As with most things in life, "there's a right way and a wrong way" to do things. Getting to the goods on your splitboard is no different. The skills needed for the approach change as the season and snow conditions change. Over the course of your adventures, you will no doubt experience everything from bottomless powder to firm and icy snow to dusty trails, steams crossings, interminable bushwhacks, frozen lakes, unconsolidated sugar snow, and myriad other approach challenges. The main points to remember are safety and efficiency.
We'll cover a few basics here.
- The Art of Skinning
- Using Approach Poles
- Booting and using an Ice Axe and Crampons
- The Dry Approach
The Art of Skinning
Most of the time you'll spend on your splitboard will be in tour mode going up the mountain -- using good form and proper technique is critical. Skinning on a splitboard requires more skill and coordination than using snowshoes but it will become second nature once you get the hang of it. If you don’t master the basics you’ll regret it later. You might be able to fudge your way through it on short tours but on longer tours you'll quickly notice how much further good form can take you.
It’s important to keep your mental toughness while skinning as well. The journey up the mountain can be a long one but it will only seem longer if your mind is telling your body that skinning sucks. Remember to stay positive and think about the ride down. Learn how to break the ascent into sections so it doesn't seem overwhelming. Keep up with your group and try to stay near the front of the pack so you don't feel like you're constantly falling behind. Get mean when the skinning is difficult and curse to yourself if needed. :) You can also experiment with "robot-mode" while skinning. This is when you turn off your brain and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Obviously don't try this if you're setting the skintrack in terrain that requires more attention, i.e. avy terrain, glaciated terrain, exposed skinning, etc.
Here are a few tips to make your skinning ascent more enjoyable and efficient:
1. Stand up straight
Stand up straight with your shoulders back and head up. This will shift your weight to the back-seat and allow proper pressure to be applied to the skis and skins which is needed for good traction up the slope. An all too common mistake is to look down at your skis while skinning. By doing so, your body will become hunched over and not enough pressure will be applied to the ski resulting in slippage. Looking up the slope also allows you to set your skintrack in the safest and most practical place possible.
2. Push with your heels
Pushing with your heels and not your toes also plays an important role in getting good traction. It allows more of your weight to be applied to the rear of your ski. Remember to glide the skis too, taking long, rhythmic strides. Gone are the days of short-stepping on snowshoes which requires lifting the weight of your boot and snowshoe (often with snow on top) for each step. Welcome to efficient word of skinning!
3. Keep your skis flat
Keep your skis as flat as possible when going straight up the slope (not traversing). This allows more of the skin plush to grab the snow and will result in better traction. Your edges can be your number one enemy on flat skintracks (however they’ll be your best friend while traversing). Although one of the main benefits to using a splitboard is the ability to glide, it can also be helpful at times to lift the ski up and stomp it down flat on the skintrack if you’re slipping. This really sets the hairs of the skin plush into the snow and provides added grip.
4. Shorten your poles
Shorten your poles a couple of inches when you transition from the flats to the steeper slope. Long poles are good for flat and rolling terrain but will hinder your performance in steep terrain. Using shorter poles will allow you to utilize the strength of your arms and take some of the work off your legs. Remember to keep your arms and poles close to your body.
6. Step off the skin track
If you just can't get proper traction on a slick skintrack, try stepping out of the track and blazing your own trail right next to the existing one. This isn’t recommended in glaciated terrain or on a guided trip unless you ask your guide. The untouched snow generally won't be as slick as the skintrack from previous skinners and will allow the skins to get better traction. This also gives you the freedom to adjust your skintrack differently from the original track, most likely set by a skier. Skiers will often set an skintrack with a bunch of switchbacks in it. The width of the splitboard skis base of the splitboard translates to superior traction and often means we can take a more direct line with rounded switchbacks . Think of your skintack as a series of "S" shapes rather than "Z" shapes.
7. Use the kick turn
A kick turn is used when you simply need to change your direction on the slope. The goal is to change directions safely, quickly, and easily. The spot where you make this change of direction is known as a switchback. There are two main types of kick turns, the uphill and the downhill. We prefer the uphill kick turn because it's more natural and efficient for splitboards. As you approach the switchback, go past it about ½ stride. This will allow you to step down onto the track as you change directions, not up to it. Before you stepping down to the track, shift your weight to your downhill ski and lift your uphill ski out of the snow -- snapping it in the opposite direction. Now weight this ski and bring around your other ski. Quickly weight your trailing ski once you set it down as it is now your uphill ski. Using your poles in the kick turn is important too. One trick is to wedge the pole tip under your downhill ski to prevent it from slipping out. When possible we also recommend trying to round your switchbacks by keeping your skis flat. This will save you the time and energy of doing a kick turn in the first place.
Think about your skinning cadence and maintaining a steady pace. This is better than using small bursts of energy for fast skinning followed by slow bursts while you catch your breath. Find your rhythm where breathing is easy and maintain it.
9. Don’t overdress and remember to hydrate
Being properly dressed for skinning is an important aspect to remember. A common mistake is to overdress which will quickly have you dripping with sweat and stopping to shed a layer. It is far better to start off a little cold and warm up as your exertion level rises. Don't forget to drink plenty of water as well, your mind and muscles will thank you.
10. Know when to switch to boot mode
Most folks are advocates of keeping their skis on their feet for as long as possible before switching to boot mode. While this makes sense, there are times when switching to boot crampons or a boot pack is both safer and faster than skinning. Knowing when to pull the plug on skinning is an important thing to remember.