When you snowboard, you ride the mountain.
My first exposure to snowboarding happened a few winters back and quite by chance. I was traversing a steep slope in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on snowshoes. The forest was quiet, sparkling, sublime. My shoes weren’t providing much flotation in the deep powder, but the snow was so light, so airy, it didn’t matter. Slowly moving along, I saw a track. Deep, wide, singular and gracefully serpentine, it dropped through the mixed conifers. In awe, I stopped and studied it; it was the track of a snowboarder.
I would have loved to have seen it put down, to see the solitary rider navigating their way, pushing, floating, turning in the deep powder. Focused on a line through the trees, they would come swiftly and with little warning, for an instant break the stillness, and then in near silence, be gone.
Yes, in these moments, perhaps always, the mountain is alive. It takes you somewhere.
I recently connected with two snowboarders at Taos Ski Valley, Christina Bruno and Justin Bobb. It’s a tight-knit community at TSV. Ask around about snowboarders and their names come up. Both have been riding since they were kids, are at the tops of their respective games, and are highly respected on the mountain.
Meeting Christina, the first thing I notice is her handshake. Not overbearing in a ham-fisted way, but strong, a handshake indicative of great core strength. Christina runs the Adaptive Snow Sports Program at the Taos Ski School, which accommodates people with physical and cognitive disabilities to get out on the snow—a rewarding job if ever there was one.
Snowboarders, however, have had a reputation as troublemakers. I ask her about this. She acknowledges with, “Some of the founders of snowboarding—there was kind of a bad-boys club and they weren’t really accepted.” Snowboarding shares its roots with surfing and skateboarding. The similarities are obvious. Perhaps more importantly though is the culture they share. It’s a punky, hooligan, rebel thing, and an interesting tribe. For example, at various ski areas, before snowboarding was allowed, not-to-be-daunted riders would “poach” the mountain, meaning ride it illegally, often in the cover of darkness. Christina continues, “These days, snowboarders aren’t necessarily troublemakers. It’s still getting accepted. I think hopefully that stereotype will fade away.” She laughs and adds, “But the culture of snowboarding, that skateboard culture, I think will always be there. Getting to be yourself, being creative.”
While the sport has been around since the 1970s, the acceptance it enjoys at ski areas today has been a long time coming. Taos Ski Valley only started allowing snowboarding in 2009, and even then it was a not exactly welcomed. As reported in The New York Times in January of that year, snowboarders at TSV were targets for snowballs lobbed by skiers. But Justin, who works for the Ski Patrol at TSV (now part-time as he looks for ways to put his recently acquired degree in geology to work), says, “It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was one of those things like, rumors about it all kind of surpassed what actually happened, because it was such a big change for Taos.” Justin, who also happens to be a two-time winner of the men’s snowboard Freeride Championship at Taos continues, “The way it’s regarded now, it’s a family sport. A lot of the top snowboarders are environmental activists. So it has more of a serious, more of a well-regarded tone.” Snowboarding is now an Olympic sport, not to mention featured at other top levels of international competition.
But what about riding the mountain? Christina’s face lights up. “I love the mountain, that’s why I stay here,” she says. “I think it’s some of the best inbound terrain there is that’s pretty steep and committing and gnarly. Taos isn’t that crowded, and you can have a great steep run to yourself on a powder day. There’s a lot of great talent here that I ride with.”
Christina continues enthusiastically with the story of a day on the mountain last year. “During the Extreme competitions, we got that huge storm which I forget how many inches, it was like a ridiculous amount, like five feet in four days. I was in the competition and it kept getting postponed in this crazy weather, but in our wait-day before finals, me and a bunch of other girl competitors just went and huffed ourselves off everything. Just rode together and that was one of the best days I’ve had up here. Every landing was just bottomless and it was really fun. We had a good group together just cheering each other on.” Christina laughs and adds, “Probably doing better in our time together than in our comp. We were all over West Basin and the woods. Juarez area. We rode all day. We were like, ‘We’re going to be too tired for our finals run the next day.’ But that wasn’t as important as being in the moment. That was a great day.”
I ask Justin about riding Taos, and he laughs in his affable way. “The whole reason I wanted to go to Taos as a snowboarder was to access the type of terrain that wasn’t accessible anywhere else in New Mexico. So they have steeper terrain, rockier terrain, and that’s the kind of snowboarding I like to do. I like to get into the quote-unquote scary spots, and Taos is just packed full of it.” I’ve hiked some of the terrain Justin is talking about. No kidding, there are some quote-unquote scary spots.
“Whenever you’re on the mountain,” Justin continues, “you’re constantly looking around at the slopes and looking for new ways to approach certain areas. Look at a cliff and maybe look at it for three years and maybe one day the light changes on it and you see a different route through that you’ve never seen before. So it takes a lot of time to fully explore these places.”
Like Christina, Justin loves talking about being on the mountain. “And the Freeride competition, I want to say this was 2012. Might have been 2013, but it was the second year I won it. Pre-chairlift on Kachina. The minute you get going, the crowd disappears and it’s literally you and the mountain, and of course you’re all pumped up on anxiety and stuff, but I had a great run. I back flipped off a cornice…”
OK, let’s stop right here. I’m sitting across the table from Justin. We’re having coffee. I look at him; he’s a perfectly sane and reasonable guy, nonchalant, even. My eyes go wide. Back flip off a cornice? A cornice, for readers not familiar with mountain parlance, is a mass of snow overhanging a precipice. Now there are big ones and little ones, but Taos is not known for small-scale terrain. So Justin is jumping off a cliff, catching some big air, back flipping. OK, I got that. He continues…
“… and traversed over and got into this pretty steep, like, rocky zone and had a little moment of hesitation in the middle of it and then just went for it.”
A little moment of hesitation? And then he went for it? “So that was a pretty memorable one,” he says, “and it was the last competition on Kachina before the chair lift. So it was kind of an end of an era.”
Since then, Justin has gotten away from competition, and eschews chairlifts for hiking. “Now I’m more focused on going the distance and putting in a lot of effort to get on top of, you know, spending the whole day getting on top of the mountain for just one run down. That’s kind of what’s interesting to me now. The snowboarding is the end goal but it’s just a tiny piece of the whole adventure.”
Indeed, riding the mountain is, and always will be, an adventure.
Special thanks to Jesse Keaveny and Jonathan Ellsworth for their help with this story.
Story by Gordon Bunker