It was still dark when the familiar sound of the snow plow blade on pavement woke me up. A quick look out the window confirmed the fact that it was indeed dumping outside. Only October 26th, it would be another months before the lifts at the local resort would be turning. But it was snowing now and snowing hard. By sunrise, my brother arrived at my door-- he had hiked up the mountain the night before and spent the night in the patrol shack to lay claim to the first tracks of the season. His enthusiasm confirmed that not only was this a day not to be missed, it was quite possibly the day of the season. My board, poles, bag and gear had already been prepped the night before in anticipation of the local weather man getting it right, so we were soon in my beat-up Volvo chugging and fish tailing up the mountain road.
As we pulled into the parking lot, there was already another car there, with two parallel ski lines leaving the car, heading up the hill, and disappearing into the thick blanket of snow still falling. We began breaking our snowboards apart and affixing skins to the bottom of our boards so that we, too , could put down our own wide skin track up the hill, even as the chair lifts lay dormant, waiting for opening day to deliver eager snow sliders to the top of the mountain with ease.
For a long time, backcountry snowboarders have had to strap their boards on their backs and hump it up the hill in snow shoes as they watched their two- planked brethren stylishly sliding by on the up and harvesting mass amounts of freshness on the down. The more time I spent in the backcountry on a snowboard, the more I wished I had the ability to ski. I soon began looking for alternatives to the snowshoe approach up the hill that would still allow me the benefit of a snowboard to travel down the hill.
I had a quick love/hate relationship with a pair of homemade approach skis. Approach skis are a very short, typically 100cm - 120cm, ski with climbing skins attached. This option allowed me to kick and glide to some extent, as well as to take full advantage of any skin track that was already in place. Once on top, the skis were small enough to strap to my bag to be out of the way for the ride down. Unfortunately, the approach skis did not provide enough surface area to keep me afloat in deep snow and did not solve the problem of having a large snowboard attached to my back while going up the hill.
I can't remember who introduced me to the splitboard concept or how I came to know that they even existed, but I quickly knew that I had to have one. I set about researching splitboards and how I could get my hands on one. Due to my financial situation at the time, I was able to rule out every factory- made splitboard, so I decided to put one of my existing solid boards under the knife. I ordered up a split kit from Voile, which comes with all the needed parts to turn your solid board into a backcountry machine. I knew I didn't have the steady surgeon hands required to wield the knife, so I asked a ski tech and tuning magician friend to do the deed. I soon had my first splitboard ready to put to the test.
Basically, a splitboard allows the snowboarder to take the board apart into two ski-shaped pieces and, with the use of climbing skins, ascend the slopes in the same manner as a traditional skier with AT gear or a telemark setup. Once at the top the rider can transform the skis back into snowboard mode for the descent. A snowboarder can use the same boot and bindings setup used on a solid board.
This system does require some split-specific equipment, as well as some practice with both skinning and the transition from ski to board mode; but once those skills are honed, a splitboard offers the best of both worlds for snowboarders who venture into the backcountry. Before heading out on your first split trip, it's a good idea to become familiar with all the new pieces of gear that make up a splitboard. Spend some time getting your systems dialed, transitioning the splitboard from board to ski mode. Applying the skins to the bottom of the board efficiently can take some practice, as does taking them off and storing them for the ride down. Getting this technique mastered will speed up your transition time while in the backcountry. Wearing gloves or mitts while practicing in the warmth and comfort of your own home makes for easier handling in inclement weather later. After you run through the motions of transitioning the board, it's time to get out on the snow and learn to skin.
Splitboarding requires not only a time commitment, but also a level of dedication to "earn your turns"; the skin up takes a lot more time than a lift ride at your local ski mountain, as well as a lot more physical energy. The action of skinning with a splitboard is very similar to cross country skiing - with a very heavy pair of skis! This slower, more personal journey up the slope affords the rider a chance to take in not only the surroundings but also the subtleties of the snow: the crunch of cold Styrofoam snow and the soft swoosh of blower powder.
Once on top, the ritual of putting layers back on and taking off the climbing skins begins, the board is converted back to snowboard mode, bindings are tightened, and you drop into untracked powder. The hard work and sweat of the approach and climb quickly vanish as you begin to float up on the snow, your speed increases, and you shift your weight for the smooth heel side turn and the first face shot of the day. The wide platform of the board provides ample flotation to surf the frozen white wave, and you quickly turn into a wind lip and slash the top, sending up a rooster tail that slowly drifts back to the ground. At the bottom of the run, you look back up and marvel at the lone track that you cut down the slope while others were waiting it out in a ski resort lift line to compete for skied out powder.
Gear up to Get Out
Here is a sample of what you’ll need to head out on your splitboard adventures!
Splitboard: There are a couple of board options for you to choose from. The following companies manufacture factory-made split boards.
You can also purchase a Voile split kit and split your own board.