What kind of freak skis up a mountain and then snowboards down on the same equipment he used to ski up? Someone with an infectious case of YAHOO! - that's who!
Word to the Wise
Would-be splitters should take precautions. A shovel, probe and transceivers are necessities. But the most important thing to bring is knowledge. Avalanches are game-enders in the backcountry. “Take a class,” advises Lisa Branner. “Be smart. It’s your life in the balance when you are in the backcountry.”
It's just past dawn at 11,000 feet. My buddy and I crawl out of his beat-up Honda, pull on boots, and layer up. We grab collapsible shovels, check transceivers and cinch our backpacks. Out come the skins for a thousand-foot climb up the rest of this frigid San Juan peak. Thanks to one of the greatest inventions in snow-play since the motorized lift, we will keep warm by skiing up the mountain; then we will snowboard down. We will do this without carrying extra boards. That's because we are splitboarding.
My buddy and I are part of a new breed of snow freak. Splitboarders are part skier, part snowboarder, and 100 percent fun hog. We share a love of winter beauty and a healthy appetite for earning our turns.
Splitboarders are a growing minority on the powder, trailbreakers in a new snow cult that is just coming of age. We seek out the quiet snow, willing to burn some calories for our rides. Are we there for the solitude, the connection with the place, the rush of soaring off a scary rock, or just to get away? It's simply a little of everything: the love of the mountains, the fun of the snow, the feeling of sticking that landing and more. It's all part of what could be called the "split personality."
If counting vertical descent is your cup of tea, stick with the crowds lined up for a high-speed quad. But if you want to know the whole mountain, including the uphill side, splitboarding may be for you.
No one knows for sure who built the first splitboard. Legend has it that in the mid-nineties, a Utah ski guide named Bret Kobernick built a snowboard that could be split in half for touring. Voile CEO Mark Wariokois saw Kobernick playing with his new toy in the Wasatch Range, and the two started to brainstorm. Door hinges attached to snowboard bindings eventually morphed into a marketable board/binding interface. Today Voile is one of a handful of splitboard and splitboard-component makers.
Splitboards require plenty of human-power, and that's part of the appeal.
"You're propelling yourself up rather than burning fuel," says Klem Branner of Venture Snowboards. "You are your own engine." Branner and his wife Lisa founded Venture in 1996, bouncing around Colorado before finally landing in Silverton. They began producing splitboards several seasons ago, and have seen a rising demand from across the West.
"We see a lot of interest coming from Alaska, Utah, in the Northwest and a lot in Colorado," says Lisa. "It's got to be one of our fastest growing segments of the market. It really has caught fire this year."
Klem Branner says the journey, not the destination, is the thing: "It's exercise," he says. "For me it's not just working for a reward at the end, which is the ride down, but it's the whole process, going for a hike in beautiful surroundings. You get out. You get up there."
Across the Continental Divide, Denver's Never Summer Snowboards also builds custom splitboards. Splitboarding is a fiercely-devoted niche market, says sales manager Mike Gagliardi. "It's not something that everybody wants into, but the people who like splitboarding really like getting out there and getting the goods."
Splitboards are an intoxicating way to experience the backcountry. One minute you're climbing, sweating bullets and contemplating the meaning of life, the next you're surfing powder bowls, or carving glades, your face caked with snow. The descent is only part of the experience.
"There is no better feeling than earning you turns and being self reliant, it's just a feeling you can't get at a resort," said Bentley Blahoo, a finishing and production supervisor at Never Summer "It opens up a whole new world. I never thought going uphill could give you such an adrenaline rush."
Splitting literally puts you in your place. You notice more, feel more, and see more. You build an adrenaline high and have time to assess the risks. After the hard work is over, you can soak in the views. Then, it's game on. The quiet mountain philosopher becomes the whooping and hollering kid.
"There's nothing better than skiing up to the top with your friends, putting your board together, and snowboarding down," said Paul Udice, the "Bubba" of Bubba's Boards at Durango Mountain Resort. "It's quiet. Nobody's around . . . it's the scenery, and the fresh pow."
So who belongs to this new breed? What sort of person wants to spend a bucket of sweat to skin up a mountain, then knuckle-drag down?
"I think splitters are people in search of the perfect line," said Blahoo. "They like to hike and are looking for more than what resorts have to offer."
Lisa Branner says splitboarders are looking for "a more soulful experience. I think you are more in tune with your surroundings. I know it gives me a sense of solace to be out there connecting with nature."
That extra awareness comes at a cost, she says, but she sees it as an investment in survival: "You are taking some risk being out in the backcountry, and I would rather have a better sense of what's going on around me?. signs that you would miss otherwise if you were moving more quickly. Safety is important. We all want to live to ride another day."
For those of us lucky enough to live in the Rockies, or better still the San Juans, we have all the splitting we could ask for right in our own back yard: Red Mountain, Molas, Coal Bank, McMillan, Velocity Basin, Prospect Gulch, for starters. The vertical possibilities are endless. On a good snow day, splitters can easily skin up and make turns down any hillside they choose. In Silverton, the Branners can pick lines from their office. "It's pretty much limitless," said Klem. "Anywhere you look you can go today."
On a snowy December day at the Venture Factory, I sat with the Branners in their office above Green Street in Silverton. The place looks relatively normal, aside from a Venture Divide Split leaning up against a file cabinet and a few pieces of snow gear on the desk. We looked out the window at the town - long medians of plowed snow piled up in the streets. Then we gazed beyond, at the powdery slopes of the San Juans.
I asked how often the couple gets out to go splitting. The answer came in stereo: "Never enough."