Jamie Barrow is officially Britain’s fastest snowboarder with a Guinness World Record time of 95 miles an hour. He also competed in boardercross for the British snowboard team.
The 26 year old has undertaken many other adventurous challenges during 19 years of snowboarding, including breaking the world record for being towed behind a car on a snowboard in St Moritz, reaching 151.57kph, and being the first person to be towed on a snowboard behind a plane, in the same Swiss resort.
However, one thing he hadn’t done before now is use his snowboard to access fresh, untracked powder far away from the ski lifts of the familiar ski resorts of France and Austria – the snowboarder’s version of ski touring known as splitboarding.
Earlier this season Jamie tried out splitboarding for the first time in Argentière, one of Chamonix’s ski areas, on a one-week introductory course with UCPA. This French non-profit organisation offers 80 different activity courses at 70 destinations across France. Partnered by Action Outdoors in the UK, its aim is to make outdoor sports and coaching more accessible to young people.
UCPA trains its own instructors, buys its own equipment and manages the centres itself, enabling costs to be kept as low as possible. The guests also help out, as Jamie discovered. “By sharing rooms and clearing away your tables after meals, you enter into the UCPA spirit,” he says. “Although not luxurious, it is a very sociable and everything apart from transport to and from resorts is included in the price.”
As the name implies, a split snowboard can be separated to create a pair of mini skis. In this mode, splitboards can be used to ascend mountains sans lift, using the same principles as traditional ski touring – an experience that’s becoming more easily available in ski resorts. We quizzed Jamie to discover out how he found it.
What kit do you need?
As I was on a UCPA course, they supplied everything we needed to go backcountry touring. This included a splitboard (obvs), touring skins, and crampons for both the splitboard and our boots, plus safety equipment – avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel. To buy the whole lot you’d be lucky to get much change from £1,500 so the UCPA course is a great way to find out whether or not splitboarding is your thing.
How easy is it to set up a splitboard?
The first thing we learnt on the course was to how to convert the splitboard from a board to two skis. It’s a very simple procedure where you pull up a lever to pull off the bindings, undo clips at the nose and tail to split the board, then slide a binding on to each ski. Once we’d converted the board from board to skis and back again a few times I was able to do each conversion in under three minutes.
What technique skills do you need?
It definitely helps if you already know how to ski. I haven’t skied since I was eight years old but soon got the hang of sliding my skis in a straight line when heading uphill. The key thing I quickly found out was not to lift up the skis but slide them forwards, always keeping them in contact with the snow.
What was much more difficult was mastering kick turns. It’s vital as it’s how you turn when going up steep sections when you can’t just walk round. I nearly fell over a few times practising but the more often I did them, the easier they became. Practise makes perfect. As for descending in the backcountry, as long as you’re competent off piste, you’ll be fine.
What about backcountry skills?
Knowing how to use an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel is essential when going off piste. On the course our guide spent part of the first day explaining how to use the equipment before burying transceivers and asking us to find them. I’ve done quite a few avalanche safety courses before so found this straightforward. It’s always good to refresh these skills though.
How do you get traction when going uphill?
You attach touring skins to the bottom of the splitboard skis. These strips of fabric, running the length of the skis, have clips at the front and back to attach to the skis, and is tacky so they sticks to the bases. Once attached the skins grip the snow, so you can slide forward but not backwards.
On steeper, icier sections we attached splitboard crampons under our bindings. When you put your foot down the crampons’ metal teeth help grip onto the ice. The technique for going uphill with crampons was the same but I was amazed how much grip they give. When it became steeper still, we attached mountaineering crampons to our boots and carried boards on our backs. Again was I amazed how grippy the crampons for feet were. They are really trustworthy.
How easy did you find it going uphill?
The first day was very tough, as was trying to keep up with more experienced members of the group, and I was also was getting to grips with kick turns. We only went uphill for an hour and a half but I really felt it. I definitely didn’t have the fitness but every day became easier.
How fit do you need to be?
The fitter you are the better but what’s key is going at your own pace. Keep a nice constant pace that you can maintain for as long as possible. If going for the first time, you’ll be using more energy as you don’t know the technique so well.
What is so appealing about splitboarding?
It makes it so much easier to hike up mountains and explore further into the backcountry and enjoy fresh snow. I had never gone snowboarding anywhere before that didn’t have pistes nearby, and I really felt like we were away from everything and everyone.
On one of the days, after a two hour hike, we put our boards back together and set off down this completely untouched fresh powder field. It’s very rare to get that experience especially when the snow is a week old unless you go heliskiing.
It was part a really long run all the way back down to Chamonix that also included going through the trees and finishing off on a hiking trail. There were some pretty sketchy sections going through the trees, but it was a proper adventure and I really enjoyed it.
What surprised you about the sport?
It felt like it opened up a whole new area of snowboarding that I hadn’t explored before. You really improve your fitness heading uphill and then have a great prize of untouched terrain on the way down. It’s why it’s so addictive.
Will you be going again?
Yes, definitely. I’m now looking to explore places that are not restricted by lifts, rather than focusing on resorts to visit.I quite fancy exploring the fjords in Norway and am looking to do that next month.
The next Action Outdoors introduction to splitboarding courses will run during the 2019/20 season, with dates and prices still being finalised. All the company’s holidays are fully inclusive including accommodation in a multi-share or twin room, full board, equipment rental, instructor/guide and lift pass.