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Steamboat Magazine

AT/Splitboarding Going Nowhere But Up

01/02/2023 08:00AM ● By Eugene Buchanan
(Photo: AT bindings allow the skier to “free the heel” for uphill climbs and lock it down when traveling downhill. Courtesy of Larry Pierce)

Steamboat Springs, CO - Glance down in line at the resort this winter and you might see gear set-ups that look a little different – and more miniscule – than the traditional beefy Alpine days of yesteryear. Alpine touring gear and splitboards have led to a new wave of backcountry enthusiasts, who have nowhere to go but up. 

Snowsports Industries America, the sport’s trade association, estimates there are more than 1.3 million backcountry skiers and riders in the country – and countless more who use the same gear at resorts. That trend is reflected in Steamboat Springs, both on the mountain and off, where backcountry gear is fast becoming a mainstay of skiers’ and riders’ quiver.  

“Sales kind of plateaued last year, but the previous two years were out of control,” says Ski Haus manager and backcountry equipment buyer Andrew Stoller, noting that he has heard similar reports from other resorts. “For two straight seasons it was just nuts – we couldn’t stock enough.”

(Photo: Cathy and Glenn Wiedemer use AT bindings to ascend the Steamboat Ski Area. Courtesy of Larry Pierce)

Fueling the craze is the gear; it’s lighter and more high-performance than ever, thanks to “pin-tech” bindings and boots with enhanced walk modes – all without sacrificing downhill performance. Even dyed-in-the-wool telemark skiers are converting. “Skiers want to access more terrain without sacrificing on-mountain performance,” says Marker/Dalbello VP Geoff Curtis. “The category is really driving sales in the skiing category.” Adds Scarpa NA CEO Kim Miller: “It’s the new world order: boots that work great for going uphill and down.” 

Stoller says the biggest growth has been in “hybrid”-type gear, made for both resorts and the backcountry. Not the heavier “frame”-style touring bindings, but new “freeride” offerings like Salomon’s Shift that blend pin-tech touring efficiency with DIN release and lightweight, Alpine-style heel pieces. Lighter-weight boots with shell-flexing touring modes are also flying off shelves. “This year we’re buying more hybrid boots than traditional Alpine boots,” Stoller says. 

Splitboarding is also celebrating breakthrough advancements. The category allows riders to separate their board into two halves and freeheel their bindings for climbing, then lock the board together and bindings down for the descent. “The boards are getting so good that you don’t lose much performance – especially in powder,” Stollers says. Another category that’s booming: fatter skis with fish scales, mounted with either tele or AT bindings, eliminating the need for skins. “Those are great for the type of terrain we have around Steamboat, where we have a lot of short shots  instead of long climbs,” adds Pete Van De Carr of Backdoor Sports, who’s selling more scale skis every year. Steamboat’s own Harvest Skis also makes a popular touring ski with scales for short scoots on Rabbit Ears and in the sidecountry.  

(Photo: Cathy and Glenn Wiedemer lock in the heels of their AT bindings for downhill carving. Courtesy of Larry Pierce)

Where to Go: 

Steamboat’s terrain is fueling the craze as much as gear advancements are. As for touring in the backcountry, participants should always bring the necessary safety gear, including avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and the know-how to use them. Hotspots include North Routt County and Buffalo and Rabbit Ears passes. Another option is Bluebird Backcountry, the country’s first “human-powered” ski area, a 45-minute drive away over RabbitEars. The lift-free “resort” offers guides, instructors, ski patrollers, rentals and a base tent and mid-mountain warming hut that serves bacon. “There’s a huge demand for people wanting to figure out how to get started backcountry skiing,” says co-founder Erik Lambert, who is anticipating record visitors this season. “We’re trying to provide a simple way for people to get started and make the sport more welcoming and friendly.” 

Splitboarders and ATers are also skinning up both Mount Werner and Emerald Mountain for a quick exercise fix – enough that both the ski resort and the city have created uphill access policies for safety. “We’re seeing a lot more people skinning uphill, especially in the early mornings and after work,” says the city’s Michael Lane, adding that there’s a designated route during operating hours at Howelsen Hill Ski Area, which is owned and operated by the City of Steamboat Springs. The same holds true at Steamboat Ski Area, where the policy is being fine-tuned for this season. Skinners should purchase an uphill pass, watch a short safety video, sign a waiver, wear a reflective armband and stick to designated routes and times (before 9 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m. daily). Bonus: A portion of proceeds get donated to Routt County Search and Rescue.  

(Photo: Steamboat Powdercats patrons use AT gear to skin up Buffalo Pass. Courtesy of Steamboat Powdercats.)

The racing side of the sport is also growing. April’s annual Cody’s Challenge race is seeing more participants every year, as is the local Ski Ascent Series, a race similar to the Town Challenge Mountain Bike Series held on the mountain and at Howelsen Hill. “We’ve seen steady growth over the past three seasons,” says organizer Charlie MacArthur, whose events drew up to 100 racers last season and included a kids’ and splitboard divisions. “We have tremendous local support and are looking forward to continued growth this  year – and we’re seeing a lot of regional interest from participants in other ski towns.” 

What kind of people are taking up the activity? Everyone from grandparents to groms, like Ryder Robinson, who, at just 10, took second in the 10-14 youth division of last season’s Ascent Series (“He already outgrew the gear we got him,” says dad Barkley) and 60-somethings like Mike Farny, coach of the high school Alpine team who dons his AT gear for the exercise. AT/splitboarding converts range from backcountry purists to season pass holders hitting the mountain mostly but also venturing into the sidecountry.

(Photo: Ryder Robinson and his father, Barkley, compete in the Town Challenge Ski Ascent Series at the Steamboat Ski Area. Courtesy of The Robinson Family.)

“It just gives me a freedom I didn’t have before,” says splitboarding convert Shelli Niedens, who uses her set-up to tour up Emerald Mountain behind her house in Fairview. “It’s opened up new doors for exploration because I can get to places I couldn’t before. It’s changed the way I explore my winters. It’s the same feeling as when I got my mountain bike; I just make friends with the mountain in a totally different way.”   

Uphill Policies: