Forest Bailey interview

Jake Burton Carpenter

I’ve always had a connection to Jake Burton Carpenter, though I have only met him a handful of times. Yet the lack of a personal relationship doesn’t cloud the notion that he has been a part of my snowboarding life since day 1. I, like many, many, many others have been directly connected to Jake by straps, zippers, P-tex and laces and a common love of letting mountains, snow and gravity guide our way. From the slopes I am allowed to ride to the gear I’ve used to enjoy those same slopes, the fruits of a man who made snowboarding his life’s work has always been there for me to harvest. In the 40 years since Jake Burton Carpenter crafted his first namesake ride he has above all else been a champion of our sport and lifestyle. During his long tenure as one of snowboarding’s true patriarchs, Jake has courted praise and controversy, overcome professional and personal adversity and reaped the bottomless benefits of being a constant visionary. The following is a frank discussion with the man who has impacted the riding life more than any other. -Pat Bridges

Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake, circa 1977. photo: James Cassimus

Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake Burton Carpenter

photo: Alex Williams

PB: How was Burton conceived?

Well, it was my attraction to athletics, to being cool, to being the guy. I don’t know, for lack of a better expression, to get laid.

Some guys pick up a guitar. You built a snowboard.

Exactly. I always had this closet desire to surf, but my parents never got me a surfboard. I was fourteen and probably the best skier in my town on Long Island. I was starting to do odd jobs and getting money, and I saw a Snurfer and it was ten bucks. I could read snow, so when I got on a Snurfer, I was like, “Fuck, this is it!” I just loved it and had this vision that this could be a sport.

Were you a good student?

Well… I got kicked out of the boarding school that my father and brother went to. I was in the ninth grade and I was helping these guys who were graduating finish the yearbook. Part of the deal for doing that was they gave me a set of keys to every lock in the school. We called them legacy keys because they had been passed down for generations. I hung around for three days helping them finish the yearbook, and meanwhile, the janitors that worked there went through the rooms to find out what these kids left behind. They went into my room and they found those fucking keys, so my dad and I had to drive five hours up to North Andover, Massachusetts to be formally expelled. I did get a second chance but my dad put the fear of God into me, and I flipped a switch. All of a sudden I had the best grades in my class and I became the valedictorian.

When did you start making boards?

I was in college at NYU in the city and got a job my senior year working for this guy who was selling small companies to big companies. I was learning about and interviewing entrepreneurs, and I had already started my own landscaping business, so I had this entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of overconfidence. That’s a consistent theme. I then thought, “Well, shit man, I can start a snowboarding company and I can get rich.” It really was a get-rich-quick scheme. I did a business plan and figured if I could make fifty boards a day I could make $100,000 a year, so that was my mission. I had a logo contest and my sister-in-law won five bucks for coming up with the mountain logo that we still use today. Sure enough, we got to the point where we could make fifty boards a day, but we only sold 300 boards the first year. That is when it became more important to grow the sport than to get rich.

When was this?

This is December of ’77. Winterstick for sure started before I did, but I was oblivious to them. Then somebody showed me a Playboy or something with Miki Dora the surfer on a monoski and Dimitrije Milovich on a Winterstick. Then I met Dimitrije at a trade show. We never had any ill feelings. It wasn’t like the Sims thing at all.

Was this at the SIA or ASR show?

It was the Snowshow, which was the part of SIA for the second-class citizens that couldn’t get into the main hall. Dimitrije and I got along right away. We had the same passion, but Sims was a little bit more… I met Tom at a New York show, SGMA, and he was doing his skateboard thing. I had snowboards, and he was like, “Oh yeah, I used to do this in high school.” I was like, “Okay, whatever.” Next thing you know he licensed the patent for a snowboard from Weber and bought Weber’s inventory. Weber made the yellow boards and then Tom attached his skateboards to them.

The Lonnie Toft skateboards?

Yes. So at that SGMA show, I was selling snowboards, Tom was selling skateboards, and there was not a snowboard in his booth whatsoever. Then a year later he was claiming that he invented the sport! I was like, “Okay, this is war.” I could not deal with that. God bless the dead, but without Tom Sims to compete with in every sense, and vice versa, snowboarding wouldn’t be where it is today.

Talk about the partnership with Craig Kelly.

Craig was a real game-changer. Vision had bought Sims. This was the first time Tom sold the company. Brad Dorfman owned Vision and told Craig, “Hey, this Sims contract is worthless. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on. I could rip it up.” Craig and I were buddies, and I always said “Hey, if things ever don’t work out with Sims, we would love to have you.” He called me up one day out of the blue and said, “This Dorfman thing…” I think if Tom had kept Sims, Craig would have stayed riding for him, but Tom bailed. I showed Craig we had gotten our own press so we could make boards with ski technology and edges and everything. He was an engineer at heart, and so into it. So we signed him and I remember he was paid $17,000 a year; nobody had ever gotten that much!

He instantly became the highest-paid employee of the company.

Exactly! He got in there and taught me how to listen. “Here are our new graphics, and here is our new freestyle binding.” He just straightened me out. We were good friends, and right up to the day he died we had so much respect for each other and love. I feel so indebted to him and his partner Savina and their daughter Olivia. Without Craig I am sure one way or another I would have made it all happen, but it would have been a hell of a lot harder without him. Man, Dorfman fucked up. But he didn’t give a shit about snowboarding because he was doing the Vision Street Wear thing and selling a lot of t-shirts…

Jake Burton Carpenter

Deep thoughts at CMH Heli, BC. photo: Jeff Curtes

I look at your lawsuit with Sims over Craig Kelly and the lawyers getting involved as the moment that snowboarding grew up.

That ordeal cost us like $150,000 dollars. I was a better businessman than Tom Sims, and he was a better athlete than I was. He was a better snowboarder. Do you know the patent story?

Well I know that you bought Weber’s patent for the snowboard. Do you still own it?

Yeah, but it’s lapsed. That was probably the biggest PR fuck-up of my life. We were in the middle of the lawsuit with Sims and there was just so much ill will. Then this patent thing landed on my desk. I will take full responsibility because I saw this as an opportunity to fuck Sims, who was fucking us. Not Tom Sims, but Brad Dorfman and the Sims brand. We were so screwed on this lawsuit thing so it was a chance to get them to come to their knees and reach a deal. Everybody else in the industry freaked out and was like, “You can’t patent fun.” Right away all I said was we will give all the money that we get on the royalty to charity, but that was not enough. So I said fuck it, and the Sims thing got settled and I buried the patent. It cost me twenty-five or fifty grand that went directly to Weber. I ended up doing the right thing, but not right off the bat.

But Weber called you and he was going to sell his snowboarding patent to someone regardless.

He was actually selling it to Black Snow, and Black Snow was going to shut down the industry. They were just going to own it. They didn’t even offer to charge royalties. I had to buy it, or the industry was fucked.

Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake Burton Carpenter

photo: Gary Land

Jake Burton Carpenter

Mark McMorris visited Jake 5 times while he was recovering.

Jake Burton Carpenter

In your eyes, what were some game-changers for Burton as far as products go?

The big one is simple: Edges. Ski construction was it on the board thing. I think we can really take credit for our alpine guys, Peter Bauer and Jean Nerva, in developing sidecut. It was sort of already happening, but those guys took it to the point of absurdity and then brought it back and found the right balance. Before that, Jeff Grell had this highback on his boots.

I see highbacks as more important than sidecut.

Completely. I saw Jeff Grell with them, but I wasn’t going to walk around in that boot with a highback on it. Snowboarding is about having comfortable footwear. I purely believe it was my idea to put highbacks on a binding. We were the first. If you look at those old red bindings with the white piece of plastic coming up, nobody has an older highback binding, even homemade.

So back then you were trying to build a business and build a sport at the same time.

I never saw it as that. I just thought that skiing was so fucking expensive. When I was just out of college, it was twenty bucks to buy a lift ticket, which was a lot of money. Nobody could afford to do that as a college kid, so kids weren’t on the mountain—it was all rich people. I saw snowboarding as sledding for college-age people like myself. Andy Coghlan, Mark Heingartner, and Chris Carrol were all working for me and we would hike up these hills and ride in powder and shitty snow. Then they started driving up Bromley to the upper village and the run down from there wasn’t even the shortest run on the mountain, but it was hardpack and a pretty good run. So we would do these shuttle runs down, and ultimately we would bribe snowcat operators to take us to the top.

At night?

It was all at night.

Did the mountain know you were doing this?

Fuck no.

So that was illegal.

Completely illegal.

When did you first legitimately ride a ski area?

It was at a very small resort called Snow Valley that was in between Bromley and Stratton. It was owned by this real estate guy from New Jersey who was pretty freewheeling. He had no problems with snowboarding; he just wanted the money. Stratton was our big break. We went over there and talked to the Mountain Manager Paul Johnston. He spoke to the board of Stratton and everybody said no, but nobody had a good reason not to allow us. Paul said, “Come on up tomorrow and we will go with the ski patrol and see how you do.” Miraculously, it was like a sixty-degree day and the snow was really soft, so we were crushing it. That led to having to be certified. So we would have lower-mountain certification, mid-mountain certification, and all-mountain access. We would literally have to test people, but the whole thing was to just get time with people to say, “Don’t fuck this up.”

I actually failed my certification test at Stratton. I’m over it now though.

It was gnarly, and all that shit we got for it was so undeserving. It was just to get the sport onto the hill. Paul was really cool and we moved the Open there, which was such a great opportunity to show what could be done on a snowboard. When you saw Peter Bauer and Andy Coghlan duking it out, it was exciting. Maybe you remember those days—people brought out their lawn chairs just to sit and watch it all. That was a really cool time.

My dad took me to my first Open when I was 13. Looking back on it I think he was crazy because it really was a bunch of half-drunk, half-stoned college kids sitting in those lawn chairs.

And there were other fans and older people who would come up to watch. That event has had such spirit from the beginning. I am very proud of that

Do you have any war stories from the struggle to get other ski areas to allow it?

But it seemed like we were always held to a higher standard. You know, every skier could be smoking weed, getting drunk on the hill, but if a snowboarder did it they were banned for life, and maybe even snowboarding was banned there forever.

You felt like one person could kill the whole sport.

I always point to the original Kelly Mystery Air as probably the most important snowboard in history because it opened more ski area doors than any other.

I would be hard-pressed to argue with that.

Blue Montgomery, the founder of CAPiTA Snowboards once said to me, “We’re fortunate to have Burton as a leader of our industry considering where we could be if it were anyone else.” I then started to really contemplate the possibilities had any other brand ascended to the leadership role in snowboarding. I looked at the players in every era. First Sims, then Rossignol and K2...

I lost so much sleep over ski companies coming in. I thought they were going to take over the store and were gonna be better than us because we were still trying to learn ski technology. Sidecut? I didn’t even know what it was at the time. Those fuckers scared the shit out of me.

Well, they weren’t being made in a garage in southern Vermont…

Exactly, and we weren’t making snowboards with government subsidies.

After the ski companies entered the market, Airwalk became a player. Then Ride and Morrow went public, Salomon started making boards, and later Nike came into snowboarding for the second and third time and then bailed again. Had any one of these brands fulfilled on the intention of dominating our sport, where would snowboarding be today?

Is that a question you know the answer to?

No, but I think it’s a point worth making. Why do you think people are so critical of Burton?

This sport is shared and people have a right to speak up and be listened to and that is really cool. I think it is good. Yes it can be hurtful, incredibly so. But I have gotten much better at letting it roll off my back. If people started writing shitty stuff or goofing on Rubber Maid, the owners of K2 and Ride, or whatever no one would even give a shit. It wouldn’t reach the soul of the people that own it. But we have managed Burton in such a way that it has happened and I can’t regret that. Look at this fucking house! Look at my life!

Jake Burton Carpenter

Talk about feeling in your feet! CMH Heli, BC. photo: Jeff Curtes

Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake Burton Carpenter

photo: Gary Land

Jake Burton Carpenter

Well, for some of us the intimate connection to the brand pretty much goes all the way back to the beginning. Growing up in Vermont my grandmother actually called snowboarding “Burton Boarding.” Fast forward to today and I ask myself what other brands elicit such a passionate reaction? Apple comes to mind.

Well, I get pissed off at Steve Jobs when I can’t move an iTunes song, like personally, and the poor guy is fucking dead.

So let’s talk about your health and most recently the Miller Fisher Syndrome.

I’ll probably cry when I talk about it.

Well I’ve now talked to your wife Donna about it twice and almost cried both times. Man, she really loves you. We should all be so lucky.

Can I quote you on that? It might get me head or something…

By all means. So you’ve had a string of significant health issues. Let’s start with the heart surgery.

Technically, I had open heart surgery but they did it robotically. I had an overdeveloped valve all my life called a Mitral Valve Prolapse. It was always there. The valve was too big for the opening or whatever it goes through. That was a gnarly operation but really high tech. They didn’t do it with a big opening in my chest. There was just seven small holes. It was so wild man. They did all this prep and scans. The doctor who was brilliant looked at one scan and goes “Well there is this little mass in your lower back but it is probably just a snowboarding injury.” We figured out later it was likely the beginning of my testicular cancer in my lymph nodes.

How long ago was the testicular cancer?

Five years ago, I think. The cancer came along a few months after the heart surgery.

I remember it happened right around when the Open moved to Vail. I saw you there and you were in remission and you tried to bum a drag off my cig when Donna wasn’t around.

You know I don’t smoke anything anymore. I mean you hear my voice. I can’t even smoke weed anymore. It is tough when I see a nice bowl of Afghani hash because I loved that shit. It’s not that I think it’s carcinogenic but I just had to draw the line, no smoke.

How did you end up finding out you had testicular cancer?

Well there are two things that happened right before that you might not be aware of. First, my dad died. I get emotional thinking of my dad but the process of him dying had prepared us for it. He was so cool. When I was a 13 my brother George got killed in Vietnam. I was there hanging out with my mother in the living room and then all of a sudden this Marine in his full dress uniform walks up to our house and my mom just starts balling before the guy even knocks on the door. Then my mother psychosomatically died of a broken heart three years later. She had leukemia. I think that is part of my success and why I was so independent. When I was young I dealt with shit that people don’t deal with until they are in the their 40s or 50s. When my dad became a single parent, he was so rad, so cool, and gave me such great simple advice. Like, “Yes, do it, quit your job, start a snowboarding company.” He was my biggest fan. So what I went through was heart surgery, my dad dying and then our dog, Maia, who I was incredibly close to, passed away. That was kind of a way bigger blow emotionally than my dad. Not because our dog was a bigger influence or more loved or anything like that, but because Donna and I weren’t prepared for it at all. She was a golden retriever and I don’t know how many hundreds of runs we took together down Stowe.

Back to finding out you had testicular cancer. Were you on a poma lift…

It was the summer that the ASP Surf Tour had an event on Long Island. I had a party and Kelly Slater and Bob McKnight and Benji Weatherly and so many people came to our house which is near Atlantic Beach, much closer to the city, right on the approach path to JFK. At that time, something was starting to grow under my armpit, and I remember Danny Davis saying, “Is that contagious?” I realized I needed to get it checked out. I went right to the Mayo Clinic, which is where I had the heart surgery done. They took a biopsy and I wasn’t expecting cancer. What do you call it when it is in your lymph nodes?

Lymphoma?

Lymphoma,

How drawn out was that treatment and recovery?

Dude, you don’t even know. Chemotherapy is cumulative. I was fine after the first treatment and then all of a sudden it hit me. I violently puked and I had so much diarrhea I cut my ass. I had an anal fissure, which is a paper cut inside of your ass! That is the most painful thing ever. I mean, you try shitting with a paper cut in your ass. It is the worst. The effects of the chemotherapy just got worse and worse and worse. The quality of life was horrible. My son George took a semester off of school. What a fucking cool thing to do, I can’t say I would have done that for my father. It wouldn’t have even been in the realm of possibilities. George would drive me to chemo, and hang out and he would pick me back up. I would then light up a bowl of hash and that really helped. That doesn’t have to be off the record because I am a real believer that people, especially older people, don’t take advantage of the medicinal effects of marijuana, with nausea specifically.

How was Donna during all of this?

The way for her to help was to help at the company and do my job. She is incredible. She didn’t take a super active role in the management of the disease because there was nothing to manage. George was great, and I really bonded with him. After the cancer people asked, “What did you experience? How are you different?” I just learned you have to muscle your way through shit. I didn’t have any enlightening crap to talk about.

Then you had the full knee replacement.

When I was younger I could never wrap my head around getting a full knee replacement. I’ve had two or three operations on each knee. Even before snowboarding I had this tendinitis thing called “Jumper’s Knee,” which basketball players get. So I’ve been scoped before which made a huge difference. I also had a tibial plateau fracture on the lateral side from hitting a tree 20 years ago. But at some point arthritis set in. I had a meniscus surgery two years ago in the fall and tried to ride that December but it didn’t work. So I went for the soonest full knee replacement surgery I could get which was three weeks before the Open. Then I rode at the Open with Kevin Pearce, my doctor Bryan Huber and my son George.

You had a synthetic knee put in your leg and went riding three weeks later…

I was petrified, but it was fun. I mean, I wasn’t really ready to do it, but I was determined to do it. I just felt like fuck, if I am at the Open and I am a snowboarder, I’ve got to ride. It meant so much to me to catch a run, to be able to say, “Yeah, I’m still a snowboarder.”

Do you think there is any connection between the knee surgery and contracting Miller Fisher Syndrome?

No. I never saw a connection. You have to have a gene that makes you eligible to contract it but if you do have the gene something then has to trigger it. It could be by eating a bad oyster. It could simply be getting a flu shot. I think there is now a link to even the Zika virus being a trigger. I talk about Miller Fisher in the context of Guillian-Barré because it is the gnarliest form of Guillian-Barré. It is like Stage Five cancer. So many people are affected by Guillian-Barré but something like one in 256,000 people can get Miller Fisher. I don’t know what disease you would equate it to, but I can tell you that no drug company is looking at it in the context of cures or preventative measures.

So Guillian-Barré begins at the feet and moves up the body, while Miller Fisher starts at the head and works its way down.

You got it.

Donna has explained to me that you had double vision, were slurring your words and were then checked into the Intensive Care Unit at the Dartmouth Medical Center in Hanover, New Hampshire. There the doctors diagnosed you with Miller-Fisher Syndrome, began treatments and told you that you were going to lose motor function over the course of three days and it was going to be that way for a while. They were pretty frank about that.

But I didn’t get it. I think you just go into this form of shock. Shock is an incredible thing; it gets you through some gnarly shit. Then it went exactly the way they said it would. I can’t remember how many days I was completely blind for, but it was a long time, and I couldn’t talk after three days because I was on a ventilator. I didn’t talk for two months.

Jake Burton Carpenter

photo: Jeff Curtes

Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake Burton Carpenter

photo: Gary Land

Jake Burton Carpenter

photo: Gary Land

Jake Burton Carpenter

What was your mindset once the full effects set in?

Donna kept telling me that I was going to make a full recovery, but I just didn’t believe her or the doctors. I trusted her, but I didn’t trust her diagnosis. I didn’t even trust the smartest doctors.

That had to be scary.

And the dreams… Miller Fisher is all about the dreams. If I was looking to find a medical cause or treatment for Miller Fisher, I would look at the dreams. They were so real. One night I had a dream that these two guys were in my room and I was sure they were terrorists. 100% sure. One guy had a stocking over his head to keep his hair back and he was going to strangle me. I was like, do I wrestle and try to move my arms and try to stop this? Man, I thought I was going to die. No doubt about it. The dreams were so vivid and so real and so gnarly. I mean, I was taking Oxycodone like you read about, and Ambien and all kinds of shit, lots of medication…

Did it become normal?

Yes. But being suicidal… There are a lot of people that live with being suicidal, but even that became completely normal. I never saw a way out. I never bought that I was going to get well. I didn’t believe it. I can assure you or anybody else, this thing about seeing a light when you die is complete bullshit. I am convinced you just slip away… It is like falling asleep, because I was there on the edge for so long. I know if I had died there wouldn’t have been some fucking light show. I know there wouldn’t have. I think that is all just a lie. Bullshit.

Is becoming suicidal when the helplessness turns to hopelessness?

Exactly. And when your own perception of the future is extremely negative. People do die from this disease. It happens. I got myself in very good shape for the knee operation, so I was very strong and very fit. That and the love of my family probably is what got me through.

As the guy who had heart surgery, beat cancer and went through a full knee replacement, how tough was it being helpless fighting Miller Fisher?

So futile. That was probably the hardest part. I mean, that was what made me suicidal. I wasn’t capable of doing anything, except sort of blindly scribbling… That was all I could do, and thank God I had that. If I couldn’t have written, there would have been some long-term psychological damage. I mean, confusion is part of the disease, and chemo is not the best for your brain. I think my brain has been through a lot of shit. I am sure it is not what it once was.

When did you start communicating with the notes?

The minute they shoved that ventilator down my throat.

And because of the early treatments, the paralysis from Miller Fisher didn’t extend to your fingers?

Yeah.

You have always been a note taker?

I’ve even said, “I don’t trust people that don’t write shit down.” It’s not like I don’t trust them; I just don’t think they are going to get shit done or whatever.

Excuse me for a second while I get my notepad out of my bag.

You know, I work with a lot of people that don’t write shit down, and I get through it, but I fucking hate it. It drives me nuts. So I am a note taker, religiously. Even if it is just the process, even if you never see it again, the fact that you wrote it adds a few more bytes of memory.”

And your writing notes became your link to the outside world.

My salvation, my communication. Everything.

So the Miller Fisher was causing your own immune system to attack the outer membrane of your nerves, otherwise known as the Myelin Sheath. That is the auto-immune part.

It is like a speaker cable. The speaker wires are your nerves and the Myelin Sheath is the plastic around the speaker wire.

The treatments told your immune system to chill out and stop everything it was doing.

But the damage was done. I was like an AIDS patient in the late stages!

The only thing you could do now is write, whether you had something good, bad, profound, or even not so profound to say...

Or funny… I didn’t lose my sense of humor. My biting and funny sarcasm, right? My doctor said our sense of humor is the most demanding function of our brain. I had never heard that before. So he was like, “It’s an incredible sign that you still have your sense of humor.”

I still don’t understand how Miller Fisher can be a neural disorder that starts out in the head but doesn’t target the brain right away.

But confusion is part of it. They were very clear about that.

What was the hardest part for you? Was it the physical or the mental test?

Well, I think being suicidal is as low as it gets, so I would have to say mental. I’m not saying I could live as a quadriplegic, but I would sure as fuck give it a shot.

At what point did things start to look up?

When I got to the Spaulding rehab in Boston. My whole time at Dartmouth was just to survive. I sort of put everything on Spaulding, and I couldn’t get there soon enough. Spaulding specializes in spinal and respiratory stuff and Guillain-Barré.

At Spaulding you went through respiratory and occupational therapy.

Yeah, I had a crush on my Occupational Therapist, which was pretty fun. They had to teach me how to eat, where you put all the silverware, how to use it… But the chick was so cool. She came to our Fall Bash last year with some other nurses from Spaulding. This is the shit I get emotional around. So she was going to Cabo San Lucas with her boyfriend and I go down there surfing a lot. I know this killer restaurant in Cabo up above the town, so I set them up with dinner at this place, and a taxi up from their hotel. It was going to be the best night of their lives. Then the hospital goes, “Sorry, can’t do it. Limit is twenty bucks on anything that you give anybody on our staff.” So I had a real tête-à-tète with the head of the whole place. He is a really good friend now, but back then I was like, whatever. When my birthday came I bought everybody in the whole place a nineteen-dollar cupcake just to piss him off and to do something nice for the people there. Then on Mother’s Day I got everybody, nurses and patients, a nineteen-dollar bouquet of roses. It’s that rebellious nature that is part of snowboarding, that is part of Burton, that is part of my life. Every day these five cool African-American women, who all weighed like 175-200 pounds, would wash me down and clean my ass and everything. Then they would dress me and would go, “Donna, you better hurry up if you want the first kiss!” They were just so good to me.

Eventually Spaulding released you into Donna’s care and you finally went home.

It took forty hours for them to teach Donna how to be my nurse. I was sort of oblivious. I was just like, “It’s just a few pills; I got this.” I was thinking that I was operating on the same level as Donna—that is how off-base I was. I just didn’t get how much she had to learn, but she got me out of there.

How present was Burton, the company, in your thoughts at this time?

That’s a really good question. I knew financially where we were at. For me, I just need like three or four numbers to look at; I don’t really pore over numbers. But I am very detail-orientated when it comes to product, like to a fault, especially with outerwear, boots, or bindings. When it came to the financial aspect of the company, I knew we were okay, so then it was more just about the people. Just hoping that they were happy and that they had leadership. People quitting because “Jake’s toast” or whatever was something to be paranoid about, but that was an overestimation of mine. I don’t think we lost anybody because I was sick. I had Mark McMorris and Danny Davis and all the team visit me so many times and I saw that it was business as usual for them. They would come tell me about the contests, filming, or this or that, but mainly it was all about how I was doing.

Did you ever have fears that you weren’t going to ride again?

Not that I wouldn’t be able to snowboard again, but how pathetic would it be? I mean, I went through this whole season not being able to keep up with Donna, but that didn’t bother me. I was concerned more from the point of wanting to enjoy it and wanting to represent the sport. I have always felt that I could go ride with anybody. I might not hit that cliff, but I could still go on that run, whether it be Alaska or anywhere. I was concerned for a minute there, but I never doubted that I would get back out there and do it.

How has this process changed you as a person?

Well, the family thing was off the hook and I realized the power of love and the power of doctors and nurses and my will to live. I’m really good at coming back. I have seen riders with minor injuries and they never come back, and I have seen riders like Danny Davis destroy it. I didn’t think Danny would win another halfpipe contest, I really didn’t. I don’t know if I ever told him that. To watch him ride the way he rode that run he had before he got hurt, when he beat Shaun, it was just so fucking incredible. You just felt like this guy just reached this pinnacle. Then to have the accident he had on the four-wheeler, it was like… There is no way you can get back to that point, but he fucking did.

And it happened again hitting the fence riding in New Zealand.

Yeah, with the femur. Totally. I think I have got some of that. Maybe not to the extent of a world-class athlete, but I do have the desire and the drive. But again, I love the whole healing process, from when I have had broken legs or surgeries, I have always been diligent about what you have to do to get yourself back physically.

Do you have a mechanism for dealing when tragedy happens to one of your athletes like Danny?

Do you mean with guilt?

Well, we both are constantly involved with riders who are pushing themselves…

Oh my God, after Kevin Pearce got hurt it was like… I am so close to him and his family, and that whole thing was so gut-wrenching. But that kid gets better every day. He just gets more normal and gets cooler and better. It’s so great to see.

And Craig passing…

I recall that morning. I was out playing hockey and Donna told me. But to touch on the guilt thing, I remember the first time somebody died on a snowboard and I was destroyed. I remember the first time we got sued when somebody broke a leg or did something stupid on a snowboard. I took it so personally, but then you just keep going through it and people keep fucking suing you. This one guy died at some Tahoe mountain, but he was a liftie and he was a snowboarder and he went down a closed trail and fell in a tree well and died. His family ended up suing us. They even said that he wouldn’t have wanted them to sue us, but they did it anyway. The lawyer referred to me as “Charles Manson” at some point. They settled with the resort who they also sued for $75,000 and they took the money and bought a full-page ad in USA Today to find other snowboarders that had died to try to initiate a class-action lawsuit against us. You just get hardened going through that process. Then Kevin’s thing, and then Danny’s thing right afterwards, they were like boom, boom… It was so fucking gnarly. You wonder, “Why is God or whatever so pissed off? What did we do?”

So lately your role at Burton has shifted?

I’ve realized that my methods of day-to-day management are outdated. That was tough for me. For instance, every product had to change every year, I don’t care what the fuck it was. Not necessarily functionally, but at least aesthetically. You had to really redesign the goddamn thing. For me the worst nightmare was a kid buying this sick jacket that had this awesome print, pulling into the lift line and then somebody else showing up with the exact same jacket, like they had the same dress at the ball. You remember how many logos we had? That was another thing—use all the logos we can! Like don’t use that swoosh all the fuckin’ time, it drives me nuts. Well, those things are completely out the window, and now it’s about carry-over product. Shops want to buy product that they know is going to be in the line the next year, and if they carry it and end up sitting on it because it’s a shitty snow year, they’re not going to have to close it out and are going to be able to sell it at full pop the next year. That is how the business goes, and there are great companies like Patagonia that spit out the same shit every year.

The Converse Chuck Taylor hasn’t changed in nearly a century

Yeah. That just wasn’t my deal. I still think I provide a real role looking out for the sport and motivating people and being a leader, being an advocate. This other stuff has just changed to the point where my style isn’t conducive to real financial success.

But you also took the noble approach to strive to make the best product possible to improve every snowboarder’s riding experience, regardless of how niche they were, and at the same time keep it fresh.

Right, it is all about the rider’s experience. I’ve always run every decision through the filter of the rider and not insult their intelligence. That would be the shit that drove me nuts. Another thing that I probably wasn’t as effective dealing with in our company and our industry was scarcity, you know, not overproducing. We have as an industry been so guilty of that. I think if you look at the whole history of our sport, Burton has probably been the best at being conservative and not overproducing. A rider doesn’t want to buy a snowboard for $600 and then a month later see it selling for $400. But there were also instances where people were aggressively looking at numbers and I didn’t put my foot down enough. You know, with distribution, I came this close to saying we are not going to sell to big retailers. I look back and there were times that I say I should have followed through on that, but then there are times that I don’t know. I couldn’t have saved specialty retail all on my own. I really don’t think I wielded that big of an axe, so I think their fate was inevitable. This Internet thing was inevitable.

I call the Internet the biggest big box store in the world.

Right, for sure.

And you always had a flagship store.

Yeah, from day one. I never had issues with that. Going direct was a tough decision to do to dealers, but I thought more about the riders having access to gear. This industry was born out of mail order; I could always go to the post office and watch it grow. They’d have to give me a bigger PO box. Sometimes there would be an order for two t-shirts, and then an order would be like three boards for a family. A $1,000 dollar order was so cool!

Did you ever imagine snowboarding would get to where it is now with its popularity or the skills riders have?

Well, the popularity thing just happened over time. I could do a much more thorough job of remembering stuff, but everybody remembers the first time they saw Shaun White do a double cork or saw that video. I think that is how it was every step of the way, like when Terje would just go huge or Craig Kelly and Terry Kidwell doing 540s. It was all about this progression driven by the riders. Nobody told them to do that. There were no coaches involved. No moms involved. Really, I think that the riders clearly deserve the credit for the progression side of things.

What’s your take on the Olympics?

I felt we didn’t need the Olympics, and you know, we never made any formal request to even be in the Olympics. We found out snowboarding was going to be in the Games when everybody else found out. It was like the baseball player that found out he was traded in the newspaper. Then the industry just snapped, and every rider saw it as their meal ticket for the rest of their lives. Except Terje. I remember that phone call very clearly when Terje said he wasn’t going to do it. I was like “Terje, you sure you don’t want to show your grandchildren a gold medal sometime?” And he goes, “Nope. It’s just not my cup of tea.” The FIS didn’t even spell snowboarding right at the first Olympics. They wrote it as “sno-boarding!”

But you did make Olympic uniforms.

That was a big decision. It was like, if it is not us, it’ll be Nike. It was the threat of a Nike doing it, or somebody who had aspirations of getting into the snowboarding business doing it.

Buying their way in.

That was it, man. It wasn’t my idea, but it was certainly my decision…

Now with Burton you are back to your strengths and focused on products and marketing.

Right. For example, I’m working on a helmet right now. I had to start wearing a helmet when I was taking chemo because of the blood thinner. I was never really a helmet guy, but my doctor convinced me that if I whacked my head on blood thinner, I would die. I’m a fan of wearing your goggles under the helmet; I couldn’t deal with the goggles on the outside of the helmet. It felt so whack, and I don’t think anybody has really made a good over-the-goggle helmet. I want us to develop stuff like that. I always have new ideas. Hopefully I will ride 100 days this year. I expect to. I think I am really good at testing outerwear, and I am good at testing boots. And I am maybe even better at testing bindings. I’m getting better at testing boards. I used to think I was the worst at it. I mean, I certainly have opinions on what models I like, but it is hard to test a board.

What can you say about Step Ons?

When the hardgoods guys came to me with the idea, I thought, “After the Channel and EST experience, these guys get it now. These guys are capable and good and they know what the feel of a step-in had to be ultimately.” Step On was my name for it. I liked the drug innuendo and I really lobbied for it.

And how are the Step Ons different from the step-in bindings of two decades ago?

The three points of contact and the fact that it is a ratcheting mechanism that tightens as it engages. We have learned so much about the flex of a binding tray. We have also really learned how to quantify the flex that you need to have a comfortable ride. This happened over time in developing bindings like the Malavita and the Genesis. 3-D printing was also a huge part of it, as we are now able to make and test rideable parts within 24 hours! Also, I have always been set on having the highback on the binding, not on the boot. I always put my foot down there…no pun intended. I have now ridden every generation of the Step On bindings a bunch and have been very enthusiastic about them right from the start.

Next year Burton will be celebrating its 40th year in business. Seems crazy.

Certainly is. I went from being this kid that people would say about, “We want to meet Mr. Burton. We want to meet your father,” to being the grandfather of the sport overnight. It feels like it happened so fast. I really love my job. I love what I do. I love the way people treat and respect me. I guess you could say there is the hater thing out there, but nobody has ever, ever said anything like that to my face. Ever… You know, everybody likes to be complimented or respected. I think everybody likes to be looked up to and envied, selfishly speaking. Everybody likes to make a few bucks, be comfortable, go on great trips, be able to do stuff with your kids and have your kids respect you and want to snowboard with you. This is such a killer job and such an insane lifestyle, and nobody has the opportunity to live any better than I do. The benefits of my job are fucking ridiculous.

How many vertical feet of powder have you ridden in your life?

I don’t know.

Do you have one of those baller million vertical jackets from CMH?

I got busted by CMH for being on their terrain once, but no. I’m not a big heli guy. My favorite is still lift-serviced, hike-to sidecountry.

What’s your take on jibbing?

I love it. I still tap the garbage can when I get off the lift at Vail. The whole bonk thing really appealed to me. It was irreverent and creative and involved style. It is great to ride with my kids or the jibbers on our team because they ride really slow, so I can keep up with them and sometimes I can hit the same stuff.

You even had rails in your backyard!

Still do. My son Timi is nineteen now, but when he was five he could ride a rail before he could do a frontside turn.

Burton’s 40th anniversary also means you have spent forty years at the same job. It is still a family business. That is your name on every label. Did you ever come close to selling or going public?

Probably the closest I ever came was when Ride went public. I wondered how my employees felt about that, so I went and started the process. We all met with bankers, but I just felt, 'This is wrong.'

I seem to recall you saying something about how growth isn’t only driven by your ambition, but also by your obligation to the ambition of your employees.

Not quite ambition. You sort of realize you have to aspire to grow, and growing is what ultimately keeps people around. The flexibility that profitability gives you is what keeps people around and what enables you to do stuff like Step-On bindings that cost a fortune to develop. It is what enables you to have a prototyping facility like Craig’s that costs millions of dollars a year to sustain. You have got to make money to do all that stuff. People want to grow themselves and people want to grow their financial base and make more money. I think that is a big part of the obligation to grow.

How important is Vermont to Burton?!

It is part of our identity. The necessity to make product that performs in these conditions, the variable snow conditions, has been a huge edge for us in the past and I think it continues to be one. I get the Southern California thing; two of my kids are living in Encinitas right now. I love to go there and hang out and surf, but no offense intended, it shouldn’t be the hub of snowboarding.

No offense taken.

We have made plenty of decisions that defy financial common sense. If I was maybe more shrewd, I think I would have sold the company or taken it public in 2007.

You have now come to the point where you are a regular footer in his sixties…

And proud of it.

So what is next for you and Burton?

I think what we have to do is just continue to develop ways to make the whole company, the lifestyle, and the sport sustainable. It is mature now. Realistically, we are not doubling our sales every year. It is a completely different ball game, so we have to adapt to that and have leadership that knows how to be creative and capitalize on the opportunities that exist. This company can be run very profitably and effectively and be fun for a long time. I am not a huge believer in nepotism, but I also believe that if my children want to work in this company, I think that they should have that opportunity if that is the path that they choose. But I don’t have a master plan for this to be a family company forever. Maybe that is irresponsible, but I have done the estate planning and taken care of the insurance, so if Donna or I were hit by a bus tomorrow this company wouldn’t have to be sold in a fire sale. This company isn’t going anywhere, and I think every day it becomes less and less dependent on my presence. But my job is as fun as it ever was, and selfishly, that is a priority for me. It is pretty awesome for somebody to do something for forty years and still enjoy it.