Wolle, with a hell of a method by any measure. PHOTO: Andreas Monsberger.
Wolle, with a hell of a method by any measure. PHOTO: Andreas Monsberger.

Unstrapped Potential: The Possibility in Bindingless Riding

As seen in the December 2018 issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding.

Words: Taylor Boyd

Photos: Phil Smage, Matt Bievenour, Chris Wellhausen, Andreas Monsberger, Bob Plumb, Carlos Blanchard, Brad Slack, Kurt Jensen, Ian Provo, Mason Mashon, Frode Sandbech, and Jason Hogan.

We didn’t start strapped in. Snowboarding as a whole, or any of us individually. The first time we slid sideways was unaffixed, whether it was standing up on a sled or shooting across a hardwood floor in socks, as the person at the rental shop inquired about when they set up our stance-bindings fixed to a board in a semi-permanent fashion, not adjusted in the moment based on the terrain presented or trick intended, but through a tool and a five-minute process.

We considered running a shot of him tomahawking but settled on this. Alex Pashley in the hills above Steamboat. PHOTO: Matt Bievenour.

“With an ÄSMO, Steamboat becomes AK…” – Alex Pashley.

Far from East Coast concrete, John Shanahan extends a boneless at Bear. PHOTO: Chris Wellhausen.

The R portion of Äsmo’s R&D. Wolle Nyvelt in Tyrol Austria. PHOTO: Andreas Monsberger.

Of the three most established boardsports, snowboarding is the only that employs bindings as part of its standard practice. Skateboards with any such mechanism aren’t skateboards, and surfing with even rudimentary straps, used for big wave tow-in scenarios, is viewed as inferior to a paddle-in approach, free of fixations. So how did we end up attached? Turkish people had been sliding sideways in the snow without bindings for a couple centuries by 1965, when the first piece of wood widely designated as a form of snowboard was developed by Sherman Poppen. The Snurfer used only a rope on the front as its method of retention. But when Jake Burton Carpenter showed up to a ate ’70’s snurfing contest in Poppen’s native Michigan with a board employing rubber foot traps appropriated from a water ski, the level of riding he demonstrated, facilitated by the crude bindings he’d fashioned, forever shifted the direction of the nascent winter pastime. Burton Snowboards was founded during this period, based on a model with bindings. But to this day, the brand has continued to manufacture binding-optional models and was even among the first to market with a bi-deck snowskate. Bindingless riding was around before snowboarding, and it’s not going anywhere, but will it ever find a place in the mainstream?

1998 is widely considered to be the birth year of snowskating. Premier Snowskates, founded by Andy Wolfe, introduced single-decks to the world and with Wolfe’s background in snowboarding quickly amassed a team roster that included some of the highest profile snowboarders at the time. JP Walker had a pro model with Premier. Like most stories that come out of the Washington fog, the birth of bi-decking is slightly more mystery-shrouded. Legend has it that within that similar mid to late ’90 window, the idea for a two-level device came to a man named Steve Frink, as he watched a ski burning in a bonfire at a preseason “pray for snow” party. As the story goes, Frank pulled the ski from the fire, cut it in half, and mounted it to a skate deck, creating the first snowskate of its kind. Frink founded his own brand, Bi-Deck, which became a sort of proprietary eponym used to describe the same form of device that would soon be manufactured by Burton, Salomon, and Morrow during the early 2000s snowskate boom.

Powsurfing’s roots, of course, predate snowboarding but in a modern sense can be traced to NoBoarding, popularized by Greg Todds and Cholo Burns in the early 2000s, with the launch of their brand by that name. Todds’ and Burns’ NoBoard adapter kit turned a snowboard into a bindingless vehicle with a traction pad and bungee. Ditch the bungee, and that’s powsurfing-a sort of hybrid of snowskating and NoBoarding. After the snowskate boom, guys like Wille Nyvelt, Jeremy Jensen, and Tim Wesley began handshaping powsurfers.

Bindingless riding’s Jack-of-all-trades, Alan Gerlach, with an unstrapped snap in Marquette, Michigan. PHOTO: Phil Smage.

The level snowboarding has reached over the last forty years is unquestionably attributed to the fact we’re strapped in. You can’t flip four times without bindings or ride 65-degree AK spines unstrapped. And since the early ’80s, the overwhelming majority of sideways snow progression has been put into riding with bindings. These attachments have catalyzed rapid progression that’s allowed roof-to-roof gaps, 1800 degrees of rotation with four corks, and big mountain descents that rival those done on skis.  They level the playing field with our counterparts on two planks. While the board and sideways stance are our link to skateboarding and surfing, snowboarding also evolved from skiing, and the bindings are our vestigial trait.

Envision for a second, a hypothetical scenario where buckling in wasn’t embraced as it has been. What if bindings were rejected upon invention? If all of the effort poured into the progression of snowboarding throughout the last four decades, by the millions of participants in that time frame, had instead been put toward something that didn’t involve straps? Imagine where bindingless riding could be. Skateboarders can hit a 70-foot gap followed by a 20-foot quarter pipe, unstrapped, on a board which, in size pales in comparison to a snowboard. Surfers can blast overhead airs and ride mind-numbingly massive slabs unattached. But thus didn’t happen overnight. Each discipline has a legacy of progression and participation behind it that predates snowboarding by centuries and decades, respectively. I pose the aforementioned hypothetical scenario to Austin Smith, who has dedicated more time of recent to riding unstrapped.

“Yeah, if you look at skateboarding, there’s fifty years with a mass amount of people investing their entire lively hoods and energy and efforts toward progressing this one sport. Within [snowsports] there’s only a handful of people that have invested real time and energy, in a relatively small window of time toward something like powsurfing. So if there were thousands of people giving the amount of effort that someone like Wolle [Nyvelt] has, and if all these kids grew up doing that from the age of three, it would be in a crazy place right now. But I still don’t know if resorts would let you on the chairlifts… which was where snowboarding was at one point too.”

“A lot of snowboarding was fueled by a gnarly attitude of big jumps, big rails, f*ck all the other sh*t… and snowskating was definitely the other sh*t.” – Alan Gerlach.

Wolle, with a hell of a method by any measure. Hoodoo, OR. PHOTO: Andreas Monsberger.

“I love the feeling of changing your stance and how that can make a snowboard feel so different. To do that within a run is a really cool feeling.” – Wolle Nyvelt.

Bryan Fox, down the bindingless rabbit hole. Furano, Japan. PHOTO: Bob Plumb.

PHOTO: Carlos Blanchard.

PHOTO: Carlos Blanchard.

“Resorts like Breckenridge or Stowe can be fun again.” – Terje Haakonsen.

Access is a worthy metric in explaining the current state of bindingless riding. In recent history, resort acceptance hasn’t been a widespread consideration for snowboarders. And in the limited cases where snowboarding isn’t allowed, it’s quite black and white. Snowskates and powsurfers exist in a much grayer area. Imagine the necessity to contact wherever you’re seeking to ride beforehand to ensure you’ll be allowed on the chair. Upon arrival, the liftie tells you no, which transpires into a talk with management. Maybe they let you on the mountain, or maybe they don’t. Alan Gerlach is best known for his ability on a single-deck snowskate but embraces all boards free of bindings and is quite competent on all of them. In the decade since we lived together in a shack in Summit County, I’ve repeatedly watched, firsthand, some version of this scenario play out for Gerlach. As Smith nods to, the plight of the bindingless rider is not entirely different from that of the snowboarder thirty years ago.

Gerlach says he's observed a trend in access ultimately on a positive trajectory but one that's wavered. In the early 2000s, when snowskating was still in its relative infancy, he explains, "You could pretty much ride whatever you wanted." This is before it was on the radar of the management at most ski areas. As popularity grew, resort acceptance waned. "In the mid 2000s," Alan explains, "everyone kind of realized what snowskating was. And in a lot of places, it wasn't allowed. In the later 2000s [resorts] have started opening to it one by one." At this point, Gerlach estimates the nationwide rate of resort access for bindingless riding to be over 50 percent. That access, however, hinges on factors like edges and mechanism of attachment.

The resort is the element of snowboarding that has given us an upper-class stigma. Sure, the equipment's not cheap, but the variable cost of lift access is what truly sets us apart from surfing and skateboarding. Snowboarding is, in many ways, designed around the use of a chairlift, and thus, a correlation can be drawn between bindings and cost. Aside from their literal price, bindings beg for bigger terrain, and bigger terrain often comes with a higher price tag. A lack of straps better lends itself to scenarios without lifts.

Jeremy Jensen is the founder of Grassroots Powdersurfing and contrasts bindingless riding and snowboarding as such, "Once you realize how scalable powder surfing is and how much fun you can have on a simple slope as well as a huge gnarly slope-- once you realize that you can have fun without dropping 1000 dollars on a season pass and buying all this excess gear--you can focus on riding for yourself like a surfer does, you know. It simplifies things and allows you to actually focus on what matters, which is the actual riding. The resort can be a fashion contest, and [powsurfing] kind of leaves that bit of snowboarding in the dust and focuses on the actual soul of it. Don't get me wrong; I love snowboarding, and I go snowboarding at resorts all the time, but that really sets powsurfing apart in my mind. Not only is it a little more cost efficient, but it's under your own power and your own knowledge also."

Jeremy Jensen, about to surf into the clouds. PHOTO: Ian Provo.

Gerlach cites the financial disparity between snowboarding and snowskating as one of the factors that drew him to the latter. "I guess it just worked for me. I never had a ton of money growing up. Instead of scraping money together to go to a ropetow or chairlift, it just made sense to go to the sledding hill or the backyard. With snowskating, I'm just as stoked on a little hill with a weird bump, or a tranny, or a log, as I am going to a resort. It's a lot easier to find a challenge."

The idea that ditching the bindings makes terrain more exciting is the most ubiquitous theme I find in talking with those who have spent time without straps, or even built their life around it. Everyone from professional skier Sean Pettit, who spends considerable time outside hard plastic confines in favor or powsurfing, to Jake Tomlinson, a pioneer responsible for the creation of specific trucks that revolutionized the bi-deck genre of snowskating, cite the transformational capacity of unstrapping.

Tomlinson puts it succinctly: "It just changes the way you look at the mountain."

In regard to powsurfing, Pettit explains that, "It's a way to kind of start at the beginning again, because I know that I can get better at just the little things and notice a difference every day."

"It makes small feel big. Resorts like Breckenridge or Stowe can be fun again," says Terje Haakonsen, who's been a proponent of unstrapping since the snowskate's inception. "And when you ride urban stuff, you don't need a Bobcat, a drop-in ramp, a winch, five-story building, or a kicker up to a rail. Did I mention the boots? So much nicer than huge, stiff ones."

Haakonsen rides Ralston Snowskates, handmade by Danny Sheehan in a Sierra garage. Sheehan explains, "It gets to the point with snowboarding, where if you're not getting ten feet out of the pipe or hitting fifty footers, you're just goofing around. For me, snowskating just changed the scale of everything." He later adds in passing, "A lot of parents find snowskating as a good way to cruise with their kids." To me, this is noteworthy. Aside from the practicality of easily being able "tow them across the flats or whatnot," as Sheehan says, it illustrates snowskating's ability to refresh your perspective on the mountain to that of a child.

When Austin Smith talks about bindingless riding, he sounds like an addict explaining how painkillers led to heroin. However corny the term adrenaline junkie may be, it's an accurate descriptor of many snowboarders, especially those in Smith's position. "When you first started snowboarding, everything was so exciting. That first bunny hill you went down was a crazy adrenaline rush, and everything you did was just out of this world. Then the more you do it, the more it takes to get that same thrill. Then it needs to be powder, then you need to be jumping out of a helicopter. You need to be hitting this huge jump, you need to be doing this crazy trick, and what you're always doing is seeking that original thrill, that original feeling. One way to get that feeling again is by simply taking the bindings off your snowboard."

If powsurfing turns Steamboat into AK, what does that make Pemberton? Chris Ankeny, Pemberton, BC. PHOTO: Brad Slack.

“I’m kind of happy it didn’t stick with the bigger brands. It’s left the door opened for guys like me.” – Danny Sheehan.

Smith's team manager at Smartwool, Alex Pashley, has never explicitly been paid to snowboard. But from his time as Salomon Snowboards' team manager, to his current role managing Smartwool's athlete program, he's found a way to ride world-class terrain around the globe under the guise of a "job" for going on two decades now. Smartwool, however, is based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I ask Pashley what I've posed to everyone I've talked to for this article. Why ride without bindings? "Really?" he laughs, "I live in Steamboat. "Let's be honest; the terrain isn't the most challenging. With an Äsmo, Steamboat becomes AK. Everything is bigger and scarier."

The Äsmo Pashley is referring to is, of course, the name for the DIY powsurf brand professional snowboarder Wolle Nyvelt has been running out of his Austrian garage for a decade. Nyvelt explains, "Äsmo is about exploring the roots of snowboarding. It's a more surfy feeling and [gives you] more freedom moving around on your board. More than anything we were interested in snowboarding's surf-influence. I love the feeling of changing your stance and how that can make a snowboard feel so different. To do that within a run is a really cool feeling."

Terje Haakonsen. PHOTO: Frode Sandbech.

So what's held bindingless riding back? Why has it remained relatively obscure? At its core, it's more accessible and cheaper--attainability and cost being the two barriers cited most often in regard to snowboarding. More than ever, snowboarders seem to be riding one-footed, even unstrapped entirely, in order to increase possibility--because as much as bindings promote progression, they can also hinder it. Perhaps presentation is partially to blame. "A lot of the 2000s were tough for snowskating in terms of acceptance," Gerlach remarks. "I think part of it was a fault of portrayal from within snowskating. People were pushing some lame media. Of course there was cool stuff too. I think it was also a bit of a weird time for snowboarding too, honestly. In the mid 2000s, there was a sort of agro mentality. Obviously there were dudes on the creative side--Robot Food, KidsKnow, and such--but a lot of snowboarding was fueled by a gnarly attitude of big jumps, big rails, fuck all the other shit. You know? And snowskating was definitely the other shit. And I think now, snowboarding is in a place where creativity is key, and snowskating is becoming a part of that. Of course, the level of snowskating has progressed a lot as well," he concludes.

Difficulty is the other factor to consider in discussing bindingless riding's position of relative obscurity. Snow can be an especially tricky medium to ride unstrapped. Jensen makes the comparison to skateboarding, an activity with an inherent difficulty factor on par with golf and a brutality factor comparable to not much, maybe rugby. "With skateboarding you have cement; you know what cement feels like. You can ollie on it, and it's the same ollie. [Snowskating or powsurfing] is that much more difficult because the medium you're sliding on is different every time."

That's true. But part of progression comes with the understanding that something is possible. Jensen discusses that as well: "Back in the '90s people weren't catching air on their surfboards. In the '90s and the 2000s we saw insane progression in skateboarding, and we've seen insane progression in surfing in the past fifteen years." He's right. Surfing's beginning dates back centuries, and not long ago, videos featured airs that went unlanded, and mags ran the photos.

Sheehan in his Sierra garage. PHOTO: Jason Hogan.

But once a precedent is set, the opportunity for advancement increases exponentially "It's less foreign and seems more achievable once you see someone else do it," says Jensen. Thanks to people like him, and Gerlach, and Nyvelt we've begun to see what possibilities unstrapping holds.

Bindingless riding in its current state is reminiscent of snowboarding in an earlier time. So why rush? The mainstream brings more money, but we know what comes with that. "I'm kind of happy it didn't stick with the bigger brands. It's left the door opened for guys like me," say Sheehan. There is beauty in obscurity. And while much of the potential for progression in snowskating and powsurfing is yet to be seen, is it any less fun because of that? Spin count and enjoyment are hardly correlated. We'll always have snowboards, but they are in no way mutually exclusive with snowskates, powsurfers, NoBoards, and snurfers. As much as the feeling and purpose of each differs, it is also the same. There is rarely one way of achieving any goal. After all, we didn't start strapped in.

See more features from the mag here.