The short distance from Salt Lake City to the Central Wasatch’s tri-canyon area provides closer access to the backcountry than any other metropolitan area in the country. Sometimes this proximity means you need to get up earlier, go a little bit farther, and climb something more challenging than the general population in order to find some fresh powder.
Lighter gear makes your approach energy efficient. Films and photographs of great powder riding inspire you to hit bigger peaks. But what happens when powder that’s so close is effectively so far away because you have to boot, snowshoe, or use approach skis to access it? You invent a different method, necessity is the mother of invention.
Until the early 1990s, powder-seeking snowboarders booted and snowshoed the Wasatch backcountry. Snowboard manufacturer, Nitro, initially put the splitboard on the market. Local ski shop, Salty Peaks, sold a short-lived prototype that required hard boots. The splitboard might have stayed a Nitro product, and perhaps, Voile would have stayed a skiing-specific company had veteran backcountry snowboarder Bob Athey not introduced Brett “Cowboy” Kobernik to Voile founder, Mark “Wally” Wariakois.
How The Splitboard Was Born
Both Athey and Kobernik had been creating makeshift approach systems to climb and descent peaks.
“First time I met [Kobernik], he was using little skis with riveted skins made out of a snowboard cut in quarters,” Athey explains. “The next time he’d cut a board in half and was using two sets of bindings and door hinges as a method of going up with the board split.”
“I was using either snowshoes or little skis with a Chouinard cable adapter for mountain boots,” Athey adds. “I thought [Brett’s] idea had merit because, at the time, I was trying to get Wally at Voile to make a better mountain boot binding.”
Because Voile was a telemark company, splitboard development was aligned with the company’s purpose. In 1991, Voile jumped on early research and development of the splitboard and its hardware under Kobernik’s guidance. The homegrown company gets credits for coining the phrase, splitboarding, and Kobernik for inventing the splitboard.
Sales and Marketing Manager David Grissom of Voile claims, “For most part Voile invented the sport of splitboarding. We coined the term splitboarding. At the time customers and dealers thought we were crazy. The point is, we always blaze our own path.”
Kobernik developed two prototypes for Voile. The first prototype was a blunt-nosed Hooger Booger race board that he cut in half. The second had sidecut on both sides of the ski and a gap in the middle of the board.
“Wally, coming from a skier’s background, was really insistent about having that sidecut on both sides of the ski–that was the only way he was really going to move forward with the splitboard at the time,” says Kobernik about the original prototype. “We built some, and they rode fine, but I knew at the time it would be too much for the general population to grasp this gap in the middle of the board.”
Voile produced those boards for almost two years until they finally ditched the dual sidecut and eliminated the gap in the board. Then, the splitboard began to grow in popularity.
Who Split Peaks First
Grissom claims the combination of athlete feedback, local manufacturing, and his company’s proximity to the Wasatch was critical in skyrocketing splitboard development.
“Our backyard is an amazing proving ground,” Grissom says. “More importantly, we also make 98% of Voile product here in Utah. Prototyping and testing sped up with Voile having all the production here in Utah.”
As Voile built new splitboard prototypes throughout the ‘90s, they incorporated feedback from local riders like Athey, Kobernik, and Maxwell Morrill.
Then 20-years-old, Morrill relocated to Salt Lake City from his home state of Maine to pursue an independent Olympic bid for alpine racing. Before coming to Utah, Morrill regularly did solo missions on Tuckerman’s Ravine, which he refers to as the “gem of the White Mountains” in New Hampshire (credit khaliffe). He also built his rock and ice climbing skills, he says, in order to “round out” his mountaineering skills. As he realized the unrealistic financial demands of racing on the World Cup circuit, he spent more time snowshoeing, climbing, and riding peaks all over the Wasatch.
“My foundation is built from granite, from New Hampshire and Maine,” Morrill explains. “Those areas have unrelenting weather. It’s cold, icy, and moist. The conditions taught me to be a hard and fast snowboard mountaineer: to not make mistakes, to be prepared for whatever. Mountaineering out here, by comparison, is easy. It’s warm and sunny. The terrain is big, yeah, but the conditions aren’t like what you’d have to endure on the East Coast.”
By the time he was introduced to splitboarding in the mid-90s, Morrill had an already sharp set of snowboard mountaineering skills that made him a reputable source of feedback for Voile’s research and development. These skills also positioned him to grab several first descents on a snowboard, including the Grunge Couloir on Timpanogos, North Timp’s Cold Fusion Couloir, Mt. Nebo’s Southwest Face, among others.
Andrew McLean’s 1998 guidebook, The Chuting Gallery, offered much-needed beta and enabled riders to hit more challenging, steep terrain with more complicated access. Ski mountaineering increased in popularity. Even with Morrill and others starting to hit bigger lines with more difficult approaches, splitboarding and snowboard mountaineering remained a small part of the industry.
Utah Mountain Adventures guide Kelly Robbins began splitboarding the Wasatch in 1999. Eleven years later, he founded the first splitboard-specific instruction and guiding service called Splitboard Education Collective. Robbins claims that equipment is the main reason snowboard mountaineering has lagged behind ski mountaineering.
“Most ski mountaineering objectives in the Wasatch and beyond involve some sort of long approach, and this is done most efficiently with touring skis and skins,” he says.
Robbins points out that snowboard mountaineers were often hindered because they needed to carry their boards on their back. He says they also had to sort through the “conundrum” of figuring out how to travel: the choice between boot-packing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, using approach skis, or Verts- which are short plastic climbing snowshoes.
“When splitboards hit the market in the mid-90s, it opened a whole new realm of possibilities for fit and experienced snowboarders,” Robbins says.
“The caveat, of course, is short-approach objectives here in the Wasatch,” he adds, “where someone can step out of their car and immediately begin climbing up very steep, less-than-45-degree terrain, such as the Y-couloir, Tanner’s Gulch, and the South Face of Superior. In these cases, Verts or boot-packing are very effective.”
A team member for Jones Snowboards and Snowbird Resort, Forrest Shearer explains that high alpine snowboarding and mountaineering are blended together. He says, “Skiers already crossed that bridge. It was just a matter of time before splitboarding followed suit. It’s already been happening in Europe.”
Where Backcountry Snowboarders Train For Bigger Terrain
Just as backcountry snowboarders progressed from snowshoeing to splitting in the ‘90s and early 2000s, up-and-coming big mountain snowboarders are setting their sights on lines with technical climbing and exposed descents. Though the Wasatch has only a few true mountaineering lines such as the Northwest Couloir of Pfeffierhorn, Coalpit Headwall, Twins East Face, and the Y-Couloir, the range’s consistently steep, rocky terrain breeds world-class big mountain riders like Voile athlete Neil Provo, and Shearer.
“A lot of the terrain I’m looking at riding entails adding more gear to the toolbox,” explains Shearer. “Ropes, crampons, and ice axes are added to my gear list when the terrain is technical and I’m dealing with variable snow conditions and falling isn’t an option.”
Provo says that despite the handful of peaks that require technical climbing gear and mountaineering skills, the Wasatch’s abundance of rock makes the range a good place to learn and prepare for bigger objectives. One of the most widely respected backcountry snowboarders in the country, Provo recently appeared in the Powderwhore film, “Some Thing Else,” where he rode spines in the Todrillo Mountains.
“Over the years the Wasatch has definitely changed the way I snowboard, and it’s been the perfect training ground for places like British Columbia and Alaska,” Provo adds.
Maxwell Morrill, who has been splitboarding the Wasatch for 20 years, calls the range a stepping-stone to big, backcountry terrain in remote areas. “If you had to create a tick list to get to Denali and the Alaska Range,” he explains, “it would be the Tetons, Mt. Rainier, and then the Canadian Rockies.”
He adds, “Each one is going to offer different conditions, and you’re going to have to apply different skills. The Tetons require steep climbing and precision riding. On Rainier, it will be glacial travel: walking with ropes and harnesses, preparing for avalanches, and route-finding on glacial terrain. The Canadian Rockies throw the weather component and massive terrain at you.”
Veteran splitboarders who came up in the 90’s are now ushering in the next generation of big mountain riders. For example, Morrill tours with Alex Gavic, an up-and-coming professional splitboarder. Featured in last year’s fourth episode of Wild, Wild Wasatch, the pair hit Pfeifferhorn’s Northwest Couloir last March, a line that requires a mandatory 50-foot rappel.
“As you’re getting into bigger stuff in the Wasatch, you have to bring a mountaineering approach to it because it’s not that straightforward: it’s not as easy as going up and coming back down,” Gavic explains.
Exposing backcountry travel to recreational snowboarders, Utah Mountain Adventures guide Eric Gustafson uses the tri-canyon area to teach his splitboarding clients how to skin, use crampons, and ride in avalanche terrain. With thirty years of experience traveling the Cottonwoods and Millcreek Canyon, he claims snow conditions dictate gear choice as much as terrain does. He points out that early morning missions to get spring corn are excellent times for ski crampons.
Gavic agrees the combination of splitboard crampons and stiffer, soft boots help with switchback, edging, and saving energy. Though he doesn’t use hard boots, Gavic calls climbing firm snow in the high alpine “terrifying.”
“The hardest thing on a splitboard is going sidehill when it’s firm,” Gustafson says, citing south-facing, steep route up Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Flagstaff Mountain as most used skin track in the Wasatch. He advises packing a pair of lightweight crampons because they boost confidence and prevent sliding backwards or sideways. Gustafson also emphasizes bringing ice axes or whippets for climbing steep terrain like Suicide Chute because these tools enable a rider to self-arrest.
When and Where To Go That’s Not Tracked Out
Because the tri-canyon region receives a large amount of skier and snowboarder traffic, sometimes the battle to get first tracks starts before dawn.
“Sometimes the earlier you start, the better: it’s an early-bird-gets-the-worm type of deal,” says Gavic. “If you show up at 5:30 am, there are already 50 people on the skin track to Superior. As you climb Pfeifferhorn or something with a longer approach, you start to run out of people. Maybe you’ll only see 10 or 20 people in a day.”
Gavic likens the Central Wasatch’s diverse terrain–wide-open bowls, huge couloirs, tight chutes, and cliff–to a board game that he calls Canyonland.
“Except for the snow quality, wherever you top out, there’s 360 degrees of awesome terrain everywhere” Gavic adds. “I don’t know how many square miles, or drainages it takes up, and I don’t even know if you could do it all in a winter or two.”
Gustafson says the biggest benefit of the Central Wasatch is its easy outs. “Obviously I’m guiding there, so I know the canyons where my clients can glide out without having to go back into skiing mode,” he explains.
If riders want to escape the crowds, they also have to consider traveling to other parts of the range. The southern peaks in the Wasatch are the biggest, like Mount Nebo at 11,928 feet, and the mountains get progressively smaller in the north part of the range. Missions to these peaks call for an advanced backcountry skillset, more driving, and a longer approach.
Kobernik, now a full-time avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, explores zones between Logan and the central part of the state. He claims that the challenge in getting to new zones in the Southern and Northern Wasatch is the access. Riders can’t drive halfway up a canyon. They need to use a snowmobile, or a combination of snowmobile and splitboard. Otherwise, he says, it would be like starting your tour at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“Ogden’s got some unique potential,” explains Kobernik. “You have the egress from Snowbasin Ski Resort–it’s a huge chunk of terrain there. You can access things from the North Ogden Divide. From North Fork Park, you can access Cutler Ridge between Ben Lomond and Willard Peak. It’s totally doable for a decent day tour out of your car.”
The Northern Wasatch range’s other close-access backcountry options include the Utah State University hut system, where riders can enjoy treed terrain on side-by-side peaks, Mount Gog and Mount Magog.
In the Southern Wasatch, Timpanogos represents a must-get for many snowboard mountaineers. Though American Fork Canyon affords riders some drive-up access to the peak, Morrill points out that descending it requires a lot of planning, four to six hours of driving, and then four to six hours of skinning and hiking.
“If you don’t know the conditions of the mountain, you shouldn’t be there,” he says. “You have to have skills to access where you’re going. Even after six hours of hiking, if weather or snow conditions have changed, you also have to be prepared to turn around.”
The allure is, he says, is it’s being a more challenging situation.
How Gear Changed and What’s Next
Splitboarding’s popularity boomed in the 2010s, perhaps spurred by the Teton Gravity Research trilogy, “Deeper, Further, Higher,” which features Jeremy Jones and, among others, Forrest Shearer.
As the market potential increases for backcountry snowboarding gear, even large-scale, mainstream snowboard companies are putting splitboards in their quiver. Splitboard-specific companies are developing boards with different shapes, sizes, camber profiles, and weights in order to tailor a lighter, more energy-efficient product.
Voile’s hardware is still widely used. It interfaces with a pin system produced by the splitboard binding company, Spark R&D, in Montana. Their major competitor, Washington-based Karakoram, produces a buckle system that interfaces with the company’s own bindings.
With Dynafit coming out with a step-in, hard boot system, some riders are making the switch to hard boots because a stiffer boot enhances angulation during the ascent. Others refuse to change from soft boots because of hard boots’ discomfort during the descent.
So, where is the industry going next?
“I think the next evolution will be with splitboard boots, where the binding system will be integrated into the boot,” says Kelly Robbins. “A person will be able to just step into their board in ‘ride’ mode, like the old K2 Clickers, or step in during ‘split’ mode.”
Kobernik, the original splitboard innovator, agrees, “What the industry is lacking is a hybrid boot: a hard boot sole and a soft upper boot with a built-in highback that can be released for walking. As the industry continues to progress and innovate, it seems logical that this next step is not too far off.