We are sad to report that Jake Burton Carpenter, the founder of Burton Snowboards and an absolute legend in winter sports, passed away last night after a return of cancer. His death was announced this morning in a company-wide email sent by John Lacy, co-CEO. Burton was 65—he fought testicular cancer in 2011 and after treatment was given a clean bill of health, but recently he announced that it had come back.
It’s impossible to overstate Burton’s impact on the winter sports community. Though there is debate about who really invented the snowboard, it was Burton who took the Snurfer he’d grown up with sliding sideways down Vermont hills, lit a fuse under the concept, and watched as it exploded, transforming, and in many cases saving, ski resorts worldwide.
But there were so many ways in which that almost didn’t happen.
Infatuated with skiing, Burton moved out to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus in the early 1970s, with starry-eyed dreams of making the ski team. He did not. Burton was becoming disillusioned with where skiing was headed at the time and started thinking more and more about improving on the Snurfer. Had he made the ski team, who knows if those thoughts would have ever crystallized.
Next, he moved to New York, at 19, to take up working with racehorses. He thought he might give training horses a try. That plan fizzled, as many 19-year-old’s plans do, when he realized he loved animals, not whipping them into shape. He started taking night classes at NYU while working with an investment banker in Manhattan. He excelled. There was a path all laid out for Burton to become a NYC financier, but, burdened by the office work, he instead gleaned everything he could about how cash-poor entrepreneurs could raise money to pursue starting their own businesses.
That experience in hand and the nascent image of the snowboard in his head, Burton moved to Stratton, Vermont, started bartending in the evenings and designing his improvements on the Snurfer by day. “I was so fucking naive,” recalls Burton. “Here I was, 23 years old. It was December, winter wasn’t even here yet and I figured starting a snowboard company in December made sense. I thought I’d be making money that winter, you know? I didn’t really understand that I had to manufacture product and everything. I mean, I ended up missing the next winter.”
By 1978 he was ready, he thought, for his first trade show. He sold two boards. By the end of the winter, he’d sold a few hundred and Burton Snowboards was on its way. There were hiccups. He had to fire his tiny staff a year later, resume bartending while he tinkered with his business model, but, by the mid-1980s, it was clear Burton would eventually be a force.
Fast-forward a few decades and Burton was one of the world’s most recognizable action sports brands, sponsoring snow stars like Shaun White and Chloe Kim. Burton even purchased the world’s most respected surfboard maker, California’s Channel Islands Surfboards in 2006, and proceeded to catapult that brand to dizzying heights of success.
When Burton’s cancer returned in 2019, it was a shock to him and the company he’d built. Buoyed by its success, he entered his most recent cancer treatment with at least a little optimism.
“As much as I dread what is facing me, it’s easier to deal with when you know that you have a family that will carry on,” he wrote in a company e-mail. “I feel the same way about my company, my friends and our sport. I will be back, but regardless, everything is in good hands, which is an amazing feeling when entering this zone of uncertainty.”
Lacy reported Burton’s death to the company and the media.
“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. He was our founder, the soul of snowboarding, the one who gave us the sport we all love so much.
“It all happened very suddenly, and it’s a tremendous loss for his family, his friends and all of you. We will share more details about plans to celebrate Jake’s life soon.
“Today, please take the time and space you need to process this very sad news. If you need to go home and be with loved ones or prefer to stay today, please do what is best for you. At noon today, we will be holding a gathering in the lobby/store for those who benefit from grieving with others; it will be a time to share stories, and celebrate an incredibly full life.
“As a start of our celebration of Jake’s life, I’d encourage everyone to do what Jake would be doing tomorrow, and that’s riding. It’s opening day at Stowe, so consider taking some turns together, in celebration of Jake.
“There will be a follow up communication regarding additional resources on site to help any, and everyone, work through this incredibly difficult time. Let’s send all of our love and positive energy to Donna, George, Taylor, Timi and the extended family.”
“Ride on Jake.”
Photo courtesy Burton