Was Splitboarding Denali the Right Decision? Let’s Talk Pros and Cons

My parents first taught me to ski at a small downstate New York hill called Sterling Forest when I was 4 years old.  

It wasn’t long before I was hooked but unfortunately it wasn’t something our family did much of.  After a few years off it was time to hit the slopes again but after this break snowboarding was the in thing and I wanted to give it a shot.

I was 6 and my mom and dad agreed to take my younger brother Jesse and I to another local slope to give it a shot.  Instantly my love for skiing was gone.  Despite the effort of fighting gravity, switching from one edge to the other captivated me even though my butt was taking a beating.

Fast forward to the age of 26 and I was still riding.  I moved to Aspen Colorado to ride my heart out and even though I’m back on the East Coast now it’s still one of my greatest passions.  But I have to say even when Jonathan called me up asking if I wanted to splitboard Denali as part of the Between The Peaks follow up I was probably only 90% in.

What is Splitboarding and what are the pros and cons?

Splitboarding – using a specialized snowboard that splits in half and uses climbing skins for the uphill similar to AT skis and reconnects to ride as a board on the downhill. See the video below for a demonstration.

Although gaining a crazy amount of popularity and being super fun, it still has some drawbacks. Thinking about the positives and negatives doesn’t really do the trick though. Sometimes you just need to go for it.  So after some thought, that’s just what Jonathan, Ethan, Jake and I did.

We attempted to splitboard Denali. The tallest mountain in North America standing at a mighty 20,310 feet, completely glaciated, rugged and although the West Buttress is only a Grade II climb, so much more intense than it sounds.  These are the pros and cons that we discovered over two weeks of on mountain fun, sore muscles, frustration and elation.

Positives:

  • Uphill travel via splits and skins
    • Faster
    • Distributes weight on snow surface
    • Easier to maintain a set pace
    • Risers
  • Ability to ride downhill
  • Lighter than a snowshoe/snowboard combo
  • Badass – We’re snowboarding on Denali!

Negatives:

  • Heavier than snowshoes and heavier than skis
  • Have to take care of skins in cold and snowy weather
  • Slower transitions than skis
  • Riding down with sleds
  • Riding down with heavy packs
  • Riding down roped up

Let’s dive into the details:

First, because I’m a positive guy let me comb through the details of my list of…

POSITIVES

Uphill Travel via Splits and Skins

This is where we saw the greatest benefits of carrying the splitboard, besides riding of course. Climbing Denali is a massive undertaking. It is a big mountain, with many miles of uphill.  Out of the 16 days on the mountain approximately 14 where uphill, we had a few rest days but I am not factoring those in right now…14 days of going up!

We wanted to be prepared to make this as easy as possible, especially when we were carrying approximately 140 pounds split between our Gregory Denali 100 packs and sleds.  

Splitboards made the travel going up easier because for one, it allows you to go faster. On skins you have some glide to each step, you’re also not lifting your feet as high as you might with crampons or snowshoes allowing some energy savings.  

The splits distribute your weight. This is a huge benefit when on soft snow, especially if it’s fresh snow or a glacier. For our trip to Denali it was both, conditions were quite variable from hard compacted corn and some ice to 34 inches of fresh fluffy powder overnight. Weight distribution is necessary on Denali.

When temperatures rise this allows the glacier to melt and with melting of the glacier comes melting of snow bridges and the opening of crevasses.  This can be extremely dangerous, and scary as we learned first hand on the mountain. While using crampons Ethan and I punched through repeatedly on Ski Hill during our descent to Camp One.

Distributing our weight over the soft snow would have alleviated this dangerous aspect and saved us a lot of frustration with each step. When we did use the splits, especially low on the Kahiltna Glacier we practically floated over the soft snow and we felt much safer traveling in the warm conditions than we had without them.

As a four person rope team we found it much easier to keep a set pace while we were climbing on splitboards opposed to crampons on lower angle terrain.  I think this is because the splits allowed us to move faster without the risk of getting tripped up. For me, the energy I was saving splitting I was able to channel into better concentration and staying in sync with the team.

Risers are a big factor as well. Although snowshoes have these, I am comparing these specifically to crampons because those were our two modes of transportation on the Kahiltna Glacier. When used properly risers will save massive amounts of energy.

While going up steep inclines they allow your calf to rest more and keep your heel from going all the way back down to the top sheet of the board on each stride. The trick is only using these when necessary, keeping them up on the flats or using a riser that is too high will limit your stride and reduce your efficiency.

Ability to Ride Downhill  

Obviously this is a big one!  The main reason we chose splitboards in the first place over snowshoes. At the beginning of this trip one of my goals, and the goal of our entire team as snowboarders was to ride off the summit of the tallest mountain in North America.

Skiing is increasingly common on Denali and so is Splitboarding but I would bet there there have been less than 5-10 teams that have ever splitboarded this mountain in its entirety!  

Aside from riding from the peak we planned to ride in between caches which we only ended up doing once.  The riding was much faster than hiking down but being roped up made this extremely difficult, I will get into that in the next section.  

We also planned to get some riding in on off days to keep the legs moving and help with acclimatization.  We figured skinning with super light packs would still give our legs the rest they need but keep the riding stoke up and a great way for us to have some fun. Little did we know that even on off days we would be super busy boiling water, cooking food and fortifying camps.

Because of these day to day chores, Jonathan and I only took the boards out one time, but we could not have asked for a better day. Two nights previous at Camp 14 it snowed nearly three feet of super light and beautiful snow!

After seeing others ski the Headwall below the fixed lines heading to Camp 17 we decided that we needed to get out there and get some use out of the snowboards, besides we were resting for a few days now!

We skinned up the Headwall to 15,000 feet and dropped into incredible light, fluffy powder!  Each turn as I arced through the deep snow felt incredible, it made me remember exactly why I love snowboarding.  It was so good that we decided to skin up once more and ride it again.

 

The views on the ride down were great, it was the highest that we had ever ridden and because of those lines we can say that we rode powder on Denali below seracs and the fixed lines.  I’d say that counts for something!

Weight Savings

Although this would not even be an option on a mountain of this magnitude in the past I have climbed using snowshoes and descended on my board.  That experience on Hayden Mountain in Aspen Colorado is what convinced me that a splitboard was worth the investment.  A splitboard is lighter than this combo, more efficient and all around better in every way.  If you are headed into the backcountry or on a big trip and planning to ride your own lines use a splitboard!

It’s Badass!

Yes, that is a positive on my list!  The split allows your to climb faster, more efficiently and ride lines that you chose to along the way or maybe even from the summit!  It allowed us to do more than just mountaineering on Denali, it’s a way to combine some of my favorite things into one solid mission.  

 

Now that I have gone through all of the Positives that we discovered as a team splitboarding Denali I have to go through the… 

NEGATIVES

The Weight

I although I had a section above about the weight being better than the snowboard/snowshoe combo when compared to either snowshoes or skis a splitboard is heavier.  My Jones Solution with Spark R&D Dyno DH bindings and Volie Climbing Wires weighs in at approximately 13.5 pounds.  

You can get nice snowshoes, I noticed a lot of people on the mountain, especially guided groups on MSR shoes, the Lightning Ascent weighs in at about 4.5 pounds for the largest size.  If your skiing you’ll be slightly above that number but still very light compared to the board.  

Over the long haul a few pounds can make a big difference especially since this is weight on your feet not in your pack or sled.  On Denali you have to conserve calories and energy, you’re going to need it later on, I certainly did!

Climbing Skin Care

This needs to be done whether you’re splitting or skiing but either way its another chore.  With insanely cold temperatures on the mountain, temperatures down -20 at Camp 14 when we were there and reaching -40 and colder up higher you want your glue to stick when you use your gear.

To ensure our glue worked on the expedition we would take the skins off our boards each night and put them in the tent, although I didn’t place them in my sleeping bag like boot liners and  extra layers I kept them by my side and this allowed them to stay much warmer than they would be in the elements.  

Another way to keep the skins working well is to keep the material (whether synthetic or mohair) dry.  In order to do this after each trek I would take my skins off and hang them over the tent, any day the sun was out this would help dry them and get the skins in great shape for the next mission, just make sure to keep the glue side up!

Transitions

If you ever splitboarded with skiers you know the transition is a bit slow.  Yes its slower than skiing but really the only time this was an issue on our trip was colder days were you just don’t want to be fidgeting with more stuff.  Being on a team with all splitboarders and on a long expedition this wasn’t a big deal but I still consider it a downside.

Riding With Sleds

It’s hard for me to even convey the frustration that I had with this.  I was extremely frustrated twice on the mountain, both times involved sleds.  The first time we went in ride mode with our sleds was coming back from an early cache before 11 Camp.  

Because of the weather we decided to cache early, with heavy snow and near white out conditions we did not feel safe continuing blind we made the team decision to cache food and gear about 1,000 feet lower than expected and to ride back down to Camp 1 roped and with our sleds.  Sleds are hard to control while walking let alone riding!  

Using a prusik cord from the rear of each sled we attached them to the rope in hopes it would keep the sled from gaining speed and ramming each team member from behind.  Very quickly we found out that this could work but only if the rope was taut and all four of us rode in absolutely perfect unison.  That is basically impossible!  

Sleds continued to hit our board tails pushing us off balance and even speeding in front of us trying to trip us like an untrained goat on a leash, these sleds have a mind of their own.  

Later in the mission on our way down from Camp 14 we tried this once again and without fail had very similar issues.  This was on Squirrel Hill right below the lower mountain crux Windy Corner we attempted another style of riding with sleds.  This time we would try riding down in split mode as if skiing and we would keep the skins on to slow us down.  

My personal binding setup does not allow me to lock the heel down making this even more difficult.  Although the idea seemed solid I could not keep on my feet, we had to stay in a very small foot path otherwise be enveloped in deep snow, it’s strange that as much as I love snowboarding powder in this case I hated it!

Riding Down with Heavy Packs

Although this was not a huge problem, snowboarding with heavy packs is tough!  We practiced this as a partial team on the windy and heavily wooded Wright Ski Peak in New York’s Adirondack Park earlier in the season (among other times solo) so we knew what we were getting into.  

A backpack weighs your heel side down, think of yourself as a lopsided rider, zero pounds to the right, your weight centered (175 pounds for me) and 60 pounds to the left – this make getting used to your board edges tricky and also makes turning more difficult.  Which makes sense since your center of gravity is now outside of the boards edges instead of right over its center.  The bottom line is that it can totally be done but it takes some getting used to.

Riding Down Roped Up

Each section of the climb that I spoke about regarding Riding with Sleds 100% also applies to riding roped up.  Sleds and ropes both suck but they are both necessary for Denali.  My frustration peaked while riding down with sleds and being roped up, it was one of the most frustrating things that I can remember!

Ropes are difficult because they force you to act as of cohesive team, if the group cannot act as one your travels will not go as planned.  This is amplified while riding because you’re adding speed and additional variability to the situation. If Jonathan, the first on our rope team were to speed up, the rest of us would as well, the tough part is to make sure you speed up before the rope yanks you forward but not to early to get a large amount of slack in the rope.

As a not so fun bonus, slack in the rope also means a sled will soon be running over your board and biting at your ankles! I know personally that being one of the center members of the rope team was very difficult not only could I be yanked forward but I was also pulled back, then forward and then both directions at the same time.  It was tricky to keep my balance, but I was able to at least some of the time..  

Some may opt not to go downhill roped up and hope that you have noted all of the dangers on your ascent.  We spoke about this again and again on our expedition but in the end thought that falling down on the board beat the possibility of someone falling in a crevasse not roped up.  There are a few schools of thought on this topic but the rope was our choice in the end.

So, Was it Worth it?

As hard as some aspects of splitboarding were I think that it was worth it. It was worth it because I love snowboarding.

Even though they were difficult to use at times I think that the fact that the splits distribute your weight greater than snowshoes, glide on each stride and obviously the joy that comes from riding, made it a good choice.

Looking back on our expedition it’s easy to see where we went wrong and what we could have done better. One thing I would say we did right was choosing splitboarding over snowshoeing. When you like snowboarding as much as we do it really doesn’t become an option, we just knew we would have to figure out how to make it work. That’s what everyone has to do on a trip of this scale, even if you have done it before there are always new tricks and ways to improve that you learn along the way.

Would I splitboard it again, or complete any large expedition on a splitboard? Now that’s hard to say. If I were just as competent on skis as I am on the board I have a feeling that would really play into my decision…

For now I think if your two options for a trip are snowshoes or splitboards, take the splitboard! There are so many good things they provide – consistent speed, speed in general, weight distribution, risers, and don’t forget the ride!

If you do choose to go that route, be sure to check out our comprehensive gear list, curated by Between The Peaks team member Ethan Lee, for every item you may need to splitboard Denali. And best of luck!

Ryan Sarka
Ryan Sarka

Cycled across the entire U.S. A mountain biker, climber, snowboard mountaineer, triathlete, and engineer. Founding member of Between The Peaks.

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