by John Moynier (updated 11/23/99)
There is no real difference in the approach to travelling in the backcountry whether on skis, snowboards or snowshoes. The key is to plan your route with your goals in mind, and always have a backup plan if conditions change or the terrain is not quite what you thought it would be. With that said, travel on a snowboard, particularly on the flats and up hills, is unique. Although particularly well suited for descents in all kinds of snow conditions, snowboards in general are not particularly well suited for touring. Leaving aside the idea of "split boards" for the moment, getting your board to the top of a peak can take a lot of the fun out of the whole experience.
Until recently, the choices for uphill travel with a snowboard were limited to hiking, post-holing, snowshoes or skis. Hiking is fine for short distances on firm snow, but when the going gets deep it can be a real drag. Snowshoes are marginally better, but are of limited value for long distances. In addition, snowshoes pose some problems when the uphill route involves traverses, especially on hard snow. In really deep snow, snowshoes may become more trouble than they are worth as the weight of the snow on the deck drags you down.
The only really viable alternative for trips involving much of an approach are skis. These can range from lightweight racing or skating skis (good for spring corn) or regular "telemark" skis. Also popular are short approach skis, similar to the old "Firn gliders" of the 1960's. Bindings are now available to accept soft-shell snowboarding boots for these skis. Otherwise, you will need to bring a separate pair of boots for the approach.
Recently, "split" boards have become a popular alternative. Although the first versions were Frankenstein hack-jobs done in people's garages, split boards are now well made and offer good performance. These hybrid boards break apart in the middle to form a rudimentary pair of skis for the approach, and then bolt back together for the descent. Although they may not offer quite the same performance as your regular board, they save the weight and hassle of carrying extra gear.
Most backcountry riders prefer a soft boot and strap-type binding system. They like the soft boots for comfort and the simplicity of the strap system. Step-in systems are growing in popularity, and offer obvious advantages in certain conditions, including added safety in the event of a avalanche. Hard boots perform much like typical alpine climbing boots, accepting crampons and offering excellent protection for wet and cold. Kicking steps is also easier with hard boots, and this can be critical on frosty morning ascents in spring.
One other consideration is the use of ski poles. Backcountry skiers and snowshoes would feel lost without their ski poles, especially on the ascent. Many snowboarders, however, have no interest in the use of poles. This may be shortsighted. Not only is it easier to climb with the help of poles, but they can be used for self-arrest in the event of a fall. Using the poles on the descent allow the rider to push themselves across short flat sections, saving the rider from having to do the one legged skate. Poles can also help the rider balance at the end of a run, instead of sitting in the snow. Finally, ski poles can be a major help when getting up from a fall in deep snow. Holding the poles in a big "x" in one hand will often provide enough surface area to allow you to stand up.
Other travel considerations specific to snowboards have to do with their ability to traverse or cover flat terrain. Skiers may not think twice about traversing halfway across a bowl to begin a descent, but boarders definitely prefer to limit traverses wherever possible, especially on their toe-side edge. Snowboards also generally require a wider lane or fall-line down the slope. This is most important when skiing powder, it doesn't take many riders carving up an untracked slope before there's no room left for untracked lines. Side-slipping on a snowboard can also strip that valuable patch of snow down to the ice, so that subsequent boarders may have a difficult time getting an edge.
Another consideration is that snowboarders can't just side step up over a low ridge to check better conditions, they will end up taking their boards up or crawling on their hands and knees- definitely not a pretty sight. Finally, snowboarders generally have to break out of their turns sooner at the bottom of a run to carry enough speed across the flats to avoid having to walk. This becomes very apparent at the bottom of a pass or a run that empties onto a frozen lake or meadow. The worst possible situations for snowboarders involve a descent that harbors a flat section in the middle or ends with a long traverse. The advantages gained by using a snowboard on the descent quickly diminish if you have to constantly stop and take your board off.
Safe travel in the wintry Sierra on a snowboard requires special considerations. There's no better tool for the backcountry when the route is straight forward, but they can be a real disadvantage when things get "interesting". The trips listed in this book fall into the realm of ski mountaineering and require care on both the climb and descent. Proper trip planning will tell you whether snowboards are a viable tool, or whether you should opt for skis instead.
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