Did I say that out loud? Depending on present company, this kind of statement might land you at the cold end of a snowball barrage or dunk tank. So, for clarity, this refers strictly to amplitude, not image or pop-culture relevancy, where nothing is bigger than snowboarding these days.
The divide in this freeriding arms race is most evident in the halfpipe. Skiers like Simon Dumont, Candide Thovex, Tanner Hall and C.R. Johnson routinely super-size the best efforts of the best snowboarders, and often in the same pipe on the same day. At competitions, spectators and TV viewers are invited to draw their own conclusions with help from demarcating wands that show, in feet, the height above the deck of the pipe. Dumont usually orbits somewhere into the neighborhood of 25 feet, depending on conditions, pipe specs and proximity of helicopters or geese in adjacent airspace.
"In the pipe and backcountry cliffs, skiers go bigger, but in natural, powder terrain—backcountry gaps and man-made booters—snowboarders can go just as big as skiers," says freeskier Seth Morrison, focusing in the theorem.
Snowboard halfpipe Olympic silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler confirms, "I hate saying these things because it usually gets me in trouble, but in general, yes, I think it's true and you see it most in the pipe. You can't totally generalize, though. Nothing is absolute."
What remains unclear about this phenomenon is the reason why. Can it be explained by science? While scientific papers have been written on both the physics of skiing and the physics of snowboarding, it seems physicists have yet to probe the differences and similarities of each group of snow-sliding brethren in, say, the superpipe.
Christian Pondella Chris Davenport has skied 51 of Colorado's 54 14ers since last January. Three more, and he'll have furthered his bragging rights over snowboarders.
"One thing I've noticed over the years," continues Morrison, 33, a veteran of 25-plus films, "is that it's difficult for snowboarders to go super-big off cliffs because they take all the impact on their back leg. We can land equally on both feet. Imagine jumping something big and landing on one foot."
Neal Beidleman, a decorated climber, skier and author of the new Aspen Ski and Snowboard Guide, is also a mechanical engineer and something of a "rocket scientist" (by virtue of his work as an aerospace designer for rockets and satellites). He thinks the answer lies in part with skiers' increased in-flight dexterity (furthering Morrison's independent-suspension belief). "You've got four extremities to throw around for balance, as opposed to having both legs locked in on one axis," he says. "I couldn't do the proof, but it would be appropriate to say that, in my opinion, the 'oh shit' factor favors skiers."
Thanks to the niche sport of speed skiing, it's long been established that, when both groups are adorned in skin-tight plastic suits, skiers are faster than snowboarders in straight-ahead, mass-hauling descents. This is the result of friction, mass, aerodynamics, slope angle, and, of course, the skill and experience of the pilot (as well as other things like wax and tune and so on).
Physicist and longtime former New Yorker writer Jeremy Bernstein explains: "I claim they will speed down at the same rate and the only issue is air resistance. I can give you the physics, but I'm sure you don't want to know. Newton's Law says force equals mass times acceleration. The friction forces depend on the mass so it cancels. Air resistance does not. . ."
Um, okay. Got it? Big mountain skier and former X Games medalist Chris Davenport breaks it down in laymen's terms.
"There's definitely something to be said for facing straight-ahead downhill," says Davenport. "You're more agile with two feet working independently, pressing and milking the terrain for more energy, you're more aerodynamic on equal-footing to react and you get a lot more pop out of stiff plastic boots on two skis in the fall line."
Markus Paulsen/ESPN Images Finch goes pretty damn large...for a snowboarder.
Bleiler might just agree. "Sure, in slow conditions, skiers can go bigger because they can skate and use poles. You've got two skis, four edges and more ability to manipulate your own speed. On a snowboard, you're locked in and you can't rely on edging as much. It's all about edging, the line you take and the speed you're able to carry."
Back in the pipe, another angle to consider is take-off and landing. The rider or skier who goes biggest will transition diagonally up and down the pipe walls on each hit, thus carrying more speed throughout a run (by going up, down and across like a big wave surfer, rather than straight up and down like a vert skater). Morrison also notes that skis, which are generally longer than snowboards, might also enhance skiers' abilities to capture more energy from pipe transitions than snowboarders.
Skiers like Dumont and C.R. Johnson have laid down pipe runs so huge they can only incorporate four or five hits into them, instead of the six to eight hits other skiers and top snowboarders can pull. Snowboarders, according to Bleiler, haven't always been encouraged to amp it up, and this concerns Bleiler more than the latest reading on the huge-ometer.
"At the Olympic qualifiers Andy Finch was penalized because he wasn't getting as many hits as everyone else—maybe just four absolutely huge ones—and that's definitely a problem with the sport now. It's inhibiting progression."
"He goes huge—I saw him at Tahoe, probably 22 feet out on his first hit. That's pretty damn big, and I don't think skiers are going bigger than Andy," she says.
And so continues the rivalry, and the quest for knowledge, power and the latest in anti-gravity counter-measures.