LONG BEACH, Calif. -- It's almost sacrilegious to admit it, but the hottest sport on the slopes of Southern California's snow-clad mountains popped into existence on the East Coast.
What we now know as snowboarding began about a decade ago several New England ski resorts. Word spread quickly, and trend-hungry surfers and skateboarders adopted the sport. But not the ski resorts -- snowboarders were banned.
Three years ago, no ski resort in Southern California would allow "shredders" on their slopes. But skiing was going into a decline in the United States and snowboarders were clamoring for access.
"It's actually phenomenal," said Chuck Allen, the founder of the Transworld Snowboarding Amateur Series. "Three or four years ago, skiing started to lose its edge. Even the sales of the big companies started going down. And then snowboarding came along."
The growth of the sport went into hyperdrive. In the last two years, there has been a 17 percent increase in the number of lift tickets bought for snowboarding. At Southern California resorts, the numbers are even more dramatic. Nearly 35 percent of Bear Mountain's patrons are snowboarders. On selected days last winter, that figure rose to 60 percent.
Nationally, there are 1.8 million snowboarders, but Southern California is the capital of the sport.
"All the surfers and skaters have gone crazy for it," said Allen, "because it was just an extension of what they are doing on the beaches."
On the pro tour, the Southern California connection is obvious. Jimmy Scott, Darren Sanders and Steve Graham, three of the top professional snowboarders in the nation, all live in Huntington Beach.
But, as usual, what's popular in Southern California quickly becomes popular in the rest of the country -- and then around the world.
Snowboarding is reaching across the Atlantic to Europe, where snowboard manufacturers are sending their teams to compete. The tour has signed a television contract with the Prime Network. And the United States Ski Association has finally created a snowboard division.
Part of snowboarding's growing popularity can be attributed to one major factor: It's easy to learn. If you know how to surf, windsurf or skateboard, you can learn most of the necessary snowboarding skills and techniques in a day. And because it's such a new sport, people aren't worried about looking silly when they start out. Unlike skiing.
Southern California resorts are making it easy to learn the sport. Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, Mountain High and Snow Valley all offer one- to two-hour lessons that cost between $25 and $40.
From an industry standpoint, snowboarding is a marketer's dream. Skiing will remain the mainstay of winter recreation but snowboarding is the sport of the future. Ski resorts provide figures showing that 37 percent of the children between the ages of 6 and 17 are on snowboards when they hit the slopes. And the percentage is increasing. But, Allen averred, it's not exclusively for the young.
"We are seeing a lot of older people snowboarding," said Allen, who is 55. "When I first started, everybody used to say, 'Aren't you a little old for this?' But I just took the abuse in stride."
He took it in stride, and then he founded an athletic organization that now stretches across the nation.
The Transworld Snowboarding Amateur Series is easy to join. Membership dues are $25 per year; it costs an additional $25 to participate in one of the 12 events (with a variety of divisions from ages 12 to 50) that will be held at resorts this winter and spring. The top point-earners in each division qualify for the national competition, which draws its pool of talent from 4,000 entrants.
Skiers will look on in envy, sometimes in anger. Surveys show that 60 percent of the skiers don't want to share their powder with snowboarders.
But the shredders soon may dominate. They'll be carving up the hill, grabbing some air, tweaking a move and dissing any sketchy two-planker who doesn't get stoked on shreddin'.