What Snowboarding Owes Jake Burton: A Remembrance

Jake Burton / Credit: Gary Land
Jake Burton / Credit: Gary Land


This article originally appeared on Snowboarder.com and has been republished with permission.

I started snowboarding in 1985, though in proper context my origin story would more aptly be described as “Burton Boarding.” At the time most Vermonters, my parents and grandparents included, referred to descending the slopes sideways as such. Regardless of whether I labeled it as snowboarding or Burton Boarding, there’s no doubt that I called it “fun.” Ultimately, it was something more. It was a calling. Now, two decades after my byline first appeared in SNOWBOARDER Magazine, an outlet dedicated to covering the pastime that Jake Burton Carpenter shepherded, I am tasked with striving to convey the enormity of his legacy.

Credit: Adamants Curtes
Credit: Adamants Curtes

Jake wasn’t the first person to ever step on a snowboard, nor the first to found a snowboarding company, but in my opinion he was the first to define himself as a snowboarder, and this distinction would serve as his true north, guiding his process for the rest of his days. Jake’s nonconformist leanings spawned long before 1977, the year he launched his namesake company, but the anti-establishment ideals were cemented by the cynical atmosphere he encountered as he set out to advocate for resort acceptance in the 1980s. Akin to a modern day Johnny Appleseed, sowing the seeds of a new sport one slope at a time, Jake routinely encountered skepticism and condescension, yet remained undeterred. Each mountain that opened their doors served as a beachhead for a growing community and by the end of the decade, those same naysayers were calling Jake and his ilk the saviors of a declining winter sports industry.

Credit: Gary Land
Credit: Gary Land

With snowboarding on the rise Jake pivoted his focus from evangelism to innovation, putting his inquisitive nature and disdain for the status quo to good use improving gear. In no time, Burton was outfitting riders with not only boards, boots, bindings, outerwear, and accessories, but also tuning supplies, bags, first layers, socks, and helmets. With all of the needs of the general snowboarding consumer met, Jake set upon the noble endeavor of enhancing the riding experience for all regardless of size, sex, age, stance, or economic circumstance.

As alternative culture exploded in the 90s, snowboarding and Burton experienced a meteoric rise culminating with the inclusion of the sport in the Olympics in 1998. This sudden mainstream exposure heralded Jake into the position of stewarding the growth of his creation, all the while facing down outsiders with the simple doctrine, “listen to the riders”. Ultimately though, Jake was just that, a rider, one who would routinely spend over 100 days a season on the slopes, oftentimes splitboarding to the top of Stowe before sunup, or jet-setting to a different hemisphere in the off season.

While the first, second, and fiftieth snowboards I ever owned bore his name, along with countless pairs of Forward Lean socks, I didn’t have any personal interaction with Jake until a press junket for the opening of the Craig’s prototyping facility in January of 2011. Inclement weather forced travel delays with only a handful of journalists like myself being able to attend the early activities, the first of which was a day of lapping Stowe with the man, himself. On the hill I wasn’t the media and he wasn’t the corporate figurehead, rather we were all riders, and outlaw ones at that as the tour was complete with Jake, no stranger to having his pass pulled, instigating a ski-patrol-dodging, rope-ducking excursion down the closed Upper Starr glades. The day ended with our intimate group touring the Stowe sidecountry on the Bruce Trail, which leads to one of Jake’s subdued guest properties. There we shared a few Heady Toppers and discussed the US Open Snowboarding Championships, of which I was vocally advocating for it to find a new home away from Stratton, Vermont. While I was struck by how genuinely engaged he was and his ability as a host to put people at ease, for Jake, this was merely another instance where he was listening to the riders. Moving the Open weighed heavily on him and he wanted feedback from the people the event mattered to most.

Credit: Adamants Curtes
Credit: Adamants Curtes

In 2016 I was given the opportunity to interview Jake, a man second only to my father in the impact he has had on my life. Our candid exchange covered the entirety of Jake’s life up to that point, both personally and professionally, celebrating the highs and lows. Jake was very gracious, candid, and unguarded. As we talked about products, like the upcoming Step-On release, he became animated. When recalling the challenges of bucking the ski establishment in the 80s, his angst was rekindled. As we discussed his namesake brand, he extolled the talents of his employees. Once the conversation breached the subject of Craig Kelly, he cried. And when we spoke of his wife Donna and their three sons, Timi, Taylor, and George, Jake lit up. All the while I sat back, rapt, in that moment channeling the guidance of Jake Burton Carpenter and listening to the rider.

As we sat in his home office, surrounded by samples of every item being offered by his brand the following season, I brought up the Burton Boarding anecdote from my childhood. Jake was was noticeably uneasy about that circumstance. Jake relayed his belief that snowboarding needed more than one man or one brand to grow. And today this foresight is why the sport and his legacy will ride on.

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