Imagine the thrill -- or fright, perhaps -- of mountain biking downhill at top speed, dodging rocks, trees and other obstacles. Now imagine trying to stand on a skateboard as you head down that same mountain, reserving whatever grain of good judgment you have left to stay focused and balanced. Welcome to the world of mountain boarding.
A mountain board is a cross between a skateboard, a snowboard and a mountain bike. Slightly shorter than a snowboard, it sits atop four fat, spring-loaded tires. As with a snowboard, the rider's feet are attached via bindings, but there's no need for specialized boots.
Mountain boarding was invented in the early '90s on the West Coast and has slowly gained popularity among an underground mix of skateboarders, snowboarders, surfers and the occasional mountain biker.
A big part of mountain boarding's appeal is the fact that it can be done year-round and on almost any terrain: dirt, grass, rocks (ouch!) and even sand. Dry ski slopes, downhill mountain-bike trails and skateboarding parks are all places you're likely to get a peek at mountain boarders in action.
While it may be accurate to peg mountain boarding as "extreme," to call it a "sport" -- at least in the conventional sense -- is something of an overstatement. Justin Rhodes, an ex-pro mountain boarder who owns a local mountain-boarding park, estimates that the worldwide population of hard-core mountain boarders stands at a mere 5,000, a majority of them living in the U.K., where the sport is hugely popular.
"There are more people who ride occasionally, and that estimate is closer to 100,000," says Rhodes.
Still, a global population of 100,000 people, most of whom are in their teens, hardly constitutes a movement. Nevertheless, the sport is definitely gaining momentum. Mountain-boarding parks have popped up around the country in recent years, and boarding competitions are increasing in both size and sponsorship.
In the U.S., no governing body regulates the sport, so all the competitions are open and independent of one another. A handful of contests and stunt shows are held at mountain-boarding parks across the country and occasionally on ski slopes during the summer. The U.S. Mountain Boarding Championship, now in its fourth year, is held each summer at Snowmass Village in Aspen, Colo.
Contests may be few and far between, but the competition itself is tight. Boarders from around the country reunite at these events to strut their stuff -- and, more importantly, to have fun.
"I really don't care if mountain boarding grows as a sport or gets regulations. I just want to keep it fun," insists Barron Frierson, a young pro boarder from Fairview.
The sport offers two types of competitions. "Boardercross," or "dirt boarder X," is a downhill race in which contestants scramble for the bottom, maneuvering over dirt obstacles. The "big air" contest, also known as "freestyle jump," is more closely related to the trick aspects of skateboarding and snowboarding. Riders propel themselves down the mountain and launch off a dirt ramp, reaching heights of up to 40 feet. Rotations, inverted tricks and board grabs are typical "big air" stunts.
Only three mountain-boarding parks are in operation across the country, one of which happens to be in our own back yard. (The others are in Kansas and Pennsylvania.) The Holler, built and owned by Rhodes and his wife, Rebekah, is a semiprivate mountain-boarding park in Fletcher. Its grassy course stretches 630 feet up a mountainside and features a variety of obstacles -- berms, jump ramps, rails, a foam pit and a makeshift half-pipe -- that are bound to make most anyone yelp and holler. The park has operated for three years and attracts a crowd of about 20 regulars, according to Rhodes.
On July 8, "Ride Your Pants Off," a national competition and charity fund-raiser for Orphanage Emanuel (a Honduran mission), was held at The Holler and attracted a small, close-knit gathering from around the country.
Live free or ride
At a glance, mountain boarding might seem an exclusive sport, but the truth is quite the contrary. The flexibility of being able to do it anywhere, anytime, makes the sport accessible to most anyone who's up for the challenge. Those proficient at other boarding sports will probably pick it up easily. According to both Rhodes and Frierson, mountain boarding is the most straightforward of the boarding sports. "I'd been snowboarding for two years when I discovered mountain boarding. It was an easy transition," says Frierson.
If you're eager to try mountain boarding, skate parks and empty parking lots are great places to learn how to tame this beast of a board.
Another possible mountain-boarding destination is Sugar Mountain Resort in Avery County, which opens its gates to the sport every weekend throughout the summer. An all-day lift pass costs $22 (visit www.skisugar.com or call 800-SUGARMT).
Probably the best local spot to pursue the sport is The Holler. The Rhodes host "ride weekends," which are great opportunities for newbies to try it out. For $15, anyone can rent a board, pads and a helmet (a must) and enjoy a day of riding. Local veterans and regulars who frequent the park are likely to welcome newcomers by providing advice, tips, encouragement and inspiration. To learn more about location and times, contact Justin Rhodes at 650-9726 or join his e-mail list by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mountain boarding may not be in the running to become the next Olympic sport, but it's certainly a thrill to do and nearly as exciting to watch. Whether you choose to watch from the sidelines or hop on board and give it a whirl, our mountains provide exceptional opportunities for alternative board games.
[Asheville resident Melissa Smith is mainly a hiker and mountain biker but says she'll try almost anything. She is a former associate editor of Zen Asheville magazine.]
While buying before trying may not be the wisest investment, here are several area retailers who can assist with your purchase of mountain-boarding equipment when you're ready to take the plunge. Kids' boards start as low as $130, while adult boards range between $200 and $550.
• Ski Country Sports -- www.skicountrysports.com, 254-2771, Asheville
• Mountain Board Shop -- www.mountainboardshop.com, 650-9726, Fletcher (mention this article and receive 10 percent off the purchase price)
• Adventure Hardware -- www.adventurehardware.com, 254-3100, Asheville
• Ground Industries -- www.groundindustries.com, (864) 271-0901, Greenville, S.C.