Take a Powder 

Get ready for the white stuff with tips on: ice climbing, split-boarding, backcountry basics, and our full-page Ski Guide and more!

Split Personality Split-boarding: the freedom of skis with the thrill of the board

Since the beginning of time, snowboarders and skiers have found plenty to argue about. “Snowboarding is more graceful and fluid.” “Skis are faster and have better edge control.” “Oh yeah, Snowboards ride better in powder.” “Think so? How you gonna get to the powder? Boot-pack?” “Only idiots need poles.” And so on.

Sometimes close relatives just don’t get along very well, and these sporting siblings are no exception. However, if you haven’t heard of this already, I have the distinct honor of introducing split-boarding, the incestuous offspring of skiing and snowboarding. The credit for this idea can be traced back to two Utah snowboarders Earl Evans and Brett Kobernick who built the first of these boards in a garage in 1993.

The idea is simple: Take a snowboard and cut it vertically down the center creating two “skis” that (with some hardware) can be reassembled back into a snowboard. “Why the hell would anyone want to do that?” was my first reaction upon seeing an early model at a ski/snowboard trade show in the mid-’90s. By splitting up a board you can use the leftover halves to attach climbing skins and ski your way up a slope much faster than you can on snowshoes. The other advantage is that now your vehicle for uphill travel is the same one you use going down. There’s no need to pack away the snowshoes, and you don’t have to carry your board all the way up.

If you haven’t used telemark skis and climbing skins to travel in the backcountry, then you probably don’t fully understand what an advantage they are. With snowshoes, each step sinks into the snow, forcing the hiker to continually pull their feet out from the hole that is created. Granted, the sinking amount is less than it would be with just boots, but it is still a slow, energy-hungry process. Telemark skis (with climbing skins) allow the hiker (especially one who is not breaking the trail) to scoot along an upward path. The fiber that makes up the climbing skins allows the skis to move forward but not back, holding each ski in place as you move the other. In addition, the split-board set-up is arguably even better than what the die-hard telemark folks use. Because they were born from a snowboard, these “skis” are shorter than most traditional skis and give the user more maneuverability in tight places. Plus, a half-snowboard is still much wider than a traditional telemark or downhill ski. This translates into much more surface area under your feet and helps keep you on top of light snow or breakable crust. It also allows for a much stronger hold on steep ascents.

So, how does one get their hands on a split-board? There are basically two ways: buy it or make it. Several companies including Burton Snowboards and Voile are manufacturing split-boards nowadays, but your physical size may limit what boards are available for you. Burton currently makes only one size of 166 cm; Voile has four sizes: 159, 166, 173, and 182 cm, as well as a 195 cm “swallow tail” for the serious powder-seeker. If these board sizes are too big or you choked on the price tag (approximately $700 but it varies between models and companies), you may want to consider the “do-it-yourself” route. To do this you’ll need a jigsaw, a board to sacrifice, and the willingness to work through the kinks that go along with a project like this. You’ll also need to invest in the $130 Split Kit that Voile makes for just such a task. The kit includes all the hardware needed for a “garage job,” as well as detailed instructions. For some, this may be your only option if you find that the manufactured board sizes are too big.

No matter what you decide to do, you’ll need to purchase the $130 “wide” climbing skins to go with your new skis. You should be OK with your current snowboard bindings because both Burton and Voile have made their products to be compatible with the standard four-hole mounting pattern. If you prefer mountaineering boots, Voile also has a $90 binding that will work for you. In Missoula, you can find Voile’s products at both The Trail Head and Pipestone Mountaineering. Both shops carry several of the split boards and can order you the matching climbing skins and/or do-it-yourself “Split-Kit.” You can also find/order Burton’s new “Split-166” at Board of Missoula or Gull Ski and Snowboard.

This is still a relatively new idea and is finally getting the testing and financial backing that it deserves. If you invest in a split-board package you’ll probably have some fine tuning to do in order to get everything working just right. But if you’re a backcountry snowboard enthusiast and would like to keep up, this may be a dream come true.
For more info on split-boarding check out these websites: http://www.burton.com/splt66/ http://www.voile-usa.com/snowboards.html

Frozen Goods

The gear, fear and chilly challenges of ice climbing

“Within a day’s drive of Missoula you will find some of the best ice climbing areas in the world,” says Missoula’s legendary alpinist Gray Thompson. “Geographically, Missoula is in the center of it all.” What Thompson alludes to are the abundance of waterfalls that freeze up each winter and hang like tongues from canyon walls and drainages—from the Bitterroots to Glacier to the Canadian Rockies.

Thompson, a distinguished geology professor at the University of Montana, is one of Montana’s earliest climbers and a legend among climbing circles throughout the country. His first ascents of rock and ice climbs throughout Montana (and the world) stretch back to 1964, when he first moved to Missoula. His passion for climbing has taken him to the Alps, Ecuador, Tibet, British Columbia, Alaska, and throughout the United States—where he has raised eyebrows with his authorship of bold, cutting-edge first ascents.

Thompson achieved mountaineering acclaim with his 1967 tour de force: the first ascent of the Direct Southwest face of Denali, Mount McKinley. His 1979 second ascent of 400-foot high Rainbow Falls near Plains—with partners Davy Vaughn and Dave Williams—turned heads in the local climbing community. Suffice it to say, when it comes to climbing all things icy, Thompson can be looked to as an expert. So we seized the opportunity to talk to him about the basics of the sport.

Not for the faint-hearted, the arcane pursuit of ice climbing requires a bulk of gear, he says. Mandatory clothing includes a waterproof, breathable shell and a stiff pair of leather or plastic boots. To achieve four points of contact with the ice, climbers use filed-sharp crampons attached to their boots and wield dagger-like axes that hack away at the ice. This hodgepodge of gear—costing upwards of $600-$1,000—composes the modern ice climber’s battle garb. Don’t forget to wear a helmet!

But Thompson asserts that having the requisite clothing and gear doesn’t make you ready for icy challenges. “Ice climbing is so technique- and equipment-intensive—no one should just go out and try it. Even books won’t help that much. What is important is to find a mentor—go out with someone who has enough experience and judgment to pass on information. Otherwise, you’ll never get off the ground.”

Another caveat of Thompson’s is that of avalanche danger. “Most ice climbs form in gullies thousands of feet below large alpine basins. Avalanches form in the basins and funnel down the gullies. Climbers must pay attention to the larger picture.”

If you’re properly trained and prepared, however, Thompson suggests that there are few sports as rigorous as ice-climbing. As Thompson says about beginning to ice climb: “What got me started was I was interested in the challenge—the variation on the theme of climbing. I found ice to be an interesting medium.”

For those interested in adding spicy adventures to their winter, seek out a mountain-savvy partner and ante up your courage and stamina. Bring with you an open mind, nerves of steel, and an ability to endure sub-freezing temperatures. A plethora of ice climbing lies close by—from Blodgett’s Swan Slabs to the Mickey Mouse Gulley smears upriver from Penner Mill. What you might come to discover is that climbing ice puts you in a breathtaking, far-from-the-car setting, and that nothing comes close to sharing a rope with friends.

Out of BoundsA primer on solitude, skiing and safety in the backcountry

A primer on solitude, skiing and safety in the backcountry

As a snow-jonesing kid growing up in the Illinois pork belt, I spent my weekends sneaking onto chairlifts at Ski Snowstar!, a tilted rind of ice sprayed onto the grassy bluffs of the mighty Mississippi. It sports less vertical than the Millennium Building. During the week, my buddies and I would pore over ski magazines in study hall, dreaming about snow that didn’t come out of a hose. High-gloss images of Glenn Plake, Scott Schmidt and the gorgeous Donna Weinbrecht inspired dreams about the day when I too would someday head “out West” to find endless mountain ranges, bottomless snow and bluebird skies.

Snow junkies congregate in the Missoula basecamp from all corners, looking to cash in on its seemingly endless recreation opportunities. From skiing off local chairlifts to trekking deep into wilderness, Garden City powderhounds go to great lengths to get their fix. Some go the ski area route, and with a lift ticket you get perks. Like ski patrollers, seated rides to the top and consistent corduroy ribbons of righteousness. But you also get hordes. Hordes of people who cut up the powder, heckle from the chairlift and posse-up like cattle at the bottlenecks.

To escape this and escalating lift prices, more and more people are heading to the backcountry. Solitude, deep snow and pristine bowls beckon those questing for something other than skiing with the masses. Commit a few hours on Montana’s original Stairmaster, and city folk can find hundreds of lines in untracked splendor.

But even though there’s no lift ticket, passage into Montana’s backcountry in the winter is not free. In fact, the investment can be, both educationally and financially, greater than a pass to the ‘Bowl. Avalanches, changing weather conditions and short winter days make preparedness critical. More than 150 people die in avalanches every year, and thousands more are injured in sliding snow.

Still, for many, the rewards of winter backcountry sport greatly outweigh the risk. Proper training, a few tools and careful partner selection can keep you relatively safe, and here in Missoula a handful of organizations are eager to educate the snow-ignorant.

First, the tools of the backcountry trade. Whether you’re hitting the steepest, sketchiest lines high in the Missions or just snowshoeing off-trail at Lolo Pass, safe travel in avalanche country requires all the winter gear you need elsewhere, as well as a few additional items.

A lightweight shovel ($35-$60) is a must for digging pits to determine snowpack stability as well as the god-forbid horror of digging out a buried comrade. More frequently, however, this car-mandatory item will be used to dig out overzealous four-by-fours pushing that extra half-mile to the trailhead.

A transceiver ($230-$450) is also mandatory. These invaluable (and annoyingly overpriced) inventions both transmit and receive a signal that can be found by your snowmates if you find yourself crumpled under massive amounts of moving white. Like any safety device, practice with these little buggers is critical prior to the crisis. Any backcountry dirtbagger worth the shake in their pockets has played “locate the transceiver” during the October/November champing-at-the-bit season, and if you’re counting on your pals to dig you out of the bottom of a slide, you’d damn well better confirm their ability to use their gear efficiently. Victims buried more than half an hour rarely survive, so working fast and accurately will mean the difference between life and death.

A collapsible probe can also be handy, and will only set you back a twenty spot or so. These glorified tent poles are thrust into hardpacked avalanche runouts to locate buried amigos.

And there’s also a host of new-fangled life-saving gadgets that have hit the market lately, such as an avalanche vest that can convert CO2 into O2 while the wearer is buried. And there’s an “avie balloon” that you pull like a ripcord when your world drops out from underneath you. The balloon stays on top of the slide, and rescuers follow the attached cord to your buried carcass and pull it out.

Critics of these new devices argue that these items give young pup outbackers a false confidence and that judgment can be impaired when folks consider them a primary safety net. But of course, all these tools are only to be used as a last resort, for even if you find a buried friend in time to prevent suffocation, there’s still the long haul back to the car, lugging his/her tattered hide through deep snow and often fighting the clock. If a sense of security is gained by the purchase of gear, it is likely to be false. Prevention in the backcountry scenario is primary, and all these tools are intended only to support sound decision-making and a rock-solid education.

Fortunately, local avalanche experts teach courses on backcountry safety. The University of Montana’s Outdoor Program has a classroom presentation on Dec. 6, in Social Sciences rm. 356 at 7 p.m. Early next semester, they follow this session up with a two-part lecture and field trip session. Call 243-5172 for details. And Missoula also plays home to a handful of for-profit organizations that are eager to empower backcountry exploradores to travel safely when deep in the deep.

So, if you find yourself suffering from inversion-induced cabin fever, take the classes, get the gear and surround yourself with safe and strong friends. Put down the magazines and catalogs, pick up the topo and remind yourself firsthand why you came to the Treasure State in the first place.

Surf the Web before you surf the backcountry

http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/lolo/rec-contrib/advisory.htm The Missoula Regional Avalanche Advisory provides weekly avalanche info for areas between Lost Trail Pass and Lookout Pass, as well as links to other great sites.
http://www.avalanche.org/~nac/ The Forest Service National Avalanche Center is a clearinghouse for avalanche info and provides a great primer for safe backcountry travel.
http://nsidc.org/NSIDC/EDUCATION/AVALANCHE/ The National Snow and Ice Data Center is an info source on all things snowy and icy. This page is one of the best info sites around.
http://www.mtavalanche.com/ The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center provides avalanche information for the Gallatin, Madison, Washburn and Bridger Mountain Ranges, as well as a few other locales around Yellowstone. This is a top-notch site with great links.
http://www.onthesnow.com/cams/ This drool-inspiring site has links to real-time ski area cameras all over the continent. If you want to see how deep it is at Targhee this morning, this is the site.
Flake Out
Dec. 2-3: Kick-Out-the-Kinks Benefit Ski Race. Cross-country ski race and Huckleberry Hustle (described as “a progressive lunch-on-skis”) to benefit the Middlefork Quick Response Unit. Essex. 888-5700. Dec. 17: Boarder Rally. Shred it all up. Red Lodge. 446-2610. Dec. 23: Anaconda Snowmobile Club Fun Run. Sleds tear it up again. Anaconda. 563-2918. Dec. 30: Snowmobile Poker Run. Sign up at the Snow Warriors Clubhouse and ride Lincoln’s trails. Lincoln. 362-4335. Dec. 30: Torchlight Parade & Fireworks. Gear up for New Year’s at Bridger Bowl. Bozeman. 586-1518.
Jan. 1: 2001 Flathead Lake Polar Bear Plunge. Take a dip into the heart-stopping waters of Flathead Lake. Bigfork. 837-5018 or 837-6096. Jan. 6-7: Annual Ski Fest. Seize the powder in Glacier Country. Essex. 888-5700. Jan. 12-14: 22nd Annual Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals. Slopeless sports. Great Falls. 727-8115. Jan. 13: Tele Fair at Big Sky Resort. A celebration of all things tele. Big Sky. 995-5000. Jan. 20-21: Snow Boss Snocross Race. I can smell the oil burning already. Haugan. 678-4242. Jan. 21-23: Women’s and Men’s Ski Workshops. Get your snow legs. Whitefish. 862-2909. Jan. 27-29: The Seeley-Lincoln 100/200 Dog Sled Race. Mush! Seeley Lake. 677-3016. Jan. 28: Big Air and Slopestyle Contest. Prizes for biggest air. Red Lodge. 446-2610.
Feb. 1-28: Northern Rocky Mountain Winter Games. Olympic-flavored competition, all month long. Red Lodge. 252-8770. Feb. 3: 13th Annual $1,000 Super Poker Ride. More snowmobile mayhem. Haugan. 678-4242. Feb. 3-4: Snowboard Jam. Wicked shreds, dude! Missoula. 549-9777. Feb. 3-4: Montana Powder 8’s Championship. When the best compete. Bozeman. 586-1518. Feb. 3-11: Frost Fever/Winterfest. The Garden City’s winter recreation festival! Missoula. 523-2754. Feb. 3-31: Winternational XIV Sports Festival. The Mining City’s snow games. Butte. 723-3177. Feb. 9-14: Race to the Sky Sled Dog Race. More mush. Helena. 442-4008. Feb. 10: Moonlight Snowmobile Poker Run. Lincoln. 362-4335 or 362-4078. Feb. 17: Ice Fishing Tournament. Home of the original Dead End Kids. Glasgow. 228-2222. Feb. 17-19: Northern Division Freestyle Competition and Masters Race. Skiers compete at Snowbowl. Missoula. 549-9777. Feb. 23-25: Snowbowl Cup Gelande Championship. The annual ski-jump tourney. Missoula. 549-9777. Feb. 24-25: Wild West Shred-O-Fest Snowboard Competition. Boarders get it on. Bozeman. 586-1518. Feb. 24-25: Masters Northern Division Championships. More opportunities for skiers to compete. Whitefish. 862-2900. Feb. 25-27: Special Olympics Winter Games. Where every challenge is overcome. Whitefish. 268-6859.

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