VAIL — One of Jake Burton Carpenter’s earliest sales trips didn’t work out so great. He loaded up his station wagon with 30 freshly built snowboards. He came home with all of them — plus five more from unhappy customers.
Forty years later, most people hold onto their Burton boards after they buy them. And anyone who doubted that there really was a sport struggling to emerge from Carpenter’s sawdust-covered garage in the early ‘80s certainly could not have envisioned the scene in Vail over the weekend.
It was a sun-kissed, tear-stained and, ultimately, bittersweet weekend — a time for snowboarding to show what it has become. It was all in celebration of the man who, in fact, did see a sport there. Carpenter, whose invention of the Burton snowboard company spawned an industry that changed everything on the mountain, died in November after a relapse with testicular cancer. This was the first Burton U.S. Open since his passing.
“When I met him, he was grinding these things out,” said his wife, Donna Burton Carpenter, who has partnered with Jake since shortly after they met decades ago at a bar on New Year’s Eve. “He got rejected over and over and he kept saying ‘I think there’s a (expletive) sport here. I’m not going to let them tell me there’s not a sport here because I know there is.’ That’s what kept him going.”
In the eyes of Jake and Donna, though, it was more than a sport that they were building. It was a community and a family.
Members from all parts showed up over the weekend: That included thousands of fans, hundreds of recreational riders, to say nothing of the dozens of professionals who owe their careers to Carpenter’s vision.
“It’s one of those things where I have to ask myself, `Where would my life be without Jake Burton?’” said Shaun White, the three-time Olympic champion.
White was on hand for the Open, as he always is the last week in February, whether he’s in competition mode or not. On Saturday, he joined Olympic medalists Ross Powers, J.J. Thomas, Mark McMorris, Kelly Clark and dozens more legends of this sport who stepped into their snowboards to “poach the pipe” — free-riding down the halfpipe when it’s supposed to be shut down during a break in the contests. It’s an ode to the formative days of snowboarding, when the contests weren’t so serious — a tradition that remains a staple and a highlight of any Burton event.
Donna stood at the bottom and wept as she watched the riders come down, carving perfect turns in nonstop waves.
She wasn’t the only one crying.
Three months removed from Carpenter’s death, McMorris is still crestfallen. A two-time Olympic bronze medalist and eight-time Winter X Games champion, McMorris was as close to Burton as any of the riders — which is saying something — and he says this has been something of a lost season.
“It’s not like I’m thinking about him while I’m snowboarding down in my contest run, but it’s just, like, everything else,” McMorris said. “It’s everyone coming up to you, saying ‘Hey, sorry.” It’s just nonstop. And everything reminds you of the guy.”
Winter X Games champion Danny Davis plastered a Polaroid of himself and Jake onto his snowboard as he prepared his final-round runs. He, too, was taken in early by Carpenter and fashioned a career in which he cemented himself as the soul of the sport — a rider who wouldn’t sacrifice style, good turns or his keeping-it-real vibe for the high jumps and massive flips that have overtaken the competition world.
“Jake pushed himself so hard to make something out of what they called surfing on snow,” Davis said. “It’s hard to imagine back when that wasn’t a thing. But he was the guy who found this and said, ‘Holy (expletive), this needs to be big.” I just respect him so much for that.”
It was never a foregone conclusion.
Long after Carpenter’s sales force had shifted operations from his station wagon to more traditional modes, the rejections played out differently. It took years for resorts and the skiers who bankrolled them to overcome their disdain for a new group of kids wearing baggy pants and riding sideways down the slopes.
Carpenter eventually won that battle, and it was the Olympics — among the most staid symbols of mainstream hegemony — that sought his blessing to add the sport, and inject some youth, into its older-skewing and growingly stale program.
That was 22 years ago. Yet for all that mainstream acceptance, there was a personal side to this story that played as big a role in making the business, and thus the sport, a success.
Donna, who has held virtually every role in the company since marrying Jake in the ‘80s, remembers the time the bank called back a loan that was helping the company cover payroll in 1989.
“We had about 60 employees, and I had to tell every one of them that their checks weren’t worth the paper they were written on,” she said.
It took her 19 days to secure the funding to make those checks clear. In that time, she said, “I’ll never forget, not one person blinked, not one person left.
“That was the moment when I realized that it wasn’t about how many snowboards we made, but that we were a family,” she said.
A very successful one. Through the decades, Burton has remained a privately held company, even as it has grown and controlled the majority of what has become a billion-dollar industry.
Friends and family, along with hundreds who never met the man but wore his name, started arriving en masse Friday for an early-morning ride down one of Jake’s favorite trails in Vail. They stayed through Saturday night, where a fireworks show in the town’s main plaza closed out the festivities.
In between, sunshine and tears — all of it perfect.
Well, not quite perfect.
“It’s been rough for everybody,” said White, who choked up while talking about the embraces he shared with Burton at the bottom of the hill after each of his three Olympic titles. “Every day we go ride, it’s a bittersweet thing., because you look around and you think, ‘He started this all.'”
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