Spring in the Eastern Sierras

Backcountry Magazine has given significant attention to the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in recent months — with multiple articles focused on or set in the range that includes some of the tallest peaks in the lower 48. But around the same time Backcountry Editorial Director Adam Howard was setting the stage for the magazine’s coverage with a trip to Cali last spring, the Cold Smoke Crew was deep in the throes of their own California Dream.

Last April, Cold Smoke owner Kyle Jones and longtime friends and accomplished Colorado skiers Elliot Halverson and Brian Calcatera headed to the Eastern Sierras for big lines and big times.

“Last year was kind of a banner year, and that’s where the idea came from,” said Jones of a winter the likes of which the Sierra had not experienced in at least 35 years.

The Eastern Sierras are the remote east side of California’s Sierra Nevada range — divided from the easily accessible west part of range by tall and snowy mountain passes closed for six months of the year.

The Cold Smoke Crew rolled out of Colorado around April 1 and rolled into Bishop within two days, spending the next week and a half camping in remote spots to better access towering peaks they planned to ski.

“Going and skiing Whitney was kind of the main goal, which we ended up not doing,” Jones said.

The Colorado crew had been skiing big lines in the Centennial State, Canada and Alaska for years, but the Eastern Sierra required a whole new level of commitment.

“This was on a whole new level, some of the wildest creek crossings,” said Jones. “We’d hike in the dark for miles just to get to these peaks they were so big and took so long to climb.”

Arrival was followed by driving up canyons and using binoculars to scout thousands of square miles of terrain — and coming to the realization that one person could not ski all that they were seeing in a lifetime. The typical day entailed rising from the sack at 3 a.m., drinking some coffee and throwing a little food in the pack to eat on the road.

But while the goal of dropping in around noon hadn’t changed compared to back home, the approaches were twice as long — or longer.

“We were so exhausted after the first day,” Jones said. “We had a really good ski down Esha Peak all the way to our camp spot and went and sat in some hot springs that afternoon.”

Wind and inclement weather in coming days sent the crew further south in search of solace, leading up to the group’s big objective for the trip — thinking that they were still building toward skiing Whitney, the highest summit in the lower 48 and an 8,000-foot descent.

However, on the route toward the Whitney Portal they became dissuaded by the number of people approaching Whitney. And, they found Lone Pine.

“You’re driving out of the town of Lone Pine, going up to the Whitney Portal, and there is just this amazing ski coming down the peak — a true shot,” Jones said.

The more the crew looked into it, the more they liked the idea of pursuing Lone Pine. It required hiking over dirt and sand for three hours just to get to snow, with cliffs rising on both sides of the canyon — all for a ski descent of more than 6,000 feet.

“It was by far one of the most incredible mountaineering routes I’d done,” Jones said of Lone Pine. “We got to the top, opened the log and determined we were among the 20 or so people to ski that thing in the last 20 years. To me, that was way more rewarding than Whitney.”

Part 3: Cold Smoke in the Red Zone

China’s Secret Primal Powder Paradise Found

By Jaime Van Lanen

Years back when I first became interested in snowboarding in China various people passed on rumor to me that it was a no-go, that the harsh high-and-dry climate which dominates most of China’s windswept mountain ranges makes it non-appealing to the snow-surfing powder hounds among us (and then as I found out, where there is good snow in the east, you’ve got the corporatist, Maoist Orwellian police state to contend with). So are all the rumors correct?

Far north, on the Russian and Mongolian border is another, less iconic, mountain range than the Himalayas or the Tian Shan (see Parts 1 and 2) — the Altai. This is the place where, as several archaeologists have now concluded, backcountry powder skiing originated, perhaps 14,000 years ago. Rock paintings in caves showing skiers with bows and arrows drawn at deer and skiers appearing to be sliding downhill seem to prove it. Not only that, there are remote and largely inaccessible villages in these mountains where local indigenous Siberian peoples, roughly known as the Uriyangkhai, or “forest people,” whom have likely inhabited this mountain range for thousands of years, continue to ski all winter long on their own handmade skis; steam-bent, with rawhide bindings, and elk or horse leg skins, permanently attached. A Paleolithic tool-kit used for traveling in the deep winter snows of the region for trapping and for hunting moose and Mongolian elk. That’s right, deep winter snow and big-game — two things the Cold Smoke crew are decidedly spiritual about.

The Uriyangkhai have a long-standing tradition of “persistence hunting” elk on skis. Persistence hunting means chasing an animal down until it collapses from exhaustion. You see, animals might be fast sprinters, but no other animal has the long-range endurance of Homo sapiens. That’s why some say we were “Born to Run.” In fact, we probably first learned to hunt by persistence hunting on the African savannah, chasing down elands. The ancient Altai hunters applied this to the snow, an environment in which elk and moose easily expire, wallowing up to their chests in the deep white. Skis allowed them to float on the snow while the elk floundered and went down. The hunters then dispatched the elk with arrows. The hunters also figured out that moose or elk leg skins attached to the skis with the hairs pointing towards the tails gave their skis up-hill traction but also glided gracefully downhill. That’s right, downhill powder skiing originated in the Paleolithic with hunters chasing elk through the mountains. When the snow was deep, going downhill on skis a man was even faster than an elk. Not only did the people who invented skiing eat well, they also had some good times while catching their meat, ripping pow in the beautiful boreal forest of the Siberian Altai. And once all the food was put away I doubt they were finished skiing. Nope. I’m quite certain they were back on the skin-track heading up the mountain and sending lines back down whenever they were able too. If the Uriyangkhai skiers today are any indication, that’s a 100 percent certainty.

The particular Altai village where I stayed was, until 2015, unreachable by motorized vehicle in winter (snowmachines do not exist in this remote region of Xingjian and the isolated Altai villages certainly do not have airstrips or bush plane service). The only way to reach the village at the time was via a four-day journey by horse driven sleds called “Chanas,” overnighting in small outposts along the way. While a dirt summer road suitable for auto travel has existed for several years, the road was not plowed in winter. However, through the larger impetus of rapid development in China, driven both my military and commercial interests, the summer road is now being “maintained” and used for winter travel.

Depending on snow conditions, traveling this road in winter takes anywhere from 6-9 hours, if the entire road is passable, which may not be known before starting out. The road is thin, tortuous, and not necessarily plowed. Some sections are simply deep ruts maintained by consistent vehicle traffic. There are steep passes and steep drop offs which travelers must “slide” through, literally. And vehicles often get stuck or get blocked by avalanche debris, circumstances where travelers all work together as a team to dig-out and then resume travel in a caravan. Moreover, this all occurs in a sub-arctic boreal winter climate with temps that average -20. To say that committing to the journey with a Chinese driver who speaks zero English is somewhat nail-biting is an understatement. And, bear in mind, that first the Western traveler must also arrive at the remote location far into northern Xingjian where the winter road begins. For me that journey started in Shanghai, from where I then had to get to China’s furthest northwest urban center, Urumqi (think flying from NYC to Seattle in the USA). From Urumqi I had to take another airplane ride one one hour north to an oil field town called Karamay and from there take a five-hour public bus ride to a small town called Burqin and then hire a driver for the remaining journey on the winter road into the depths of the Altai Mountains.

On that day, after a few stops to help dig out cars and to dig out our own vehicle, which also took a slide off the road on a hairpin turn, we arrived in the village just after dark. I was set up with a homestay, living with an Altai family, who I could not effectively speak with but who would nonetheless feed me and basically keep me alive during my stay. In many respects, this experience is probably reminiscent to arriving in a remote Alaska Native village 100 years ago. The village does have intermittent electricity, but other than that it does not have running water and it does not rely on fossil fuel: homes are heated by wood that is cut and split by handsaw and axe.

Riding with Legends

On that first morning, scanning the mountains and feeling the solid base of snow under my feet, the reality became apparent: I had found it — China’s deep power paradise. Stellar terrain surrounded the entire village. Perfectly spaced trees of spruce, aspen, birch and larch filled with rock features and pillows. Above treeline featured endless and open powder slopes topped by cornices and steep, rocky couloirs. Some zones contained steep north-facing rock-tree chutes which dropped clean and sustained all the way to the valley floor. Total vertical drops averaged from 3,000-4,000 feet, but pow lines dropping over 5,000 feet were possible. For reference, my description of the Altai terrain is that it is perhaps akin to a mix of the Japanese Alps, the Wasatch Range and interior British Columbia. Yet there are no ski lifts, no lodges, no helis and no ego-driven ski scene. Rather, in the Altai there is simply an ability to set a skin-track anywhere you so desire and to spend weeks riding brilliant lines in glorious peace and solitude. However, ski tracks across the mountains are a salient part of the scenery and many of the lines you might want to ride in the Altai are not going to be first descents.

On that first morning I quickly noticed fresh ski tracks. Altai skiers! I headed out the door and began skinning toward the river and quickly encountered a skin-track, which I followed. Crossing the river and exiting the forest I saw two children on traditional Altai skis heading up the track. As I approached they looked at me like I was an alien, said something in Tuvan (the local language) and began giggling. It was two very young girls on skis, perhaps 8 or 10 years old. Their skin-track up the slope was steep with switchbacks that expert backcountry skiers would navigate carefully. And the girls were fast climbers, just as fast as the best backcountry skiers I know. To say I was impressed is an understatement. I couldn’t believe my eyes. But then I calmed down and remembered the context of what I was seeing. These girls were born into this, raised as members of a skiing culture and from their earliest years taught the skills which their ancestors had practiced for millennia. The slope was steep but short, perhaps 400 vertical feet. The girls would skin up, turn direction and ski down, giving my first true look at Altai skiers in action.

Altai skiers don’t ski downhill in the same fashion as do western skiers. They use their single pole as a rudder, placing it behind and between their two legs, applying pressure to both slowdown and assist turning. Altai skis are long and wide and don’t have sidecut or metal edges. Therefore Altai skiers don’t make short and tight turns like most modern downhill skiers do, their turns are very long and once they pick up momentum they ski very fast, and they also need a lot of room to stop. Nonetheless, they are expert tree skiers who navigate the powder-filled birch and spruce forests with stylish grace. They are also are experts at traveling above treeline on open slopes and steeps.

I followed the young Altai skiers’ skin-track and took a few runs up and down the small slope alongside them. But I had my sights set on bigger terrain further up the mountain. Just as I was about to continue on, a man on skis arrived. He was the girl’s father and his name was Mulchen. Despite the inability to speak to each other we shared some smiles and mutual understanding. I inspected his skis and he inspected my Cold Smoke Voodoo Splitboard in a manner of awe with which one might expect Native Americans might have inspected the very first firearms they had seen. Then I pointed to the big mountain above — attempting to tell Mulchen that I was going up there. He smiled, said something to the girls, and continued up the track on his fur-skinned wooden skis, motioning for me to follow.

As I followed Mulchen up the 4,500-foot ascent to the high ridge that day, I was blown-away by the level of skill and awareness with which he set the skin-track up the mountain. It became obvious that Mulchen was employing his own avalanche awareness-oriented route finding protocols. When we encountered a suspect wind-loaded area, Mulchen would jam his pole in the snow and inspect the layers, just like our own modern “hasty-pole-test,” and he carefully chose unexposed locations to stop and wait for me while following him. Obviously Mulchen had never been trained in a western avalanche education class. His ancestors had learned these skills and protocols over the thousands of years they had been skiing in these mountains. And they no doubt encountered avalanches and other hazards. In fact, it is known that some Altai skiers have historically been buried and killed in slides.

Avalanches are known to be frequent in the Altai’s cold interior snowpack, but during this visit the snow was stable and the villagers had been making descents down some of the biggest slopes in the vicinity for several days. But no one had yet put tracks on the peak we were climbing, the largest and steepest of all that were close to the village. As we traveled higher above treeline I was a bit nervous and was surprised to see Mulchen begin to put in a series of switchbacks going up steep, rocky terrain that would rival any of North America’s toughest ski ascent routes. I had studied Altai skiers prior to my trip, of course, but I had never been aware of any reference to them skiing high alpine “extreme” backcountry terrain. As we topped-out and reached the ridge ,the soft snow gave way to windblown hard pack and patches of ice, which is always tedious to traverse across while skinning. But Mulchen sped sideways across the icy traverses using a strange pressure technique with the heel of his foot in combination with his edgeless skis, another ancient technique of the Altai skiers.

As Mulchen and I skinned along the ridge in a cold wind-chill of perhaps -35 degrees, I noticed tracks ahead in the snow, not ours, some type of wild animal. Looking down as we crossed the tracks, my mind quickly registered — certainly a wolf. I looked at Mulchen as he let out a loud call — aaaaaahhwooooooo. I nodded back — wolf. Happy, we smiled at each other; there is nothing else to be said — a universal language of wild celebration that we both understood, even though neither one of us knows a single word of the other’s native tongue. Shortly after our encounter with the wolf tracks we reached the summit of the mountain and congratulated each other with smiles and laughs. On the summit, I can see mountains located in both Russia and Mongolia. In the valleys below there are small settlements, mostly winter horse grazing camps, and in the main basin is the decent sized village of 200 or so homes: small cabins heated by wood, made of spruce, and chinked with sphagnum moss.

I was living a dream; on the verge of riding down an Altai mountain in real-time alongside an authentic Altai skier. Mulchen began descending and I witnessed with my own eyes the ancient and highly skilled practice of primitive skiing. Controlled, calculated, high-speed glisse: without fancy ski-boots and only hiking shoes on his feet, held to the skis with rawhide straps in a free-heeled fashion. No metal edges, camber or sidecut. Yet, Mulchen can competently descend a large mountain on handmade skis and experience the same blissful enjoyment as can any modern western skier, all apparent in his obvious cheerfulness with showing me how it was done, guiding me down one of his favorite big-mountain powder skiing runs.

After our descent we returned to the village and Mulchen’s small cabin to celebrate with chunks of meat, fat and hot butter tea. On the mountain, using basic hand-signs (as wells as wolf-calls and smiles and laughs), our ability to communicate improved. Sitting by the fire sipping tea we tried to communicate by drawing pictures of skis, mountains and animals. Before I returned to my lodgings for the night, Mulchen drew a picture for me of what looked to be a deer with antlers, pointed to it and then pointed up toward the mountain. Then he pointed at me and back at himself and wiggled his index and middle finger together, depicting the movements of a skier followed by raising his hands to the top of his head and spreading his fingers, portraying antlers. Then he held his two hands together and tilted his head onto them, the universal sign for sleep, which I easily interpreted. Then he repeated all the previous signs. I understood. He was saying that first we should get some sleep and then in the morning we will go skiing again, this time in pursuit of elk.

What Skis Were Made For: Traveling Through Powder Snow for Food and Survival

The quest for an undisturbed splitboarding paradise was an important reason for my exploration of China, but it was mostly my knowledge of the historical roots of Altai backcountry skiing — elk hunting on primitive skis — which inspired me to make this journey to the Altai. I had never expected to actually encounter such legends as real Altai ski-hunters, nor did I expect that I might go hunting with them. So when the night before I received the impression that Mulchen might be inviting me to go elk hunting I was elated, and in the morning when we began the skin I could not believe that it might actually be happening. But I had no way to ask detailed questions or get answers, all I could do was follow Mulchen as he set a new skin-track across a valley and into the forest.

As we entered the aspens all of a sudden I felt as if I was in the Rocky Mountains: the trees, the terrain and even the air had an eerily similar ambiance to backcountry touring in Wyoming or Colorado: elk country. Further ahead Mulchen stopped. As I approached he waved me along and pointed into the snow: deer sign, tracks and a pile of pellets, distinctively elk. We continued and the sign became more prolific, more tracks and pellets. Entering a beautiful grove of aspens there were fresh beds everywhere in the snow. With the elegant expertise of such an indigenous hunter that one might read about in the stories of Old West explorers or in the ethnographies of African Bushman, Mulchen had silently led us on our skis directly to the realm of elk. My heart pounded, silence was a given between us: no language other than the mutual hunters’ understanding Mulchen and I shared, no sound other than the swoosh of our skis in the crystal dry boreal snow and the rustling of the remaining brown-yellow leaves which still clung to the branches of aspen. I started thinking about how quiet it is to stalk game on skis compared to attempting it on foot in a dry forest.

I was not sure what lay ahead, all I knew is that we were tracking elk and that I was witnessing the ancient Altai practice of pursuing elk on skis, I was ecstatic. There was no doubt Mulchen was right onto this group of elk, as we skied onwards I even began to pick up fresh elk scent from the barley-frozen pellets. As the slope steepened and the elk trail began a low-angle traverse Mulchen diverged in the opposite direction and began placing a high-angle skin-track directly up the fall-line of the mountainside. Even if it was possible for the two of us to speak to one and other, this move did not need to be discussed. I had a good idea of what he was doing. Although we had not caught any glimpse of the elk, we had tracked them to within very close range and rather than letting them wind us, sending them running, we headed in the opposite direction, making haste to gain elevation and intercept them from downwind and from above. It was classic hunting strategy, passed on to Mulchen through centuries of experience by his ancestors.

The steep and tight switchbacks put into the slope by Mulchen and his primitive skis were expert level ski-touring route navigation moves that any modern professional backcountry skier would be impressed by. Modern western backcountry skiers would also be impressed by the speed with which Mulchen moved up the mountain. He was like a Himalayan Sherpa, born for fast and effective mountain travel. As I found myself left behind for my lack of such skills and conditioning I wondered why he was moving so fast. What happened to the slow and silent stalk? Did he decide not to pursue the elk? No. He knew these elk, their habits, how they moved across these mountains. His haste was the movement of the hunter who has entered the moment of full commitment to the final stalk, which often times must be swift in order to have the best chance of intercepting game that is moving away before it disappears behind a ridge and down into a distant valley, making it impractical for the hunter to continue the pursuit.

Out of breath, I could not keep up with Mulchen. Time slowed down and it seemed like his trail was forever climbing higher and higher. As Mulchen’s skin-track began to rise above the treeline and into more open alpine snows it suddenly began to traverse, high-side along the edge of steep band of rocks. As I turned the corner I saw Mulchen, strapped to his skis, standing still, peering through binoculars down the mountain. I skinned cautiously upward to reach his position and he pointed down, handing me the glass. Two-hundred yards below, a bull Mongolian elk was standing in the snow next to a band of rocks. It was a glorious moment. I’d seen plenty of antlered deer at two-hundred yards before, but had never stalked them by traveling uphill on skis, never been led on the stalk by the primal essence of an ancient hunter traveling on skis he made himself with an axe, from spruce wood cut from the same forest we were standing in, with climbing skins from the legs of a local horse, fleshed, stretched, and dried by the skier himself.

We sat down and watched the elk for a few more minutes. Soon the bull was joined by a couple of cows. Then, unaware that someone was watching them from above; the trio began to move, traversing along the mountainside, slowly gaining elevation, disappearing again into the forest. I was not sure what would happen next. Mulchen smiled and handed me some dried meat, which was mostly all fat, and a cube of hardened butter tea to chew on. We drank some water and then Mulchen got up, put his binoculars in his pack, shouldered it and motioned me onward.

We stayed high, continuing along the same trajectory as the elk had travelled as they disappeared into the forest. Soon we reached a large ravine, a summer creek bed now blanketed in deep snow. I followed Mulchen as he descended into the drainage. Half-way down, on a small lateral ridge above the creek bed, he stopped. A line of elk tracks had just come into our view. The elk had moved up, ascending directly up the ravine, heading toward treeline. They must have passed this spot only minutes or seconds before we had arrived. As we scanned the trail leading up, the small herd of Mongolian elk appeared, rising out of the ravine and onto the snow slope above, heading toward a lone patch of spruce. A majestic bull appeared, larger than the one we had seen before. It stopped, turned and looked directly at us. We had been made. We watched the group disappear again. Mulchen looked at me, smiled, pointed downhill with his ski pole and, leaving the elk behind, we descended through perfect soft snow and spectacular groves of birch and aspen down to the main river valley.

Early on that day, I had a hunch that I might not be so lucky to actually witness an Altai skier kill an elk. Mulchen had no weapon and no other local skiers had joined us. And my understanding is that Altai persistence ski-hunting is normally done as a team effort, with multiple skiers driving the elk from different directions into a final cut-off point. More than this, I was also aware prior to this trip, that the Chinese government has effectively made hunting illegal in this region, and even though I was told it is almost certain that Altai skiers nonetheless continue to hunt strategically, it was very unlikely that they would let a foreigner who they had just met bear witness to it.

Mulchen obviously knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to show me the elk and also show me that if the villagers wanted to harvest an elk they normally can easily find them, track them and stalk them to within close range, on their skis. It also is now obvious to me that, when Mulchen stopped on the rocks above the elk, he had reached the stage where, if a ski-hunter was committed to making a kill, he and his fellow hunters would begin their full-scale pursuit, descending on the elk and driving them down into the forest in an effort to exhaust at least one of them to the point of giving up and allowing itself to be taken by the ski-hunters. I felt extremely fortunate to have experienced the process up until that stage.

That evening, back in Mulchen’s cabin I tried to use hand-signals and sketches to ask him more about hunting. I was able to establish that the people maintain a great interest in hunting, and likely continue to do it, but that they are very afraid of being punished for it. At one point one of the other local men drinking tea with us held out his two hands with the inside of his wrists pressed together, simulating the hand cuffs which would be attached to him if he were to be arrested for hunting. This fear has likely been exasperated with the opening of the road and the presence of Chinese military police in the village.

The Real Reason Why We Ride

Traveling in snowy mountains during winter on splitboard has occupied countless hours of my life and is a core part of who I am. When one leaves behind the manufactured groomed ski trails and the hustle, bustle and commercial hype of downhill ski resorts, stepping off-piste to become a backcountry snowboarder and alpinist, new perspective is provided. The many hours of determined, and mostly silent, muscle-powered travel on snow cultivate lots of space for mental reflection.

Living in Alaska, particular to my reflection has been a lessening of a previous focus on splitboarding for recreation and adrenaline and a new focus on the practical role of split-skiing for winter transport and subsistence hunting. For, this is he practical things that skis and skins have been used for throughout most of their history; these are the reasons that humans began sliding on snow. Even more, like the indigenous Hawaiians whose invention of the surfboard is also rooted in a subsistence life way, the hard and meticulous work of living on the land (or the sea) has always been accompanied by a simultaneous human need for happiness, joy, human camaraderie and play.

Importantly, both the surfboard and skis (and later snowboards and splitboards) are prime examples of this cross-cultigen of the development of a cultural lifeway centered around a tool that is both highly practical and which also provides, not only a feeling of joyfulness to use, but, as many skiers and surfers would argue, an experience of pure, nearly unmediated, bliss. Here the ancient surfer would have paddled out on a plank of wood into the sea to hunt fish, turtles or seals, or gather mollusks from an outer reef, eventually catching a wave to come back in to shore. At some point the marine hunter-fisher-gatherer would decide to try standing up for the ride. We can easily imagine the result of his success in riding that first wave — enormous smiles and laughter from both the surfer and any on-lookers — sheer bliss. From there the daily practice of hunting, fishing, and gathering in the tropical sea became more enjoyable and desired than it ever was before. And once the community’s subsistence needs were accomplished the people kept paddling out so they could catch more waves. The practice became ritualized into sport and became a core part of Hawaiian culture.

This same process likely occurred in the Altai cultures that developed skiing. Perhaps they began with a snowshoe-type tool, but the very mountainous territory which they inhabited meant that when traveling in the snow they often found themselves needing to go downhill and thus the smaller snowshoe-type tool was modified into two longer, more slender planks of wood, which would glide downhill with more agility and more speed. That gliding instantly became enjoyable. Like the Hawaiians, one can imagine the smiles and laughs which occurred among the Altai bands as they tumbled through the snow learning to effectively utilize this new tool. The bliss of powder riding began at this stage and then advanced into sheer exhilaration as the hunters perfected their skills and became expert all-terrain skiers- quite likely the first expert downhill skiers in history, successfully navigating their way down steep mountain terrain several thousands of years ago.

The spirit in all of this continues on inside of us in the ascents and descents we make during our long winter days in the mountains with friends, and every fall when some of us hunt deer, moose and elk as the primary source of our winter food. This spirit also exists in the small-scale, grassroots, local ski and snowboard companies like Cold Smoke, who are dedicated to keeping the bliss alive and bolstering the spirit of local backcountry community in the Elk Range, across Colorado and beyond. During your splitboarding travels in the mountains this winter I hope you will take some time to reflect on these things and reflect on what can be learned from the Altai skiers. For backcountry solace, for powder, for community, for wildness.

A fall worth remembering in the Tetons

People skinning up toward Paintbrush.

By Elizabeth Koutrelakos

Thanksgiving can provide ample food and time to digest great things that have occurred over the span of the season. My gratitude commenced when the September snow covered the huckleberries while they were still ripe, forcing me to put down my bucket and pick up my Voodoo splitboard!

Drizzly mountain bottom on the way up to Garnet Canyon.

Sunhats quickly got swapped with beanies and the adventuring began. Chippy conditions were expected during the inaugural tennis-shoe walk to snow-covered hills. Once we got above the light drizzle of low clouds, views of Garnet Canyon rose, and up we went to the Middle Teton Glacier. About 30 cm of fluffy powder on summer snow created ideal turns and got me slightly more interested in Old Man Winter. The best part about this premature taste of fluff was the access — the park road was open with rideable snow on the peaks.

South fork of Garnet peaks out to say hello.

Other notable shreds include Disappointment Peak and meandering up some line in Paintbrush Canyon during mid-October. The most extreme portion of these early season conditions entailed split-skiing down a semi-snowy trail in that awkward elevation where the trail had substantial snow, but off trail was a no go. The old “pizza technique” was out of the question as shark fins lined the sides of the trail, so one could only point it and hope for the best. One point-and-shoot creek crossing damped my life for the moment, but all other attempts were deemed successful.

Looking down from top of Middle Teton Glacier.

The greatest riding occurred the week of Thanksgiving, due to consistent snowfall and ample coverage of lower faces. A rare sunny-day skin with friends up the east ridge of Buck Mountain provided delicious snacks, crisp mountain views and pleasant skiing. I’ve skied the east face many times, but the ridge itself provided a spicy dimension to riding down. This fall has been the best Teton coverage experienced in my speck of a lifetime. I double checked the bottom of my board to reaffirm this fact. … It’s beginning to look a lot like it’s time to embrace winter.

Rising above the clouds in Stewart’s Draw.

Part 2: Cold Smoke in the Red Zone

The Uncertain Quest for China’s Secret Powder Paradise

By Jaime Van Lanen

In mainstream, very urban, eastern China things are starting to ramp up ski industry development-wise, and of course there are loads Chinese who are snowboarding at the many, East Coast-like, lift-served ski resorts. Moreover, Chinese culture even now has caught wind of the joys of powder snow and the lure of the backcountry. Recently a big corporation in Beijing started up a volcano snowcat skiing operation on the North Korean border in Jilin province called Changbaishan (CBS). When I first heard of CBS I became adamant about going there to ride. Its location is near the Sea of Japan and I figured it would receive maritime snowfall. It looked to have a full suite of powder-filled birch forests reminiscent of Hokkaido on its lower slopes and big open snowfields on its volcanic upper slopes. And the top of the snowcat drop was right on the border of North Korea. So nobody needed to drag me there, I was all-in.

But sometimes the things which seem to be the best ideas end up being the dumbest ones and CBS is one of those. The volcano and its beautiful surroundings were a wonderful backcountry skiing area for sure, but the corporate shmucks who run the place, along with their Orwellian Chinese police state friends who oversee it all, make doing anything autonomously close to backcountry skiing impossible. The only way to get to the base of the mountain is take one of their strictly controlled buses, which requires that you purchase your $90 snowcat pass before even getting on the bus. Another way to get to the good terrain would be to cross-country ski the entire way, but this would be an overnight trip really, being that it’s almost 20 miles from the security gate to the base of the volcano. Then, just like Tibet, the snowcat “guides” monitor your every move and freak out if you venture too far off main pistes. I’m usually a master at ditching these types of people but they’ve really got the place on lock-down. Every time I tried to go exploring the untracked areas I would be followed by one or two of these guides, with their radios reporting all of my movements. Albeit I did score a bunch of great low-angle Manchurian volcano powder, but it was hard to thoroughly enjoy because of those Maoist “ski guides” and that was enough of that. I’ll keep the $90 and try to strategize a new plan.

That night back at the lodge I went for a walk and scoped out the security operation at the main gate where the bus picks people up for the snowcats and decided it would be doable to just mingle in with the morning crowd of Chinese backcountry enthusiasts and poach the bus up to the mountain. The next day was a bit stormy and perfect for my plan to cautiously sneak away from the CBS base area into the forest and go enjoy the day doing split-laps in the stellar, pillow-filled birch forests on the lower mountain.

My bus-poach idea worked fine and once at the base area, where the stupid guides meet you at the bus stop to “guide” you, I took a walk to the outhouses with my splitboard and never came back.

The ski across the flats in the boreal forest was wonderful. I glided gracefully in dry powder toward a nice, 1,000-foot pitch of open birch I had eyed the day before. I was living it — putting in track alone in the mountains of Manchuria just west of the North Korean border, about to slay East Asian birch pillows all-day with no Aussie Geijans in proximity to crush my vibe. Several switchbacks and some good grunting and I was up top where the wind was blowing snow — zero vis. No worries, riding trees today anyways. Lap one, two and three. Just like the movies. Yeah, Asian birch is some of the best stuff possible on a snowboard. I’m sure all the Japan vets would agree. But this is China and I’m on the border of North Korea so there is sort of a Double—0—7 vibe going for me on this split session, making it a bit more exhilarating.

I made it back to the base just in time for the bus with the plan to casually mingle in with the crowd again and hop on indiscreetly. But being the only white dude, with a weird looking snowboard that splits in half and decent sized backpack, does make it difficult to be discreet. Despite some strange looks from the crowd everything went smooth and I was back in my hotel room trying to figure out how to tell the lady at the restaurant I want the fired eggplant with my rice. Then, a knock on the door.

A visit from the police. Supposedly, I owed them $150 for poaching CBS earlier that day, $90 for the snowcat ticket and a $60 fine for trespassing. What a bunch of fascist jokers, eh? The one cop, speaking broken English, seemed a bit sympathetic to my protests that I had no idea it was illegal to “hike” on my own because in the USA we are allowed to freely do this virtually everywhere. He tells me he understands but that, regardless, I must pay. These two robotic, inflexible Maoist-trained policemen got my back against a wall here. Who knows what will happen if I refuse but the situation does not look good. I throw the money in their face and scream some obscenities. I don’t think they had ever witnessed someone resist them as I did, as most Chinese have been thoroughly tamed by communist law and order. Well at least I didn’t take any chances and try to make turns in North Korea (which I have a heard one guy who visited CBS has tried), then I’d probably be fighting for a whole lot more than $150.

The North Korean border looms on the ridge in the distance.

So the basic lesson for anyone reading this who has a twitch to snowboard in China? Don’t go to CBS, it ain’t worth it at all — total rip-off. And also watch your back wherever you go in China because they have eyes in the back of their heads (not really but they do have a shit-ton of surveillance cameras everywhere) and of the three different ski areas I did check out, all of them disallow out-of-bounds skiing.

Regardless, my long-practiced sneaky poaching tactics were more successful in the far westerly Xinjian province at the Silk Road Ski Area in the Tian Shan Mountains, where I easily ducked ropes into pretty old-growth pine forests and scored a few nice and brilliant pow lines. The snow in this part of the Tian Shan was shallow, however. The cold, dry range hovers above the sands of the Takla Makan and rises to over 24,000 feet. It really felt like snowboarding in the desert. Down below was the northern route of the ancient Silk Road, where 2,200 years ago globalization got started when people started trading goods across the east-west expanse of Asia and the Indians brought Buddhism to China. Riding down the mountain I viewed a massive expanse of frozen sand dunes. I even saw camels milling around in the snow on the Takla Makan one day. In the distance I could see many big glaciated peaks, including an excellent view of the 17,874-foot Bogda, famous for climbing.

To say traveling in China is difficult if you don’t speak Mandarin is an understatement. I wanted to go deep into the backcountry of the Tian Shan but was barely able to get myself to the ski area. I figured once there I could branch out and get deeper into the mountains. Yet I quickly realized my options were limited, as the bigger stuff was a long ways back. Plus it didn’t look good, everything above treeline looked like either pure ice or super-scoured hardpack. Not interested in a Tibet repeat, I decided to give it one more day at the Silk Road and move on.

The next morning I packed my skins and some extra gear and took off walking from the top chair with my board on my pack along a dry ridge (for you Crested Butte locals, think Gunnison Plateau sagebrush style). The air was good to breathe and the skies were clear. The terrain was intricate. Steep mountains separated by deep rocky canyons, soft snow holding on the north aspects, and not a trace of snow on the south aspects. I had scoped a couple of tight, rocky below-treeline couloirs the day before and I wanted to try and reach them. They exited into a tight-looking gorge but I figured I could follow it out and wrap back around to return to the base of the ski area. After a few hours of scrambling up and down this crazy intricate terrain I finally got a solid view of the couloirs — both blocked by significant sized ice-falls. Oh well, can’t win them all and China is a place where it’s tough to win anything extra-easy when it comes to splitboarding.

I returned a ways back up the ridge, strapped-in, and dropped into another tree chute that I had scoped on the hike in. Exciting powder deep in the gully was had all the way to the valley floor. I chilled in the sun for a while and then started skinning back up toward the ridge, startling some local herders on the way. They looked at me like I was an alien, likely never seeing a skier back there before. But they were happy and so was I. Once up top I made my way back to the ski area boundary and rode the Voodoo down what I must admit was a killer long run on fresh groomed corduroy all the way back down to the desert.

The Tian Shan was decently fun and provided a very interesting exploration. But I’m not done yet. It’s the third largest country in the world and there’s gotta be a real-deal, steep, fat pow zone somewhere in China. Don’t lose faith, yet. Stay with me. The quest for China’s powder paradise will continue in Part 3.

Part 1: Cold Smoke in the Red Zone

Voodoo the first splitboard to kiss the snows of the Tibetan Himalaya?

By Jaime Van Lanen

Aside from Japan, Asia, our earth’s largest continent, has been relatively unexplored by backcountry snowboarders. Some exceptions to this are Gulmarg in India, the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan, and Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. But by no means have these places had as much activity from Geijan (the Japanese word for foreigner) shredders as has Japan, and for good reason. The normally cold and dry, heavy coastal snowfall which packs into the beautifully forested mountains of Honshu and Hokkaido each year, combined with its high level of sophisticated ski resort and access development, have put Japan in the top-tier of the adventurous splitboarder’s tick list.

I can speak from experience that somehow finding one’s way to Japan with a splitboard is a well worthwhile endeavor. But I’ve always been the type who seeks out the fringes, the un-tapped zones which few Geijans would ever ponder as plausible spots for epic snow-shredding sessions.

Several years ago, when I was working as a backcountry guide in the Japanese Alps I would often set my gaze far to the west, skinning on a ridge looking out at the Sea of Japan, wondering what type of mountains and snow existed in our world’s most populous and third-largest country: China. I knew that there were a massive amount of mountains in China — the eastern portions of the Karakorum, the Kunlun Shan, the Tian Shan, and the entire north slope of the Himalayas, extending south and east from Xinjian province through Tibet (where Everest’s north slope lands on Chinese soil) and into the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. But that does not even cover it. There’s a lot more. In fact, once one starts researching the mountain ranges and the potential for splitboarding locations in China they will easily find themselves overwhelmed.  Particularly confusing is trying to figure out what areas might hold good snow. Generally, anyone who has climbed or skied in China would tell you that the snowpack is marginal, that it’s often shallow, winded, entirely faceted, or, in many areas non-existent, even in the dead of winter.

Last February, when I made a go at figuring this all out for myself, it took me just three days poking around in the Chinese Himalaya to verify that, yes, while there is certainly snow, the chances of it being soft and stable are very low. In fact, I already had strong hunches this would be the case, and when it came to China I had originally set my sites on some of the smaller, less elevated, and more obscure ranges. Nonetheless, in my quest to figure out China I came across another western backcountry enthusiast who had discovered some photos of big Alaskan-looking spines in the Eastern Himalaya, in Tibet of all places, and who had a keen urge to go see if something was possible. So without any premeditation I found myself recruited to make Tibet my first splitboarding stopover in China.

The long-story-short version is that Tibet, her culture and her mountains, are exceptionally beautiful — a full package of social-ecology unique and critical as a component of our world — but that a rider would be hard-pressed to discover pleasant snow in her embrace. I’m not saying it isn’t possible. With the waters of the South China Sea not too distant, “China’s Gulmarg” (as we termed what we were questing for) might be hiding somewhere deep in the veiled confines of the Eastern Himalaya. But to make an accurate determination one would need to either be willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money or become a rebel-fugitive in the eyes of the Chinese Red Army.

To enter Tibet at all, all non-Chinese must obtain a permit and hire a guide. Let’s just be honest and call out most “guides” for what they are — leashes, especially “tourist” guides who know nothing about skiing. Prior to commitment I was told that our goal to make some turns in Tibet was understood and prearranged. But once on the ground the situation became complicated and we had to pull off some heavy-handed manipulations of the whole regulatory/guide system just to get ourselves putting skis on our feet in the mountains. With persistence and determination we made it happen nonetheless and I was informed by our Tibetan guides that I likely became the first person to snowboard in Tibet, and certainly the first person to splitboard in Tibet. (If that’s true, it means that the Cold Smoke Voodoo is officially the first splitboard to kiss the legendary, albeit icy and hardpacked, mountains of Tibet).

So, the first guy to snowboard in Tibet, but by no means gloriously. Trying to convince guides who have no idea what is possible to unleash you from their restraints is the first challenge. The second challenge is attempting to safely descend the world’s most horrible and edge-catching breakable crust at 17,760 feet. For an example of the general conditions in the high Himalaya one could also reference Jeremy Jones’ descent of steep, high-elevation, nearly-solid-ice Nepalese spines in the film “Higher.” It’s a scene so burly that the legendary high-angle technician Luca Pandolfi decided to bail on the line and wait in camp. I’m with Luca on that move. And the zone we got into in Tibet was not even close to as committing as the Nepalese zone Jones and Luca were exploring. But the snow was far worse for us in Tibet. Despite all this, I am damn happy that I was able to make turns in the Tibetan Himalaya on my Cold Smoke Voodoo splitboard, in the shadow of 25,531-foot Namcha Barwa, the 28th highest peak in the world.

Story told, I was glad to move on from Tibet and continue searching for Chinese powder in other ranges.

(Stay tuned for “Part 2: The Uncertain Quest for China’s Secret Powder Paradise.”)

Deconstructing the ‘Dynasplit’

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By Will Shoemaker

For skiers, the Dynafit binding has been a game changer in every sense of the term. Tech bindings shave significant weight — a pretty big deal in the backcountry — without, for the most part, sacrificing performance.

So why can’t splitboarders benefit from this technology as well? They can. The question is: Should they?

Hardboots on snowboards are nothing new, and it’s no surprise that over the last few years a couple splitboard setups have emerged that borrow from the Dynafit phenomenon. Like in the ski world, Dynafit toe pieces have revolutionized what’s possible in the backcountry — offering a relatively sturdy toe attachment at a fraction of the weight of splitboard-specific bindings.

So I set out to see what this system was all about. Mainly, the question I hoped to answer was: Is the “Dynasplit” — Dynafit toe pieces for the climb and a plate binding system for ride mode — getting less credit than it deserves?

Like anything in the wide world of gear, there are always tradeoffs. When it comes down to it, there are just three characteristics that define recreational equipment: inexpensive, strong and lightweight. Choose two.

Phantom Splitboard Bindings are the creme de la creme, and for a pretty penny take the Dynasplit setup to the lightweight extreme. I opted to try out the heavier, though less expensive, Spark R&D Dyno DH system.

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The upsides

Without a doubt, the biggest benefit of the Dynasplit system is its weight — or lack thereof. It’s pounds lighter than my Spark Afterburners. On longer tours, this makes a huge difference. I feel like I can tour for days on the Dynasplit.

I’ve also found it to be much more efficient on the climb than the alternative. Here too, this setup shines; I didn’t realize previously just how much movement there is in a softboot splitboard binding system, but the Dynasplit saves a noticeable amount of energy through the course of a climb. That’s energy that comes in handy late in the day or on a long tour.

Also, you may as well call it  Dyna-“slick” — the step-in toe piece for climb mode and a single toe latch movement to lock the boots in ride mode take minutes off of transitions. My wife happens to be a skier, which has made my transitions fast even with a typical softboot splitboard setup. Dynasplit transitions are faster yet.

And then there’s the fact that a single pair of boots are compatible with multiple skis/snowboards. I bought a pair of Dynafit TLT6 boots to ski the 40-mile Grand Traverse with my wife this year. During the race, I plan to use those boots with a pair of lightweight rando skis, but it’s nice that the same boots also are the perfect fit for the Dynasplit. In effect, the only question for a given day in the backcountry is snowboard or rando skis? The boots remain the same.

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The downsides

Where I ski, a snowmobile is an extremely useful tool for gaining access to the biggest lines. And softboots are great for riding a snowmobile — offering ample flex for quick movements and lots of rubber to grip the machine. The same can’t exactly be said for a hardboot. They’re not terrible, but hard plastic does slide easily — perhaps too easily — on a snowmobile’s aluminum tunnel and tread.

Also, there are definitely some sacrifices to the Dynasplit in ride mode. From what I’ve found, the TLT6s can not be comfortably or effectively ridden downhill with both top and bottom buckles fastened. To get a downhill ride even close to that of a moderately stiff softboot, I only fasten the boot’s bottom buckle, leaving the top buckle loose under the cuff of my pant leg. Not ideal — and certainly something I would want to change if I used the Dynasplit setup more frequently — but it seems to work.

I’ve also had a really strange experience getting used to the torsional stiffness of the boots: softboots flex easily in a line parallel to the edges of the snowboard. Hardboots do not — creating odd stiffness that further “loads” the tail of the deck when initiating a turn. The first few times this happened, the boots’ lack of flex sent me rocketing forward coming out of a turn.

I’ve also found that canted pucks are pretty crucial to using the Dynasplit system — saving significant strain on the knees.

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The take-home

It’s been a little more than a month since I started riding the Dynasplit, and today was the best day yet for me on the setup. Turns are finally coming easy, and the added stiffness of hardboots is much more manageable — even beneficial when carving turns — than a few weeks ago.

To summarize, the Dynasplit definitely has its place in today’s world of rapidly advancing ski/snowboard technology. Super-long approaches? Willing to sacrifice a little downhill performance for gains on the up? Looking to gain a little time during transitions? The Dynasplit may be your answer.

That said, the setup isn’t cheap. While the Spark Dyno system I tested all together (plate bindings, toe pieces and adapters) retails for about $500 (canted pucks, heel risers, boots and board excluded), Phantom sells its complete system for $850.

So, to ride a Dynasplit, you’d better either be deep-pocketed if you’d like to own multiple setups, or be fully committed to the concept — including taking the financial plunge.

Copyright © Coldsmoke Splitboards 2015