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.”)