There’s something so profound and grounding about spending time in the back country, for a mountain enthusiast like myself, it’s a place to truly take in and show gratitude for the mountains and their stunning surroundings. Don’t get me wrong, the mountains can be tough and make you work hard for the goods. You’ve heard the saying “Earn Your Turns” which couldn’t be more accurate but the effort is most definitely worth it, Mother Nature will reward.
I’m a dead set beginner splitboarder. Having only toured three times on a recent trip to Japan, I’m in no way claiming to know everything about splitboarding because I don’t at all! there is still so much I have to learn. I have written this purely to share my experiences and share with you the things that I observed and found helpful.
Planning the hike
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “If You Don’t Know, Don’t Go”, well this message couldn’t be anymore clear and with good reason. Splitboarding should be an amazing adventurous experience, not a terrifying traumatic one in which someone gets hurt or even worse, loses their life. There’s a bit of a mentality out there where people think avalanches are, a) somewhat mystical and, b) won’t happen to them, well, news flash, avalanches don’t discriminate, mother nature can be nasty and unleash her fury when you least expect it. You only have to read the avalanche accident reports on avalanche.org to see that even people who have avalanche knowledge, wear all the right safety gear and know the mountain like the back of their hand still get caught out.
Touring with safety gear, in my view, is not negotiable. At a minimum, back country riders should wear a transceiver and carry a backpack containing a probe and shovel and know how to use it in the event of an avalanche. Prior to going back country my husband and I did an exercise in the sandunes (no snow here in Perth, Australia) so we could practice using our transceivers. When we arrived in Japan we did some exercises in the snow to not only find the buried object but to practice using our probe and shovel to precisely locate it and dig it out, these exercises were so valuable and gave me confidence that I could potentially save someones life if the worst were to happen. These are exercises that I’ll repeat each time on a snow trip just to refresh my memory.
Knowing snow pack activity in the recent weeks and days leading up to the hike is also crucial. Read the snow reports and look at the avalanche danger before you go. Mitigate as much risk as possible and if that means staying off slopes steeper than 30 degrees because the risk is too high then so be it. A life is not worth it for the possibility of a few extra turns. I personally found the Know Before You Go tutorial extremely helpful. This online tutorial taught me a heap about avalanches types and the risk factors to consider. Another great online tutorial is Want To Stay Safe In Avalanche Terrain on Avalanche.org. This site also has an avalanche encyclopedia to look up terms of reference, even comes complete with diagrams to help your understanding. Next on the list is an actual avalanche awareness course which I will book in and do at my first opportunity.
Planning a pathway up the mountain in advance is also a must. The hike takes a long time and your hiking party remain close together, you don’t want to expose yourself to avalanche terrain if there is another option. We found using the FATMAPS app very helpful as it shows the mountain in 3D with lots of handy tools including aspect and steepness shading.
Setting up prior to the hike
We had driven to our destination and were able to set up next to the car. All we had to do was separate our board, put the bindings back on and skin up. The skins are very very sticky, its helpful to have someone to help you pull them apart and hold them while you line them up nicely along the ski, being a beginner I would have struggled if I didn’t have someone to help me with this bit.
My husband and I chose to purchase avalanche bags (Pieps brand), these bags are fairly big already and we then had to fit our jacket, goggles, gloves (because it’s too hot to hike wearing these items), shovel, probe, water and snacks. The bag was huge on me and I did wonder if it would affect my balance when riding but it didn’t, except if I had a fall and had to get back up (think of a turtle). It does help if that straps are done up nice and tight and if the bottom belt strap sits firmly on your hips to take most of the load. Before setting off we made sure our avalanche transceivers and avalanche backpacks were on and working.
Not going to lie, I found this part the hardest, it definitely didn’t help that I broke my little toe one week out from our snow trip and was advised not to do any sports for 6 weeks! That aside, I pushed on and was determined to get up that mountain. These are the things that helped me get there (In no particular order).
- Music – A friend of mine strapped a small speaker to the outside of his backpack and cranked some good tunes. This was the best distraction and provided motivation at the times it was lacking.
- Looking at the scenery – This helped remind me why I was doing the climb and that it would be worth it. I couldn’t help but smile and be happy being surrounded by beautiful mountains with the sun beaming down. (I may have been crying on the inside about my toe).
- Actually using the ski poles – I was able to move through the snow a lot quicker when I learnt to actually use and lean on my ski poles. This helped balance me and made me feel more confident especially when performing a kick turn to change direction.
- Watching a “How To Kick Turn” tutorial prior to the hike – As a snowboarder not accustomed to ski’s at all, kick turning was difficult. Watching the tutorial (there are a few on YouTube) helped immensely, especially with the donkey kick part which helps bring the ski forward.
- COMMUNICATION – Keep checking in with your fellow hiking buddies, make sure everyone is still ok and happy with the chosen route. Make sure everyone has a say. Often we just go along with the majority but it’s important to hear everyone’s opinion and observation especially if the route needs to change. Don’t just assume the whole group is on the same page, check and check again. This is also a must on the way down, you end up a long way apart, a phone or two-way radio is a must.
- Wearing sunglasses – On a bluebird day the hike will be blinding as the sun reflects off the snow and burns through your eyeballs. Wear sunglasses and not goggles because goggles will fog up and then you wont be able to see a thing on the ride down.
- Have your usual snowboard gloves in your bag – I was a drastic temperature change once at the top, I went from being super hot to freezing within the space of a minute, my fingers were so cold that I could barely use them. I was wearing inners for the hike but next time I would put my gloves on earlier to ensure my hands were warm and useable.
At the top
Ah, such a relief, all that hard work is finally worth it when you stop to take in the amazing view. Reaching the top of Nito-Nupuri in Japan was joyous, this was our first split board mission, the stoke was high, high fives were flying around and the views were stunning. We quickly put on our jackets, gloves and goggles, de-skinned our planks, joined our boards back together and got ready to descend.
The ride down.
Now for the fun! I felt like Christopher Columbus on his first expedition (I actually have zero idea what Christopher Columbus felt like on his first expedition but I imagine it was a mix of pure excitement and a little bit of terror). It’s hard to tell from the top what was on the other side, lucky for me my husband Jay dropped first (he was the real Columbus). I followed after he reported he was in a safe zone, into one of the best rides of my life. The powder wasn’t overly deep due to lack of snow (it hadn’t snowed for over a week) but it was still soft and smooth. I was ecstatic and couldn’t get enough. Once riding the initial face we came through some trees which was just as fun. Overall the ride was fairly long. Towards the end we had a bit of a sketchy traverse above a river but all in all it was fairly easy to get back to where our car was parked. It’s hard to ride in Japan and not encounter rivers or other terrain traps in the valleys.
Splitboarding left a long lasting kind of stoke, for at least the next 8 hours we were all still smiling, laughing and debriefing about our adventure. Splitboarding not only gave me access to stunning views and the opportunity to explore and appreciate different terrain but it encouraged me to be fully present and appreciative of many things, my surroundings, the people I was with and the fact that I was healthy and able to complete the hike and have the ride of my life on the way down. Our split boarding day was definitely a grand adventure and a highlight from our snow trips so far. If you’re keen, get out there and give it a go (safely of course). As the master himself, Mr Jeremy Jones said “Life is too short to ride the same face twice”.