Otari Splitboard Touring
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
After my first backcountry snowboarding experience in Otari since moving to the village in June, I was blown away by the scenery, snow quality and slopes - and quickly realized that it was time to take the leap and dish out the money for a splitboard setup. I had wanted one for years, and had been searching endlessly for months on auction sites and used marketplaces online, but just couldn't bring myself to pull the trigger since I could technically do without, and could just continue to rely on my old trusty method of hauling my board and hoofing it up the hills with snowshoes. The problem was that there are a lot of amazing, longer-distance alpine routes in the area that would just be too physically difficult to clear in a day if burdened by the weight of a board strapped to a backpack. The final push that sent me over the edge into boarding bliss (and financial free-fall) was an invitation to join some friends on the 17th, a Sunday that was forecasted to be a cold, clear and perfect day to be out in nature.
I literally picked my board up late in the afternoon on Saturday, and struggled for the better part of the evening to set-up the pucks and bindings, and to figure out how the transitions, skins and everything else worked since I had never had my hands on a splitboard up until that point. It was a surprisingly confusing process for this first-timer, but I figured it out, packed my gear and was up before 6am to eat and make my final preparations in order to arrive in front of the Tsugaike Kogen gondola by 7:30 to meet my friends.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term "splitboard", allow me to post a brief explanation with a few photos to help you better understand the concept. Basically, a splitboard is as the name suggests, a snowboard that you are able to split in half. But why is that desirable? Well, if you are a snowboarder heading into the backcountry you need to wear (somewhat large and heavy) snowshoes on your feet, and carry your (quite large and heavy) snowboard attached to your backpack until you reach your drop-in spot. With the added weight of the snowboard on your shoulders and the limited surface area of the snowshoes below your feet, you are guaranteed to sink into the snow with each step you take. This causes strain on your legs and shoulders over time, and reduces the speed and distances at which you can comfortably travel. OR, you can utilize a splitboard to accomplish the same task with much less weight and effort. How?
Simply put, for "touring", or walking, the bindings are removed and the snowboard is split in half, before the bindings are rotated to face the front and reattached to the middle of each resulting ski. The toe area of the binding is locked into place while the heel remains free-floating. This movement mimics that of snowshoes, because that is exactly what they are used for - to replace/eliminate the need for separate snowshoes. Splitboarders place their feet into the bindings and climb and travel through backcountry terrain on these skis owing to special “skins” cut to the exact size of the underside, that attach to the bottom thanks to a specially formulated adhesive. These skins allow the skis to move forward on snow, but prevent you from sliding backward, even on a slope. Once you're ready to ride, you removed the skins, reverse the process until you now have a snowboard, then clip into your bindings and ride as usual.
When I was invited, I was told, "We are going to the mountains on Sunday if you would like to join." Nothing more. But I somehow had a hunch that this would be a long day, so I made sure to bring plenty of snacks, liquids and a headlamp, in addition to all the other essentials stashed in my pack. As soon as I arrived at the gondola, I was in fact informed that this would be a 超ロングルート, or extremely long route. I laughed, figured I would be fine, and said something like, "Bring it on." I know now that I was being given an opportunity to back out, I just didn't realize it at the time.
Anyway, we caught the first gondola up, and quickly transferred to the final lift up to the top of the ski resort, checked our beacons, set our equipment to touring mode and were out of the gates and on our way by 8:45 a.m. I found it a bit awkward skinning up at first, but was able to relax into it pretty early, established a rhythm and was cruising along. Until... we left the forest road and cut directly up the mountain, and I realized then that I did not have the skills or experience to get up a slope that steep. Despite the skins doing their job, my balance was not in the right place, it turns out I was leaning too far forward. Everyone got a good laugh out of me, gave me some pointers which I was able to put into practice little by little throughout the day and do what needed to be done.
After climbing for 2 hours amongst fantastic blue skies and stunning scenery, we were rewarded with our first powder run on a northern-facing slope, and it was glorious. Fine powder snow spraying high into the sky behind me as I floated on the back of my board, tip up, chest out, the soundtrack of a Travis Rice film playing in my mind as I rode what surely was the best powder of my life. I joined up with the group after what I thought was my victory lap, only to be told we were only one-fifth of the way to our destination. Sure enough, we finished the day by boarding through the trees with our headlamps on as we completed our final descent.
We covered more than 20km according to my GPS watch, starting from the top of the Tsugaike Kogen Ski Resort and making our way all the way north to Hiraiwa Station on the JR line, located at the border of Nagano and Niigata prefectures. The scenery was splendid throughout, and we rode 5 exquisite, mostly north-facing slopes during the course of the day. One in particular was the single most thrilling run I have ever had on a snowboard. I was once again left pinching myself that I can do these things in my backyard. In fact, had I chose to do so, I could have abandoned the group and boarded down to the street that my house lies on midway through the day.
Though it was my first time, I was shown no mercy, and being forced to practice the transitions from touring mode to riding mode over and over again (and quickly) as we covered so much ground was the best crash course I could have hoped for, and to do it in such fine conditions was the icing on the cake.
I am super excited for the days, weeks and seasons to come, and the opportunities they will bring to further explore this snowy mountain paradise I am lucky to call home.
P.S. - For those curious, I am riding a K2 Ultra Split with Voile Pucks and the Burton/Spark R&D Hitchhiker Bindings, and the first impression was that it slays. Super fast on the flats, good float on the powder, light and easy for touring - all around a great, reasonably priced setup as far as I can tell.