Vertical skateboarding, also known as vert skating, originated in the mid 1960s in coastal Los Angeles, California. At the time, skateboarding was experiencing its first wave of popularity, and skateboarders were discovering new ways–and new terrains–to ride. The first well-known instance of vert skating took place when a skater’s parents left town for the weekend, and their son and some of his friends drained the backyard swimming pool, which featured smooth, evenly transitioned walls. The skaters would stand in the shallow end of the empty pool and roll toward the deep end, steering their boards around the bowled end in what’s called a “carve.” Carving is basically a wide turn in which all four wheels of the board remain on the wall of the pool or bowl.
As this daredevil form of skateboarding developed, skaters would carve higher and faster until the best of them would “hit tile” or roll up the transition until their wheels reached the tile that lines the top edge of a pool. Pool skaters thrived on the sensation of weightlessness associated with riding up the walls of a pool. The improvement of skateboard products helped skateboarding develop as a sport, and vert skating was taken to new heights.
Pools were the favored vertical terrain through the seventies. By the time that commercial skateboard parks began appearing in the mid 70s during skateboarding’s second wave of popularity, pool skaters were learning to ride straight up the walls of pools and actually lift the boards and themselves out over the top, turning mid-air and floating back down to land on the transition and roll away. The “aerial” was the dominant trick of that era, but other maneuvers that manipulated the “lip,” or the top edge of pools, were developed and popularized in the skateboard parks, and the sometimes elaborate skateboard-park-pool designs often inspired maneuvers. Skateboarders learned to adapt to the particular features of the very unique and rarely perfect skateboard park pools, and some of the worst and unskateable pools were popular targets of conquest for ambitious vert skaters. Vertical-skateboarding contests began in the parks, and competitors sometimes had to make an impression riding the worst of surfaces.
In the mid 70s, a poorman’s version of the pool was developed by skateboarders who didn’t have access to good pools or skateboard parks. The “ramp” was a plywood-coated two-by-four-framed structure that mimicked the transition and lip of backyard pools, but lacked the bowled horizontal curve that allowed for carving. Ramps were a good substitute at the time because many of the new maneuvers, or tricks, were more vertically oriented, which is to say that one needed only ride straight up and down the transition, diminishing the need for a bowled pool. As the skateboard parks began disappearing in the late 70s, skateboarders were relying more on private ramps to satisfy their vertical cravings. By the early 80s, vert skating was predominantly done on ramps, the occasional backyard pool being the exception. Skateboarding was modernizing, and the technicality of new tricks required a perfectly smooth and even surface. Ramps could be built and adjusted to achieve this–pools were hit-and-miss. As vertical skateboarding developed into the mid 80s, eight-foot aerials (over the top of the ten-foot-tall ramp) and other dazzling maneuvers catalyzed the third wave of skateboarding’s popularity. While street skating was still more popular and accessible to the majority of skateboarders, international contests and television events made vertical ramp skating the sport’s most visible form.
As the recession of the early 90s swept the country, skateboarding again returned to the streets, and fewer ramps bred fewer vert skaters. Many of the vertical superstars of the 80s like Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, and Christian Hosoi kept vertical skateboarding alive, and with the help of new blood like Danny Way, Colin McKay, and Bucky Lasek, they ushered in the new era of vert skating. Modern vert skating borrows much from its counterpart, street skating. Street skaters took the “ollie,” a no-handed aerial maneuver developed by vert-skater Alan Gelfand in 1978, and used it to develop a style that revolves around no-handed manipulation of one’s board. Just about every modern street trick is a variation of the ollie.
As vert skating evolved into the mid 90s vert skaters borrowed many of the technical maneuvers done by street skaters and adapted them to ramp skating. “Kickflips”–an aerial maneuver that involves “kicking” the board into a somersault, snatching it in mid-air, and replacing it on one’s feet before landing – and other spinning tricks are staple maneuvers in a modern vert-contest run.
The extreme technicality of modern vert skating requires meticulously crafted ramps with near-perfect surfaces. Modern vert contests also require that skaters assemble routines of tricks that showcase not only individual technical feats, but well-crafted and complimentary strings of maneuvers that improve the overall impression a skater makes on the judges. Contest ramps must therefore offer enough room to weave a carefully constructed line, and thirty- to fifty-foot-wide contest ramps are not uncommon.
With an estimated 9.3 million skateboarders in the U.S. alone, skateboarding is in its fourth wave of popularity, and vert skating is again playing a large role in introducing the sport to the general public. With many vert contests and series travelling around the country, including the Vans Triple Crown Of Skateboarding and the X-Games events, both longtime skaters and newcomers have plenty of chances to see the best vertical skateboarding pros compete on world-class ramps. Events will also be broadcast on the ESPN and espn2 networks to offer wider exposure to this sophisticated and highly developed sport.