Pat Quinn pushed his back foot into the tail of his Ralston snowskate. The lower ski flexed on the hinge of the truck and the board, known as a "bi-deck," popped into the air. He turned sideways, setting down smoothly onto the double-barreled down rail in Sierra-at-Tahoe's Alley Park, a feature even snowboarders with bindings were having a hard time jumping onto.
"I haven't strapped in in five years," Quinn said. "Me and a buddy just did the valley run off of Heavenly. Five thousand vertical feet. Ridiculous."
Led by a group of South Lake Tahoe locals, the binding-less snow sport has picked up in popularity in the region in the past few years. The largest snowskate competition in California, the Ralston Cup, was held last weekend at Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort. Ralston Snowskates, one of very few manufacturers of the bi-decks, is based in Minden.
"Every year it gets better," said Danny Sheehan, owner of Ralston Snowskates. "We're just so fortunate here in Tahoe to have this crew. I wouldn't be in this position if I didn't have this core of riders."
Nine years ago, Sheehan broke his leg skateboarding. Surgeons had to reconnect his bones using metal plates and screws. Even after healing, he couldn't snowboard.
"I still to this day can't wear a boot," Sheehan said. "I'm confined to low-tops."
After the injury, he toyed around with the original snowskates, basically a skateboard-shaped piece of plastic with a smooth bottom, but was disappointed in the lack of control. After seeing snowboard manufacturers making the bi-decks, he began experimenting with the design in 2005.
"I kind of jury-rigged five boards, built a name and took it from there," he said.
In 2006, he had a run of 300 skis to put on the bottom decks manufactured in China. He sold those boards over the next few years, which wasn't very easy, Sheehan said.
"It's like trying to sell snowboards to ski shops in 1989," he said.
In 2009, he rented a space in Minden and started making his own skis with bamboo cores and a snowskate-specific flex for the bottom level of the bi-decks. The new base, along with a hinge-like truck made by a company called Rocker out of Washington state, allowed riders to really ollie their boards.
"I guess I kind of changed the way a snowskate worked," Sheehan said of his newest models. "Snowskates that could crack an ollie were a big deal."
Ralston now sells hundreds of boards around the world every year.
"You could really say he started it around here," Quinn said of Sheehan. "He wasn't the guy who invented snowskating, but he was one of the first getting other people into it."
Access to resorts helped the riders improve, Sheehan said. Snowskaters can now be seen flying off jumps, hitting rails and airing out of the half-pipe. Heavenly Mountain Resort, Sierra and Kirkwood Mountain Resort allow snowskaters on their lifts as long as they have a leash.
"It's gone from hanging on to cruising the hill to ollie-ing," Sheehan said. "The ollie really changed (snowskating) just like it did for skateboarding."
The direction of the sport is moving more toward the technicalities of skateboarding than the amplitude-based style of snowboarding, said Quinn.
"The progression now is getting to where you're starting to see flip tricks and pretty burly rails," he said. "We come into the snowboard park and we ride everything in here."