Through a combination of innovative board design and ideology, snow surfing is spreading from Japan to Europe and North America.
This feature originally appeared in the November issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine. Subscribe here.
By Gerhard Gross
Eighteen of us have come to a stop on the Northwest Crossover cat track, near the natural boundary between Mt. Bachelor's barren volcanic peak and the thick hemlock and pine forest that circles below. Six inches of late-April powder blankets Devil's backbone, a run lined with curling windlips and small cornices, shaped and reshaped by storms, wind, and sun over the season into the profile before us now. It's an ideal spot for anyone looking at the mountain with the eye of a snow surfer. The slope breaks gently to the right, but the fall line is steep enough to let riders work left to the rolling wall and slash at the top, sending a cascade of Northwest pow up to be lost against a milky, central Oregon sky. That is one way to see it, at least.
Japanese Gentemstick rider Kenichi Miyashita rolls into the pitch, lightly sinking his heel edge and opening his lead shoulder to make a long turn, holding it to its farthest possible conclusion before rolling to his toes, holding this arc, then back to his heels. Trending left, the regular-footer hooks a high backside turn near the top of the wall and drops down again to build speed, returning to the lip with another, almost symmetrical carve, this time breaking the tail free.
"The most important is the bottom turn," Miyashita tells me later. "You need a bottom turn to create the line, the clear entrance to the top turn."
Above, the rest of the crew looks on as fellow Gentem rider Osamu "Om" Okada takes a similar approach to the slope as Miyashita, but crouching lower and driving harder through his turns, as he searches for an untracked line. Among those admiring Om's technique are Kazushi "Orange Man" Yamauchi, Arata Suzumura, Rip Zinger, Alex Lopez (son of legendary surfer Gerry Lopez), Danny Davis, Andrew Marriner, Nick Russell, and surfboard shaper Chris Christensen.
There are no lifts turning on this side of the mountain. The air is still. The only sound, Om's edges displacing thin veils of powder. He rides so fluidly, so rhythmically, that it's almost hypnotic. I'm still tracking him when two random riders charge by. They are moving almost dead fall-line, seemingly vibrating, throwing their boards sharply sideways to ditch speed, punching through the high clouds of snow they create, before pointing it straight again and out of sight.
That afternoon, Taro Tamai, the 52-year-old founder of Gentemstick, who brought his crew to Bachelor from Niseko, Japan, for the Gerry Lopez Big Wave Challenge, starts to share his philosophy behind snow surfing. "I value the shape of a spray more than the size," he says. "If it's a nicely shaped spray, it means the turn is smooth. When there's a balance between the speed and the turn, when it's matching, the spray is really beautiful."
Tamai recognizes a vast difference between each kind of spray, from braking with the whole board to make a massive cloud to projecting a thin wisp of snow from the tail during a carve, which may be smaller but leaves a longer trail. "In big magazines, for example, you see a photo of a huge spray, but the quality of the carve behind that spray should also be considered," he says.
"I value the shape of the spray more than the size." -- Taro Tamai
His vision of snow surfing is filled with nuance like this, which extends to how Tamai interprets the terrain in front of him and the painstaking detail put into developing each Gentemstick. Since 1982, surfing and nature have been the ultimate sources of inspiration he's drawn on to develop his riding style and board-shaping technique. Growing up skiing with his family at Ishiuchi ski area in Niigata, he was 19 when discovered surfing, and six months later, started snowboarding.
Back then, almost every surfer was longboarding and more or less riding straight down the line of the wave. When Tamai watched a video of George Greenough kneeboarding he was stunned to see Greenough making sharp turns and cutting back to the pocket to capture the wave's energy. Tamai had seen Winterstick's April's Footage, where riders gained speed by "playing with gravity," as he puts it, but weren't yet drawing carves or making big turns. With little other snowboard media to influence him, and freestyle still waiting for Terry Kidwell's 1985 session at the Tahoe City Dump to reach a tipping point, he envisioned a more dynamic kind of riding, or snow surfing.
By 1985, Tamai had joined up with Moss, the original Japanese snowboard brand, taking him to slopes from Alaska to Morocco to Mongolia. Although he generally liked the Moss boards, he wasn't able to ride the way he truly imagined was possible, and always dreamed of branching out to start his own brand. "All the other boards I tried wouldn't let me draw the lines I wanted to," he says. "It's like if a calligraphy brush wasn't drawing the line I wanted it to, so I had to make my own brush."
At the same time, Tamai's connection to nature deeply influenced his philosophy on snow surfing, especially his observation of fish as a fly-fisherman. "When a fish swims, it naturally adjusts itself to the flow of the river," he says. "Just by watching a fish doing what it does, I get an idea for a design of a board. When you catch a fish, it's an emergency for it, so it tries to do whatever it can to get away from the hook. It uses its whole body to make sharp turns. It jumps. From that I get inspiration for how to use the whole board, not just the tail, for example, but the whole body to twist the torsion and the flex to get as much energy as possible from the board and the slope."
Moved by these elements, Tamai conceived of three-dimensional riding. "The terrain itself is three-dimensional," he says, "so three-dimensional riding is a way to adapt to the terrain. It's not about getting from point A to point B in the shortest way possible, but trying to connect the dots in the smoothest way possible, using the terrain and gravity to get as much energy and speed to do a certain maneuver. It's getting the most of out snowboarding, basically."
Seeing a jump you want to hit and heading straight for it is more two-dimensional, Tamai explains. Even if he wanted to hit the same jump, he would first look for any banks or other features on the way to the jump and add those to his line. "It's not the jump that matters most," he says, "it's the process, how to approach the jump, the riding as a whole."
He acknowledges that this means a rider wouldn't catch as much air, but he says, "Creativity is much more valuable than going as big as possible."
In 1998, Tamai launched Gentemstick with 20 of the TT model, a board two years in the making. A zero-camber deck with an 11-meter sidecut radius, six-millimeter taper, and set back 31.5 millimeters, it was loose yet smooth on turns, built for speed and drawing long carves in the Hokkaido backcountry. He finally had the tool he wanted for his canvas and the mindset to apply it.
Seventeen years later at Devil's Backbone, Ken Miyashita and Arata Suzumura are both on the 2015 TT, the only changes a slight adjustment to the stiffness of the original.
The Wyoming Connection
It was the Gentemstick Phenomena that first got Alex Yoder interested in the snow-surfing movement when he tried one that photographer Rip Zinger brought to the Dirksen Derby in 2013. At the time, Yoder liked the kind of deck that worked on backcountry jumps around his hometown of Jackson, Wyoming, to pillow lines in Mt. Baker, Washington, and a few pow slashes in between. Later that season he journeyed to Japan, met Tamai and the Gentem crew, and tried some more boards, including the TT. "I didn't realize until I was in Niseko and riding different shapes that you can actually offer yourself a whole different experience every day," he says. "The TT has an extremely long sidecut, like nothing I'd ridden before. It was really easy to get used to in powder, but on the groomers it got going really fast, even on the mellow hills of Japan. It was a really cool feeling to be railing that hard, that fast down a relatively mellow slope, the board just letting you know what to do. It made me think this is what surfing used to be like before shortboards. The TT has a longer, more delayed feeling, like when you're trying to drive down the line of a wave and feel that push, that propulsion."
"I've found a deeper appreciation of the subtler, simpler things you can do on a snowboard."
After riding a few more Gentem shapes, like the blunt-tip, moon-tail Mantaray, with a much tighter 7.15-meter sidecut radius for sharper turns, Yoder found that sticking to one shape compromised other potential riding experiences. A quiver of boards built specifically for wide-open pow faces to groomers and tight trees might be a better way to go. That physical connection to the boards was only the beginning of his journey into snow surfing.
"I used to feel like speed and air were really the goal," says Yoder. "I was just ripping down the mountain and I knew where all the hits were, so I'd point it to the next one, and the next one, go from A to B. Now that A-to-B mentality is completely gone, and I just realized, 'when you don't fixate on those specific features you're more aware of the whole mountain and there are a lot of less obvious features that are just as fun as those hits."'
The more time he spent around the Gentem crew, the more Yoder saw snow surfing as a way to connect with nature. "It's an opportunity to play with gravity and really interact with the natural world," he says. "The snow-surfing feeling is about going out there, not having too many plans or an agenda, just feeling the flow of the moment. I've found a deeper appreciation of the subtler, simpler things you can do on a snowboard."
The SoCal Surf Connection
Chris Christenson weaves around the board stand in the center of his Encinitas, California, shaping bay, showing me the surprisingly rudimentary set of tools he used to create the templates for the Jones Mountain Surfer and Storm Chaser snowboards: a pencil, tape measure, square block of wood wrapped in 60-grit sandpaper, a handsaw, and a 10-dollar hand plane he bought at Home Depot. But these simple devices belie the complexity of Christenson's decks, fed by his innate sense of design, honed over 24 years of surf shaping.
In stark contrast to the computer-aided modeling most snowboards undergo, he eyeballed the outlines for the Jones boards, sketching them with a pencil on a wafer-thin door skin and adding hatch marks about a foot from tail, middle, and nose to help him hit his curves. Next, he made a rough cutout to start the master templates to send to the Nidecker factory in Switzerland, where the Jones boards are built.
"We didn't measure anything--I cut it real wide and then hand-shaved it against a wall," he says as he motions how he refined the outline one thin strip at a time. "It doesn't matter what the computer says. So much of it is, 'Does it look right?'"
One consistent element used for the base profiles was Christenson's rocker jigs, taken from tried-and-true surfboard rocker. Glide is key in surfing, where it's often difficult to get as much speed as you want on a wave. Curved wooden jigs, about an inch wide, and the length of a board are essential to replicating that glide when building surfboards. With bigger slopes making speed more abundant, maximizing glide isn't as critical in snowboarding, but it can make a difference on deep powder days.
"For the Storm Chaser, we wanted something with a lot of surface area, especially in the nose," says Forrest Shearer, who tested the board in Niseko last winter. "You just put your foot down and just fly, which is from that surf rocker--it has a continuous curve from the tips of the swallowtail to the nose."
The 139-centimeter Mountain Surfer first released in 2014 as an all-wood, bindingless board, with a beveled nose and base concave that deepens toward the tail, made to funnel snow through quickly. It's a three-dimensional base shape for more three-dimensional riding. The 147- and 157-centimeter Storm Chaser followed this year.
In a roundabout way, the collaboration between Jones and Christensen began in 2008, when Christensen was building surfboards in Japan and heard about Taro Tamai from one of the guys in the factory. Christenson journeyed to Niseko and traded Tamai a surfboard for a Gentem Rocket Fish. Although he started snowboarding in 1986 and spent a lot of time at Big Bear, California, Christenson lost interest around 1999 when board shapes were increasingly generic. Getting on the wide-nose, swallow-tail Rocket Fish and riding Niseko pow made him "a born-again snowboarder," he says.
With snowboarding top of mind, Christensen struck a friendship with Jeremy Jones after mutual friend Jeff Kelley, the owner of Sanuk, introduced them during Jones' annual surfing trip in Cardiff By The Sea, just south of Encinitas. For both parties, it was an opportunity to truly smash the mold, something that Christenson felt was much needed.
"It's crazy how what's going on in snowboarding now is parallel to surfing in the '90s," he says. "Surfing was so cookie cutter in the early-'90s. Everyone only rode one board, and it was the same board, so it was getting really boring."
Today, it's standard for surfers to have a longboard, fish, and shortboard for different wave conditions, or simply different experiences.
"You shouldn't ride the same surfboard for every wave or every day," says Christenson. "I don't think you should ride the same snowboard every day. It's just like music. It's like anything. What are you feeling like today? You want to ride your twin-tip, want to huck off kickers, or you want to go in the backcountry? I think it's bitchin'."
The Sierra Surf Connection
Although he's part of the Sierra Surfers, Gray Thompson doesn't strictly call his style of riding snow surfing. "Yeah, we draw a lot of inspiration from surfing," says Thompson of the loose group of natural-terrain shredders based in Tahoe, California. "And I've looked a lot into surfboard design. How they flow on waves and stuff definitely translates into my snowboarding, but that's just one source of inspiration. I find a lot more inspiration from old-school snowboarding like you'd see in Standard's Totally Board films or the old Fall Line Films flicks."
Thompson sees the surf-influence taking over from skateboarding's 20-year dominance as part of snowboarding truly coming into its own. "We've got the skate background, now we're getting the surf background," he says. "It's freaking awesome that surfing is such a big part of snowboarding right now, but I still think we're on the path to nailing what snowboarding really is."
At 17, Thompson left park riding behind and started looking at the mountain more holistically, drawing on his San Francisco surf and skate roots as he explored the windlips, cornices, and log jibs of Alpine Meadows. "From 17 to 21, I was definitely alienated," he says. "The kids that I was filming with were so into parks and rails that I was out of place. I couldn't connect with them. To go ride the mountain would mean I was going to ride by myself."
Eventually he met Tim Eddy and Hannah Fuller just as he was about to drop into a spot called Idiots Delight on Alpine Meadows. After a few more chance meetings, the trio discovered they shared a similar vision of snowboarding. As they started riding together more, he was introduced to others that wanted to move beyond the park, including Eric Messier, who's become one of Thompson's tightest friends and a fellow Sierra Surfer.
Over the years, Thompson independently developed an approach to terrain that mirrors the philosophy of Tamai and the Gentem crew. "Riding fall-line is the basics," Thompson says. "You know you'll have the momentum and the gravity to get from A to B. Once you start playing around with speed and what boards you ride, it opens up a new way to look at things. If you look at surfers, they play around with speed all the time. They're on a wave, but they don't know what it's going to do until a second before. Do they need to run to the back of the board and slow down? Do they need to move forward to speed up? They're very meticulous on where they position themselves. I think there's a lot we can take from that, like how's your slash going to look if you speed up a little or slow down?"
The 23-year-old's insight extends to board design as well. Two winters ago, he was riding for a small outerwear manufacturer called Owner Operator, when founders Steven Kimura and Pete Sieper asked if he would be interested in helping to develop a line of boards. Instead of trying to create something that excels in specific conditions, they wanted decks that could adapt to any terrain. Working with a new, innovative factory overseas, United Shapes fine-tuned the designs and prototypes of their first board, the Space Cadet 156.
"One of the biggest things I've noticed with the Space Cadet was how differently it rode in every condition," Thompson claims of the cambered, tapered deck with light rocker in the nose and squared-off tail. "When I was riding it on groomers, it felt like an aggressive carving board that held through turns and didn't chatter, but the second there was six inches of snow on the ground, it felt like a fish board with that nose and little bit of taper. It was really quick and nimble through the trees. Going into the park it had explosive pop."
This season, United has expanded their line to include three more decks with different tip and tail shapes, but all feature heavy camber, some taper, and rocker in the nose. Regardless of the intricacies of the design, Thompson acknowledges a board is simply a medium through which we access something greater. "My personal goal is just to ride and be in bliss," he says. "The snowboard is just the tool for that. Whatever designs we can do to enter the flow state or experience all the feelings and emotions that snowboarding can bring you, that's the power of it."
The Swiss Connection
Nicholas Wolken got his first exposure to snow surfing in 2009 at Hoch-Ybrig, Switzerland, when he noticed his friend Stephan Maurer was always going faster across the flats. He asked to try Maurer's Burton Fish and was blown away at how different the board felt. The next season Wolken ran into Finnish Gentem riders Janne Hinkkanen, Timo Paarvala, and Ile Eronen borrowed a Mantaray from them, and was even more impressed with how the board behaved in powder.
But the idea of snow surfing didn't fully click until he rode with Neil Hartman and the Car Danchi crew around Hokkaido. "They had these Feel The Earth and Moss [boards] with these crazy three-dimensional shapes," Wolken says. "Later, we watched footage of them just doing turns and we were like, 'Shit, that looks way better than what we were doing.'"
"You don't dig your feet as much, so you can really lean in on a hard bottom turn, like you're dropping in from a wave."
Wolken immediately knew that European riders needed a movement like this. After looking at the prices of Feel The Earth, Gentem, and Moss boards in Europe, which he says were between 1,000 and 1,600 euros per deck, he also knew they needed a cheaper option that didn't compromise quality.
With a racing background, he partnered with Maurer and Alvaro Vogel in 2013 and found a small German factory to produce the first Korua Shapes, the asymmetrical swallowtail Apollo 56. "We wanted to have super wide boards that carved well on the slopes," says Wolken. "We wanted a more surfy feeling, and we did get that because with a wider board you can really set an edge, even in softer conditions. You don't dig your feet as much, so you can really lean in on a hard bottom turn, like you're dropping in from a wave."
From that single board, the line expanded as quickly as the group's imagination for shapes. Now working with a new factory in Poland, there are six boards with wild outlines, like the Puzzle 61, featuring a tail that looks like the rounded nub on a puzzle-piece, and the blunt-nose, fang-tail Stealth 63. Wolken promises that more are on the way.
When it comes to his outlook on snow surfing today, Wolken agrees that it's largely about seeing terrain in a more three-dimensional way, but adds his own take. "It's a kind of creative work," he says, "in which you set surf-inspired turns in the right places and link them to form a pleasing line that creates an overall aesthetic impression in the backcountry, or on groomers." The biggest draw for him, and something that was echoed by everyone else I talked to for this story, is being able to "have fun doing turns, try new shapes, and be open minded to snowboarding again."