingly, the boards themselves have not evolved much at all since. To this day, the Petranboards are built without any curve or contour in the
base aside from an occasional and slight bend in the nose, and there's certainly no sidecut to speak of. The most advanced version we saw had two 1970s-era straight skis attached as the outer planks, providing metal edges and seriously unique flare. One would think that over hundreds or thousands of years someone would be inspired to consider a new design.

I suspect the limiting factor to be the total isolation of this "sport." Petran was likely not visited by foreigners until the last two or three decades. Hizir's father and grandfather never heard of surfing and probably weren't aware of any hydrodynamic philosophies that might inspire experimental shapes. What's most interesting to me is that Petranboarding has lived in total isolation for so many years. We are nearly certain it had nothing to do with the invention of the modern snowboard, the Snurfer, or anything else we consider to be part of snowboarding's history. There's a term for this in biology called convergent evolution that describes two things in nature that evolved independently of one another—like the wings of bats and birds, or flippers of fish and dolphins.

The snow-covered roadways in the village offer a tranquil commute to the slopes.

This lack of evolution in board design had a silver lining that wasn't obvious to me at first. Riding the boards was immediately enjoyable. The simplicity of the shape and lack of any binding or grip for your feet made riding what we'd call bunny slopes seem as exciting as any terrain we would consider expert. So why change that? Why create a tool that makes something easier at the risk of it becoming less exciting or fun?

I can't say if that was a consideration or not in Petran, but it seems the older generation is content with what they have and hope the next chooses to carry the torch. Petran's adolescents on the other hand don't seem as keen to the old ways as they are to modern snowboarding. Hizir's son, who I only witnessed riding with bindings on a fairly new Burton board, told me in broken English how he loves to watch Nicolas Müller videos on YouTube and that he's been practicing his frontside nose butters. It's hard to say if this generation will decide to disregard their ancestral tradition in exchange for something "cooler" or if they'll find a balance of appreciation for the past, present, and future of the glide.

These homes are used for cattle grazing in the summertime throughout the Kaçkar Valley. Recent snowfall had coated them into the most unique pillow field we had ever seen. A strapped-in Yoder performs his own method of grazing.

In theory, I'm not sure it's possible to call this "the first snowboard in history." By all intents and purposes it fits the fundamental description, but its existence has nothing to do with the creation or evolution of the modern snowboard. The question that remains in my head is, "For what?" The invention was invented without the intent to invent, and that to me means it is more a natural phenomenon than anything else.

The boy in the story didn't create a tool to accomplish a task or goal; he took a thing he had to do and tried to have fun with it. It's not surprising that it caught on. I like to think people just want to enjoy life, and those moments that put a sparkle in our eye are the moments we live for. These moments are our subconscious conduit, the way we interact with each other and nature that allow us to communicate without words. When we showed up in Petran it was like we had been there before. Everything was new, but all of it felt natural. The only real difference was some of us stand with the left foot forward and others with the right.

Watch the film from the trip here.

Check out more from the magazine here.