LIKE Top Of The Pops and the Cold War, the whole skier-versus-snowboarder thing is a bit of a throwback. Sure, some crusty old skiers still like to bluster on about ‘dangerous’ boarders sitting down on pistes, but the truth is that serious skiers and snowboarders have happily coexisted for decades now. And nothing symbolises that spirit of détente more than splitboarding.
Hang on, split-whating? A splitboard is basically a snowboard that ‘splits’ into skis, enabling snowboarders to take advantage of a truth skiers have been privy to since the year dot — that skis are the best way of travelling uphill, particularly in deep snow.
So why would a snowboarder want to walk uphill anyway? Simple. To climb away from the resort boundaries, far from the crowds, and into the backcountry in search of an increasingly rare commodity: fresh powder. For middle-aged snowboarders like me, for whom the terrain park is a terrifying throwback to a dimly remembered youth, splitboarding offers a simpler, more satisfying experience. It’s one where descents are earned through muscle power alone, your only companion is silence and the snow is almost always better.
In theory, anyway. Naturally, there are a few safety and technique hurdles to overcome before you go charging off into the wilderness.
So earlier this year I booked a place on Stentiford Snowboarding’s Introduction to Splitboarding course (from £500pp, including all equipment, stentifordsnowboarding.co.uk) in France’s Chamonix valley.
It’s run by James Stentiford, a legendary pro snowboarder, nicknamed The Silverback by his friends, who is known as one of Europe’s foremost powder hunters. If there’s fresh snow to be found, he’ll sniff it out.
On day one we head to Les Houches, the gentlest of Chamonix’s six main resorts, for a run through the basics. James talks us through the essentials — how to ‘split’ and ‘join’ your board quickly and in sequence so you don’t lose body heat or any vital bits of kit. Next, we learn basic techniques: how to ski uphill, and how to kickturn so you can zigzag your way up most slopes. To the delight of my companions, I’m comfortably the worst skier in the group, all knees and elbows as I battle my way uphill.
Still, I persevere, making my way doggedly up a first short ascent to access a slope overlooking the entire Chamonix valley.
At the top, we join our boards before descending a beautiful powder field all the way to the valley floor.
The next morning, over a classic cold-cuts-and-croissants breakfast at Le Whymper Chalet and Spa (from £45pp, including breakfast, chaletwhymper-chamonix.com), James gives us a weather update. It turns out there’s a novel problem: too much snow. So much snow, in fact, that some of Chamonix’s resorts are closed. Not a problem for the Zen-like Stentiford, who leads us to the resort of Le Tour, a 20-minute drive down the valley.
As we head up the Les Autannes chairlift with visibility at zero, it seems like a bad call. ‘Don’t worry,’ says James with the serenity of a man who has spent 25 years correctly reading Chamonix’s unpredictable weather patterns. ‘We’ll use the splitboards to go high, where I reckon it’s going to be clear and empty.’
As we split our boards amid the type of pea-souper they outlawed with the Clean Air Act, I’m even less convinced. And then, as we climb into the murk, it happens. The clouds part, revealing us to be the only people on a beautiful mountain cloaked in pristine, untouched powder snow. Even more miraculously, my technique improves with each upward step. I climb on, accompanied by an increasing feeling of satisfaction at limits pushed and new skills attained. By the time we join our boards one final time, surveying the deserted, powder-filled arena that awaits, the camaraderie among our small group is palpable.
‘Told you,’ says James, as we prepare to descend. It’s been a classic Stentiford move. The resulting run is one of the best of my life and confirmation that the splitboarding hype is real. Just another day with The Silverback, then.
■ Return flights from London to Geneva start at around £44, easyjet.co.uk
Split decisions: Five things to do before you go splitboarding
1. BOOK A GUIDE
From avalanche awareness to understanding how all that kit works, there’s a lot to learn at first. Book an introductory course, like I did, or find a local guide in a resort who can show you the ropes.
2. TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
A full splitboarding set-up is expensive. For your first time, either make sure your guide has kit you can use or hire everything in your resort using a provider such as Intersport (intersportrent.com).
3. DO YOUR SQUATS
The whole point of splitboarding is to get to the top without using lifts. This means it is much harder work than the average day spent lapping your favourite chairlift. Make sure you’re in shape to make the most of it.
4. LAYER UP
Thanks to its stop/start nature, splitboarding throws up every conceivable temperature combo. You’ll overheat on the way up and freeze at the top as you join your board, so pack plenty of layers.
5. PACK YOUR LUNCH — AND PLENTY OF WATER
Away from the lifts, restaurants are pretty difficult to come by. Pack water to stay hydrated and plenty of snacks for that hard-earned summit picnic.
Cutting edge: Split kit
ORTOVOX ZOOM+ AVALANCHE RESCUE TRANSCEIVER
A full backcountry safety kit of transceiver, shovel and probe is essential while splitboarding. Unisex, £229, snowboard-asylum.com
GLIDELITE SPLITBOARD MIX STS 140 MM
You need climbing skins to help you ascend. The new-fangled construction of these means they’re lighter and more compressible. £164.90, snowleader.co.uk
JONES FRONTIER SPLITBOARD
A typical day will see you skiing icy tracks and snowboarding powder fields — this can handle it all. Men’s, £669, snowboard-asylum.com
DAKINE HELI PRO 20L BACKPACK
This classic backpack continues to set the standard. The padded back panel is welcome, while laptop compatibility means you can use it off the slopes too. Unisex, £74.99, snowboard-asylum.com