But it’s not just for kids anymore

Tom Meyers, Director of Marketing at Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, remembers the days when snowboarders weren’t even a blip on the radar screen for most ski areas.

”When I worked for Stratton Mountain (Vermont) in the early 80s, snowboarders had to take a test before they could even get on the lift,” Meyers says. “And then we realized that that probably wasn’t too fair since beginner skiers didn’t have to take a test — and they were getting on the lifts all the time.”

Meyers says that Stratton — which is the place where snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter (the guru behind Burton Snowboards) started out with his snow toy “snurfboard” in the late 1960s — soon realized that the snowboarders could be big business.

Meyers has watched the wave of snowboarding grow from a few weirdos with strange-looking boards strapped to their feet to an international movement that has sometimes eclipsed skiing — at least for those under the age of 30. As a matter of fact, at the 2001 Olympics, the United States male snowboarding team swept the medals competition.

And the gold medal winner, Ross Powers of South Londonderry, Vermont, grew up on mountains like Stratton and Bromley, sliding down ski area trails on lunch trays past the fancy ski folk from New York and Connecticut.

These days snowboarding is huge business for just about every mountain in the country. Snowboarding is becoming so mainstream that lots of life-long skiers – like David Crowley, general manager at Wachusett Mountain — have pretty much given up skiing for “riding”.

Crowley –who is often featured on Wachusett’s well-known ads on TV with his sister and brother – says that most of the time he picks snowboarding over skiing these days.

“Snowboarding is a blast,” Crowley says. “And one of the best things about snowboarding is that even though it is a lot harder to pick up during the first couple of days, you can progress much quicker as a beginner than you can with skiing.”

Crowley says that Wachusett has always greeted boarders with open arms, even in the early days when lots of mountains were none to happy about the kids, sometimes dressed like inner-city street thugs, who soon changed the look and the dynamics of ski resorts forever.

On any given day Wachusett, which has received over 50 inches of snow since it opened before Thanksgiving, is bursting at the seams with boarders of all ages. Small kids barely big enough for their helmets fly through the air off massive jumps in Wachusett’s alpine terrain park. Middle-aged women in sleek one-piece suits cruise through the mountain’s new half-pipe, recently relocated at the base of the mountain to provide the people in the area’s snazzy Black Diamond restaurant with better entertainment options.

At 5 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, the traffic on Wachusett’s access road is bumper to bumper with buses and cars heading UP to the area, one of the few New England mountains to boast a hugely successful night business.

The word is that Wachusett makes more money in the month of December than lots of northern New England mountains make in the entire season.

And that is especially true this year. Tom Meyers says that Wachusett is having a record-breaking season. But still, Wachusett’s top management yearns for more space. The success of the alpine park, featuring jumps of all shapes and sizes, has made the possibility of new trails very desirable.

“The alpine park has become such an important feature of the area, that we are trying to develop a dedicated trail for it,” Meyers says. “With the amount of trails we have and our popularity, we can’t take away an existing trail….we’ve been trying to get a new trail for a terrain park and one for ski racing.”

The problem — as local environmentalists know – is that the ski area would have to cut the new trails in the vicinity of an “Old Growth” forest, one of the few pockets of original, ancient forest left in New England. “It’s been an on-going challenge,” says Meyers. ”We had been approved by the state and at the 11th hour, we were challenged by an opposition group.”

Still, even though the existent trails can sometimes seem like the Mass Pike through Newton at rush hour, Wachusett does a good job at keeping its clientele happy. Which is not always an easy job, especially when you are trying to please snowboarders — and skiers – often made of people from two pretty different demographics..

When snowboarding first shook up the Stein Erickson-like world of alpine skiing in the United States, there were lots of skiers who really resented the kids in big pants and gang caps ripping it up. The snowboarders delighted in riding their snowboards down the stairs or railings of base lodges or setting up jumps on picnic tables in sheer defiance.

Ski schools, especially those in the East which are influenced heavily by the Professional Ski Instructors of America organization (known as PSIA), took on snowboarding instructors somewhat reluctantly. At daily ski school line-ups in the 80s, and early 90s, the two groups couldn’t have been more different. Ski instructors, often in tight stretch pants, form-fitting Bogner-style jackets and streamlined hats, stood in perfect formation like their Swiss and Austrian forebears.

The snowboarders milled around in a disorganized group, comfortable in baggy pants and big, boxy jackets, talking about fakies and half-pipes, people who ride goofy, seeming to relish disorder.

But by the 1990s, snowboarding started to get mainstream. There were just too many kids who wanted to snowboard for the ski schools to ignore Jake Burton Carpenter’s sport, which began with a simple snow toy, a board with a rope attached to it.

Today, you can’t tell the difference between the ski and the snowboard instructors – except for the boards on their feet.

David Crowley says that the secret to keeping young snowboarders happy is treating them with respect. “The kids know that we are working hard to give them a good experience,” Crowley says, noting that the mountain has a full schedule of events just for snowboarders.

Tom Meyers — who has worked for some big names in the ski business — says he is really proud of what Wachusett has achieved. “The amount of people that we have coming here is testimony to having a top level ski area close to home,” Meyers says. “We may be small by the standards of northern New England, but in terms of the type of facility we have — for skiers AND snowboarders — we are as world class and as state of the art as any major resort in New England.”

”When I worked for Stratton Mountain (Vermont) in the early 1980s, snowboarders had to take a test before they could even get on the lift.” Tom Meyers, Marketing Director, Wachusett Mountain Ski Area

The word is that Wachusett makes more money in the month of December than lots of northern New England mountains make in the entire season.

Wachusett Mountain Snowboard Schedule

Feb. 1 (Sat.) 2ND ANNUAL SNOWBOARD CLASSIC COMPETITION: See some great moves from Wachusett Mountain’s local Eastern Boarder riders! Cash prizes will be awarded to the best slope style riders. This event benefits the Ryan C. Joubert Memorial Skate Park in Fitchburg.

Feb. 9 (Sun.) CHARTER PIPELINE POINT SERIES/ESPN SNOWBOARD BLITZ: Half pipe snowboard competition with Mountainside.

Feb. 19 (Wed.) CHARTER PIPELINE POINT SERIES: Catch BIG AIR with this competition!

Mar. 1 (Sat.) SNOWBOARD COMPETITION: Eastern Boarder is sponsoring an unbelievable competition. See some great snowboarders flaunt their stuff and there is no doubt you will be impressed!

Mar. 6 (Thurs.)CHARTER PIPELINE POINT SERIES FINALE: Slope style competition sponsored by Concrete Wave.

Mar. 29 (Sat.) BIG AIR COMPETITION: Sponsored by Eastern Boarder.