Despite the snowboard's obvious advantages for off piste riding it still seems unfair that ski tourers can use their skis for both climbing and skiing whereas boarders have the weight penalty and balance problems of carrying either approach skis or snowshoes for the descents.
The solution is the split board. Backcountry expert Robert Athey told us the history of the Voilé? Split Decision. It was a winter afternoon in 1994 when Athey came across Brett The Cowboy Kobernick making a tour on a strange looking contraption. One rainy autumn day Kobernick had simply cut an old snowboard down the middle with a hacksaw and with the addition of ski touring parts and door hinges built what would be come the Split Decision. Athey saw the potential for backcountry snowboarders and introduced Kobernick to Mark Wally Wariakois, owner of Voilé Mountain Equipment. This gave Kobernick the help he needed to refine the board. Athey recalls the night they cut 25 Hooger Booger boards in half for the first production run. Eventually edges were added all-round to provide greater security when traversing and wide skins were developed in collaboration with Ascension. By the MilleniumVoilé had sold around 2,500 split-boards, largely in North America but they are now exporting to Europe.
There are currently four main manufacturers with split boards in their line-up,Voilé and Burton? with Duotone? and Whistler based Prior Snowboards? offering their own boards based on the provenVoilé fixing system. Nitro, who developed a split in Europe at the same time as Voile are considering getting back into the game by licensingVoilé's technolgoy.
As the name suggests the board splits down the middle to form two approach skis for climbing. The bindings run parallel to the skis for climbing. Wide skins can be fitted to the skis for climbing and the additional length compared to approach skis mean that all but the steepest pitches can be scaled. Progress is also much faster than with snowshoes, although some purists accuse split boarders of being closet skiers. Ouch!
Voilé Swallowtail Split Board
Voilé have the most experience in this market and supply their Split Decision board in both freeride and deep powder swallowtail shapes. The freeride board is available in a number of different lengths to suit all riders. The board costs around 650 and Voilé, recognising this may be beyond some boarders pockets also provide a kit to turn any old snowboard into a split board. A recent redesign has eliminated the gap between the two halves giving a more rigid board and the joints use a self cleaning system to eliminate ice build-up. Voilé can supply a lightweight plate binding that adapts to plastic climbing boots, randonee or telemark boots.
Burton Omen Split Board
Burton have got into the backcountry game with the Omen Split designed with help from snow boarder Craig Kelly. Craig was tragically killed early in 2003 while with a group of boarders on the Durrand glacier in British Columbia so it remains to be seen how Burton will progress this concept without his input. Cost is around 350 which is somewhat cheaper than the Split Decision. German manufacturer Duotone have also have a split board call the Tour, this uses the Voilé touring system.
Finally Prior snowboards have both a swallowtail and a freeride board in their stable. Like the Duotone they use the Voilé fixing system and excellent tractor skins. Cost is $850, European customers will probably have to order on-line.
However as with ski touring gear the split board is a compromise. It is less torsionally rigid than a single snowboard and not recommended for extended piste use (so you will need two boards which can be a bit hard given the cost of split boards). The rigidity will also affect off piste performance in hard snow conditions. There is a weight penalty to be paid too. It is worthwhile carrying a screwdriver or similar tool for scraping any ice build-up from the joints. While climbing is fine the split skis and bindings don't offer good edging on traverses across hard pack snow and ice. This can be particularly frustrating if climbing with skiers who will have to wait.
No matter how you climb the hill you will need a pair of telescopic ski poles. These help with balance and provide support while climbing and can be collapsed and stowed in or on the rucksack for descents. Many off-piste routes, such as the Col des Rochers mentioned above or the Glacier de Gébroulaz?, at Val Thorens have flat sections or even small up hills and poles can be used to propel the boarder along.