Evolving Perspectives on Snowshredding: Coldsmoke Voodoo the 1st Splitboard to kiss the slopes of ‘The World’s Highest Mountain’ – Mauna Kea
Words & Photography by Jamie VanLanen
For over a decade my snowboarding was geared towards picking off the biggest, steepest, most technical routes; lines with consequences that were certainly personally rewarding, but also associated with ego and prestige related rewards.
A few years ago a conscious shift occurred within me. Intuitively I no longer prioritized high consequence snowboarding and instead began to really enjoy flowy, mellower riding that did not require me to think too much, stress, or be scared. Call it what you will; age, seeing too many bad things go down, or just going soft. It might be some of that but I see it more as finding immense pleasure in snowboarding just for the sake of floating across the planet, surfing the earth and a great desire for connecting with the deep roots of our sport.
I started identifying with old school skiers who I used to make fun of, calling them “meadow skippers”, and I started visualizing and identifying the biggest, longest, most-flowy and cruiser mid-angle and low-angle lines. I also developed an interest in making turns on the most iconic mountains, even if they were just a few turns and not the burliest lines and not from the precise summit.
Living in Alaska early winter can be a drag sometimes, cold temps and low light. The easiest way to get out of Alaska for some rejuvenation is to jump on one of the daily direct flights from Anchorage to the Hawaiian Islands. I’ve developed a ritual of doing this over the last several years; cruising around the islands, camping, trail running, swimming, and trying to teach myself how to surf.
I have long been interested in the deep history of skiing, which stems back to at least 14,000 years ago in the Altai region of Siberia where ancient hunters used handmade skis with elk leg skins for hunting big game. I wondered if any of these ancient people ever tried to slide sideways on one split of wood rather than two? Some of the old hunting skis from Siberia and Scandinavia are wider than today’s fat skis, and shorter too, sort of the like a splitboard. I suspect this was for better maneuverability and floatation in the boreal forest. Who knows though if anyone ever “snowboarded” before the late twentieth century? Regardless, these old hunters represent one of the ancient roots of our sport.
Another ancient, and extremely important, root of snowboarding occurred when perhaps a thousand years ago Native Hawaiians began to stand up on the wooden boards they developed for fishing and ride the waves back to shore. From here paddling-out was no longer just fishing, it was riding, dropping in, carving toe-side and heel-side, barreling, and stacking and getting pounded by waves. This was probably a spiritual and physical revolution of sorts for the Hawaiians. Culturally, great surfers also received lots of status and prestige, just as our greatest boardsport athletes do today.
These are some of things I think about these days while skinning up switchbacks in Alaska and trail running or beaching it on the islands.
I was blown away the first time saw the 13,796 ft. top of the island of Hawaii covered in snow; Mauna Kea, a volcano that, when measured from its base on the ocean floor, is actually the tallest mountain in the world. I had heard about people skiing up there but never realized how substantial Mauna Kea is as a mountain and how much actual snow covered terrain she holds during the winter. With this realization I immediately had a new snowboarding goal – to ride Mauna Kea. But to make this happen all the cards would need to align. There would need to be good snow cover, the weather and winds would need to be calm, and the road up the mountain would need to be open – all during my pre-booked one week vacation to the big island.
The strategy is pretty simple however. Either way you are going to Hawaii for a week. You can watch the weather forecast and the webcam before you go and decide if you should bring your snow gear or not. Alaska residents get two 50lb bags for free on Alaska Airlines, so as long as we don’t mind hauling our gear along we really don’t have much to lose. If the window opens – it’s on, and I am snow surfing Hawaii. If the window does not open I am surfing waves in Hawaii.
Last winter it all came together for me. The webcam was showing ample snow on the mountain and the forecast was for clear, calm skies. After one day of waiting for a bit of rain to pass through we were on the 15 mile access road heading for the summit, traveling from sea level to almost 14,000 ft. in a matter of a few hours. I have snowboarded 26 Colorado and 5 California fourteeners and hiked several more and usually feel pretty comfortable at that elevation but the instant altitude change on Mauna Kea definitely had me a little woozy on the short hike to the summit.
The line I had scoped out the day before from the north shore, directly off the summit, was holding perfect corn on a clean ramp with a consistent 38ish degree pitch descending about 1,500ft off the northeast face. The views out to the ocean and onto the massive volcanic, cratered landscape were surreal. In the distance to the west we could see the 10,023 ft. summit of Haleakala on Maui and to the south, also snowcapped, the 13,678 ft. summit of Mauna Loa. Standing on a massive 13,796 ft. summit in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at one of the most isolated places on the planet, getting ready to drop in; it is moments like this is that snowboarding has become all about for me.
The turns on my Coldsmoke Voodoo splitboard were stellar. I was somewhat reminded of a past yearly ritual of mine, climbing and ripping spring corn on the Mt. Lassen volcano in the Cascades. Yet, compared to Mt. Lassen, Mauna Kea was like snowboarding on Mars. Beautiful red volcanic rock covers everything around me not covered by snow. When I reached the end of the snow line I was a couple miles from the road in a massive lava field surrounded by huge orange colored cinder cones and craters. Mauna Kea resembles the surface of Mars so much that it has been used by NASA as testing grounds for Mars rover expeditions. On the hike back to the road I imagined that I was walking on Mars, except that the Hawaiian volcano desert heat kicked in, as did the reality of being on an island in the middle of the south pacific ocean.
I got to the road and got picked up by my generous shuttle driver friend and sweet-talked her into shuttling me for another lap on a different line I had scoped out. Another beautiful hike and epic Hawaiian corn run deposited me in some snowy flats and required some uphill climbing to get back to the road. I chose this route on purpose because I wanted to actually splitboard in Hawaii. I dismounted, pulled the bindings, split the Voodoo, slapped on skins, grabbed my poles and skied across the volcanic flats to a low angle snow gully and began the half hour skin uphill back to the road. It was brilliant, even though I huffed and puffed a bit from the elevation. At the top I jumped in the car and rallied down to ocean for an evening swim. I wanted to surf and snowboard in the same day but it was too late. Nonetheless, I snowboarded and swam in a tropical ocean all within the course of a few hours. Even better, the Coldsmoke Voodoo became the first splitboard to kiss the snows on Mauna Kea. Aloha.