I woke to the sound of rain pitter patting on the roof of my parents house. I rolled over thinking of the day ahead and secretly hoped our plans would be cancelled due to the weather, though I knew that rain in town would most likely mean snow on the top of the mountain. And snow was what we wanted.
I shivered and pulled the blanket up a bit further, snuggling down deep into my bed. I was still fighting off a nagging head cold that, coupled with the rain, just made me want to stay in bed all day and read a book rather than go traipsing around in the backcountry. But I’m not one to back out on any outdoor adventure so eventually I got up and made myself some breakfast. Despite how I was feeling, I was excited for the days activities.
I was in the little mountain town of Revelstoke in Canada’s western most province of British Columbia, visiting my family for the week and snowboarding in the amazing stacks of fresh powder they get every year. Being from the east, where we just don’t get snow like that any more, I’ve found myself making the yearly winter trip out west so I can snowboard at Revelstoke Mountain Resort (RMR) located in the Selkirk range of the Columbia Mountains.
But today I was going to try something a bit different. Today was the day I would try splitboarding in the backcountry. I was headed to the out-of-bounds area on the north side of Mt MacKenzie, where Revelstoke Mountain Resort is located, in search of fresh tracks.
Before I go any further, I’ll explain exactly what splitboarding is. Splitboarding is a way for snowboarders to access the backcountry and still be able to snowboard. Skiers have been exploring the backcountry for years and it’s easier to do on ski’s.
Backcountry means exploring areas away from resorts and road access. In the summer this can be done by hiking, but in the winter it means strapping on skis and trekking in. You can access backcountry with snowshoes as well but that means you have to walk back out instead of skiing or snowboarding out, which is a much faster (and more fun!) way to go.
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding requires specialized equipment that can convert to what are essentially cross country ski’s. Skiers have specialized bindings that allow them to unclip the heal of their bindings so their heals can rise and fall, being pivoted on a hinge at the toe (just like a cross country ski). Once a skier has skied up a mountain they simply clip their heals down and now they have regular down hill skis to ski down the mountain on.
Snowboarders, on the other hand, are presented with a bit more of a logistical problem and so, the splitboard was born. A splitboard is just that: A snowboard that splits into two pieces, each piece to be used as a ski for the trek in, but can then be converted back to a snowboard for the ride out.
The snowboard bindings are specialized as well. They have two different mounts on the board, one for regular snowboarding and one for skiing. The bindings are removable and fit a regular snowboard boot the way that normal snowboard bindings do. Snowboarders also use collapsible polls for the ski in which then simply get attached to the backpack when they aren’t needed.
There’s one more piece of equipment backcountry skiers and boarders use and they are called skins. Since trekking in requires going up a mountain side, slipping backwards down the trail is a real problem. Skins solve this problem as they have directional, hydrophobic fibers that allow the ski to slide forwards but not backwards. Skins have one side covered in a glue that doesn’t damage the base of the skis or board, that simply sticks to the underside (and can be reused over and over again). Clips on the front and back provide extra security to hold the skins in place.
Now back to that rainy morning…
After having breakfast and packing my backpack for the day, I headed to RMR to meet up with my friend C, who would also be my guide for the day. Heading off into the backcountry requires training and equipment that were all new to me. In each of our backpacks we carried avalanche rescue gear that includes a personal beacon, a probe and shovel.
We met up in the parking lot and hopped onto the gondola which would take us more than half way up the mountain. As I had suspected, once we got a bit higher the rain turned to snow making the prospect of spending the day outside much more enjoyable.
Exiting the gondola, C took me over to a roped off section called Avalanche Ranch, were anyone can practice searching for buried beacons that represent bodies buried in an avalanche. I have yet to take the Avalanche Rescue course (next winter) so C wanted to make sure I knew how to use my beacon and perform a search. The area we would be in today had very low risk of an actual avalanche but we still had to be prepared.
Once I was comfortable with the gear we headed up the Stoke Chair lift, leaving the rain clouds below us and seeing some blue sky for the first time.
We got off the chair lift just shy of the sub-peak peak and, joining other eager skiers and boarders seeking out powder, we took our place in The Lemming Line. The Lemming Line (makes me laugh every time!) is simply the name of the trail we had to hike to access the north bowl.
The view from the top wasn’t bad but the rain clouds were still hanging low in the valley, slowly being pushed away by the wind. The top was beginning to clear up showing off patches of blue sky here and there. Mountain weather is like that, it changes by the minute. There’s a saying about mountain weather: If you don’t like it wait 5 min.
I’ve snowboarded the north bowl before and sits within the resort boundary. Today however, we simply traversed all the way around it to Greely Bowl.
Traversing once more to the other side of the bowl, we eventually got our first powder run to the bottom of the bowl.
We were still pretty high up on the mountain though we were on the very edge of the resort boundary. This is where the fun began: I unstrapped from my board and C and I got to work on splitting it in half and setting it all up to be used as skis. Both of us pulled our skins out of our backpacks and stuck them to the bottom of our skis and we were on our way.
By now the snow clouds that had been hanging over the top of the mountain had cleared away for the most part and we had nothing but sunshine, fully white clouds and bluebird skies. We began skiing our way around to the north side of the mountain in fresh powder. The trees were decorated in a generous layer of frosting as we skied through a beautiful winter wonderland.
Soon we began to ascend up the mountain, making me breath hard as the very physical part of expedition began. The skins on the bottom of our skis kept us from sliding backwards down the mountain and every so often I would stop to catch my breath and admire the incredible view.
When we had ascended far enough, C and I stopped for a snack and to set up our gear for the ride down. I stepped out of my bindings and my leg disappeared under the snow as I sank up to my knees in fresh powder. This is what we had worked so hard for, to have that fresh line through untouched powder. This is what the backcountry is all about!
Making quick work of taking our skins off and putting my split board back together, soon we were ready. This is where the fun really begins!
We had a blast as we skied and boarded down the mountain, slowly making our way back towards the resort in fresh, deep powder. All in all it took us about 2 hrs to get to the top and about 30-40 min until we found ourselves back within bounds of RMR at the bottom of one of the chair lifts.
My first backcountry experience was nothing short of spectacular. I couldn’t have asked for better weather, better snow conditions or a better person to share it with. At this point it’s safe to say I’m hooked and will be back next winter to continue exploring the backcountry with my splitboard.
I would just like to note that exploring the backcountry during the winter season can be extremely dangerous (mostly due to avalanches) and should only be attempted by those who are certified and experienced, or with an experienced guide. Proper clothing and safety equipment is needed for every individual and planning ahead, including reviewing the weather, is a must. Anyone interested in backcountry skiing or snowboarding should be at the advanced level or higher, as the terrain can be varying and difficult. Backcountry is difficult to access so if you become injured or lost, help can takes hours to arrive.