As I hit the exposed summit ridge of Mount Fox, an 11,240-foot peak in Montana’s Beartooth range, there was simply no escaping the arctic wind. But the final 10-minute push to the top was the price I would have to pay if I wanted to snowboard down the east face, an uninterrupted thousand-foot drop into a protected bowl of perfectly packed powder.
I was using a splitboard and as the ridge angle lessened, it was time to strap back into ski mode and slide up the last 200 feet — it would be far faster than snowshoeing or boot packing, as I had been doing over the steeper rocky terrain. I fumbled while extending my ski poles to make them both the same length. The 10-minute summit push became 15 minutes and my fingers were freezing. At the top, I needed to turn skis into snowboard for the ride down, so I dropped to my knees for the changeover, careful not to let any piece of gear fall or slide away from me. I had done this about a dozen times already in the last 48 hours and still had yet to execute a perfect ski-to-board switch. In fact, I had yet to be able to do it without taking a glove off. 15 minutes was now turning into 20.
I ripped the skins off, flipped the risers up on my bindings, and then slid my bindings onto the pucks. None of those words meant anything to me, either, before I became a splitboarder. With the board back together, I just needed to stow my poles and strap in. But as I fumbled with the webbing on my pack, 20 minutes turned into 25.
Finally, I was ready, standing on my board at the edge of a 40-degree slope. I dropped in, making a few jump turns to control my speed on the steepest part. Then I let go, making wide arcing turns as the bowl opened up around me. It took two minutes to get to the bottom. 120 seconds.
An hour later we had found our first stash, a section of knee-deep pillows that dropped through a stand of trees.
This is precisely why splitboarding will never be mainstream — but it’s also what makes it so special. Ski touring — moving through the mountains, up and down, on a pair of skis — is as old as skiing itself. Climbers and mountaineers were early adopters because of how much quicker it made ascending long low-angled snow slopes (not to mention how much more fun it made going down). But the truth is, the “down” is probably less than one percent of the touring experience. What touring is really about is fully embracing the old mantra that the journey is the destination. And in much the same way that just a few minutes of summit euphoria are worth several hours of pain to reach it, the ride down after a long ski or snowboard tour sticks in your mind forever.
The gnarled and pointy Beartooth Mountains surround a small town in Montana called Cooke City, which sits just four miles away from the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. In winter, Cooke City becomes a sort of lawless outpost for hardcore backcountry skiers, climbers and snowmobilers — or “slednecks”, as they’re affectionately referred to locally. Beefed up two-stroke Arctic Cats and Yamahas are lined up outside coffee shops and bars like Harleys, making the tiny town look like it’s been taken over by a winterized biker gang.
Beartooth Powder Guides has two wilderness basecamps here: a log cabin that sleeps 11 on the flanks of Pilot Peak and a smaller but fully appointed yurt that sits perched at 9,400 feet, with views across the entire valley. The yurt, where our crew was staying, is eight miles from town down a snowmobile-only track through the woods, and it feels a million miles away from anything.
The day we arrived, we spent the morning shuttling people and gear to the yurt, which typically involves one or two skiers or boarders being towed behind a snowmobile, waterski-style. That same afternoon we were strapped into skis and led further into the wilderness in search of powder.
Getting a handle on the splitboard setup was actually the least of my worries in the Beartooths. As we ascended toward 10,000 feet I was gasping for air. The technique itself is simple — almost as intuitive as walking — but it’s a full-body movement that can leave you breathless after just a few strides. Skiing uphill is made possible by sticking “skins” to the bottom each ski. Skins feel a lot like the fur on the back of a cat: rub one way and it’s silky smooth; rub the opposite direction and you catch all the friction you need to grip the snow.
An hour later we had found our first stash, a section of knee-deep pillows that dropped through a stand of trees. We made the switch from skis to boards and, one by one, picked our own fresh line down the 500-foot slope. A minute later we were once again breaking our boards down and strapping into skis to do it all over again. I still hadn’t caught my breath from the previous climb. By the time the sun was setting, we had our boots drying by the woodburning stove and whisky warming our fingers and toes.
Splitboard and ski touring is an entirely different sport than resort skiing — and different rules apply.
Go with a Guide: Backcountry skiing is on the rise and so are avalanche deaths. Understanding snowpack, how to use avalanche rescue equipment, and knowing what to do if you end up lost overnight takes years of training. Until you have those years under your belt, hire a guide and let them worry about the serious stuff so you can have fun.
Know the Gear: Do not embark on a splitboarding adventure without having spent at least a day familiarizing yourself with the ski-board changeover, and getting a feel for “skinning”.
Learn to Layer: Because touring involves so much more time traveling uphill than down, versatile layers with good venting and breathability are key. At the same time, touring often delivers you to high and exposed places, where a hefty-but-packable down layer is essential during slow changeovers and water breaks.
Know Where to Go: The great thing about backcountry skiing is that there is far more out-of-bounds terrain than in bounds, and the snow is always better. Get a feel for it by first exploring the sidecountry terrain at your favorite ski resort. Many resorts these days have sidecountry “gates” that lead to popular touring routes.
Snowboarders were only invited to the touring party in the mid ’90s, when Voile produced the first commercially available splitboard. But it was still a tiny subset within the sport until companies like Burton and K2 jumped on board. However, splitboards were still unconvincing and cumbersome until about 2010 and only now is the technology allowing for a totally seamless experience. And, boy have things changed: of the eight of us on this trip, five were on splitboards.
In fact, splitboarding is currently the only sector of snowboarding seeing growth. In what many are calling a stale industry, this tiny niche corner of the market is experiencing a mini boom. It reflects a general shift away from resort skiing and riding toward the backcountry, or what many call “sidecountry”: un-patrolled terrain that can be accessed from a resort. Pro rider Jeremy Jones made three hugely popular films — Further, Deeper, and Higher — in which all his ascents are human powered instead of helicopter assisted. Today, Jones is considered one of the top innovators in splitboarding, not only chasing the perfect technology in boards, but also collaborating with binding and boot companies so that the entire system works as one.
After the drop off Mount Fox on our final day in the Beartooths, the group gathered at the bottom of the run in a vast snowfield known as Goose Lake. We choked down some sandwiches and water to fuel up for the long ski back to the snowmobiles. Not 20 minutes after going from ski to board, I was once again changing over from snowboard to skis, wrestling with my skins as they flapped in the wind. A crown of spires over 11,000 feet high surrounded us — Sawtooth, Zimmer, and Fox, the one we had just climbed. Each had at least one chute worthy of a starring role in any ski or snowboard film.
As I skied away from Mount Fox, I once again struggled to keep up. The gap between me and our guide just kept widening until he was a tiny speck on the horizon. Even after three days of touring the Beartooths, I was still terribly out of shape. But I had learned something: The meditative rhythm of sliding across untouched snow, in places that only a handful of skiers are willing to venture to, is a stark reminder that when it comes to ski touring, the journey is indeed the destination. So instead of trying to speed up, I decided to hang back and savor my last few hours in the backcountry. What’s the hurry?