Catch the Great White Wave: The Birth of Snowboarding at Grand Targhee – Part 4

The 2018-2019 winter season marks the 30th anniversary of snowboarding at Grand Targhee. To celebrate this milestone, we turned to the two pioneering snowboarders who brought the sport to our slopes, Mark Austin and Barry Slaughter Olsen, to look back on how it all happened. This is the fourth and final blog in a four-part series.

Photo Contest: 

Part iv: living the dream

By Mark Austin and Barry Slaughter Olsen

The 1988-89 season was fast approaching. About a week before opening day, we drove up to Grand Targhee for our orientation. We had to meet with our new boss, ski school director Gene Palmer.

Gene was, is, and will always be an institution to The Ghee and to Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA). He was the resort’s first and longest-serving ski school director as well as a respected former president of PSIA-Intermountain. As a native of Rexburg, Idaho, Gene also represented a common demographic on the slopes of Targhee: a farmer/school teacher who worked the land in the summer and worked the slopes in the winter. By 1988, he already had two decades of experience as the ski school director, and to those who knew him, Gene ran a tight ship. We knew that working for him would be an incredible opportunity to learn from one of the industry’s finest, if we were up to scratch.

Gene was congenial but professional, and he clearly left an impression on us that if it were up to him, he probably would not have chosen to allow snowboards on the sacred slopes of Fred’s Mountain. He was a skier’s skier…a purist…and a highly accomplished one at that. But we also got the sense that he was impressed by our dedication and that we had taken ourselves seriously enough to go out and obtain real credentials proving our worthiness to be called instructors—something he didn’t take lightly at all. He asked about our training at Timberline and if we had met so-and-so (as the former PSIA President, he knew virtually every director—past and present—in the Intermountain region). 

We showed him our instruction manual and talked about the various progressions that we had learned to demonstrate and to teach. That all helped to convince him to give us an honest shot as snowboard instructors and see where we could take things. Although Gene often referred to us as the “club feet” and “knuckle draggers” of the ski school, one of the best things about working at The Ghee was being taken under his tutelage. After that meeting, we were measured for our new ski school jackets and got our nametags. We were official now…and waiting for opening day!

From November to mid-December, we juggled class schedules at college to cover as many days as possible on the hill. We learned the routine quickly, morning and afternoon ski school formation at the top of the Shoshone lift, where we would get our teaching assignments. We taught everyone from kids to veteran skiers who were looking for something new. We learned quickly that theory and practice didn’t always match up. And even though skiing and snowboarding technique were often quite different, we were privileged to have the guidance of veteran ski school members who helped us improve as instructors throughout the season. To our surprise, we were even asked to teach a semester-long snowboarding course to students from the very college we had been attending.

 

Now full-time snowboard instructors, we relocated to Driggs to cut down on the commute to work. Finding a place to live on a snowboard instructor’s income was a challenge, but we found a small cabin with two beds, a bathroom, a small fridge, and hot plate. Most days we caught the old blue employee school bus that left for the ski hill every morning at 7:00 a.m. Wednesday nights were family casino night, where we could get a $10.00 meal voucher and $20.00 pay for dealing blackjack for a couple of hours and awarding “Targhee bucks” to the winners. All in all, we had our dream job, a roof over our heads, enough food to eat, and more vertical feet per day on a snowboard than we could ever have hoped for. Life was good.

When we weren’t teaching, there was ample time to explore the mountain. We soon learned that Grand Targhee had some amazing lines for snowboarders. When the snow pack was deep, runs like “Nasty Gash” and “Ladies Waist” were natural halfpipes that made for amazing carving and slashing. We were invited to several photo shoots on Peaked Mountain back when the only way to access it was by snow cat. Grand Targhee was heaven for snowboarders, and the word was getting out.

Although busy instructing and getting in as much freeriding as possible, we hadn’t forgotten that Mory Bergmeyer was serious about going all in with snowboarding. In early 1989, we floated the idea of a snowboarding competition in the spring—a giant slalom and a halfpipe event. The GS would be the easy part. Building and maintaining a halfpipe was another story. Back then, there were no specs, no special equipment, no standards. Trying to explain what we needed to the mountain grooming crew was a challenge, to say the least. Finally, it was decided that the halfpipe would be built just below the old Sacajawea lift (where Dreamcatcher is today). The snow cats piled up two long mounds of snow for about 50 yards. After that, it was up to two young snowboard instructors with shovels to carve out the transitions and maintain the halfpipe. And with Targhee’s 500+ annual inches of snow, that was not an easy task. 

The Grand Targhee Spring Snowboard Challenge took place on March 25-26, 1989. Snowboarders from Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Montana and beyond came to compete. The event was a great success in large part because of the support from everyone at Grand Targhee. We had garnered sponsorships from Coca-Cola, the now-defunct North American Snowboarding Association (NASBA), and Burton and Kemper snowboards. The event was the crowning moment of an amazing year of snowboarding firsts at The Ghee.

Fast forward 30 years. Snowboards are as common on Fred’s Mountain as skis. There are now two permanent terrain parks (Sweetwater and North Pole). And the PSIA now has a sister organization, the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI) that shares the same website, goals and hyphenated acronym (PSIA-AASI)—something completely unthinkable 30 years ago. Snowboarding, once considered a fad or something only for young, radical 20-somethings, has become a multi-generational sport enjoyed by young and old alike. The last 30 years have been an amazing ride, and we are grateful that we were a part of making it happen at Grand Targhee. See you on the slopes!

Mark Austin and Barry Slaughter Olsen are known as being two of the Nation’s first certified snowboard instructors. They also established Grand Targhee’s first snowboarding program in 1988.

Both men put their snowboarding careers on hold to pursue degrees at Brigham Young University. These days they are both successful in their professional and personal lives, and are thriving in the work place while enjoying quality time with the families they’ve each created. Their love for snowboarding has not waned, and Mark and Barry are excited to be celebrating 30 years of snowboarding at Grand Targhee.

Learn more about Mark and Barry by reading the story on how their snowboarding careers began.