The Hotham Boardriders Club is truly one of a kind. Founded in 1988, it’s the oldest snowboard club in the country, and members argue that it’s the oldest official snowboard club in the world.
The annual Hotham Gunbarrel Banked Slalom is on next Friday 25 August supported by Quiksilver, Lib Tech, Bental Metal and Roxy. We went for a deep dive into the event, the iconic history behind the Hotham Boardriders club and more.
Built on a foundation of inclusion, mateship and unequivocal love of riding, the club lives and breathes snowboarding with a homebase at Australia’s most iconic freeriding resort, Mt Hotham. In fact, Hotham’s natural freeride terrain, I came to learn, is pinned as one of reasons for the growth of the sport and existence of the club in the first place. As surf and skate culture dominated the late 80s and 90s in Australia, riders were drawn to Hotham’s natural fall-lines and gullies to literally surf the earth. Skaters would gravitate toward the mountain’s natural halfpipes and on a pow day, surfers would draw lines on Hotham’s steep, banked walls like they would on a good swell at Bells.
As snowboarding’s antics and counter-culture grew in popularity in the 80s, the resort piped up and banned snowboarders from riding the lifts for a short period. The stereotypical unruly behavior of snowboarders combined with the fact that lifties were breaking their wrists trying this new ‘fad’ resulted in resort management turning their backs on those standing sideways. The Hotham Boardriders formed as a collective voice to fight for the sport’s acceptance. With the legitimacy of a formal group and a unified force – members were able to negotiate with the resort to not only allow snowboarding, but embrace it.
Hotham’s famed terrain is rich with stories and folklore, including a visit from Jake Burton in the early 2000s, and this season the Hotham Boardriders Club is celebrating 35 years since its inception – an incredible milestone that speaks to just how influential this club is. With current members spanning three generations, the club is planning a week-long celebration this August, culminating the famed Gunbarrel Banked Slalom – Australia’s oldest snowboarding event.
Ex-Quiksilver team rider and Hotham local Gary Wall is the current club president at the Hotham Boardriders club – we spoke to him about the early days, what makes the club so special, future direction and the sketchy drive to the top of the hill.
From my understanding The Hotham Boardriders Club started in 1988 – what was snowboarding in Australia like at that time?
I did my first season in 1987 and at that time, there were a few snowboards floating around that some ski instructors had bought back from overseas, but snowboarding wasn’t really a thing. No one had really seen or heard of it, people were just trying it out, and because there were only a few boards around it was no big deal. About a year later, the sport kind of exploded, and with that, snowboarders were outcasts and weren’t allowed on the lifts while the resort took an informed position.
The Hotham Boardriders formed as a bit of a minority group to have a voice because the resort wouldn’t listen to individual riders. A band of riders got together as a united force, and like most minority groups it formed from desire and need for acceptance. The resort took us seriously and allowed snowboarders onto the lifts as a trial at first, and as a club grew we had more legitimacy for snowboarding to be fully accepted on the mountain.
What drew people to Mt Hotham in the early days?
There were a lot of snowboarders at Hotham because of the natural terrain. Hotham’s fall lines and gullies really spoke to surf culture at the time as riders would sort of surf or skate the natural halfpipes on the mountain. I think some people turned up by accident, but when the word got out that snowboarding was kind of like surfing a mountain or skating a halfpipe, people gravitated towards Hotham.
Plus it’s one of the only resorts in the world where you drive to the top of the mountain and drop in from the carpark!
Was Victorian Surf or Skate Culture intertwined with Snowboard Culture?
Definitely. Surfers and skaters saw snowboarding in the various magazines at the time. Reading the mags was what got them interested in snowboarding and they worked out ways to either import snowboards or buy them off ski instructors. From there, the surf and skate shops started selling snowboards and all three sports were really connected.
Why do you think Mt Hotham resort embraced snowboarding culture when many others didn’t?
It was pretty funny, the resort actually banned lifties from snowboarding in 88/89 because a bunch of them broke their wrists and couldn’t work – the resort was losing its staff and couldn’t open the lifts because of this new fad. But because so many of the lift operators were skaters and surfers, the sport grew in popularity so quickly, and the formation of a unified voice as a club really helped. From there it was just a matter of finding a way to work together.
Even today, although it has options, Mt Hotham isn’t really a park-orientated mountain – but the free-riding is top class. I think the resort really embraces this.
Can you talk a little about Ashley Muller? Is he kind of the godfather of Hotham Snowboarding?
Ash is definitely one of the godfathers of snowboarding at Hotham. He was the most proactive in the early days in terms of dealing with the politics and managing the relationship between the resort management, the ski-school and the Boardriders club. Along with Thor Prohaska, he was instrumental in getting events off the ground and growing the sport – even to this day – and he really exemplifies what snowboarding is all about. Ash is super passionate about progression, inclusion and retaining the spirit of snowboarding. We’re lucky to have him. To me, however, Dave Pavlich is another OG godfather that embodies snowboarding at Hotham.
Was the drive to Hotham as sketchy back then as it is now?
We actually talk about this a lot – I think it’s sketchier now since they paved the road in the 90s! Before that it was dirt, and driving in the ruts and the rocks actually felt safer than the slick bitumen. But yeah, the road is definitely not for the faint hearted and they have convoys now on low vis days.
Did any big international riders ever get chaperoned by Hotham Boardriders over the years? Any good stories?
Yeah there have been a bunch of pros and R&D teams coming to Mt Hotham over the decades – I was always impressed by the Burton teams that would come to test product in the 90s! But probably the most iconic one for me was when Jake Burton came to Hotham. Two locals, Danny Morris and Dan Burke, chaperoned Jake and his family around the mountain three. Ironically on one of the days it absolutely pissed with rain, but Jake was out there all day snowboarding while his family went inside to dry out. He was such a frother!
I remember reading an article a number of years back where Jake said that if he didn’t ride at least 50 days a year, what was the point of owning a snowboarding company? I was always super inspired by that.
There are so many iconic photos that pop up on Hotham Boardriders socials – do you have a personal favourite?
I’d have to say to a photo of the whole Hotham Boardriders crew on the deck at the Snowbird with the sunset in the background really sticks out in my mind. The Bird, as it’s known, is iconic in our club and it’s somewhat of a spiritual home or cultural epicentre of The Hotham Boardriders. Everyone can go out and ride for a day, but naturally, members of the club would gravitate back to The Bird to share stories of from the day. It’s said you never buy a pint at The Bird, you buy a jug and share it.
Can you talk a bit about the road gap?
The Mt Hotham road gap is another iconic part of folklore on the mountain. I remember in the 90s it was almost like a rite of passage to hit it. One year there was so much snow that blew in that it wasn’t even really a gap, and then some years when the snow is low, it is mindblowing how big it is!
This year is the 35th anniversary of the Hotham Boardriders Club – what has kept it alive and well for so long?
It’s really all about the passion of the members. Over the years it has been pretty loose and unstructured in a way, but someone always steps up to take the reigns and keep the club evolving. We have members spanning three generations which really speaks to how family orientated the club really is. We’re constantly trying to evolve and grow the club, keep people engaged and involved in new projects but at the end of the day it’s about the simple pleasure of riding with mates..
What does the club embody? Can you talk a little about what the club does today?
It’s definitely more social club than sporting club. We’re mindful that if you want a snowboard lesson you can go to the ski school, or if you want to train boardercross you can join a performance team. The club really is about freeriding and the spirit of snowboarding and inclusion regardless of age, gender or ability.
Can anybody join?
For sure, we have just launched a new website to try to improve the communication as to what the club is all about. We have members from all over Australia, and the club is open to everyone – we even have some skiers that snowboard occasionally, or that just want to hang, that are members.
And you’re having a week-long celebration this year?
Yep! We’re starting with 35th anniversary slideshow night featuring a bunch of photos from past and present, and we’re actually working on a longer project of a coffee table book coming out in 2025 that showcases the history of snowboarding at Mt Hotham.
There has always been a really cool culture around music at Mt Hotham, so as part of the celebrations we’ve got a couple of member’s bands playing. We’ve also got a member’s ride day, members dinner, kids silent disco, and then it all culminates with the Gunbarrel Banked Slalom.
Let’s talk a little about the Gunbarrel Banked Slalom – how did that come about?
The Gunbarrel Banked Slalom started in 1990 (we think) and the Gunbarrel run is this huge natural gulley where snowboarders naturally hung out – a natural playground for riders over the years. Back in the 80s and 90s there weren’t many skiers that liked the run, but snowboarders loved the natural, wave like terrain as they surfed the walls to the bottom. It just seemed logical to run a Banked Slalom there – and the resort didn’t have a problem with it – and so the Gunbarrel Banked Slalom was born.
It’s a fairly gnarly course compared to the Thredbo course?
I’ve ridden Banked Slalom courses all over the world including at Mt Baker and Jackson Hole – and I have to say that the Gunbarrel is definitely the most challenging course I’ve ever ridden. Sometimes it’s enjoyable and sometimes it’s a wild ride. There’s no shaping required, the course gets naturally ridden in and then we tidy it up the berms later on – it can be treacherous but it’s always fun!
In my opinion, the reason why Banked Slaloms are so great is the spirit of inclusion – Olympians and pros ride the same course as 7-year-old girls – is the Gunbarrel Banked Slalom the same?
Absolutely. Banked Slaloms in general are so reflective of true snowboard culture. At Hotham, kids grow up riding Gunbarrel from a young age – almost like kids in Hawaii grow up surfing big waves. When the event comes around, they’re fairly used to the precariousness of the run and can deal with the course really well. It’s funny, sometimes the kids often ride better than some of the older riders because they fit into the track easier! The event is really a celebration of snowboarding rather than a race – sure there’s some competitiveness but at the end of the day it’s about embracing what snowboarding is all about and that’s community and having fun.
What’s with Darts at Hotham?
Haha! It’s all part of the culture – it was massive in 87 when I started and I have no idea how far it dates back. It unites the staff and is a real Hotham community institution, and a good excuse to drink beers.
Hotham was home to many great riders over the years, including Chumpy (RIP) who was passionate about growing junior snowboarding. Is junior snowboarding being encouraged in the club?
Definitely. I think building junior snowboarding Is currently the biggest focus of the club. Back when the club started in 88, most of the members lived on the hill but these days with accommodation on hill being so difficult, a lot of the members live and interact with the club off hill. From that, the member base has changed, and we’re now into second and third generations of members, where we want the next generation to chart the future direction of the club. We have a solid pipeline of kids including James Garth, Milo Botterill and Zephyr Whitelaw-Holmes who are headed to the World Juniors in NZ – they all cut their teeth at Mt Hotham.
And what do the kids want?
They would love more pros from overseas come out to ride with us! That and learn how to film and edit for Instagram along with more events. It’s all work in progress coming out of the backside of Covid.
Thank you to Gary Wall from the Hotham Boardriders Club for his insights.
The Hotham Boardriders recognise and respect that the mountains they migrate to, play in and ride on, always was and always will be Aboriginal land acknowledging the Gunaikurnai, Taungurung and Dhudhuora Nations as the Traditional custodians of the mountains on which they gather.