Catching the Great White Wave: The Birth of Snowboarding at Grand Targhee

The 2018-2019 winter season marks the 30th anniversary of snowboarding at Grand Targhee Resort. To celebrate this milestone we’re hosting a snowboard reunion weekend January 12-13th, 2019. We’ll have a quarter pipe challenge, best method instagram contest, quiver show at Habitat in Driggs and whole lot more.

To capture the spirit of the early Grand Targhee snowboard movement, 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 first guest blog in a four-part series. 

Part I: In the Beginning…Backyards, Burton 150s and Big Air

By Mark Austin and Barry Slaughter Olsen

Today, snowboards are as commonplace as skis on the slopes of “The Ghee”. But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when snowboards—and those who rode them—were unwelcome on the western slopes of the Tetons. The riders were considered too rowdy and unruly, and the contraptions they rode, unsafe and unproven. Lifelong skiers were convinced that snowboards ruined the snow on the slopes for others and that allowing them on the hill would ruin the skiing experience. From time to time, you might have seen a monoskier or even a few crazy telemarkers making their way down the hill, but snowboards? Not on your life!

We were still in high school when we strapped on snowboards for the first time (Mark in 1985 and Barry in 1986). Neither of us had any idea, when we first strapped on a snowboard with Fastex bindings and fins, that we had set ourselves on a path (or perhaps a fall line) that would lead us to convince the owners of one of the best powder havens on earth that snowboards had a place on their hill.

But before we get all teary-eyed and start reminiscing about the good old days like two old codgers at the Trap Bar after a day on the slopes, let’s take a moment to recognize just what snowboarding has become over the last three decades.

  • A well-respected winter sport with an estimated 7.56 million riders in the United States (2017)
  • A banner sport in the Winter Olympics (Snowboarding debuted in 1998 in Nagano, Japan)
  • And, more importantly, a worldwide winter sport that rivals skiing in its breadth and popularity

In the mid 1980’s, however, when snowboarding was just beginning to develop, all that was nothing more than a crazy pipe dream.

You can trace snowboarding’s origins all the way back to the 1960s, when Sherman Poppen, the “Grandfather of Snowboarding”, invented the Snurfer in Michigan. It didn’t expand much past the local sled hill until the 1980’s, when technological advancements like bindings and later metal edges and p-tex were added and the East Coast (Burton Snowboards) vs. West Coast (Sims Snowboards) rivalry began to push snowboard technology forward at breakneck speed.

That’s when we were bitten by the snowboarding bug. Like most skiers in the Intermountain West, we were brought up on fall ski swaps and the annual Warren Miller ski movies. We’d always hope to win something cool during the intermission’s fashion show and raffle, and we’d always leave empty-handed, but with heads full with visions of ourselves doing crazy Scott Schmidt stuff in the weeks to come at our local hills. After we got a taste of sliding sideways down the slopes, our hearts would race just a little faster every time Warren Miller included even a couple of scenes of some crazy “boarders” carving perfect S-turns in pristine powder.

Mark’s backyard was on a slope, and Eastern Idaho had plenty of snow to turn it into an impromptu snowboard run but it was NOT what either of us had expected.  Our first times down the hill were discouraging as we tried to figure out this new sport. Do you ride the thing like a skateboard, shifting your weight from side to side? No, slam! Maybe like a surfboard by putting your weight on the back foot? Nope, slam! Again. Learning to snowboard was hard! Luckily the snow was soft, and before long we were linking turns like pros…okay, not really, but it sure felt that way. Jumps off backyard kickers soon followed because young shredders crave nothing if not “big air.”

In the Fall of ’87, Mark got the idea of building a halfpipe to practice on. A backyard kicker was no longer enough. We had both just purchased Sims Switchblades and were itching to up our game. So, with money saved from a summer job and the support of his parents, Mark hired his neighbor, Mr. Landon, to come over one afternoon with his heavy loader and dig a half-pipe in the sloping field behind Mark’s house. (Yep…a halfpipe!) This salt-of-the-earth farmer had never heard of one.  As far as he was concerned, he was just digging a giant hole in the ground for the neighbor boy. “Sure.  I can do that.” He said with a confused smile.

What ensued was sheer joy or “radness,” as we’d have said back then, dude! With Mark’s skiing technique and Barry’s list of skateboarding tricks, we were able to begin perfecting our method airs, frontside airs and stalefish grabs as we lofted out of the halfpipe. On afternoons and weekends, when we didn’t have the cash to buy a lift ticket, we would gather at “Mark’s Halfpipe” and practice our tricks among the safety of friends.  However, when we DID have money for a lift ticket, we didn’t need convincing to leave backyard alone for a day on the local ski hills. Unfortunately, back then, Grand Targhee still wasn’t one of them. Little did we know, however, that we would soon be instrumental in changing that. But in the winter of 1986-1987, our thoughts were on big air, sweet carves, and not much more.

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.

Mark was raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and spent most of the 70s and early 80s skiing the iconic powder of Grand Targhee with his family and friends. But in 1985, while a sophomore at Bonneville High School, he discovered the nascent sport of snowboarding and never looked back. He and his pal Barry Olsen, went on to certify as a snowboard instructors and establish Grand Targhee’s first snowboarding program in 1988.  Mark also competed successfully in the region and stood on multiple podiums, including winning the overall title at Targhee’s first slalom and halfpipe competition in 1989 and a silver medal in giant slalom at the Utah Winter Games.

Mark set aside his full-time snowboarding aspirations to study anthropology and Arabic at Brigham Young University.  After working and studying in Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, and India, he went on to earn a master’s degree in international health from the Harvard School of Public Health. He now works as a Middle East and Asia health specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington D.C. This career has allowed him to work and play in countries throughout Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—including carving some turns in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Mark currently lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife, Whitney, and son, Cole.

Barry was born and grew up in Eastern Idaho, spending most of his summers and winters in Island Park and in the Grand Tetons. In his formative years, he split his time between his horse or skateboard in the summer and his skis in the winter, until his switch to snowboarding in 1986. After becoming two of the nation’s first certified snowboard instructors at Timberline Lodge in Mt. Hood Oregon in 1988, he and his friend Mark Austin established the first snowboarding program at Grand Targhee. In 1989, Barry was instrumental in organizing the resort’s first snowboarding competition—the Grand Targhee Spring Snowboard Challenge.

Barry stopped snowboarding full time to pursue a degree in Translation from Brigham Young University and a Masters degree in Conference Interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. After a decade of interpreting for world leaders on three continents, Barry accepted an appointment as a professor at the Middlebury Institute in 2007. He currently works out of their Washington, D.C. office and is happy to be a part of Middlebury, since one of the perks for faculty is a season pass to Snow Bowl, the college’s own ski area, just outside of Middlebury, Vermont. Barry lives with his wife of 23 years, Julieta, and has two children, Christian and Natalia. Follow him on Twitter @ProfessorOlsen.

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.

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