I slapped the skins on my skis, tied into the rope team and began ascending one of the many mountains surrounding the Pika Glacier. With views of Denali to my left, my skis slid smoothly over the sun-cupped glacial terrain. We reached a plateau in elevation, and our instructor running the mountaineering course I was taking part in gave us the option to take our skins off and ski down into the safe zone marked by wands and then our camp. I’d never downhill skied before—I was a snowboarder—but this was Alaska, and I was damn sure going to try it.

asdsaPika Glacier | Denali National Park | Alaska Mountaineering School 12-day Course | July 2019

I’ll leave my descent up to your imagination, but you can fill in the pretzel-esque blanks and assume that I earned multiple face-fulls of snow. Since that moment, I’ve wanted to try splitboarding. Splitboarding is the equivalent experience for a snowboarder. The board splits into two skis (hence the name) that you can put skins on and climb with. Once you’re ready to drop in, rather than skiing down, you remove your skins and clip your board back together to snowboard down the mountain, hill or whatever you just climbed.

 

Getting Set Up

To try it, I wanted to head into the mountains. That meant a quick trip to Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Splitboard setups aren’t cheap, which is why I planned to rent, but as it turns out, there aren’t that many places that rent splitboards. After a few calls and a Google search, I learned that both Illusion Board Shop in Magog and Splitboard QC in Sherbrooke (they also have a location in Quebec City) offered rentals. I spoke with both of them and had a setup rented from Illusion ready for Tuesday and one from Splitboard QC for Wednesday.

On Tuesday morning there were some heavy winds in the Eastern Townships. My plan was to head to Illusion to pick up my board and learn about the setup, then snowboard with Claudie Leclerc, a splitboarder and event coordinator at Owl’s Head, a local mountain in the Eastern Townships. Unfortunately, Owl’s Head had to close for the day because of a power outage caused by the winds, so my plans were up in the air, but at least I would have a splitboard.

After coffee and a bagel, I met up with Vincent Gauthier, an avid splitboarder and manager of Illusion Boardshop. Vincent showed me how to take the board apart, slip the bindings into touring mode and then put the board back together. With that said and done, Vincent handed me my board and gave me a couple of route recommendations to try splitboarding for the first time at nearby Mont Orford. Now it was feeling real.

  

  

A splitboard setup allows snowboarders to enter touring mode, something that’s necessary for backcountry terrain. Due to the popularity of touring, many resorts such as Mont Orford offer “backcountry” touring trails that link up to the resort’s many runs. This is a perfect option for beginners, myself included, who might want to test out their skills before heading into backcountry terrain. This type of splitboarding is referred to as “Inbounds splitboarding.”

 

Splitboarding For the First Time

I followed the instructions that Vincent had laid out for me earlier that morning, took my board apart and put it into touring mode. Ascending on the trail, I started to slide downhill every time I tried to climb up. I tried a few attempts before I realized that I had put the skins on backwards. The skins are designed to create friction in one direction and be smooth in the other so that you can go uphill without sliding, but downhill without losing momentum. After a quick switch, I tried heading uphill again. This time I was climbing steadily and set for a little type-2 fun.

I love a good sufferfest. It felt great to earn my turns, get my heart pumping and give my legs a solid dose of uphill terrain. I got the hang of flipping my climbing bars up on steep ascents, sidehilling and using my edges when it called for it. With very few people on the trail, I was fortunate to experience frozen waterfalls, a beautiful snow-covered forest and a frozen lake close to the summit.

  

643eMitch Bowmile

Once I climbed out of the trail I rejoined the resort, clipped my snowboard into downhill mode, and enjoyed riding down with views of the mountains in the Eastern Townships. Despite being experienced with a snowboard, riding the splitboard felt different. After one more ascent and descent I felt more dialed in on my riding and I packed up to return my board to Illusion in Magog.

  

Riding With an Expert

The plan for Wednesday was to do some riding with Bastien Mony, the manager of Splitboard QC Sherbrooke. After a good sleep in a local inn and several coffees, I drove back to Mont Orford where I met up with Bastien.

 

  

Bastien has been splitboarding since before there were even splitboards. Fifteen years ago he bought a jig on the internet to cut his snowboard in half and make his own touring setup. His homemade splitboard took him into Quebec’s infamous backcountry terrain in the Chic-Choc Mountains many a time before he bought an actual splitboard in 2014. Before splitboarding rose in popularity, Bastien told me that a lot of riders used to snowshoe up to the top of a ridge or summit in backcountry terrain before snowboarding down. This meant bringing a lot of gear.

Strapping on our bindings, we began to ascend another route on Mont Orford. We swapped adventure stories, and Bastien showed me a few more tricks that would make me more efficient on a splitboard and speed up my transitions with both my climbing bars and going from touring mode to downhill mode.

dfghghMitch Bowmile

After climbing some moderate terrain, we reached a section that was steep, icy and long. Flipping our climbing bars into the highest mode, Bastien taught me how to position my “skis” and poles in order to do a switchback properly without losing my footing. Digging into our edges, we made our way up with some effort.

That section of uphill earned us a delicious lunch. I fired up my stove and we cooked a freeze-dried meal of shrimp linguini courtesy of Happy Yak. While we ate, we took in the views of Jay’s Peak in Vermont to the south and Quebec’s Mont Sutton and Owl’s Head. We could see the entire section of mountains between Quebec and Vermont. Not a bad place for a hot meal.

edgdfMitch Bowmile

Strapping back into our skis, we reached a short section of climbing and in no time at all ascended onto one of the runs at the top of Mont Orford. Taking a few minutes to transition into downhill mode, we did up our bindings, got some momentum and felt that familiar back and forth of riding our edges downhill.

   

Being a Beginner Again

Taking a slight detour into a gladed area, Bastien ripped over bumps, avoided trees and caught small bits of air as he rode down. Without experience in this type of terrain, my ego took a hit as I tried to follow him through the trees. After a small break, Bastien said that this is the type of riding you need to be able to handle if you’re going to head into the backcountry in Quebec.

64Mitch Bowmile

As we made our way down, I felt like a beginner again. In a world of social media where people only post the highlights of their lives and their greatest talents, we often compare ourselves to experts before we even start. Before social media, we didn’t have the same exposure to “expert culture.” If we wanted to learn a new skill, we took it upon ourselves to do so and compared ourselves mostly against our own progress. Nowadays, I find that being a beginner again is a rarity, but it actually felt good. Really good. I felt humbled to be a beginner in a sport that I considered myself competent at. I felt excited to try something new, allow myself to fall, learn and improve my riding.

If there’s a takeaway to this story, it’s that. Be a beginner again. Try something new. Don’t be afraid to suck at something. As I told Bastien over an aprés splitboard beer, despite struggling to ride through the trees, I was now motivated to improve my skills and take an avalanche course to move from inbound splitboarding to riding backcountry terrain. I paused after telling him that, and then included that it also wouldn’t hurt to brush up on my French.

asfdsMitch Bowmile

  

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