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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Jake Burton leaves legacy as snowboarding industry pioneer

<span class="photocreditinline">COURTESY PHOTO</span><br />Jake Carpenter (right) passed away two weeks ago after battling on and off with cancer for 8 years.
Jake Carpenter (right) passed away two weeks ago after battling on and off with cancer for 8 years.

The snowboarding industry and Vermont community mourns the loss of Jake Burton Carpenter, the founder of the major Burlington-based snowboarding company Burton Snowboards. Carpenter died on Wednesday, Nov. 20 at the age of 65. The Stowe resident “passed away peacefully” from complications related to cancer at the University of Vermont Medical Center, according to a statement released by Burton.

According to Red Bull Snowboard, Carpenter was the “godfather of snowboarding.” Before Carpenter became involved in the sport, the actions and images associated with snowboarding were very different than what comes to mind today. One could not simply drop the broad, step on, bend over, strap in and ride away. Nineteen and 20-year-olds did not dominate the slopes nor were they doing double corks off Olympic size jumps. In the late ’70s, snowboards were pieces of wood with leashes attached to the nose.

In 10 years, Carpenter managed to take the sport from a ‘surfing spin-off’ to a well-known and well-loved Olympic sport. In 1977, fed up with his desk job in New York, Carpenter moved to Londonderry, Vermont, near Stratton Mountain Resort. He had a background in skiing and surfing, as well as “snurfing,” the rudimentary predecessor to snowboarding, and began making snowboards in a Vermont barn. At that time, snowboarding had not gained popularity and ski resorts did not yet welcome snowboarders. His young company, dubbed “Burton Boards,” struggled. 

But as Carpenter continued to sell the sport, Burton gradually gained customers, many of whom were teenagers. According to a Forbes article on Carpenter, “In those early days, the Burton brand was synonymous with snowboarding.”

In 1985, Carpenter and his wife Donna Carpenter, who became Burton’s CEO in 2016, moved to Europe to start Burton’s European base in Austria. Before leaving, Carpenter enrolled in the six-week German program at the Middlebury Language School, according to a blog post on the Burton website. The couple later moved back to Vermont where they have raised three sons.

Even after Burton became a major success, Carpenter did not shed the initial easy-going and “chill vibes” that are now commonly associated with snowboarding. His company embraces a healthy and active lifestyle, providing its employees with free season passes, discounted gear, flexible hours during the winter to ride a few runs before work and the ability for employees to bring their dogs to work. Employees are encouraged to dress casually for work — “jeans, sneakers, flip flops, or mud boots if that’s your thing, and leave the ironing for tuning up your snowboard,” says the company’s hiring page.   

“I’ve always been in awe when around Jake because of his admiration of life, passion for sport and the lifestyle associated. His personality as a whole — it will forever live on in all of us,” said Darcy Sharpe, silver medalist in the 2018 X Games Aspen and FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships, in an Instagram post. Four years ago, in an article by The New York Times, the three-time Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White called Carpenter the “cool dad of the sport.”

At Burton’s retail shop in downtown Burlington, I quickly got a feel for the company’s easygoing yet passionate attitude toward life and snowboarding. Upon entering, I was immediately greeted by a golden retriever whose name tag said “Bean, Burton Guide.” 

Professionals and retailers in the Snowboarding world have shared condolences and respect for Jake Burton Carpenter in the few weeks since his desk. Outside the Burton flag-ship store in Burlington, a street sign reads ‘Rest In Power.’

The shop resembles more of a cozy mountain cabin than a retail store from one of the biggest snowboard companies in the world. It is furnished with wood with retro snowboards, which hang all over its walls; the staff wear flannel shirts and beanies. An activity wall features all the store’s monthly parties, shredding events and board demos. When I left the shop, I noticed a big sign outside that said “Rest in Powder” with the hashtag #RideonJake. 

Maeve Byrne, an employee at Burlington’s flagship store, reflected on her experiences at Burton. “Burton extends so much further than the hard and soft goods we sell,” she said. “Even though I’m just a retail employee amongst over a thousand employees globally, I hold a lot of pride in being able to work for Burton and help get customers as stoked about snowboarding as we are.”

Torah Bright, an Olympic gold and silver medalist in snowboarding, offered her own condolences in an Instagram post. “I am just one of the millions whose lives were changed by your vision and your passion,” she wrote. “May the mountains, snow, and gravity continue to guide the way. Shred on Jake.”

Florence Wu

Florence Wu '22 is the multimedia editor specializing in photojournalism. She enjoys photography as a way of connecting with others, as well as recording special events and moments in her personal life. She is inspired by the works of Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth, Teju Cole, and Gregory Halpern. This year, she will be working on a photojournalism project on the lives of workers at the college and town of Middlebury. Feel free to contact her via email for photo, video or podcast ideas.