Why Aspen Doesn’t Get It

To some, it's as perplexing as trying to figure which came first, the chicken or the egg. And what difference does it make, if they're both eventually going to wind up on somebody's breakfast plate?

Ever since snowboarding first reared its dyed and sometimes shaven head, the riders who live in or like to visit Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley have been asking why they're not welcome on Aspen Mountain.

As the public's perception of snowboarding has evolved from punk-assed curiosity to legitimate sport, the controversy surrounding Aspen Mountain's snowboard ban has intensified. Plenty of excuses have been bandied about by the Aspen Skiing Company (SkiCo), and all of them are flimsier than a halfpipe made of fur coats.

The company claims that Aspen Mountain's terrain is not conducive to snowboarding. A dearth of green runs would make for a dangerous situation when inexperienced snowboarders find themselves funneling into the lower portion of the mountain. It can be inferred that the SkiCo assumes an unseasoned boarder wouldn't have the wherewithal to do as novice skiers do–visit one of the area's three other, more beginner-friendly mountains.

Then there's the oft-repeated–and additionally ridiculous–argument that not allowing snowboarding is somehow good for business.

“We're in a different position than most other resorts in that we can provide a snowboarding experience and a skiing experience all in the same general area,” former SkiCo Communications Director Bobbie Burkley said in 1996. “I don't know that not having snowboarding on Aspen Mountain is hurting us.”

Burkley pointed out that snowboarding is allowed on 85 percent of SkiCo-run terrain and that, according to a survey administered to both tourists and locals on all four mountains that same year, a “sizable” number of skiers would be “disappointed” if boarders were allowed to load onto the Silver Queen Gondola.

I obtained the results of that survey, which was completed by 1,042 people. When asked how the introduction of snowboarding on Ajax would affect any future visits to Aspen, 54 percent of the respondents said it would not affect their decision to return. Thirty percent said they would return, but would be disappointed. Nine percent would come back, but would spend more time on the other three mountains, and seven percent said they would not return.

That means 93 percent of the people surveyed three years ago would still vacation in Aspen if snowboarding were allowed on Aspen Mountain. According to Burkley, SkiCo did not have statistics on the amount of people who do not vacation in Aspen because of the snowboard ban.

Of course, snowboarding's popularity has only grown since then, while interest in skiing has continued to dwindle.

The number of people snowboarding the world's mountains is not yet tantamount to the number of skiers–but that's likely to change. Industry analysts estimate that twenty percent more first-time mountain visitors are snowboarding rather than skiing and they project the number could surge to 40 percent by the year 2000.

The once all-powerful ski industry is now being coupled with snowboarding as the two major components of the “snowsports” industry.

“I started snowboarding in high-top tennis shoes with plastic bags around my socks and no bindings,” says Kevin Delaney, a former world-champion rider with nearly 40 competitive titles to his credit. “Today, we're racing gates and getting all sorts of attention and everybody wants to do it. I wouldnt have pursued a career in snowboarding if I didn't feel very strongly that one day it was going to be at least equal to the ski industry.”

While enthusiasts like Delaney, a former manager with the Aspen Skiing Company, are happy to share their views about snowboarding in and out of Aspen, finding a current SkiCo official who's willing to be frank about the issue is harder than landing a Haakonflip.

They don't want to talk about it, because telling the truth might cost them their jobs.

“SkiCo President Pat O'Donnell and Senior Vice President John Norton know that boarding will be good for this town. They want it, but their hands are tied,” says Othello Clark, an Aspenite who competes in slopestyle and boardercross events around the country.

As a member of the Skiing Company's Snowboard Task Force, Clark is one of ten people who counsel the company on becoming more snowboard friendly. He says there is a widespread misconception about the force behind the Aspen ban.

“Everybody blames SkiCo management because they don't know it has everything to do with the owners,” says Clark.

He's absolutely correct, and one need look no further than the head management honcho for proof.

O'Donnell is a tough guy. He spent the better part of twenty years scaling some of the world's highest peaks, and once crawled out of a Peruvian range after breaking his leg. Shortly after taking over as company president several years ago, he got into a well-publicized scrap with an Aspen local who'd flipped him off. In short, he's the kind of fellow who doesn't take any shit from anyone.

But what you also need to know about O'Donnell is that he can ride a snowboard with the best of them. That's right–the president of the company that runs the country's most notorious snowboard-free mountain is an avid snowboarder.

He proudly proclaims he loves the sport, and openly admits that without snowboarding the health of the entire snowsports industry would be faltering.

O'Donnell refuses to go on record about his lobbying efforts with the the Crown Family, owners of SkiCo, regarding the lifting of the snowboard ban. However, it's widely believed that such an effort exists and that he's recently expressed the staff's unified desire to see the policy changed.

The rumor continues that the Crowns refused, and ever since that effort, O'Donnell has been conspicuously silent about the matter. My guess is that he'd rather say nothing than hypocritically repeat the tired old company line. Ownership has set him up as the scapegoat, and it's a burden O'Donnell seems willing to bear.

But why?

The obvious answer is the paycheck, which is significant. Having had tremendous success running the show everywhere he's been, including Whistler/Blackcomb ski area and Patagonia, O'Donnell's services are in high demand. The Crowns pay a pretty penny to have his name on the annual shareholders report.

Still, O'Donnell is a fighter; not the sort to compromise his principals–and he strongly believes he's right about snowboarding on Aspen. But he's smart, too, and he knows that this is a battle that can only be won from within. So he waits patiently, knowing timing is all-important.

Whether the time will come soon is uncertain, because the Crown family's prejudice against snowboarding must surely run deep. There's no other explanation for turning their backs on snowboarding's financial windfall for this long.

Only the Crowns can truly say if things will change in Aspen, and they're not talking either. Over the course of two weeks spent preparing this story, several calls to Jim Crown at his Chicago office went unreturned.

When, Not If

It's been more than 30 years since a Michigan inventor named Sherman Poppen screwed two pairs of children's skis together with some doweling and fashioned what his wife dubbed the “Snurfer”–a snow surfboard.

Poppen's Snurfer was the inspiration for snowboards, which were developed by the likes of Jake Burton, Dimitrije Milovich, and Tom Sims in the late 70s and early 80s.

The early snowboard pioneers had great hopes for the sport they'd created, but none of them could have possibly imagined that it would explode as it has. Snowboarding was misguidedly discounted as the “Worst New Sport” by Time magazine back in January of 1988, and ten years later it's the fastest growing Alpine sport in the world.

Everybody in the industry recognizes snowboarding's appeal, even the owners of the Aspen Skiing Company. For now, the Crowns' actions say they don't give a damn–and they can still afford to be supercilious.

They've got pride on their plate, and it stinks like a rotten egg. Someday, they'll have to swallow it.

–Dan Dunn

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Dan Dunn is a syndicated newspaper columnist in Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached at ddunn@aztrib.com.

Only the Crowns can truly say if things will change in Aspen, and they're not talking either. Over the course of two weeks spent preparing this story, several calls to Jim Crown at his Chicago office went unreturned.

When, Not If

It's been more than 30 years since a Michigan inventor named Sherman Poppen screwed two pairs of children's skis together with some doweling and fashioned what his wife dubbed the “Snurfer”–a snow surfboard.

Poppen's Snurfer was the inspiration for snowboards, which were developed by the likes of Jake Burton, Dimitrije Milovich, and Tom Sims in the late 70s and early 80s.

The early snowboard pioneers had great hopes for the sport they'd created, but none of them could have possibly imagined that it would explode as it has. Snowboarding was misguidedly discounted as the “Worst New Sport” by Time magazine back in January of 1988, and ten years later it's the fastest growing Alpine sport in the world.

Everybody in the industry recognizes snowboarding's appeal, even the owners of the Aspen Skiing Company. For now, the Crowns' actions say they don't give a damn–and they can still afford to be supercilious.

They've got pride on their plate, and it stinks like a rotten egg. Someday, they'll have to swallow it.

–Dan Dunn

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Dan Dunn is a syndicated newspaper columnist in Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached at ddunn@aztrib.com.