Surf vs. Snow: An Inside Look

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"If I can snowboard I can surf, right?" Photos by Lucas Moore

Surfing and snowsports will forever be compared. They always have been and they always will be. With similarities in their demographics, industry icons and adrenaline-seeking mindsets, it’s no wonder why there is a hefty amount of crossover between these action sports. However when immersed in both of these industries, the actual similarities and differences of surf and snow truly jump out. Let’s take a look at a few...

They take the same basic skill set, if you can do one then you can do the other, right? Absolutely not. “Well I grew up snowboarding in Michigan and can get up first try wakeboarding at my lake house. One time we took a trip out west, I rode the back bowls at Vail… I’ll be able to surf no problem.” Not so fast there King of the Midwest, accurately reading an incoming set of waves, identifying which one you’re in best position for, properly timing your paddle-in and pop-up, plus actually riding the right part of the wave is one of the hardest routines to have dialed. That’s assuming you can even paddle out. For expert skiers and snowboarders, line selection is pretty straight forward. We read the terrain, make a plan, think about it, visualize it and then can even alter the plan at the last minute if needed. In the water, you are completely at the mercy of the wave, and unless you somehow scored an invite to Kelly Slater’s Funhouse, not a single wave you surf will be the same as a previous one. Chances are if you’re an experienced shortboard surfer, you’ll do alright on a snowboard, but this is most certainly a one-way street. And skiers, best of luck with the whole standing sideways thing…

PuertoRico-1768A skier by trade, author Max Tabor struggles on a right hander of his own. Photo: Lucas Moore

Let’s next look at each sport’s culture. For outsiders, surfing attracts buzzwords like, “laidback”, “chill”, and “mahalo”. It gets portrayed as this relaxed lifestyle where you paddle out into an empty lineup, only to be joined by your best pal Brody, sharing waves until the sun goes down. Unless you own an island, this won’t always be the case. In fact, a crowded surf line up is without question one of the most intense places to be. There is very little chatter as everyone is so focussed on when the next set will roll in, and as soon as the first peak of that set is spotted, it’s a race for who can get into position first. God forbid you get in the way of a jaded local, consequences can range anywhere from a verbal warning, to an angry group waiting for you to get out of the water. This aggressiveness is still seen in the snow side of things, but to a much lesser degree. While some skiers and riders will refuse to crack a smile in the Jackson Hole Tram or KT-22 lift line on an early morning pow day, others are grilling up breakfast sausage and shelling out cold PBR’s at the crack of 8:00 am. Compare Lower Trestles (California’s premier reef break) to Breckenridge’s Terrain Parks. In both places you’ll see the world’s best surfers, skiers, and snowboarders absolutely throwing down for spectators. Breck typically maintains a positive atmosphere - hoots and hollers coming from the slow moving double lift that crawls you back to the top, pros giving tips to groms as they hot lap with their filmers, there’s even a line to drop into the triple stack jump set. That’s right, a somewhat organized line. If you don’t so much as “look the part” in the Trestles parking lot, good luck making it out into the lineup, let alone catching a wave.

A group of undoubtebly good surfers paddling for a wave at LowersA group of undoubtedly good surfers paddling for a wave at Lowers

The area where I see the most similarity between surf and snow is in the industries themselves. The professionals. The companies and names you associate with the sports. Despite the majority of surf and snow industry jobs offering underwhelming salaries, both are highly desirable areas to work, and contain certain exclusivity and “coolness” factors. As a tradeoff to the lowly paychecks, you’ll often be traveling to unique parts of the world that most people have on their bucket list and would pay to see. You’re there for work. The surf and snow industries are also both male-dominated, so if you’re a passionate ladyshredder, chances are you can have your pick of the litter (yes, this includes pros). Lastly, both industries hold massive annual trade shows which are no fun at all. Their sole purpose is business… there are no parties, no free product, and certainly no free beer. SIA (SnowSports Industries America) Snow Show used to go down in Vegas, but now takes place in skiing’s capitol, Denver, and Surf Expo calls Orlando, FL home. As I said, zero fun at all.

SIA partyIndustry professionals enjoy themselves at SIA's ever-entertaining Pit Viper booth.

As operators in both the surf and snow industries, it is our job here at SASS to draw connections and similarities between these areas, ultimately bridging the gap between the two. Our industries carry many of the same traits, and our demographics usually line up to have similar interests, the most powerful of those interests being the desire for “that feeling”. In his book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler uses athletes like Laird Hamilton and Jeremy Jones to explore the frontier science of “flow,” an optimal state of consciousness in which we perform and feel our best. Putting aside the crowded lineups, difficult learning curves, and industry schmoozing events, we all crave the feeling of pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones. Dropping in on a steeper face or a bigger wave than we’ve ever skied or surfed before puts us directly into that state of “flow”, and as someone who is experienced in both areas (snow and surf), I still don’t know which feeling I prefer. I just know that I like the both. A lot.

So to answer the question at hand: no, your snowboard background won’t make you a natural surfer, but it certainly won’t hurt. At the end of the day, that’s what companies like SASS are here to help with. We provide you with the means and platforms to explore these two amazing activities, drawing similarities where we can, and giving you the knowhow to take your skills to the next level. A next level to which access is not so easy.

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