Whilst I was lucky enough to be gallivanting around Canada for the first half of last winter the folks back home in Scotland were experiencing the best winter for decades. Having been riding powder and climbing fat blue ice for three months I was psyched to continue the fun when I got back. The quantities of snow in the Highlands was such that it made winter climbing difficult and somewhat impractical so we made the most of it by getting lots of ski-touring done...
Only I was doing this in an unusual fashion, I was using a specially fashioned snowboard that could be split in two lengthways and with a quick re-alignment of the bindings soon became a pair of skis. Thus the user can attach climbing 'skins' and travel efficiently uphill, then re-assemble the board, return the bindings to the 'ride' position and descend as normal.
These 'Splitboards' can be home made, by careful bisection of an old board and application of the Voile splitboard hardware kit. This consists of slider plates which can be attached to any pair of board bindings, which then slide onto pucks attached to the centre of the board. Clips are attached at the nose, tail and middle of the board to give it some sort of rigidity.
This site outlines the necessary kit and has a video showing the basic steps to building your homemade board: www.voile-usa.com
This can be a cheap way to do the job, but it is hardly surprising that the strength and flex of the board is significantly affected by such modifications. Alternatively, at great expense, a specifically designed split-board can be purchased, Voile are the leaders in this field, but boards are also available from Burton, Prior and the splitboard specific Karakoram. The design of these boards have been altered somewhat to increase the response and the fit of the two skis when joined together is far more snug than most home made efforts.
They are considerably cheaper in North America but my Voile Mojo still cost $900 Canadian, so the home made option may be a sensible way to try it out! Since this is such a young technology there is a lot of development to be done, both in equipment and technique, and teething problems are always to be encountered but the fun that can be had is well worth it!
A day on the Scottish Hills
I managed around 30 days split-boarding last winter in Canada, Scotland and Switzerland. I have never been a particularly good snowboarder, but have always had an eye for an adventure and any excuse to get into the wild away from the crowds has always appealed to me.
One particular day in the Cairngorms sticks in the mind, and ranks alongside the best I had in anywhere last winter! It started as many of my local hill days do – being kicked out of bed only 2hrs after I had crawled back from the pub! I grabbed my gear and fell into the car, muttered some complaints about the time of day and promptly returned to my slumber. Next thing I know we're parked up at the bottom car-park at Cairngorm, white as far as you can see and the sun rising into the cloudless sky.
I had missed a vociferous argument regarding the days itinerary, I didn't really care, so blindly I followed the others cursing my 'Celtic Disease' (aka addiction to whisky) and envying the piste riders chilling on the lifts (or more to the point, in the queues!). We passed a freestyle competition by the Ptarmigan top station and seriously considered buying some beers and enjoying a gentle day on the slopes.
Doubts were cast aside at the sight of Cairngorm summit covered in reams of bright white snow glistening in the sunlight. We had already done most of the ascent so why quit now, the real fun was not far away! With our route still undecided we surveyed the landscape, blue and white as far as the eye could see, and decided to cruise due south from the summit towards Loch Avon. The terrain here was gentle, the spring snow soft and the sun warm, giving wide turns of a carefree nature. This was the life! Things got a little more interesting as we got closer to the steep slopes looking over Loch Avon. We scoped a short steep section following the Feith Buidhe and with a few sharp turns I launched myself down and easily out-ran the slow moving slough snow that I had released. This was short but on the spring snow quite fast and provided a great contrast to the top section of the run.
We had hoped to find a navigable path on the ice across the Loch but it looked decidedly dodgy and there was not sufficient snow to skin around so we decided to power back up to the saddle and make for the summit of Bynack More. With the sun now high, this was hot work, giving a good excuse to stop for regular water breaks and enjoy the magnificent views over the entire Cairngorm range. We stopped at the top of Bynack More for some tea and sustenance, admiring the summit decoration of half metre tall sastrugi tracing the winters prevailing wind. So enraptured was my flatmate Andy that he dropped a ski (the others were using more conventional equipment) which made a valiant attempt for freedom but was luckily stopped before it got out of control!
For the second time I was putting together my board, a now well practised regime: de-skin (fold and pack them away), un-pin the bindings (place upside down in the snow to prevent escape or balling of snow in the slider), slot 'skis' together to make the board and close the nose and tail clips then slide the bindings onto the central pucks and secure with pins. We spent another moment admiring the situation, picked our line of descent and we were off! A slightly wind-swept crusty start to this run, on which I could feel my board bouncing a little more than a conventional board might do, brought us quickly into a natural funnel that dropped us at the top of the Alt a'Choire Dheirg.
This was a narrowing gully that was atmospherically guarded by corniced buttresses on either side, these crests of snow had been broken by the spring sunshine and gave the appearance of miniature seracs. This section gave a steep and fast descent on lovely soft spring corn snow which I took too quickly and two thirds of the way down the snow consistency changed, the nose of my board dived and I was catapulted into a corkscrew front-flip, which I somehow landed and carried on riding! Unfortunately this unexpected highly stylish trick/fluke wipe-out was not captured on camera, as it would have made a very entertaining sequence! From here further gentle turns were enjoyed as we descended further into Strath Nethy where we dropped below the snow line, removed our gear and started the long hiked back over Stac na h-Lolaire towards the car park in the glorious evening sunshine.
Trials and tribulations
It may surprise you that the conditions I saw in Scotland last winter were better for the splitboard than those I encountered in other more famous skiing areas. The deep powder in Canada was so soft and my 'skis' were far wider than the proper skis of the other people I was touring with, meaning that I struggled to get the whole base of my skins to touch the tracks the others had made.
When trail breaking a similar problem occurred as the weight distribution on the bottom of the ski was not as concentrated to it did not allow the skin to grip so well and led to me sliding backwards half a pace for each step forward. However, once at the top and ready for the descent I was faster than most of the skiers as I effortlessly floated through the light snow and they had to make quick hard turns to ensure they did not sink!
Similarly, the hard neve encountered on ascents in the Alps in spring was particularly hard to deal with as your skis only have one sharp edge with which to cut into the snow, making steep side-hilling particularly difficult, and again the weight distribution of the wide base makes the bite of the skins less than a normal ski. I actually took to carrying my board up these steep slopes and kicking steps, which was fine until I was on particularly exposed slopes where the soft flex of the board boots were not ideal.
Both of these problems can be slightly alleviated by trimming the skins well away from the edges so that what edge there is can easily grip the snow. Some people wear the skis 'in-side out' whereby the skis are swapped around so that the metal edge is on the inside (particularly useful for the downhill ski on steep traverses), however I personally didn't find this helped much. By using harscheisen - crampons which bite into the surface when the binding is pressed down but is released when the heel is lifted during forward motion - slippage in icey conditions can be greatly reduced. Stability may also be helped by getting specific split bindings (Sparks R&D, Voile) which have the slider plate built in giving a lower profile binding which secures the feet closer to the board than the bulky system of base plates required when standard bindings are used. These will give more control and better weight distribution on the board and will certainly improve response on descent, if not helping during the climb.
Lastly, all splitboarders are eagerly awaiting a soft, light, low profile board boot with a rigid mountaineering sole which are comfortable and responsive for riding in as well as solid and narrow enough to accept crampons and allow technical climbing on ski-mountaineering routes. Dream on! There is currently not a big enough market for companies to invest in this, but hopefully the numbers are growing and one day some pro-rider might even take up our cause!
Some might say, why don't you just ski? They probably have a point but if nobody ever tries new stuff we might still be cutting steps up Point Five like the heroes of old, then we'd all have to be proper hard to enjoy the mountains, and that would be no good!
Splitboarding is great fun and any climber sick of floundering through the powder to get to routes might like to think of it as a great alternative for getting in and out, or as a form of mountaineering in itself! Ride on!
Some useful Links: