Snowboarder Lucas Franze, of Burnt Hills, N.Y., leads a group of snowboarders down the slopes at Aspen, Colo., Thursday, Nov. 25, 2004.
AP Photo/Nathan Bilow
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. Dressed in a yellow T-shirt despite bitter winter temperatures, Jon Raevsky sat atop Breckenridge Ski Resort watching fellow snowboarders ride steel rails instead of snow.
''Everyone here can pretty much throw down,'' the 19-year-old Raevsky said before he launched downhill, spinning 180 degrees before sliding backward down a long, metal rectangular box. Dozens of other snowriders skiers and 'boarders prepped for their own runs.
The terrain park, a playground of halfpipes, curved rails, obstacles and jumps, has become a must-have for many of the almost 500 ski resorts in the United States and for good reason: Snowboarders, once banned from many resorts, have become valued patrons of the $12 billion-a-year U.S. ski industry.
''I think they saved the ski industry,'' Terry Thorpe, 59, a longtime skier from Irvine, Calif., said as he watched skiers and 'boarders maneuver through the terrain park.
When he began organizing ski trips through a local community college in 1981, all the participants were skiers, Thorpe said. Snowboarders now account for 75 percent of the total.
Snowboarders made up a full 30 percent of all ticket sales at resorts during the 2003-04 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo. About 6.3 million snowboarders visited resorts during the 2002-03 season, up from 1.8 million 10 years earlier.
Growth has slowed in recent years, with snowboarding hitting a plateau in the Northeast and Rocky Mountain regions. But the NSSA says 60 percent of people under 20 entering snow sports are snowboarders, and resorts are wooing them as they recognize how their customer base has expanded.
''Basically, snowboarding has brought more people to the mountains and introduced more people to snow sports,'' said Kurt Hoy, editor in chief of TransWorld Snowboarding, which has been covering the sport since 1987.
''It's mostly the age demographic and people who are dedicated to progressive riding on snow whether it's on skis or snowboards,'' he said.
Resorts devote hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to build and maintain terrain parks, which were originally developed for snowboarders. Skiers, usually on twin-tipped skies, now frequent the parks in the same numbers as 'boarders, resorts say.
''It's kind of a staple at this point. You have to have at least one to stay up in the industry, to stay competitive with what everyone else is doing,'' Breckenridge Ski Resort spokeswoman Emily Jacob said.
Raevsky, winded from hiking back up the hill, said he visits the terrain park almost every day. The snowboarders and skiers here are like family, he said, a competitive camaraderie driving them to try new tricks.
''Resorts look at terrain parks as a key component in drawing, keeping and maintaining their younger customer,'' said Michael Berry, president of the ski areas association. ''People go there to hang out, to listen to music. And it's not just snowboarders twin tippers are in there, everyone is in there.''
That wasn't the case in early 1980s, when resorts first began allowing snowboarders on their hills. Snowboarders were criticized for being reckless, ruining moguls and shearing snow off runs. The mostly young snowboarders chided older skiers for being uptight.
''When we first started building terrain parks, they were for snowboarders and many were snowboarding-only areas. The thought was that moguls were for skiers, and the terrain parks were for riders,'' said Tim Eastley, Breckenridge's park manager. ''That's where a lot of the early animosity came from. Skiers coming into the parks, saying 'hey, we can do this.'''
The resentment has all but disappeared. Teenage skiers and 'boarders ride together in the parks and through moguls on steep runs.
''Snowboarders have helped skiers step it up a bit,'' said snowboarder Grant Cooley, 21, smiling at friend Harrison Wolfe, a skier.
''Skiing's more technical,'' Wolfe retorted while the two took a break from the slopes.
Four resorts still ban snowboarders: Taos in New Mexico, Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Mad River Glen in Vermont.
''There's always some discussion on whether that's the right thing,'' Taos spokesman Chris Stagg said. ''Our customers tell us that's what they like. I think it's one of those things that sets us apart from other places.''
The mentality of other resorts, however, has changed.
''One of the big elements is how the industry realized how it had been all too rigid,'' said Berry, whose trade group represents 325 ski resorts handling 90 percent of skier days in the United States.
''Skiing was very traditional, very Euro-based,'' he said. ''But I think the industry has learned that's not something that's going to position them for the future.''
Snowboarding also has attracted older outdoor enthusiasts looking for something new.
''I really enjoy it,'' yelled 42-year-old Rob Tengler, trying to drown out snowmaking machines while riding a chairlift at Breckenridge. ''I've heard it's the fastest growing winter sport and thought I'd try it. Plus, I've heard it's better on your knees.''
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