Jake Burton Carpenter — the man whose name became synonymous with the evolution of snowboarding, from maligned troublemaker fringe sport, through mainstream acceptance and success, to Olympic gold — died last week from complications from a re-occurrence of cancer. He was 65.
Nationally and around the world, Carpenter was known as the founder of Burton snowboards, renowned for learning to ride down snow-covered hills on a single plank known as the “Snurfer” and turning the technology into the industry standard known as the snowboard.
Locally, he was known as a Stowe resident famed for the annual party he and his wife Donna Carpenter held at their Shaw Hill home and for the contributions he and Donna made to the community.
Bud Keene rode for Team Burton and coached the U.S. Snowboarding Team in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, gaining particular attention for coaching halfpipe legend Shaun White.
During the weekend, Keene emailed some thoughts about Carpenter’s impacts on the sport and on his own life.
“Jake’s pioneering of the sport of snowboarding coincided with my adult life. I was truly in the right place at the right time,” Keene wrote.
“After having the extreme privilege to meet him and then to ride for Burton, I became a snowboard coach and in that role found my true purpose and passion.
“None of that would have been possible without Jake.
“Of course, he continued to tirelessly and deftly create, define and push the sport from every conceivable angle.
“It is rare, and perhaps unheard of, for an individual to have so singlehandedly and deeply affected the lives of generations worldwide.
“From sports, to culture, to style, to clothing, to language, to music, and of course to people, he left a good and lasting mark on the world.”
Rusty DeWees, Stowe-based writer, comedian and actor, put together a few of his trademark “scrawlins” when asked about Carpenter.
“Doing errands in town, I’d hope to run into Jake to enjoy a spirited word,” DeWees wrote. “I’ve called Stowe home since 1968. Of the folks who’ve lived and passed here, Jake stands in the tippy-top level of the corkiest of the corkers.”
DeWees signed off by noting he was doing his late-night scrawlins while wearing a piece of Burton clothing — at least, presumably, lest ol’ Russ got himself a new tattoo.
“As I write, his name is across my chest,” DeWees wrote. “Cast in bold letters.”
If the sayings about Carpenter doing things his own way are true, then it makes sense that that the lengthy timeline just released on Burton’s blog — burton.com/blogs/ the-burton-blog/remembering-jake-burton-car penter — would be largely penned by him.
According to the blog post, a few months prior to his death, Carpenter strung together some of the most important events in his life.
He was born April 29, 1954, in New York City, and grew up on Long Island, where, as a 14-year-old, he bought his first Snurfer, which he learned to ride on a local sledding hill and at Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, near his Connecticut boarding school.
He moved to southern Vermont at the end of 1977, after a short stint at a Manhattan investment firm, and started Burton Boards out of a barn in Londonderry.
According to Stowe historian Pat Haslam, Burton made an early appearance at H.E. Shaw’s General Store, where Haslam’s daughter Sarah was working.
“Jake came into the store and talked to Ken Savela about his board. Ken thought that Marshall Hill would be a great place to test it out,” Haslam wrote in an email this week.
Carpenter married Donna Gaston in 1983, a little over a year after meeting her at a New Year’s party at a bar in Londonderry. The couple was inseparable, both personally and, eventually, as the Burton brand, from then on.
That winter, Stratton became the first big ski resort to let snowboarders use the lifts, after Carpenter took a couple of runs with the ski patrol to prove he and his crew’s boards were safe.
Snowboarding gradually evolved from a fringe sport — local riders remember skiers on Stowe’s chairlifts spitting on them — to an Olympic one, with snowboarders finally allowed to compete at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
Carpenter taught “Today Show” host Katie Kouric how to snowboard at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, and attended the 2006 and 2010 games, where Burton riders like Kelly Clark and Shaun White dominated and became international superstars.
By the time the 2014 Olympics rolled around, Burton was so synonymous with the sport the company created the entire Olympic snowboard team’s uniforms.
Carpenter was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011. After just a few months of treatment, “I sent an email to the company that my cancer was ‘toast,’” he wrote on his Burton timeline.
A knee replacement followed in 2014, followed by a yearlong battle with Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare version of an already rare auto-immune disorder known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. It left him paralyzed for eight weeks and having to learn basic functions like eating with utensils.
And then on Nov. 10 of this year, Carpenter sent an email to Burton employees that said, “You will not believe this, but my cancer has come back.”
On Thursday, John Lacy, Burton’s co-CEO, sent another email.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I share the news that Jake passed away peacefully last night surrounded by his family and loved ones as a result of complications from recurring cancer,” Lacy wrote. “He was our founder, the soul of snowboarding, the one who gave us the sport we all love so much.”
News of Carpenter’s death came just one day before Stowe Mountain Resort opened for the season.
Resort spokesman Jeff Wise said Carpenter’s presence was felt by everyone on Friday, from the impromptu Hollywood-esque wooden sign on the slope near the gondola base that read, simply, “Jake,” to the large gathering at the top of the Quad where people shared thoughts about Carpenter and shared a moment of silence before getting their first tracks of the year.
“I would say his presence was in the air, especially when the mountain woke up and had something to say, with the wind and the snow,” Wise said.
Wise met Carpenter 25 years ago, when Wise was working at the snowboard school. He said Carpenter was a “total regular here,” somebody you’d see in the lift line or making turns in the backcountry.
“Snowboarding was right on that tipping point of getting popular,” Wise said.
Jake’s Private Stock
Coming down off the mountain, the first bar you get to is the Matterhorn. That proximity no doubt plays a part in the place perennially being named one of the best apres sports places in the country.
Carpenter and his crew were regulars at the Matterhorn, said owner Charlie Shaffer. He said Jake and Donna “have been very generous with us” over the 18 years he’s known the couple.
“Every time he came in here, he was the life of the party,” Shaffer said. “He enlightened people’s lives.”
One recent year, the Matterhorn got a new sign, and Shaffer gave Carpenter the old one, and asked him to hang it in a prominent place of honor during the Carpenters’ annual bash on Shaw Hill in Stowe. Naturally, Jake hung it at his bar.
Carpenter also leaves a lasting impression at the Matterhorn — in the ladies’ room, of all places. Have you ever noticed the floor-to-ceiling poster of Lindsey Vonn hanging on the wall just inside the restroom? Look closer. That’s Carpenter, dressed as the Olympic skier.
Carpenter transformed himself into Vonn for a Halloween 2017 photo shoot, and took a humorous dig at the Olympic gold medalist on his Instagram page. He also posed in the buff, with nothing but ski poles and a bad blonde wig to poke fun of Vonn’s nude photo shoot for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue.
That Carpenter-as-Vonn photo also adorns an old tequila bottle that Shaffer keeps under the bar and brought out whenever Carpenter came in with a crew. He said Carpenter called it “his private stock.” The original liquor was gone long ago, but Shaffer or the bartender on duty would fill it up with something so Carpenter could go around and pour teeny tiny servings into glasses and toast his friends.
“He was all sincere, never trying to maintain an image,” Shaffer said. “I’m sure he and Donna gave some love to other places, too, but this was their hangout.”
Darkside Snowboards on Mountain Road had been open for only about 10 minutes on Thursday before the first customer asked shop employee B Youngs, was it true about Jake?
“He thought of us as his home shop,” Youngs said. “He came here all the time and we tuned his stuff.”
Youngs said that Darkside “wouldn’t be here without him,” and snowboard shops wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for Carpenter.
It’s likely that if Carpenter hadn’t started Burton, someone — or multiple someones — would have eventually evolved the sport. But the Burton name, graphics, logo, aesthetic are all over the shop, and the company practically has its own wing in the building.
Youngs said the Burton company redesigned a portion of the shop to look like a barn.
Other locals in the gear game remembered Carpenter last week, too. Over the Notch, at No School Snowboard Shop, owner Danny White posted on Facebook, “Thanks for everything, Jake.”
Forrest Shinners, owner of the Stowe-based snow sport apparel rental company Kit Lender — his dad owns AJ’s Ski and Sports — said Carpenter was “a staple of Stowe.” Shinners said the snowboard giant was just a normal dude around town.
“You run one of the coolest companies in the world, and then you see him around town in a pair of ripped jeans and tennis shoes,” Shinners said.
Jake and Jack
John and Monica Clark own the UPS Store in Stowe, and are known for printing banners and affixing them to their South Main Street sign congratulating Stowe High School sports teams on their state championships — and the school certainly keeps them busy.
Thursday, the store had a banner that read: “Ride on Jake. We love you!”
John and Carpenter used to coach Little League together, and Monica said the Carpenters “really contributed a lot” to Stowe schools’ Friday program, where kids get half the day off to go skiing or riding. The Clarks have had two stellar athletes — son JJ and daughter Leo — go through Stowe schools, and another son, Jack, a sports fanatic who was born with cerebral palsy and zipped around school in a wheelchair and announced hockey and soccer games over the arena PA system.
John Clark said that Carpenter took a shine to Jack, and even went so far as to assign the Burton R&D department to come up with an adaptive snowboard so Jack could ride. It didn’t pan out, but the special attention Carpenter showed Jack made a lasting impression.
“He was a good friend to Jack,” Clark said.
The homemade banner that says “Ride on Jake” is visible on South Main Street. The Twitter and Instagram hashtag of those same three words blew up the internet in the days after Carpenter’s death.
Riders all over the world shared photos of themselves and their friends baring the bottoms of their Burton boards, sharing old interviews with Carpenter, and remembering encounters with the man.
There are hundreds of posts tagged with #RideOnJake, both near — Trapp Family Brewing urged people on Stowe’s opening weekend to, “whatever the occasion, raise one and prost to Jake when you get to the top” — and far — Big Sky Resort referred to a snowboard as “a single plank which propels us into a space of absolute freedom.”
Building the sport
Carpenter wasn’t just a giant in snowboarding worldwide, though. He also became a larger-than-life figure for local kids getting into the sport.
Shayde Ward, a 2014 graduate of Stowe High School, took his first trip down the mountain on a snowboard under the watchful eye of Carpenter as an elementary student.
“He literally had to hold me all the way down the slope and was parallel to me on his board,” Ward remembered. “It was basically like I was a newborn baby deer on the board and I could barely stand up, so he had to balance me and show me how to turn and stop and everything.”
“He was so patient and kept me motivated,” Ward added, as Carpenter even turned his falls into something to have fun with.
“He was such a cool guy and seemed so down to earth,” despite being “such a big name around town,” he said.
Carpenter also volunteered to coach some other non-snow sports as well. Riley Fitzgerald, a 2015 graduate of Lamoille Union, remembers Carpenter coaching him in flag football in middle school.
“I just remember being so mesmerized by the fact he created Burton and was this famous pioneer of snowboarding but yet he was incredibly passionate about our team and about something as little as a Stowe flag football league,” Fitzgerald said.