Splitboarding 101: From roots to responsibility
© Scott Serfas
Remember the saying “with great freedom comes great responsibility.” When it comes to splitboarding, we mean it.
Backcountry usage exploded this summer as more and more Canadians began exploring their backyards amidst pandemic restrictions. Now, as temperatures fall and snow dusts the tallest peaks, Avalanche Canada predicts this trend will continue into the winter months.
Combined with snowier than normal forecasts across the country, and new restrictions and uncertainties at local ski hills, a push towards the backcountry may be greater than ever. Thanks to the splitboard, snowboarders won’t be missing out on the action.
Since it’s first official documentation in 1991, the splitboard has allowed snowboarders to reach new heights and travel far beyond the resort. They are a type of snowboard that can easily be transformed into touring skis to ascend backcountry terrain. The two pieces are reassembled into a snowboard for the descent — making backcountry travel more efficient and attainable without the use of helicopters, snowmobiles, or snowshoes.
As boarders travel further into the unknown, in search of waist deep lines, safety training and terrain-related education becomes a necessity. Consequently, the rising popularity in splitboarding has gone hand in hand with the increased participation in avalanche safety training.
In preparation for the upcoming season (and all it’s uncertainties), Avalanche Canada has planned to introduce new online classroom resources and interactive programs to ensure backcountry goers are prepared for the worst.
The evolution of a booming industry
Long before splitboarding reached the mainstream, the backcountry was reserved for the most diligent, committed snowboarders. Any out of bounds mission would consist of trudging through waist deep snowdrifts via snowshoes, or post-holing up skin tracks.
But, in 1991, Utah’s Brett “Kowboy” Kobernik’s imagination changed snowboarding forever.
Kobernik took a snowboard which had been hacked in half vertically and spent a week putting it back together with materials from his local hardware store. He stuck a pair of climbing skins on the bottom, and voila, the splitboard was born.
The following year, Kobernik’s splitboard prototype caught the eye of Mark Wariakois, the founder of Voile, and together, they envisioned a future where snowboards existed in the backcountry. In 1994, they released the first DIY Voile Split Kit.
While the splitboard revolution was born in the mid 90s, the concept struggled to gain traction as DIY splitboards proved to be time consuming to make and often lacked durability and performance. Voilé would go on to produce the first factory-made splitboards.
At the turn of the decade, manufacturers like Whistler-based Prior entered the market and the variety of splitboards circulating the scene grew substantially. Though, it wasn’t until 2010, when Jeremy Jones released his heavy-hitting human-powered shred flick titled Deeper, that splitboarding really took off.
The sport is way more accessible to the consumer. Only years ago there were very few good quality and affordable boards on the market.
Today, the once niche-market now carries 61 different splitboards ranging in quality, specialty, and affordability, from local board shapers and major snowboard companies. Accessible and innovative technology continues to drive the industry.
Splitboard sales overtook alpine touring ski sales in 2017, reaching roughly 5,300 units sold at all snow sports shops across America, according to SIA data.
“The sport is way more accessible to the consumer. Only years ago there were very few good quality and affordable boards on the market. Today, everyone’s jumping into the market. It makes it much more appealing to go into the backcountry,” said Brian Jones, owner of Vancouver-based Canada West Mountain School.
With great freedom comes great responsibility
A pull towards the backcountry has avalanche experts issuing warnings to those who might be new to out-of-bounds experiences.
Backcountry use has sky-rocketed over the summer months as Canadians stay closer to home due to COVID-19, and all indicators point to that trend continuing into the winter months, wrote Avalanche Canada in their September newsletter.
“We have all seen reports of poor choices made by inexperienced users, resulting in record numbers of rescue calls and trash left at public sites,” the newsletter added.
In the Rockies, Kananaskis Country Public Safety said they receive twice as many search and rescue related calls this summer compared to last year, and the B.C. Search and Rescue Association also noted a steep increase of 50 per cent during the first two weeks of July.
As we transition to winter, the cost of inexperience and poor choices in the backcountry are heightened due to avalanche risk, colder temperatures, and whiteout conditions. Avalanche Canada urges anyone considering backcountry travel to get informed and educated.
The word is out about avalanche safety. In 2018/2019 a record high 11,728 people participated in safety training over the winter. To promote growth this upcoming season, Avalanche Canada is introducing online classroom resources for AST 1 course providers, as well as launching Avy Savvy, a new platform featuring hundreds of photos, videos, games, and quizzes to help users enter the avalanche world.
While avalanche training facilities teach the practical skills, awareness usually starts in the board store. Arthur Sapounas manages one of Vancouver’s largest snowboard retailers and says his staff always encourage snow safety. “To the best of our abilities, we make sure new splitboarders take an avalanche safety course, buy a beacon, probe, backpack, and most importantly, never go out in the backcountry alone.”