Entertainment

Cartoonish, Impractical, Dumb: The Controversial Ascent of Snowblading

Doc Roberts is on a mission to bring snowblades, or very short skis, to the mainstream. The question is, will anyone take him seriously?

by Dan Schwartz
Mar 9 2020, 12:00pm

Photo via Blickwinkel/Alamy

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Stupid Issue, which is dedicated to the entertaining, goofy, and just plain dumb. It features stories celebrating ridiculous ideas, trends, and products; pieces arguing that unabashed stupidity can be a great part of life; and articles calling out the bad side of stupidity. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

The golden retriever is a portrait of happiness standing in the snow by the open trunk of a black Xterra, his wavy hair platinum in the Colorado sun, his tail a metronome wound tight. But Nixon—named after the watch company, not the 37th president—isn’t going in the trunk. Three pairs of exceptionally short skis are. His owner, Doc Roberts, calls to him from the front door of his Bayfield home. “Come on, pup.”

Nixon strains his disappointed head between the slats of the porch railing as Doc and I pile into the truck, and then the two of us wind our way through a forest of ponderosa pines heading to the San Juan Mountains shining in the north.

Roberts, 70, with a boyish smile and a silver hoop in his left earlobe, is an unconventional businessman. For 24 years he’s owned and operated Skiboards Superstore, an international online retailer that, today, is a primary distributor of snowblades, or very short skis. It is Roberts’ philosophy that novice skiers are too encumbered by traditional-length skis, which can take years to master, so he exclusively sells snowblades. But to many hard-edged skiers, donning a pair of these stubby planks is like riding a Razor scooter in a skate park—you simply don’t do it.

When it comes to business, Roberts claims his main ambition isn’t to grow his gross sales, which are around half a million dollars each year. Instead, he aims to help his customers grow—to seize their potential—by encouraging them to break from what he calls the “ski paradigm,” or societal pressure to use traditional skis. “Is it really about the latest and greatest long skis, the biggest, slickest tricks, or going steeper and deeper?” he asks in his self-published book Instant Skiing, Instant Fun. “Perhaps, if that is what you love,” the passage continues, but not if that is what you are told you should love.

Roberts is well suited to liberate the human mind: He holds a PhD in self-actualization psychology from Columbia Pacific University (now shuttered), and in the skiing off-season he leads seminars for people striving to break free from the pressures of society. He believes society’s expectations—get a job to buy a house to raise a family—conceal what is universally true. “Take Nixon,” Roberts says, as white pastures, aspen groves, and the red walls of mesas zip by his face like a TV commercial for a bucolic life. “Nixon is just happy all the time.” The dog doesn’t care about how he should feel; he just feels. Humans, Roberts explains, are the ones who are really leashed. During his seminars, Roberts invariably talks with employees who have gone unconscious. They thought, when taking their jobs, Well, my life is not that important. I’ll just work for this company, and then as they toil, their life zipping by like a film fast-forwarded, they forget what made them happy, what made them them. “And they get to 65 and they think, Well, I just want to get an RV and sit and be in the outdoors,” Roberts says, tossing his hand from the wheel as if discarding a bad idea, “and that sucks.

The snowblades Roberts sells by the hundreds are in a small way a tool for his customers around the world—in South Korea, in Hawaii, in Canada—to rebel against their cultural conditioning in at least one respect: by confronting the ski paradigm. But in doing so they must also confront, and either accept or submit to, a simple and shameful fact known to die-hard skiers: Snowblading is stupid.

And to these skiers, it’s been stupid since it first became a sport. Its roots can be traced to the 1930s, when mountaineers were looking for a smaller, lighter alternative to full-length skis to descend glaciers. Five decades later, in 1991, the ski company Kneissl began manufacturing the Bigfoot, the first widely distributed snowblade. The boards were about two feet long, whereas traditional skis were around seven. Length gives skis stability at high speed and buoyancy in soft snow; without it, many snowbladers resembled uncertain dreidels.

The 90s was a decade marked by other innovations in the winter sports industry. In 1992, a machine was built to carve consistent halfpipes, terrain that helped snowboarders—then shredding the outskirts of the industry—hold a mainstream edge. And throughout that decade traditional skis, unwieldy to many, were shortened by a foot or two, and gained the modern hourglass shape that helps them turn. In 1998, the same year that snowboarding entered the Olympics, snowblading made the X Games. But while snowboarding has maintained a zealous following, the X Games dropped snowblading just a few years later, in 2001. In the years following, skiers would compete with snowboarders for status, but they would never take snowblading seriously. As Berne Broudy wrote in a 2013 article on Outside Online, Outside magazine’s website, “what started out as tools for serious mountaineering might now just be a hobby for serious tools.”

“It’s not as sexy. I mean, look at the people on snowblades. They look like dorks. There wasn’t anything to emulate there,” said Mark Puleio, a 48-year-old international mountain guide and a friend of mine. He grew up skiing in the 70s and 80s at Blue Hill in Massachusetts on skis thinner than his wrists and taller than his head. When snowblading surged at ski resorts in the 90s, he thought it was a joke. “They were perceived as fucking stupid. How could you be caught dead on those? They were just so anti-skiing,” he explained. “But we were elitist back then. It was just a much dirtier world, too. That was at the same time that people would make off comments all the time about Rollerbladers. I think [snowblades] have always been perceived as something to be made fun of... Here in the Alps,” where Puleio lives with his family, “the smaller your backpack is, the larger your penis is. But back in the day, the bigger your skis, the bigger your penis.”

“Oh jeez,” Roberts says suddenly as we crest a hill and rows of cars gleaming in the sunlight swing into view. “They’re parking all the way down here?”

We find a spot, pull on our boots, helmets, and goggles and grab our snowblades. I’ve been rehearsing this moment in my head—dreading it, honestly—and when I sling the blades over my shoulder, as I have thousands of times with skis longer than I am tall, I can’t determine the balance point, so I end up carrying them awkwardly in my hand like a pair of garden pruners. Tromping past skiers on the walk to the lift, I feel like I need to explain myself, that in fact I am one of them, that I only have these things—now on my feet—because I am writing about my pretentious skier bias for a magazine.

Roberts and I load the chair, and up we go.

“What are those designed for?” a snowboarder seated on my right asks, eyeing my feet. I look at Roberts, seated on my left, and he leans over and without pause says, “Fun.”

"Here in the Alps,” where Puleio lives with his family, “the smaller your backpack is, the larger your penis is. But back in the day, the bigger your skis, the bigger your penis."

I mull over this comment as the braided cable of the lift tugs us up. “Fun.”

We ski for a few hours, and the snowblades are fun, though they don’t seem to offer me anything traditional skis haven’t. Fun is a by-product of skiing, but for many serious skiers it is not the goal. And while I have done things on skis to satirize the sport—skiing in a gorilla suit, skiing naked—at its core, skiing is deadly serious, and the goal, though unobtainable, is perfection. Perfection is a pursuit, a narrow road I began walking when my dad plopped me on skis when I was four. Now 31, when I look back on this road, I play a grainy showreel in my mind. Here I am, a kid, carving into a turn, fast for the first time and amazed. Here I am, a teenager now, airborne and comfortable because I know where my mass must be when I land. Here I am, almost an adult, feeling that finally familiar pop as my skis spring me into another turn through steep, soft snow. It is in these old frames that I most see the human I strive to be: capable, confident, driven.

Over lunch, seated across from each other on a brown picnic table that overlooks black and white mountains stabbing into the cloudless sky, I tell Roberts about the old drive for perfection. “Is that in snowblading?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “Not really.”

But if you’re a novice skier, he explains, you might find they provide you an outlet the ski paradigm has not. Look at all the magazines, he says. “They’re all showing these expert skiers, with all their gear, but that’s not most people.”

In the early days of Skiboards Superstore, Roberts tried advertising in those same magazines, but his customers don’t read them, because for many of them skiing is not an identity. They’re novices. They work hard elsewhere. When they’re on the mountain they want to have fun.

Roberts’ PhD dissertation—“In the Zone: Self-Actualization and the Destabilization of Paradigm Paralysis. An Exploratory Study of the Embodied Total Attention Experience”—focused on a state of consciousness that is likely also responsible for my indelible skiing memories. Many athletes profess slipping into it, though you cannot achieve it by seeking it. They can only meet the conditions—when the challenge at hand matches their skills, when they are single-mindedly focused on completing it—and hope. When time passes unnoticed and their ego dissolves and their body operates as if requiring no direction from the mind, they know flow, the old friend, has come. The confidence, productivity, and happiness that the state of flow generates can linger for days.

But achieving flow tends to require expertise, and to achieve expertise in skiing you must start early, which requires committed parents or money or both. I was fortunate to have both. But many others are not, and when they ski they worry too much about proficiency to lapse into a flow-state trance, Roberts explains. His dissertation found snowblading helped novice skiers overwhelmed by the sport achieve flow more quickly and with less investment. “My drive is, why not have fun on the mountain?” he said. If skis aren’t fun because they’re difficult, why not try snowblades?

On the drive back to his home, Roberts admits he’s weary running his business. He’d like to sell it to someone more ambitious, someone who could capture more of the ski market. That never quite motivated him. He is an uncommon businessman, he knows, and he now wants more time to teach seminars.

“What makes you want to go back to where you started?” I ask.

"That’s my true love," he says, of guiding people to break free of their cultural programming. “It’s ingrained in us from an early age.”

When we pull into his driveway, Nixon’s head appears between the slats of the porch railing. Before unloading the trunk, Roberts looks at the dog. “He’s just happy all the time,” Roberts says. Humans have too much going on in our heads. He spins an index finger at his temple. “They would teach us if we could learn.”

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