I hollered with joy as I made turns in the deep, untracked powder of the Wasatch Range. Why? I ventured to Utah’s backcountry for epic splitboarding. And my guide showed me the best and safest place to find it.
For me, this year marks 20 years of snowboarding. As a Midwesterner, I quickly outgrew the groomers and I spent most of my time in the park hitting jumps and rails. Yet, the lure of the fresh snow and fewer crowds had me itching to try something new this year — splitboarding.
I booked a guided backcountry adventure through 57hours and was paired with none other than Willie Benegas for a day. Long story short: I’ll never forget the experience. The heavens had just dumped several feet of snow on Utah and powder fever was in the air.
The timing for my first splitboarding trip was spot on.
Splitboarding With a Guide: What to Expect
Planning for the Trip
Benegas has over 30 years of guiding experience and leads trips all around the world. When he’s not guiding backcountry skiing and splitboarding trips, he’s teaching avalanche safety courses or guiding mountaineering expeditions. And, oh yeah, he’s summited Everest 13 times. He has deep knowledge of the mountains.
Like all good guides, he called me before the trip to talk through my expectations, goals, experience level, fitness level, and what to pack. My main goal was to ride powder and learn how to travel safely in the backcountry.
I told him I was a lifelong snowboarder, yet had never tried backcountry splitboarding. That way, Benegas knew how to tailor the day to my skills and desires.
The gear list he sent well before the trip was handy. For any gear I didn’t have, there was the ability to rent from him or a local gear shop.
And, of course, we went over some COVID-19 protocols to minimize exposure during the day. Everyone has a different level of comfort regarding COVID and possible exposure. I felt comfortable spending the day in the mountains with him, but understand that isn’t true for everyone right now.
Backcountry Splitboarding Trip in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains
Utah had just gotten over 80 inches of snow. The avalanche risk was relatively high, and I was very thankful to be heading out with a guide. We spent some time going over the plan for the day, checking gear, and performing safety checks before heading out.
The next thing I knew, we were skinning through aspens and snow-covered pines. The falling snow damped the sound, and it was silent. Sweet solitude! Moving through the mountains like this was peaceful and beautiful.
Don’t get me wrong — it was a lot of work, too. We skinned up to a 10,420-foot peak. Benegas was happy to go at my pace and stop for food and drink as needed.
Once at the top, the landscape opened up, and I could see why he chose to live near the Wasatch. There’s a ton of amazing terrain, and it’s relatively easy to access. Plus, the snow is world-class.
We headed down the backside of the peak and found some fantastic, untracked snow. I reached the bottom with a huge smile and face full of snow. It was glorious. I stepped off my board to transition and was instantly waist-deep in snow, laughing in amazement.
Again, I was thankful for a knowledgeable guide. He blazed a trail to a ridge, and we made our way back up the peak.
Then, we descended again, but longer this time and through the trees. I always feel most alive when I’m exploring a new place, and this was pure joy.
After some more climbing and riding, we were back at the car. I was happy and my legs were tired. What a day!
Why Hire Guides for Outdoor Adventures
I’ve used guides for fly fishing and rock climbing in the past. It’s a good way to try an activity safely and learn from an expert who knows the best spots to go. While the experience comes at a cost (plus a tip), I’ve found it’s always worth it. Here’s why.
It shortens the learning curve and lessens frustration. A guide sets me up for success and helps me learn and achieve my goals. I always learn a ton when I spend a day with an expert. I carry that knowledge with me forever and, if I have the skill and gear, it can lead to many more experiences on my own. It’s an upfront cost that pays dividends for life.
Safety. For my splitboarding trip, the avalanche danger was fairly high and I don’t have proper training. I wouldn’t have had the same experience trying to navigate this backcountry trip on my own. Instead, I had a safe and magical experience, thanks to Willie.
Intimate knowledge of the area. This is critical when I’m in a new location, as a guide will know the perfect spot to take me. I always ask guides why they chose that spot to gain some insight. Furthermore, I ask about other spots that they think would be good, based on my goals and experience level.
To support rad people who help advocate for wild spaces. Guides make their living in the places I love to visit and explore. They are invested in protecting, preserving, and fighting for those spots.
If you’re not sure where to start looking for guides, check out 57hours. It’s a company that connects adventure seekers with expert guides around the world.
’Tis the season for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. But, 57hours offers other adventures like rock climbing, mountain biking, polar exploration, avalanche safety courses, surfing, kiteboarding, snowkiting, and surfing. Benegas said 57hours is one of his favorite companies to work with, as “they treat the guides right.”
Splitboarding: The Gear I Tested
After a couple of decades of snowboarding, competing locally and nationally, and coaching kids of all ages, I know the ins and outs of a snowboard. Yet, splitboards are a unique subset and I was eager to test one out.
I tested a setup from Burton: the Family Tree Hometown Hero Camber 146 with Hitchhiker bindings, Burton x G3 high-traction skins, some Burton x Black Diamond compactor poles, and K2 Maysis boots with BOA lacing.
I did all the initial setup at home before the trip, which I’d recommend. As I put it together and practiced transitions, I kept saying, “Wow, this is genius.” The way everything fits together and transitions from board to skis is remarkable.
Our initial climb took about 2 hours, and it didn’t take long to get comfortable in touring mode. As we ventured further, I began to see the world that splitboarding could open up for me (after some avalanche safety courses).
The highbacks on the bindings actually recline a little. They have a negative forward lean to make the touring easier and more comfortable. I also loosened the BOA on my boots to get more range of motion.
When we got to steeper inclines, to the delight of my calves, I dropped the ramps on the bindings and kept climbing. Whoever thought of this deserves a raise. This slight raising of my heel kept my legs from working too hard. There are two settings that you can adjust with a trekking pole, each giving a different option for incline.
I will note that one binding was a little sticky at first but was easier to deploy after some breaking in.
With temps around 30 degrees, I was quite warm on the climbs. I’ve been testing the RollerCoaster Bibs from Houdini, which I’ve come to love. The large venting zippers along my leg and back kept me from overheating and getting sweaty.
Beyond that, they fit me well after a few initial tests, so I’m stoked to wear them for years to come. For a more complete gear or packing list, check out this article.
I won’t lie — as someone new to backcountry snowboarding — I’ve always wanted to rip off skins. And it was as gratifying as I’d imagined. The skins, by the way, were easy to trim and offered great traction on the relatively low-angle terrain.
The board uses a Split Channel mounting system and pucks to simplify the switch, not to mention great adjustability when setting it up.
The bindings slide on and off by lifting a plate at the toe. It’s so simple to switch to ride mode.
The bindings add a lot of structure to the board that holds it together and makes it feel more uniform. There are also two clips on the nose and tail and two more on the board holding everything together nicely.
Then just break down the poles, tighten up the boots, adjust the high backs, and strap in. No, it’s not as fast as skis. But, I’m not a skier and when you think about the transformation that takes place, it’s pretty darn efficient.
The moment of truth. Does a splitboard ride as well as a normal snowboard?
It’s stiff like most all-mountain boards, and it has a longer nose and rocker to help you float in the pow. It’s certainly a different feeling than a snowboard, but it still ripped in the powder like Burton designed it to do.
I rode through steep open-powder fields where I could really dig into turns, as well as through dense trees that required agile carving.
As a side note, I took the Burton Family Tree Hometown Hero to a resort and some local hills for some laps. This gave me a better idea of how it compares to the snowboards and terrain I normally ride. I was impressed.
The board is stable, and I was able to carve like normal. Yeah, I can tell it’s two planks, but I didn’t feel that it affected my performance. It’s made for touring and backcountry powder and rides well inbounds, which is about as much as you could ask for from a splitboard.
All in all, splitboarding was epic. Riding in a few feet of fresh snow with a world-class guide as he shared his passion and powder stashes with me was the best way to try a new sport.