The newest breed of snowboarder is all about getting back to basics: no resorts, no lift passes and certainly no bindings.
This rare species can be spotted deep in the backcountry this winter, carving big, soulful turns on what amounts to a surfboard built for powder.
"It's a revival," says Geoff Kramer, a bindingless snowboard designer and rider based in Edmonton.
Devotees of bindingless snowboarding, known as powsurfing, say it is a nostalgic return to the roots of the sport. Like the original snowboard of the late 1970s and early '80s, many of the boards are crafted by hand, carefully shaped from bamboo or Douglas fir and shipped to riders in Japan, Europe, Russia and Canada. They embody their riders' longing for a time when the sport hadn't been swallowed up by teenage sensibilities, corporate interests and the glitz of the Olympics and ESPN's X Games.
"Surfing powder is why they created snowboards in the first place," says Jeremy Jensen, founder of Utah-based snowboard company Grassroots Powdersurfing, who has been riding bindingless since 1999. "They weren't even concerned with riding hard pack. They just said, I want to surf mountains."
The trend is also a sign of a sport that is growing up. When halfpipe riders mellow and lose the inclination to flip through the air, they often retreat to the backcountry. Rather than teenagers with iPods tucked into their coats, powsurfers are mostly former professional riders looking for a new challenge, or experienced backcountry specialists in their 30s and 40s who are more likely to revere pine trees than punk music.
Cruising without bindings feels one step closer to nature, riders say. When you're not strapped in, staying on your board not only requires more skill, but a deeper understanding of the mountain.
"In powder surfing," Jensen says, "you've got to be focused and your balance has to be just right, and there's that extra sensation that comes from actually riding with the mountain instead of fighting it. It's just like surfing in that way, too. You can't force things on a wave. That wave forces you into how you're going to ride it."
Perhaps the sport could be seen as snowboarding's retirement division, if only riders were not cruising down mountain faces, dodging rocks and trees, with only gravity keeping their boots on their board.
Most powsurfers, like ocean surfers, attach their board to their leg with a leash so it doesn't speed down the mountain if they wipe out. But fall in front of your board, and you're at risk of being whacked in the head.
And like surfers, who can't just paddle out into the middle of the ocean and expect to catch a wave, powsurfers need to have the backcountry skill and awareness to be able to snowshoe, snowmobile or helicopter into the best spots, so they don't get wrecked on rocks or in an avalanche.
"The ability to ride the board is less than half the battle," says Tim Wesley, a carpenter from Leavenworth, Wash., who started his bindingless board company, Shark Snow Surf, last winter. "Snow surf is pretty much for just advanced snowboarders and skiers. Outside of that, honestly you're just at risk of hurting yourself."
According to bindingless board makers, the number of powsurfers worldwide is small (in the hundreds or low thousands) but growing, with small pockets in Russia, Scandinavia and Japan, where plentiful powder and a zen sensibility seem a natural fit for the sport.
Powsurfers are also found in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, around Golden, Fernie and Revelstoke, "where the snow is deep and silky," says Cholo Burns, a bindingless rider who is credited as being one of the founders of the movement.
Every year, about 200 riders make what Burns calls a "powder pilgrimage" to the Kootenays to ride in a memorial race to raise money for the two children of snowboarder Greg Todds, who died in an avalanche in 2007 while riding bindingless near his home in Revelstoke. Todds, known for his groundbreaking free-ride segments in early Canadian snowboard films, began riding bindingless to make snowboarding more challenging. He saw it as a natural progression of the sport.
In 2002, Todds and his friend, Burns, began selling rubber foot pads that could be attached to any snowboard. Their kits also included a bungee cord that attached to a point in front of the front foot, as well as a point behind the back foot. The cords acted like training wheels for riders who needed help keeping the board on their feet. They called their innovation Noboard.
Noboard is still on the market under Burns's direction, and even had a short-lived business partnership with snowboard giant Burton in 2007, but the deal soured after two years.
Burton gave the sport some widespread exposure, and it has rapidly evolved since then. Purists see the rope, or even magnets used by Austrian company Aesmo to connect boots and boards, as counter to the essence of riding without bindings.
"Noboard is all about hanging on," Wesley says. "I don't diss the rope too much, because sometimes you need [help.] But the whole point is to be skillful enough that you don't have to hang on."
At least six companies, most of them one- or two-person operations, are selling bindingless snowboards this year, including four that dived into the market in the last 18 months. Rather than put a pad on any board, like Noboard, they're tinkering with powder-specific board shapes to create the best possible float, speed and turning capability.
"These boards are way off the spectrum," says Mark Fawcett, coach of the national alpine snowboard team, who worked with Kramer at Olive Skateboards and Snowboards in Edmonton to create his own market-ready powder board this season (a bindingless version is in the works). "You can hardly ride them on the ski hill on packed snow. They're really designed for pristine powder conditions."
Jensen, 36, specializes in more playful boards. His original idea was to bring the skate park to the mountain, allowing riders to flip their boards around as they launch through the air. He has sold more than 500 boards, all made by hand in his garage between his full-time job as a videographer at Utah State University.
While some designers harbour concerns that their board designs will be stolen or their sport co-opted by big companies, their deeper wish is to see as many people as possible give the sport a try.
"I'm really happy that it is happening," former professional rider Alan Clark, a team rider with Trapper Snowboards, a company based in Revelstoke, says of the influx of new companies selling bindingless models. He sold 50 boards after launching his first bindingless model last season, and has tripled those sales heading into this season, he said.
"It's more competition for whoever's making these boards, but at the same time, it's really pushing the growth of the sport."