But there is another, probably much larger, group of snowboarders who are riding on the coat-tails of extreme-sport chic without suffering the potential pratfalls (serious injury, repeated use of the word "man"). This is the soft periphery, where I like to think I belong. We can talk about it a lot, but are only infrequently called to leave the sofa.
The six of us, most of whom had skied before but only one of whom - me - had snowboarded, booked up at the Austrian resort of Zell am See; we'd bought our time-slot in the glamour of the winter sports scene. This is where it's done! I thought, stepping from the bus. There are people here who do it for six months a year! And, after hiring a battered old board that had cost more per day than I'd pay to buy it in a second- hand shop back home, and after getting into the gondola for the first journey to the top of the mountain, the cold excitement set in.
On the first morning, thinks I, I would explain to my skiing compadres how the thing is done. We would take gondolas and chairlifts to the flat top of a 2,000m peak, the beginners would be nursed into a state of snowboarding toddlerdom and it would be downhill from there. Except that Zell am See's chairlifts are exclusively ski-on, ski-off affairs that assume a degree of snowboarding competence. So we started at the top of the first gondola, and the top of the black ("difficult") run. There, only Phil was committed to a snowboard. "The plan is," I said to him, "that you lock your boots to the board here [tightens up bindings] and then you stand up." He wobbled upright. "Then you set off down there [falls. Gets up]. Turning," I shouted after him, "is just a question of pushing the back round!"
A couple of painful hours later Phil had determined that he needed professional help, and bought two hours with Marco, a pony-tailed Austrian instructor. "He told me, 'Your shoulders are your steering wheel'," said Phil, "and he stands there with his arms spread out, twisting from the waist." It was good advice: Phil could almost immediately turn in both directions - the hardest part. It gets a lot easier when you don't have to go down a run on your hands and knees.
They say skiing is a dying industry; snowboarding, on the other hand, is booming. It isn't difficult to see why. Advanced skiers, weaving down a piste with skis and knees in perfect sympathy, look great, but an advanced snowboarder, swaying one way then the other, hands inches above the snow, looks much better. When last I went snowboarding, in Tignes a few years ago, there were only five or six snowboards out each day. This time, every fourth person on the slopes was on a snowboard, and 75 per cent of those were teenage Europeans in the most stylish snowboard wear.
The gear (called Bastard, Pervert, Nuts) draws styles from pop music: it can be as baggy as a New York rapper's, or tight-fitting and collarless like a Manchester spiv's. Ski-wear looks old by comparison. It's unsurprising that boarders get up a lot of people's noses, and skiers' noses in particular. Snowboarders don't go out of their way to make skiing friends. Nick, skiing down a steep-walled gunbarrel of a run, had the stuffing knocked out of him by a teen on a board called Bitch. "Bitch" was sitting up on the side-wall, then without looking pushed himself upright, flipped the board round and shot across the front of Nick's skis, knocking him over, boots snapping out of his bindings, hat flying, sunglasses smashing on his face. The boarder, further down, looked back, then pushed on. "What happened?" asked a skier who stopped to help. But Nick later became a convert. "They're certainly the coolest people on the mountain," he said. "And the packs of kids - they're like packs of wolves. They sit there on the side of the slopes watching, then suddenly all get up and set off together. I loved it." Phil said: "I'd definitely do it again." John said: "I wish I'd learnt when I was younger, when falling down wasn't so hard." Richard, sadly, wasn't there. He was in hospital because he'd broken his wrist on the last day.
The chief innovation for winter '96/'97 is the "step-in binding". With this system, the rider clips into his/her bindings by simply stepping on to them in the same manner as with ski bindings. The difference is that the binding is hidden under the boots and the boots are the usual soft snowboard boots modified and stiffened. You therefore have the freedom of a normal snowboard boot and binding set up with the convenience of a ski binding. Many manufacturers have developed their own versions of the system and prices will probably drop, so 1997 looks set to be the year of the step-in.
The "360-degree cap" is the name of a new board-manufacturing technique. Traditional construction relies on the sides of the board being formed by a strip of plastic. Cap construction dispenses with this strip and allows the sides to be formed from the fibreglass layers, resulting in a lighter, stronger board. It also looks superb. The major manufacturers all have boards that use this technology in next winter's ranges.
Places with a variety of terrain will score highly with snow- boarders, as will resorts that get more than their fair share of powder snow or have vast expanses of off-piste. The more advanced boarder will be impressed by purpose-built obstacles and jumps. Bulgaria is a recommended choice for snowboarders. It's cheap and the terrain is awesome. Avoriaz and Les Arcs in France have always been popular with snowboarders. In Austria, try Axamer Lizum just outside Innsbruck and in Italy, Madonna di Campiglio. Andorra has Pas de la Casa which is blessed with very reliable snow. In the US, try Whistler, Lake Louise or the Arapahoe Basin.
Al Flemin is a freelance writer and runs the Snowboard Klinik.