Two days after the latest winter storm, this frozen crest of the Continental Divide was still an untracked canvas of white snow.
“It’s soft, totally unspoiled, beautiful,” said Peter Dell, a backcountry snowboarder from Denver who had just climbed to the Continental Divide from the highway a mile below. “If we were at a resort, this snow would have been pounded to death by now.”
He scanned the open glades awaiting him. The fluffy powder glittered in the sun. He smiled.
“That’s why I’m not at a resort. Nothing beats the backcountry.”
The gospel of backcountry aficionados is well-known: Whatever toil is required in skiing uphill without a ski lift is outweighed by the precious solitude, beauty and untracked snow that waits beyond a ski-area’s rope. For years this gospel was almost exclusively espoused by skiers because snowboarders rarely ventured beyond the lifts.
That is changing. Better gear and jaw-dropping movie footage of snowboarders shooting through untouched powder are drawing boarders to the backcountry. And more are doing it on a funky ski-snowboard hybrid called the splitboard.
What’s a splitboard? Slice a regular snowboard down the middle, leaving two, ski-like halves and you get the idea. Then attach bindings that can either act like cross-country ski bindings or standard snowboard bindings. Add a bit of hardware so the two halves can be put back together, and, voila!
Splitboarders climb uphill in cross-country ski mode, (with the help of climbing skins), then snap their boards together when they are ready to bomb down
It’s an idea that got its start about 25 years ago in Salt Lake City.
“I was a line cook and ski bum, and I was injured and looking for something to do,” said Brett Kobernick, who is usually credited with inventing the splitboard. He had been cutting up old boards to use as cheap snowshoes for backcountry snowboarding for years, and always wondered if he could design a board that would snap back together.
“So I cut an old board in half. It was very crude, made with stuff from the hardware store,” said Kobernick, who is now a Utah avalanche forecaster.
Learn to make your own splitboard!
In 1992, he partnered with Utah ski company Voile to build a prototype. The first splitboard kits (you still had to split your own board) went on sale in 1994.
They were clunky and inconvenient, requiring a few minutes to change from uphill to downhill. And they did not win a lot of converts.
Why did Kobernick stick with it instead of just skiing?
“A snowboard was just much more fun and easier in the backcountry,” Kobernick said. “It had much more float.”
Now, of course, skis are almost as fat as snowboards, but that hasn’t stopped a growing army of snowboarders from switching to splits.
“It used to be rare. Now I see them all the time,” said Kobernick. He credits a demographic shift: As snowboarders get older, more are drawn to the peace and soft snow of the backcountry.
Exposure may be just as important: Extreme ski movie producer Teton Gravity Research won rave reviews for the film “Deeper,” which features top riders splitboarding on insane terrain.
Whatever the reason, splitboard business is booming.
“It’s blowing up, we can’t even keep up with demand,” said Eric Scott, a spokesman for Voile. “Pretty much everything is on back order.”
You would never know that following Peter Dell’s track from Berthoud Pass.
On his way up the mountain, trudging through the woods in ski mode on a workday, the tech worker did not pass a soul.
“I grew up going to resorts,” said Dell. “And I just got tired of the frenzy. This is just so much more laid-back.”
As he trudged, he talked about how splitboards had improved. The boards are lighter and the transition from skis to board is faster.
The gear has gotten so good that he often uses his splitboard at ski resorts.
“I don’t notice any real difference,” he said. “It works so well I think all boards should be liberated.”
At the top of the climb, he pulled off his board halves and hooked them together in about two minutes. He threw on a jacket and looked down at a steep, untracked glade.
“This is what it is all about,” he said. He pointed the nose of his board downhill and shot into a narrow meadow. He turned, kicking up a rooster tail of snow, popped between two trees, and was gone.
What will it cost you?
A splitboard easily can cost between $600 and $1,100. (Cut costs by converting an old board with a Voile conversion kit – $150.)
Cross-country climbing skins: $170
Avalanche safety equipment: $450
Know before you go
Winter in the backcountry means potentially fatal avalanches. Learn how to avoid dangerous terrain by taking an avalanche safety class. A schedule of classes is at avalanche.state.co.us.
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