‘THERE’S NO REASON TO SNOWBOARD’: AN INTERVIEW WITH JIM ZELLERS
Snowboarding is still a relatively young sport, having begun in earnest in the early Eighties. Through its support of pioneers like Jim Zellers and Tom Burt, The North Face has been involved with snowboarding since the beginning. We spoke with Jim about the early days of the sport, and where it’s headed in the future.
How did you get involved in the early days of snowboarding?
I was about 14 years old. I grew up in the Bay skateboarding and skiing, and the first ski boards came out and I just sort of latched onto it. And it grew over time until I got to high school. You were really just surfing powder in moon boots with a rubber strap back then. Pretty basic stuff, but as it grew and resorts started to allow it and all these competitions happened, I started getting into that. In school, my friend Tom Burt became a pro rider, and along with my wife, we all started riding and it just grew from there. One of the people we were in school with, a climbing friend (we were all rock climbers in college) ended up marrying Todd Skinner, who The North Face was sponsoring. So I started hanging out with Todd a little bit and he was like, "You know, The North Face needs snowboarders, you gotta go meet my friend Ann." So we drove down in the fall of '88 and Ann walked in and she said, "Sure, you're sponsored!" It was that easy back then, but sponsorship wasn't what it is today. It was: "Here's your jacket and your pants, go work your ass off and have a good time."
What drew you to snowboarding instead of more established sports?
Snowboarding has absolutely no purpose. There's no reason to snowboard. It was one of the few sports that came about simply for pure fun. So that held it for me, just the pure feeling.
The second thing is that growing up skateboarding, growing up in the early days of mountain biking, we pretty much got booted out of every place we set foot. So when I got the feeling from snowboarding like, "Oh, I don't have to go back home where everyone wears suits and ties and people hate me? I'm in! This is my sport." It was a really comfortable place. The absolute feeling of fun, and the feeling that you've gotta fight for something fun, I loved that.
How have you sustained your passion, what has kept it fresh and exciting for you?
Basically it's the backcountry, and that we're able to access it better and better every year. It's fun to go exploring. With changes in snowfall levels, we're starting to discover that there's a bit of a snow chasing thing that happens. Even at your local hill where you think you have it figured out, or your local mountain range, you now have to readjust and become a bit of a weather forecaster. It's really fun to go, "Where's the best snow? We have a hundred miles of mountain to choose from," and you go find it. That process probably keeps it fresher than anything else.
What's the hairiest line you ever rode? Half Dome? Pumori?
One that always stood out was Mt Cooke in New Zealand. Mostly because it was skied once on a rope, and then I went there with a local skier in NZ and the two of us descended it. There are five segments where you can't really fall: You do the first three turns and then you can't fall, the next segment is probably two turns and then you can't fall... Mt Cooke was a big deal, but it was never really covered, no one knew about it. It was really difficult to piece together a route.
What's the next frontier in terms of things that have been unexplored so far?
There are a few lines that I still look at that are just wild lines overall. As we get a better idea of snow science and weather forecasting, we're able to go do things that we couldn't do before. I think if we pay better attention to forecasting and study the snow, we're gonna find that we can do that one crazy route we never thought was possible. There’s a lot of stuff that people won't even look at because the snow won't bond well. But if you do have some heating up in, say, Colorado, you have lines that will stick that were typically too cold. So that's one place where what we previously saw as impossible is now possible. Or we weren't even looking at it before. Before El Cap was climbed, it was impossible.
There are some people who travel so far around the world and get so little out of their line, where in their own backyard the line is way bigger. It's just kinda remote and they don't want to put the effort in, even though it would still take half the time to get there as it does to get to Pakistan. Our backyards are the future of exploration. We've basically been looking into outer space, trying to find the most remote, furthest locations from our homes. We haven’t quite neglected our backyard, but we haven't checked the whole thing out yet.