BEND (AP) — As a professional snowboarder, Austin Smith admits that he is spoiled.
The Bend rider gets to travel the world, snowboarding in the best conditions and at the best locations. But sometimes, when there are no cliffs or jumps to take on, he brings out his "no-board" — also called a "powder surfer" — to add some more excitement to his day.
"You don't need something super steep, and you get on the no-board and you could have the best day of your whole season," Smith says. "It can be like a green run or just wiggling through some trees. It just makes it really exciting again. It makes me feel like I'm 14 again. It reminds me of my first powder run ever."
Powder surfers — snowboards with no bindings, designed only for riding in a minimum of 4 to 5 inches of fresh snow — are a niche within the snowboarding industry that is taking the sport back to its roots, and riders and snowboard manufacturers are taking notice. Most agree it will stay a niche because ideal conditions are necessary — the boards have no metal edges so are not made for carving groomers or hardpack.
But riders can take them on seemingly mundane terrain and suddenly that terrain becomes interesting and challenging. Smith has ridden some of the steepest, most challenging slopes in the world, but approaching a 1-foot-high jump on a no-board can make him nervous.
"Maybe you left the ground and maybe you didn't, but you were excited that you landed," Smith says. "Or maybe you didn't land and it was the most awkward tomahawk crash of your life because you flew off the board and you're just flying through the air with nothing attached to you, which is a strange feeling for a snowboarder."
But even novice snowboarders can enjoy powder surfing, as not being strapped into bindings makes it less intimidating, Smith notes.
"It's just as fun for an 8-year-old kid who's never been snowboarding, because you can just jump right off (the board)," he says. "It's kind of like snow surfing, how it all started."
James Nicol is a co-founder of the Bend company SnoPlanks, which designs and shapes skis and snowboarders and has made a few powder surfboards. He says that powder surfing is bringing the sport of snowboarding back full circle. The first snowboards in the late 1960s and 1970s had no bindings and were called "snurfers," Nicol says, short for snow surfers. Riders used balance and weight shifting to make their way down a slope. This is the same with powder boards, which have been around for more than 10 years now.
Riders do not need specialized boots to ride powder boards, as any winter boot with a high cuff will work. Most boards have pads made of various materials that help increase traction between boot and board.
"You have to be really ON your turns, and aware of your surroundings, absorbing the bumps and anything that you're coming across because you're not strapped in and you're not allowing those bindings to do the work for you," Nicol says. "As this kind of resurgence has happened, there's brands across the country that have really delved wholeheartedly into developing powder surfers."
Nicol calls the powder board revolution in the snowboarding industry the "Wild West." There is no right or wrong design, and companies are shaping the boards in completely different ways. The few powder surfers that SnoPlanks has helped design actually look more like a surfboard than a snowboard. Other no-boards look more like typical snowboards.
"Everyone's kind of attacking it in their own way," Nicol says. "And it makes it a really cool time to be doing it. It's more the small, craft brands that are providing them. That's what makes it kind of a renaissance in terms of the powder surfing movement."
Most ski resorts, including Mt. Bachelor, do not allow no-boards on chairlifts, but Hoodoo Ski Area near Sisters does. Hoodoo does not have any of the boards for rent, but riders are welcome to take their own on the lifts when snow conditions allow.
Yet the right conditions can be hard to come by, especially during a low-snow winter such as the one we have experienced so far this year in Central Oregon. Hoodoo manager Matthew McFarland has a no-board made by Burton called the No Fish, but he has not had a chance to take it out on the slopes yet this season.
"This year we've had maybe two days when it's been reasonable to even ride one," McFarland says. "An advanced snowboarder, who has some mountain experience, could have one of those as their bonus tool in their quiver. We've had very few people do it — three or four folks, besides employees."
Still, McFarland calls powder surfing a "good time" and a "completely different experience" from typical snowboarding.
Smith says the cinder cone at Mount Bachelor is a perfect location for powder surfing in fresh, untouched snow. The ideal scenario, he says, is to hike the cone in the morning, ride down the cone on a powder surfer, and then head to the chairlifts for a day of regular snowboarding.
Smith knows of some locations in the Deschutes National Forest near Bachelor that are "no-board heaven," and he accesses them via snowmobile.
"There's really good spots around here, not too steep," Smith says. "You don't want crazy speed on a no-board, because then you're taking faster, harder falls."
Most powder boards have pads or a concave area, like a skateboard, where the rider can stand. The boarder must keep the tail down and turn off the tail through the powder using balance and body control. Nicol calls it good cross-training for snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding.
On the typical snowboard, the tight interface between boots and bindings allows boarders to flex the board onto to its edges for turning and stopping. Without that interface on a no-board, McFarland explains, riders have to use the natural flex and voids of the fresh, deep snow to maintain control.
"Get the board to sink in a foot of snow, and you're really surfing the snow, forcing the board to do what you want and using your feet to push it through," McFarland says.
On his no-board, Smith likes to catch a bit of air, perform some powder slashes, and "have awkward crashes on a regular basis."
"But there's something fun about that," he says. "You can really build up speed and confidence on them until you take it too far and forget you're not strapped in — and you're back to square one with an awkward crash."