Dreaming Of Perfect Powder: Why Is The Snowboarding World Switching To Splitboarding?
We discover why so many snowboarders are cutting their boards in half, and skiing up hill.
Words by James Renhard
“Look into the light… Now stick your tongue out as far as it will go" insists the tall, rugged looking Scotsman who's shining a torch in my eyes as we stand in my chalet bedroom. “This will feel a little strange, but it’s important I’m thorough.". It’s already clear that this is going to be no ordinary snowboarding holiday.
Splitboarding – a sub genre of snowboarding – has become increasingly popular in recent years. A strange hybrid of ski touring and snowboarding, its popularity has risen because it’s an alternative and affective way of reaching stashes of deep powder, inaccessible my most other means.
As a snowboarder who has spent the majority of my time on snow riding on the hard, groomed piste, I was interested to see what this emerging alternative to the traditional that has captured the imagination of the snowboarding world was all about.
Rewind 24 hours. I’m on a flight above the Alps, and my mind is racing. Simultaneously, I picture incredible back-country runs with big, arcing rooster tails of snow spraying up with every turn I expertly make. But, as soon as I allow myself to get excited, a sadistic part of my brain reminds me of all the horrifying avalanche videos I’ve seen. I reassure myself that it’s okay to be nervous. It’s expected, even.
It doesn’t help.
It’s nearing 10pm when I arrive in Chatél, the picturesque French Alpine town where my chalet is. I’m greeted at the door by Paul Shirley, one of the guides of The Rider Social, who is to be my host both on and off the mountain for the duration of my stay. Like myself, Paul’s a recovering Brummie who’s yet to lose the accent completely.
“I bet you’re hungry aren’t you, dude" says Paul with a warm smile as he welcomes me in. I’m met by a hardy meal, a bottle of beer, and the three other guys who are booked on to the Split N’ Mix course with me.
There’s a Scottish GP called Jerry, a second Scot called James who introduces himself as a gas man, which I’m then told means he’s an anaesthetist – to this day, I’m still not sure what he actually does. Finally there’s Evan, a tall American who initially strikes me as being an uncomfortable mix of 80’s rapper Vanilla Ice and Limpbizkit [sic] frontman Fred Durst, but who’s warm charm and hilarious story telling soon erodes this early impression.
As the evening winds on, we eat, drink, swap stories, and get a little obsessive about snowboard gear before heading to bed, buoyed by the numerous tales of excitement and adventure, and the expectation of what lies ahead.
Sunday morning arrives and light beaming through the curtains makes me rush out of bed to see if we’ve been treated to picture-book blue skies and sunshine everybody hopes for. Sadly, I’m met by a sea of grey clouds and driving rain – far from ideal snowboarding conditions.
"All of a sudden, something goes wrong... Silence."
The four of us head to breakfast where we are joined by Rory, another member of The Rider Social team, He’s a tall, quiet man who I imagine could not only set and light a fire in seconds, but also fell the tree with his bare hands to get the fire wood. 2015 marks his seventeenth year in the French mountains, so he knows the area like the back of his hand, making him the perfect guide for a splitboarding trip.
Together, we all head to the slopes and, after a quick avalanche safety talk from Rory, we catch a gondola up the mountain. The first run of the day is a leg warmer down an easy blue and we’re quickly back on a chair lift where a trickier red piste was waiting for us.
The group take off, one by one. My legs and the board are still getting accustomed too each other and it feels like I’m still some time away from splitting the board into skis and searching for powder. I keep heading down, when, all of a sudden, something goes wrong. The edge of my board digs into a rut of hard snow and stops suddenly. Inertia throws me into the air.
The next thing I feel is an almighty thump on the back of my head. The rest of my body follows, crashing hard onto the slope. The mountain is spinning, and I feel sick. This is a hangover that I never had the pleasure of being drunk enough to earn.
Gingerly, I pick my way down the rest of the run to a lift station where the rest of the group are waiting for me. I explain to Rory what’s happened, and he immediately suggests we abandon the proposed lift and head further down the hill.
Rory calls Paul who meets me at the bottom of the mountain and chauffeurs me back to the chalet. Some hours later, the rest of the group come back, soaking wet but happy. “It’s the sticky snow from the rain that hung you up" offers Evan, by generous way of explaining what, in reality, was operator error on my part.
Dr Jerry offers to give me a quick medical examination. Luckily, it involves little more than shining his iPhone light into my eyes, doing a few nerve and balance tests, and absolutely zero lubricated latex gloves. Post Concussion Syndrome is the diagnosis. What that really means is staying off snow for a minimum of 48 hours.
The next two days creep by glacially slowly. Every morning, Evan, James, and Dr Jerry head out while I contemplate whether I can fill my day by figuring out a one-player version of Scrabble.
"Blue skies and a fresh dusting of snow... I'm going out."
Wednesday morning brings with it a headache and a stiff neck, just as the previous two had done before it. I open the bedroom curtains to find blue skies, a few wisps of cloud, and a fresh dusting of snow.
The purists would suggest that this is still some way from a hallowed ‘Blue Bird’, but greeted with such a sight, I care little for the opinions of the purist. As far as I'm concerned, this is my Blue Bird. Conditions were perfect. I’m going out.
With the other three, more experienced riders heading out with Rory, Paul and his wife Fiona are to be my guides. Before we go anywhere, I’m given all the equipment required for splitboarding. There’s a lot of equipment. A lot.
I juggle space in my backpack to find room for a transceiver, ski poles, a collapsible shovel, a probe, and a set of skins that fit on the bottom of the board when it’s split. Oh, and of course, the splitboard itself. Fitting it all in is a struggle as I’m already carrying a camera, a bottle of water, and a couple of emergency Mars bars (medicinal). It’s like an expensive game of Tetris.
After a short drive through Chatél, a town unspoilt by large concrete hotels and Russian squillionares, we reach the telecabine that takes us up the mountain. On piste, the process of assembling the split board begins.
The anatomy of a split board is surprisingly simple: it’s alike a regular snowboard, but split all the way down the middle from nose to tail. When fixed together, it’s a snowboard. However, undo a couple of clips and the board splits in two, making a pair of wide skis, called splits.
Having a slippery base, the splits alone would not be able to get you up a mountain. This is where the skins come in. They’re long strips of material that, when you rub them one way are completely smooth, but rubbed the other provide friction.
Imagine stroking a cat from head to tail, and then trying to avoid being scratched when you tried stroking the other way, against the grain from tail to head. It’s the same principal.
These skins then attach to the bottom of the splits with strong glue, and your uphill skis are ready to transport you to the promised land of fresh lines in nipple-deep powder. That’s the theory, at least.
I strap in to the weird part-snowboard, part-ski contraption, and feel immediately compelled to prove that this little bit of material cannot possibly prevent me from going backwards. I tentatively try to shuffle back, but nothing. I try harder, and still nothing. I manoeuvre myself so I’m pointing up a slight gradient. I try again to shuffle back, but still I’m held in place. The sensation is weird, and completely counter intuitive.
Time to begin our accent, and Paul leads the way. We have to start by traversing across a busy piste. Skiers of all shapes and sizes fly past, seemingly irritated by the small group of people walking across what they clearly consider a one way street.
It takes some practice to find the technique required to traverse the slope. I feel naturally compelled to lift the skis off the ground but this is proves completely counter productive, as it means moving this seal skin away from the surface of the snow.
Instead of lifting, it’s imperative to shuffle forward, keeping your splits and therefore the skins, in contact with the slope. “You know when you were a kid, and your mom used to shout at you for being lazy and not lifting your feet when you walk" suggests Paul, helpfully “Well, this is the opposite. Keep your feet in contact with the deck. Your mom will never know." he promises.
Once into a rhythm, what was initially a battle starts to be a little easier, and it becomes a matter of honing technique. Eventually, with advice and encouragement from Paul and Fiona, I find the knack, and discover that, when done right, the skin makes an unusual zweeeping noise, not unlike somebody in corduroy trousers running for the train.
We reach the edge of the piste, away from the angry skiers, it’s time for the splits to really do what they’re designed for – going directly up hill. As we go, my confidence in the technology grows. A rhythmic ‘zweep’, ‘zweep’, ‘zweep’ tells me I’m doing something right.
We stop for a moment before the piste steepens significantly, and Paul offers some advice: “Don’t be tempted to lean forward" he suggests “you’ll end up putting all of your weight on the front of the split, so only half the skin is doing any work."
Like much of split boarding, the process of straightening up and almost leaning backwards feels completely alien. However, within a few strokes of the splits, it’s clear that this technique works. In this very upright position I can’t shake the image of Forrest Gump from my head.
Ten minutes that feel more like thirty pass, and we’re at the top of the piste. We’ve seen what the splits can do on the regular slopes, but how well do they do in the deep snow away from the groomed area? We waste no time in finding out as Paul and Fiona take me off piste, and into some of the untouched snow that had fallen overnight.
Paul's splits leave a trail of compacted snow that I begin following. At first, things feel just like they did on the piste, but after a few meters, one split sinks a little into the deep snow. It’s a sensation that I’m not unfamiliar with, but it still proves a little unnerving as I drop a few inches.
As the ascent steepens I adopt the now tried and tested Forest Gump position. I can’t help but feel that, if anything, splitting is a little easier when things are a little steeper. The splits, and the skins beneath them come into their element, and grip tightly onto the snow, making Isaac Newton and his ideas about gravity look foolish.
We zig-zag up the slope, decreasing the work having to be done by the skins. Turning at the end of each traverse proves a skill in itself. You have to turn through 90 degrees, while ensuring that you keep the splits pointing up hill. Letting them point downhill would result in flying down the mountain, and no doubt indirectly into the concerned torchlight of Dr Jerry once again.
“Just take your time" suggests Paul, as I clumsily swing one ski around with all the grace of your drunken uncle trying to breakdance at a wedding. Once again, despite every fibre of my being thinking that this cannot possibly work, the splits do their job perfectly, and I’m ready to start zweeping up the steep again.
Progress gets quicker as my confidence grows. We head for some trees that eventually break and lead to an opening. The view is breath taking, and having worked for it as opposed to sitting on a chair lift, somehow makes it even sweeter. “Not a bad view is it." suggests Paul with a smile.
We press on for a further twenty minutes of zigzagging through powder until I breathlessly ask if we can stop. “Yeah, this looks like a good spot" suggests Paul, charitably making it seem like it was the location, and not my lack of fitness that decided that we’d climbed far enough.
After a few minutes resting, it’s time to get the reward for the hard work. Guided by Fiona and Paul, I begin the process of reversing what I’d done to earlier, now turning my splits back into a snowboard.
Maybe it was from my earlier experience at the bottom of the slope, but the process of making a snowboard out of skis is much easier than getting skis out of a snowboard. The skins peel off the bottom of the splits, and the skis slide together to make a recognisable snowboard once again. Finally, I slide the bindings back on, and I’m ready to go.
Initially, even though I have done it a thousand times before, snowboarding proves a little sketchier than normal. I put this down to the fact that my legs were still furious with me for putting them through the literal uphill battle of climbing the slope.
However, before long everything clicks into place and I’m away, gliding through powder. Granted, it’s not exactly the dreamy, deep powder run, full of slashes and face shots that I had pictured before arriving in Chatél, but this was mine.
To any passing punter, I was just somebody off the edge of the piste in the deep snow, but to me this was perfection. I treat myself to a few turns in the trees before heading back onto the piste. Like anything that brings so much instant ecstasy, it’s over far too quickly.
As my last day in Chatél arrives, I pack my things up, and head back to the airport, reflecting on the ups and downs past few days. It’s now obvious why splitboarding has grown in popularity.
The rebellious punk kids that took up snowboarding in the 1990’s are now twenty years older than when they started. The ones that have stuck with it have amassed a lot of time on the snow. Riding pistes just isn’t enough any more, and that’s where experts like Paul, Fiona, and Rory from The Rider Social come in.
They offer the perfect introduction to a new way of enjoying your time on the mountain. That said, splitboarding isn’t necessarily for every snowboarder. As much as I’ve enjoyed the hospitality and generosity of my time in Chatél, I can’t help but feel that I’m not yet tired of the normal slopes. For me at least, there isn’t the desire for something more just yet.
However, when I get there, and hopefully with a few more morning jogs under my belt by then, I’ll be looking the The Rider Social team up once again.