There are very few people who can say they struck the match that started a worldwide fire but Jake Burton was one of those people. Sure, there were other people who came up with the idea of surfing on snow, but it was a kid from New York who took the act of sliding down a mountain while standing sideways and elevated it to a stratospheric level. Not only did Jake create a product that appealed to those looking for an alternative to the regimented and orderly world of skiing, he also helped create a counterculture that took the world by storm.
The global family of winter and snow, both skiers and snowboarders, were shocked and saddened to hear of Jake’s passing on Nov. 20. While it was no secret that he had been battling some pretty big health concerns in recent years, people like Jake seem too intent on living to let things like sickness and death get in the way.
In the days that followed his passing, stories have flooded social media about just how big an influence he was on the entire snow sports world. People who met him remember his passion, dedication to the sport, his willingness to spread the stoke to anyone he met and his loyalty to the people who made up the Burton family. Team riders were often lifelong crew, not just when their glimmer of fame served his business interests. Employees were extended family members.
My orbit entered his for a very brief time a few years back. I was a guide at Mike Wiegele Heliskiing and Jake was a long time guest of the resort. He started riding there in 1989 and returned often, sometimes to do promo work for the brand, sometimes to reward team athletes, sometimes just for fun and to shred deep pow. It was on one of his promo trips that I got the nod to guide his crew. I remember being a bit starstruck when we met at dinner on the first night that quickly faded when we got into the mountains the next day.
He was so genuinely stoked to be out there, it was contagious and inspiring. We’d had a layer of buried surface hoar that made avalanche conditions pretty spicy, we weren’t able to push it into some of the bigger terrain that everyone dreams about when they go heliskiing. I remember Jake being like a kid in a candy store; he didn’t care where we rode, he was just stoked to be riding.
One day, after we got back to Blue River, I said I was going over to the outdoor rink to play hockey with some of the other guides. Jake said he played some puck back in Vermont and asked if he could come along to watch. I can’t remember why he didn’t want to lace up and get out there but he did come and cheer from the sidelines. That night at dinner he kept commenting about how much he loved our jerseys. Earlier in the winter, someone from our group had gotten jerseys made up with an angry beaver on the front. The beaver was biting a hockey stick and our team name was the Blue River Beaver Hunters. I could tell Jake loved it. I knew what I had to do, the next night at dinner I presented him with my freshly laundered jersey and told him to wear it proudly when he played back in Vermont. He was beyond happy.
About two weeks later a package arrived in Blue River with my name on it, inside was a treasure chest of Burton gear: hats, hoodies, stickers. At the bottom of the box was a University of Vermont hockey jersey. The tag was signed by Jake and it said that he hoped we got a chance to skate together sometime. I still have the jersey and I know I’ll be wearing it the next time I play, when I do I’ll be thinking of Jake. For someone who moved the needle as much as he did, he struck me as one of the most down to earth people I’d ever met. It’s hard not to really like people like that, especially if, in addition to nearly single-handedly revolutionizing an industry, they also play hockey.