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?
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.