This year’s ski season will mark the 30th anniversary of snowboarding at Grand Targhee Resort as well as the resort’s 50th anniversary.
While snowboarders abound on the slopes today, it wasn’t always that way. In the 1970s and early ’80s — the early days of the sport — snowboarders were banned from using ski lifts, both at Grand Targhee Resort and many other resorts in the region.
In his 1988 film “Escape to Ski,” filmmaker Warren Miller said, “Today, a quarter of a million snowboarders in America have grown up riding a skateboard — with one foot in front of the other. Yet, some ski resorts still won’t let them use their lifts. What if snowboards had been invented before skis? Then the snowboard resorts wouldn’t let skiers use their snowboard lifts.”
“Dumb,” Miller added.
In the 1980s two young Idaho Falls snowboarders experienced the resistance described by Miller at the mountain resorts in the region. After falling in love with snowboarding, they sought to change Grand Targhee’s policy on the new sport because they wanted to ride on what they considered to be the best hill in the region.
Mark Austin, 48, and Barry Slaughter Olsen, 48, were friends at Bonneville High School who grew up skiing the slopes near Idaho Falls before eventually being drawn to snowboarding.
“I made the switch at 15 years old, in 1985, to snowboarding,” Austin said. “I was a sophomore at Bonneville and a friend of mine showed me a catalog at lunch hour. It was an old Burton snowboard catalog and I was like, ‘What’s that? It looks awesome.’ And I was immediately hooked.”
Austin, who taught himself to snowboard on a hill in his backyard in east Ammon, introduced Olsen to the sport. Olsen, in turn, introduced Austin to skateboarding. The pair recalled the first time they snowboarded on a mountain during a Bonneville High School Ski Club trip.
Olsen said the group hiked Teton Pass. After falling many times in waist-deep snow, he learned how to make “S” turns on his Burton 150 snowboard.
“After that, I was totally hooked,” Olsen said. “I didn’t want to ski.”
For Austin and Olsen, snowboarding was about having fun on the board and exploring the whole mountain.
“I could do so much more, go so many more places on the mountain and do a lot more things with the mountain on a snowboard,” Austin said. “This is really playing on the mountain.”
At the time, traditional skiers and ski resorts resisted the rise of snowboarding. Olsen said skiers would watch snowboarders doing tricks and jumping around and they would wonder “Why are they doing that?” and proclaim “They shouldn’t be doing that.”
“It was all about goofy hairstyles and loud clothing,” Olsen said. “And doing things that were pushing the envelope.”
After graduating from high school in 1988, the pair were now full-time snowboarders who planned to attend Ricks College in the fall, Austin and Olsen took a trip to Mount Hood, Ore., for a newly founded snowboard certification school.
“My graduation present was about $100 and the use of our old Honda hatchback,” Austin said.
With their parents’ support, the two 18 year olds drove to Mount Hood, where they learned to teach snowboarding on the mountain in the mornings and skateboarded on the roads at night.
Returning to Idaho Falls as licensed snowboard instructors, ready to hang up their skis for good in favor of a snowboard (Austin picked up skiing again later in life), Austin and Olsen were frustrated that they couldn’t ride their favorite mountain, Grand Targhee, because it still didn’t allow snowboards.
“Targhee was a powder heaven,” Austin said. “Everybody had known that snowboards could just be so much fun on that mountain. It was the holy grail.”
Austin and Olsen decided to set up a meeting with the new owners of Grand Targhee, Carol Mann and Mori Bergmeyer, a couple who bought the resort in 1987 (they have since divorced). Olsen said he and Austin did their homework before the meeting, researching the monetary value and the growth of snowboarding.
They even made a video with interviews of ski shop owners, talking about skyrocketing snowboard sales.
“Having done our homework, we knew that we had to make an economic case,” Olsen said.
Austin and Olsen arrived at the October 1988 meeting with the Targhee owners wearing khakis and collared shirts, hoping to reverse the “bad boy image” that West Coast snowboarding developed in the ’80s, Olsen said.
“We had a good meeting,” Austin said. “The time was right with a new owner, someone who had a vision for the resort.”
The owners were hesitant to allow snowboarding because there were insurance liabilities involved with the new sport.
“We had to be sure that insurance would cover any possible mishaps,” Mann said. “The main issue was making sure there would be safety on the slopes.”
Austin and Olsen said they successfully convinced the owners to allow snowboarding. Mann said she doesn’t remember the meeting with the two young snowboarders but she and her former husband were planning to allow snowboarding anyway.
“It was really clear that a lot of people were loving that sport,” Mann said. “It was the right timing, it was the right place and it was a go and never turn back.”
Austin and Olsen were named head snowboarding instructors.
They took time off school during the ’88-’89 winter season to work full time as instructors (after convincing their parents that it would be a learning experience). They managed the snowboarding school budget, led instruction, did marketing and hosted events.
Austin and Olsen now live on the East Coast and they still snowboard. Austin is an Asia and Middle East health specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. And Olsen is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a conference interpreter in English, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
They both will return, as special guests, to Grand Targhee in January for the resort’s 30th snowboarding anniversary.
“Those guys were really instrumental in getting acceptance of snowboarding at Targhee,” said Dustin Fletcher, Grand Targhee Resort’s marketing manager.
The anniversary celebration still has a “loose itinerary” but will likely include a quarter pipe hand plant challenge (bonus points for rocking old school gear), a snowboard collector’s show and a social media competition for the best method (a traditional snowboarding trick), Fletcher said.
“We’re trying to have a good, fun throwback snowboarding weekend,” he said.
The anniversary weekend is Jan. 12 and 13. For information, visit grandtarghee.com.