While studying nursing at University of Nevada, Reno, Bonnie Zellers happened to take a rock-climbing class as one of her electives, which led to her inadvertently being one of the first women pioneers of Lake Tahoe snowboarding. She lives in Tahoe Donner with her rescue dog, Charlie, and husband, Jim Zellers, also a former Tahoe-based professional snowboarder. She still works as a resident nurse at Tahoe Forest Hospital and enjoys all of the activities that the lake has to offer.
She met her husband at the rock-climbing class; both shared a love of adventure and mountaineering. Looking to try something new, Jim gave her a skateboard-like deck fastened to a sled with bungee straps attached to the top of it. The couple along with friend Tom Burt went out in the Mount Rose back country and tried to ride it in the snow.
“It was like a first generation, super basic board,” says Bonnie.
Since this was before most ski resorts allowed snowboarding, the three would hike to spots until they started riding at Donner Ski Ranch, the only regional ski resort that accepted the new sport at the time. Every once in a while, they would also go out to Iron Mountain off of U.S. Route 50.
Tom and Jim started competing in snowboarding; Bonnie traveled around with them and started entering contests, as well.
“Tahoe is an amazing area. Every time I go somewhere and come back it’s like, why did I ever leave this place?” -Bonnie Zellers
“There was such a limited number of resorts that allowed snowboarding that everyone knew everyone,” she says.
She competed in downhill, slalom and Giant Slalom along with other women pioneers such as Amy Roberts, Nancy Elrod, Heather Mills and Tina Basich.
“There were five or six of us at the most who did competitions; it was a very tight-knit group,” she says.
Donner Ski Ranch hosted fun events and then Homewood started allowing the single-plankers, but Bonnie decided to test her snowboarding abilities in other ways.
“I competed for about three years, but then got more interested in big-mountain expeditions and first descents,” she says.
Her first big trip to Alaska was with photographer Chris Noble, Jim and Tom in 1987, which led to more trips like that.
“We all rock climbed together and spent a lot of time in Yosemite and in the mountains. What appealed to us were the cols, descents and tall peaks,” says Bonnie, whose first sponsors were Avalanche Snowboards, Ocean Pacific, The North Face and Rossignol.
“I would especially like to acknowledge and thank Bev Sanders, owner of Avalanche Snowboards with her husband, Chris. They took a gamble on me and gave me my first sponsorship. They went from building snowboards in their garage in South Shore to being one of the first successful snowboard companies. Bev was a very influential woman for snowboarding and helped to shape the sport. She and Chris were also great fun to travel with,” says Bonnie.
In order to maintain her sponsorships she needed a certain amount of exposure, so Bonnie pitched big-mountain trip ideas to magazines in order to explore mountains around the world. She went to Chamonix in France; Greece; New Zealand and Nepal to name a few, but Alaska was one of her favorites.
“I spent quite a bit of time in Alaska. I went again in 1992 and judged an extreme snowboarding competition. In Alaska, we had a free-for-all, rowdy, fun crew,” she says. “It has a special place in my heart.”
Along with Alaska, the Eastern Sierra is on her list of favorite places.
“Between California, Nevada, Utah and the Western states, I’ve probably been close to 100 mountains on expeditions,” she says. “I like checking out new terrain. Even though it’s not very exotic or unique, it’s just a special place to me because of its accessibility and mountain lines. But, Alaska is pretty awesome, too.”
She was born in Hawaii and her family traveled a lot when she was young because her father was in the Navy. However, when she attended UNR, she found that the Reno-Tahoe area had everything that appealed to her and couldn’t leave after graduating.
“Tahoe is an amazing area. Every time I go somewhere and come back it’s like, why did I ever leave this place? We’re very into mountain biking, split boarding and rock climbing and it’s all within 30 minutes of where we live,” she says. “It’s perfect for what we like to do and we don’t have to drive far to get to these places. It’s so beautiful here and with all of the different mountain ranges we can always find a great place that’s not too overcrowded.”