From Kowboy to Voile, the splitboard world is still evolving
Special to the Weekender
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.
There can be little debate among snowboarders that the ability to ride powder is one of the finest activities available to humankind. But backcountry riders have long lamented the difficulty of getting to the top of that field of dreams.
More than 20 years after a guy nicknamed “Kowboy” pieced together a hacksawed snowboard in an effort to skin uphill on two “skis” and ride back down on one board, the sport of splitboarding is no longer a weird experiment.
While splitboarding may seem like a new sport, it has actually been residing on the fringe of snowboarding since the late 1980s. Back then, snowboarders were the alien element for most backcountry snowsports enthusiasts, as they labored uphill, boards on their backs, postholing up the skintrack or snowshoeing through deep drifts.
But, in 1991, the way snowboarders went uphill changed when Utah’s Brett “Kowboy” Kobernik took a friend’s snowboard that had been hacked in half vertically and spent a week putting it back together with materials from his local hardware store. He attached a set of adhesive climbing skins to the bottom and the splitboard was born.
The following year, Kobernik brought a prototype of his first splitboard to Mark Wariakois, the founder of Voile, a Salt Lake City ski manufacturer. The company was primarily focused on creating new backcountry ski and telemark binding designs at that time, but Wariakois saw a future for backcountry snowboarding in Kobernik’s crude design.
Throughout the course of the next few years, the duo continued to refine the idea and, in 1994, Voile released the first do-it-yourself “Split Kit.” Now, for the first time, riders had the option of a truly innovative way to access their elusive backcountry powder.
But, despite this revolutionary development in uphill snowboard travel, splitboarding was slow to gain acceptance. For many of the riders hoping to hit the open backcountry away from resorts, “creating” a splitboard proved to be a bit too time consuming. Eventually, Voile began producing factory-made splitboards for a small market.
Worth the Wait
Given the widespread reluctance in allowing snowboarding within the confines of ski resorts across the nation, the inevitable evolution of boarding in the backcountry took more time, but most would agree that it was indeed worth the wait.
With little use in the 1990s, splitboards trailed the quantity, quality and aesthetics of conventional boards. During the latter half of the decade, splitboard production began to be undertaken by a greater host of manufacturers and the number that were shaped grew substantially, truly heralding the arrival of splitboarding to the scene.
By the early 2000s, more splitboard companies, such as Prior, Venture and Never Summer, entered the market. But snowboarders themselves were still divided into two camps: terrain park riders and big mountain boarders, who helicoptered to the top of peaks, rather than ascending under their own power.
That all changed in 2010 when Truckee’s Jeremy Jones, the best known big mountain snowboarder, released “Deeper,” the first of a Teton Gravity Research trilogy of films featuring splitboard-powered world-class snowboarding. The movie redefined what was rideable on a snowboard and gave splitboarding a legitimate place in the snowboarding world.
Recent interest and investment in the sport have led to a period of rapid innovation. New binding systems have resulted in splitboards capable of shredding the most serious big mountain terrain, with little or no sacrifice in performance. As a consequence, the majority of mainstream snowboard brands now build at least one splitboard.
Honoring 10th Mountain Division
Last season, Minturn-based Weston Snowboards, in conjunction with Venture Snowboards, designed a special edition splitboard to pay homage to the 10th Mountain Division, featuring the logos of the mountain troops who trained at Camp Hale. The company has donated one of these boards to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and you can see it on display at the museum.
Some companies now offer splitboard-specific bindings, designed to reduce the weight associated with the adapter plate/standard binding combination. This reduced weight increases the range and duration of extended uphill climbs, while the lower foot bed also increases the feel for the board.
To this day, the sport remains a tight-knit group, despite its increasing popularity, retaining the energy and enthusiasm of a relatively new activity that is still growing. In that way, splitboarding could easily be viewed as a full-circle return to snowboarding’s roots, continuing to reinsert imagination and adventure into the experience of sliding on snow.
And “Kowboy” Kobernik continues his relationship with the backcountry that he helped open up for snowboarding, working as a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center since the winter of 2004-05. His initial concept of “Ski Up — Shred Down” is still very much alive and well today.
Author John Dakin wrote this article as part of a series from the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that takes a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure.
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