A horde of split boarders head up into the alpine in the Connaught Creek area of Rogers Pass during Split Fest.

Rise of the splitboard

Splitboarding has come a long way since someone took saw to a snowboard.

Splitboarding has come a long way since someone took saw to a snowboard. We check in with the revolution at the Canuck Splitfest at Rogers Pass.

It was a cloudy Saturday in Rogers Pass and all around were splitboarders. Splitboarders heading up towards Grizzly Shoulder. Splitboarders climbing up towards Ursus Major. Splitboarders heading towards Video Peak. Splitboarders everywhere. Even renowned ski mountaineer Greg Hill was on a split board. I was the token skier.

The occasion was Splitfest, a two-day gathering of about 100 splitboarders in Rogers Pass that was in its second year. There were riders from across B.C., Alberta and as far away as Utah.

According to the Utah-based Splitboard Education Company, the splitboard was invented in the late-1980s by Brett “The Cowboy” Kobernick. He is credited as being the first person to cut a snowboard in half, using the halves to skin uphill and then attach them back together for the descent. In the mid-90s, snowboard manufacturer Voile picked up on his idea and created the first commercial splitboard

In the meantime, in Canada, ski guide John Buffery came up with his own splitboard. He was ski guiding with CMH in the Monashees when one week he was joined by some snowboarders from Europe. This was before powder skis were invented and skiers had to slog through deep powder.

“They blew me away,” Buffery said. “I thought I was fit and strong and they were not fit and doughy. They were on big alpine glaciers just killing it.”

That’s when Buffery took up snowboarding. A year later, in 1990, he took his new passion one step forward and cut a snowboard in half. He used pieces of a hard plastic cutting board as fasteners, sewed some skins together and stuck on some telemark bindings and, presto, he created one of the first split boards ever. He used telemark boots instead of leather snowboarding boots.

Buffery started guiding on a splitboard and was probably the first ACMG guide to do so. He said there were some challenges such as having a releasable binding in case you got caught in an avalanche while ascending.

“The other challenge I found was having a wide skin track versus skiers that had skinnier tracks, it was a little harder for me to guide them, to have them follow easily in my track,” he said.

And, of course, snowboarders have to be conscious of the terrain they enter to make sure they don’t get caught in any long flats. He told me the ACMG just set up a standard of movement for all splitboarding guides.

Buffery’s story in splitboarding goes even further than his initial creation. He takes credit for introducing snowboarding legend Craig Kelly to splitboarding in 1996. Kelly took the idea back to his sponsor Burton and they started making splitboards, furthering its popularity.

In the early 2000s, Kelly started working towards his ski guide certification on a split board. He was the first to do so but he passed away in a tragic avalanche incident north of Revelstoke in 2003. Scott Newsome, now a part-owner of Eagle Pass Heliskiing, picked up where Kelly left off and became the first splitboarder to pass the entire ACMG ski guiding course on a splitboard. Newsome is in select company – these days Buffery estimates there only about four or five accredited guides who did their exams on split boards. Another three are giving it a shot this year, he said.

John Buffery’s original splitboard. Photo courtesy John Buffery.

At Splitfest, I spent the day with Joey Vosburgh, a Revelstoke resident who one of Greg Hill’s regular touring companions. Vosburgh was riding with a fairly unique set up. Instead of the usual snowboarding boots, he had on a pair of Dynafit TLT5 ski touring boots. His splitboard was outfitted with a Dynafit toe piece that he clicked into for the ski up.

Known as a hard-boot set up, it was a system he first saw being used when he was doing a photo shoot in Japan. The rider he saw use it was none other than John Buffery.

Vosburgh started snowboarding in the early-90s in Banff. He and his friends would bootpack out of bounds to ski fresh powder. In 1997 he did his AST 1 course on snowshoes. Snowshoes is how many backcountry snowboarders got their start. “Everyone knew it sucked,” he said. “It was terrible. You couldn’t go anywhere.”

Vosburgh made his first splitboard in much the same way Buffery did – by cutting an old snowboard in half. Only by this point you could buy a splitboard assembly kit that contained all the pieces needed to put one together.

He moved to Revelstoke before the resort opened and quickly fell in with a serious group of tourers. On one of his first trips out, he put in a 9,000 vertical foot day up Mount Cranberry. He made it, but the trip nearly killed him. After that, he immediately switched over to a hard-boot set up. He thought it wouldn’t work but he quickly converted.

The key to the system is modifying the boot to get as much forward lean as possible. The stiffness of the boot acts like a normal binding. “It’s a far superior system going up, transitioning and going down, once you adapt,” he said.

Vosburgh’s friend Chris Payne, who was also out with us that day (along with Hill and a few others) became a convert a few years. “I can got about two or three hours more every day on it,” he said.

On our day out we toured about 6,000 feet together. After our final descent I headed back to the lodge while Vosburgh, Hill, Payne and Aaron Chance took off for one more run. They were all on hard-boot set ups.

Splitfest was as much a social gathering as a riding trip. After a day touring, splitboarders gathered at the Glacier Park Lodge to talk splitboarding and listen to guest lectures.

If there’s any doubt that splitboarding has taken off, one only has to look at the fact that a new magazine dedicated to the sport called Kronicle just launched.

“Over the last three years, it’s amazing,” said Buffery. “Everybody’s got them, they’re everywhere.”

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