Splitboarding 101: An intro to gear, terrain and growth for Colorado splitboard riders | SummitDaily.com

Splitboarding 101: An intro to gear, terrain and growth for Colorado splitboard riders

Editor's note: This article is part of a weeklong series about alpine touring and splitboard travel in Colorado. For more, including gear reviews, route suggestions and backcountry videos, see the sports section at SummitDaily.com.

In an average season, Alex Gelb gets about 85 days on the slopes. Not bad for a mountain town local — but only five of those days are spent jostling through lift lines at a ski resort. The other 80 days are spent nearly alone in the backcountry with nothing but a 172-centimenter Furberg splitboard between him and the goods.

"For most people it's (about) getting some peace and quiet, getting out into nature," said Gelb, a Houston native who now works at Wilderness Sports in Dillon and fits the mold of a typical splitboarder. "It's a more authentic experience I would say."

Over the past five or six seasons, splitboarding — the snowboard equivalent of human-powered alpine touring on skis made for uphill travel in deep, remote locations — has gone from a garage oddity to one of the newest and hottest segments of the snow sports industry. In 2011, at the annual SnowSports Industries of America trade show in Denver, a handful of established companies like K2, Rome and Burton debuted men's splitboard in response to the insane popularity of AT ski equipment. By 2016, those first big dogs were joined by more than a dozen other companies, from big-name Jones Snowboards to tiny Furberg. Snowboard sales as a whole have slowly declined every season since 2010, but riders (and industry workers) like Gelb don't see the splitboard and backcountry touring market dying anytime soon.

"I feel like five years ago there were fewer manufacturers and more do-it-yourself things, like splitting the board in your garage," said Gelb, who started splitboarding soon after moving to Colorado seven years back. "Now, there are entry-level boards, stuff you can get into right away, and the second-hand market is growing exponentially. A few year ago you didn't see many used ones."

Split gear 101

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The splitboard market might be growing at a rapid clip, but that doesn't mean it's as straightforward as sports like alpine skiing or even its big, bad older brother, freestyle snowboarding.

For starters, the equipment is much different than a run-of-the-mill snowboard made for resort and terrain park riding. Most splitboards are long and wide to float in powder — most men's models start at 159 cm and get bigger from there — and come in a slew of funky shapes, from directional twin-tips to dramatic swallowtails with fat noses. Colorado manufacturers like Unity Snowboards of Silverthorne and Weston Snowboards of Minturn have experimented with all over the past four or five seasons, and by now they both press boards made for almost any type of travel.

The two things all splitboards share: a specialized binding system and two ski-like pieces. The two-part thing is intuitive — pull them apart to travel uphill, just like skis, and then clip them together for the snowboard ride down — but the binding system is different than anything else out there. Splitboard bindings from manufacturers like Voile, Spark R&D and even Union look similar to freeride cousins, but they're made to slide on and off the board with something known as a "puck" — an insert that's screwed to the board and holds the bindings in place, whether you're in uphill touring mode or downhill riding mode.

The first splitboard binding systems in the '90s and '00s were finicky, but Gelb says the industry has evolved to be simpler and sleeker.

"I think it's gotten a lot more accessible," Gelb said of modern splitboard equipment. "The gear has come down in price and it's now significantly better, and now you have boot companies offering boots that are touring specific. It's not quite like an AT boot, but it's getting into that realm, with one mode for touring, one for riding."

Gelb personally rides a hard-boot setup. He prefers it to traditional soft boots — "It's a lighter setup (and) makes a big difference for those longer days," he said — but companies like Deeluxe and Thirty-Two now make hybrid boots with hard backs and soft uppers. All told, a brand-new splitboard setup ranges from $800 to more than $2,000. Zach Husted, another Summit splitboarder, suggests saving money with a used kit to get started.

"No need to splurge on a brand-new kit right away," Husted said. "It's better to start with the necessities and upgrade if you grow to love self-powered winter travel."

For the ladies

Purpose-built men's splitboards are still relatively new, but the women's market has taken even longer to catch on. Until this season, only a few big brands like Burton and Jones made women's models. Even then, most brands only offered one option for women.

That all changed when boutique manufacturer's like Prior Snowboards and Pallas Snowboards — a tiny, female-owned factory from Utah — launched full splitboard lines made for ladies. They're lighter, slimmer and more maneuverable than men's models, and that can make all the difference during a daylong tour.

"It depends on what I can do, but it's generally as much as we can fit in," Gelb said of splitboard trips to favorite locations like Baldy Mountain in Breckenridge, Frey Gulch near Keystone and the Gore Range north of Silverthorne. "Full days are preferable always."

Next up for the industry: boots and bindings. No major manufacturers make women's-only splitboard bindings, and the same goes for boot manufacturers.

Growing pains

While splitboarding continues to grow in North America, it's been slow to catch on across the world. Europe is another natural hotbed, led by pros like big-mountain rider Xavier de le Rue, but Japan and other Asian countries are still locked into freestyle halfpipe and slopestyle riding.

"Backcountry isn't a huge scene since they don't have the sizable mountains or terrain compared to the French Alps, BC, or even Colorado," Husted said of splitboarding in Japan, where he hopes to become a guide next season.

With any luck, Husted says, that will change soon. Backcountry riders like Japan's Kazuhiro Kokubo are making waves in the big-mountain world. The only question for industry movers and shakers is whether or not this next generation will embrace human-powered travel and shy away from snowmobiles and helicopters.

For converts like Gelb, though, nothing beats a day of splitboarding far away from the resorts — even if the powder stashes are few and far between.

"Just embrace it," Gelb said. "Don't think that every single turn is going to be waist-deep powder. You've just got to keep your head in the game — some days will be tougher than others — but as long as you keep a positive attitude you'll have a good time."

Summit County Splitboarding routes

You’ve got the split kit. You’ve got the avalanche gear. But where to from there? Locals weigh in on their favorite Summit County routes for splitboarding and alpine touring.

Easy | Arapahoe Basin and resorts

Did you know that just about every resort in Summit County allows uphill travel before and after the lifts are spinning? Now you know.

Arapahoe Basin is a favorite for early-morning skiers, known for a route up High Noon that’s challenging but not too brutal. Breckenridge is another favorite, featuring five routes between Peak 7, Peak 8, Peak 9 and Peak 10. Rules at all resorts are slightly different, so be sure to study up before heading out.

The perks: there might not be bottomless powder like the backcountry, but there’s something special about solo corduroy turns on Springmeier.

Advanced | Baldy Mountain and Mayflower Gulch

A few of Summit’s most popular summer hikes are also perfect for splitboard and AT travel. Mount Baldy is a favorite, known for easy access and a three-mile uphill route that follows a mellow grade to west-facing trees, bowls and the occasional boulder drop. Simply park at the trailhead east of Breckenridge and follow the tracks to the Iowa Mill. From there, Baldy is your oyster.

Mayflower Gulch is another simple excursion, found about 10 minutes south of Copper Mountain en route to Leadville on Highway 91. It’s another three-mile skin to the base of a natural amphitheater and long-gone mining settlement. The surrounding peaks offer dozens of lines, but be wary: avalanches are a constant danger. Travel smart, travel safe, and always travel with a buddy.

Expert | Quandary Peak and the Tenmile Range

There’s nothing quite like cresting Breck’s hometown 14er in the winter. Quandary Peak is a favorite for high-adventure types and features three main lines, each ready by late spring: the East Slopes, Cristo Couloir and the North Gullies. All three are accessed by a 5.2-mile skin to the summit with a gain of about 3,900 vertical, but choose wisely. Slopes range from 25 to 45+ degrees — the sweet spot for avy danger — and all require a return trip.

Quandary is the sentinel of the Tenmile Range, and each peak between Frisco and Breckenridge is home to backcountry lines. For an in-depth look at each one, find “MakingTurns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range,” a guidebook by Summit Daily columnist and backcountry guru Fritz Sperry.

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Earn Your Turns week

It’s finally March, and that means the meat of backcountry touring season is nearly here. To get prepared, local AT skiers and splitboarders are taking over the Summit Daily sports section in print and online this week with reviews, guides, videos and more.

Wednesday, March 1

Take 5 — Q&A with Zach Husted, a Japan splitboard guide-in-training

Thursday, March 2

High Gear — Weston Big Chief splitboard review, plus video

High Gear — Scarpa F1 AT ski boot review, plus video

Friday, March 3

High Gear — Unity Whale and Dominion splitboard comparison

Retrofitted — History of splitboarding

Saturday, March 4

Splitboard 101 — All you need to know about splitboarding in Summit, plus video

Sunday, March 5

Retrofitted — History of alpine touring, Part One

Monday, March 6

Retrofitted — History of alpine touring, Part Two

Thursday, March 9 or 16

High Gear — Voile kit DIY splitboard construction, plus video

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