Backcountry Basics: What I Learned at My First Splitboard Session
The combination of education and in-field training is slowly building my confidence in the backcountry. My first step was to attend Weston’s free Backcountry 101 slideshow, which conveniently took place at my local outdoor shop, and was delivered by an experienced guide.
The second was practicing tour mode with my new splitboard equipment during an extended skinning session about an hour from home. Here are some key takeaways — and rookie mistakes — so far.
BACKCOUNTRY EQUIPMENT IS EXPENSIVE
There are lots of moving parts that add up quickly. There’s no way around it. By the time you purchase a board, bindings, skins, poles, pack, and avalanche safety gear, you can count on about $2,000, on average.
So if you’re unsure if you’ll have the time, interest, or dedication for backcountry adventuring, it’s best to rent or test equipment before you start investing in a complete setup. The nice thing is demos are easier than ever to come by. Weston, for one, is putting on free Splitfests all over the country this season.
DON’T DIY YOUR SETUP
I’m not the type to consider DIY outdoor gear if it involves anything risky like shredding in avalanche terrain, but apparently, this is a common issue. People YouTube “how to split their snowboards.” But with errors like non-symmetrical cut, a missing metal edge, or misaligned holes, you could be setting yourself up for a mess.
And broken stuff in the backcountry is not funny. On my first excursion with two skiers and two boarders, we experienced a single frozen alpine touring binding that we thought was toast. It thawed but had it broken, it could have affected our whole strategy for getting the group off the trail before dark. You can half-ass certain equipment, but do you want to take those chances in potential avalanche terrain or far from help? Not I.
UNDERSTAND AVALANCHE COUNTRY
Let’s face it, one of the first things any backcountry newb thinks about is how to avoid potential dangers in avalanche terrain. My first course went through several trusted sources for reading up before you take an on-snow practice class or full three-day avalanche education course.
Here are three great ones to start with: ABC’s of Avalanche Safety by Sue Ferguson and Ed LaChapelle; Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler; and Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Temper.
I also learned that half of the people who die are gone almost instantly from the sheer trauma when moving snow turns to concrete. There’s nothing you can do about that. The other half die from asphyxiation under the snow. There is something you can do to reduce you chances of that: Get a float or airbag pack. They are proven highly effective in keeping you above the fray — at least some additional peace of mind that you won’t go out that way.
DOWNLOAD YOUR DATA
I learned the hard way what lack of map planning can do to… your calves. Mine are still sore after skinning for five hours and never finding a pow run. I went for my first splitboard practice session with a family whose members range from a true newb to an Everest mountain guide — no kidding.
We’d all read a recent article about how easy it was to find Geneva Basin, an old ski area that would provide the perfect approach and safe zone for a couple of laps on the splitboard. Problem is, none of us actually downloaded the directions or waypoints — and we were completely out of range. Plus, we were quickly led astray by two guys in a side-by-side who were planning to do some ski laps in the same area. They said we were on the right path.
After four miles up a gentle doubletrack that the Razor cut for us we realized we weren’t seeing old ski runs, just more trees. We never found the down. And the day was a huge learning lesson about coming prepared, even on the edge of backcountry.
Luckily, it was absolutely bluebird skies, so I got a great calf and lung workout on a beautiful Colorado day. I also got to practice maneuvering equipment, making decisions about the terrain, and understanding group dynamics in the sticks. Most importantly, I learned that if you want the powder payout, you’d better download your data.
SPLITBOARDS TAKE MORE WORK
The geometry matters. On a splitboard, which fin differently than skis when split, you’ll likely be slower than your ski-skinning friends, at least on the uphill in tour mode. At first, splitting the board is awkward. Sometimes you start to put the skins on wrong. Sometimes you can’t find the heel lift. But once you come to terms with the limitations of a splitboard, you can start making amends.
And while conveniently you can use your comfy resort snowboard boots for the backcountry splitboard, the bindings matter more on a split. It’s where your body attaches to your board, so you don’t want to skimp. Nor do you want a binding that’s too narrow or wide. It will only add to the frustration of learning. Socks matter more, too. They heat up fast and need to take a lot of friction. Your favorites might not be the same ones you ride the chairlift in.
SAVE YOUR SKINS
Your skins are really important. They ensure that you can climb and shuffle efficiently. As I found out, they allow you to move fairly quickly on an undulating trail should you need to skin out rather than risk getting stopped on your snowboard or having to drag the dreaded back foot for too long. Weston’s advice is to buy splitboard-specific skins, a nice mix of nylon and mohair, and trim them carefully to size with a skin cutter — or have a pro do it for you.
Skins can and do break. So it’s essential to know how to fix a traction issue in the backcountry. Carry extra Voile ski straps and duct tape. Both can be used in a pinch to salvage a skin for you or others. Know how to lay them so they don’t bunch, buckle, or allow moisture under the skin.
It’s also important to take care of your skins between climbs. Dry them, but not too close to a fire or in the searing sun or you’ll ruin the adhesive. Fold them in quarters, glue to glue. Keep them dry before you apply.
POLES ARE ODDLY IMPORTANT
Not having a compacting backcountry ski pole setup, I threw in my collapsing trekking poles that would attach to my pack during ride mode. Immediately my friend asked me where my baskets were. Duh. Full-on rookie gaffe.
Without a plastic snow basket, I was going to posthole through anything deeper than an inch of snow, making skinning a guaranteed shitshow. We quickly located an old set of ski poles. What’s even more comical was I lost a basket in the middle of our skin and immediately noticed its absence.
I practically fell over from the first posthole on the left-hand side. After a few minutes of backtracking to turn up the snow under my narrowing pole-plant marks, we found the little black piece of magic. Who knew how important these little suckers are.
OK, that’s where I’m at. Stay tuned as I jam more facts in my head and put my education in action on a women’s specific on-snow splitboard class coming up soon.