Learning Splitboard Technique Part 1: “Bowling Ball Piotrowski”

When I started this splitboard journey, I knew there would be a learning curve but after one full day out skinning and riding, then another day getting used to the Splitboard in the resort I was honestly thinking that I had it down. I let myself get cocky and started thinking that I was ready for some big days in the mountains. I felt so confident that I opted to use the Splitboard as my main source of transportation for a 3 day AIARE 1 Avalanche course in NH. My original plan was to Snowshoe with the group and carry my board on my back, however after a few days out prior to the class I decided to go with the Split. I quickly found out that my confidence was awfully premature.

Tyler Dye and arrived at the Northeast Mountaineering Bunk house early Friday morning for our first day of the AVY class. We spendt the first half of the day in class room instructions and getting to know the group. The instructor went around the room asking how we would be traveling in the backcountry- skis, skis, skis, snowhoes, skis, snowshoe……..then it came to me. I boldly said Splitboard. It felt good to be one of the few people doing something different, but certainly put the pressure on.  We finished class around 5pm that afternoon and many of the students made their way to the local bars and breweries. However Tyler and I decided it would be fun to skin up Mount Washington’s Cog Railway and ride back down at night. I was amped to be heading up the Cog on a Splitboard as I had snowshoed up and road down on crappy snow the previous winter. We arrived at the trailhead around 6:30pm and met up with NH locals Joe and Kellen. I have had many adventures with Joe and he is the one who ultimately introduced me to Splitboarding, so I was pumped to finally be out on the Split with him. I was eager to show the locals that the Flatlander could keep up…………..

I couldn’t.

Here is a quick clip of the way up:

The tour started out great and I was doing fine heading up and could easily keep up with the group. It felt effortless as we glided up the mellow incline. The recent months of many workouts had me feeling great. However as things started to get steep things started to go downhill……..literally. We got to a steep section just before the famous Jacobs ladder section of the Cog Railway and I felt my Skins starting to slip. I started to push off my poles hard and forcibly engage my legs to push forward. However every time I made one step I would slip back two. Joe started giving me direction to stop pushing hard and just lean back on my heals. Me being me decided fuck that and kept fighting. This went on for a couple minutes until Tyler decided to help. Tyler was behind me on a solid pair of snowshoes and made an attempt to stop me from sliding backward. I was happy to have the help but knew it could end in disaster. I was right. Sorry Tye. Just as Tyler pushed forward I lost traction hit him and we both slide down the side of the steep gully into the trees. The last thing I remember hearing was egregious laughter from Joe and Kellan. I can’t say I blame them it must have been hilarious to watch two Flatlanders sliding backwards down the mountain. This is how I got the nickname “bowling ball Piotrowski” and I coined the term “riding the flatlander express”

Turns out we both ended up unscathed and Tyler quickly caught up with the group and made his way up to the transition spot. I however was forced to switch to crampons and basically run up the slope to keep up with the group. It was a sobering moment for me as I have long been used to being in the lead pack when heading uphill. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t frustrated, and starting to doubt if I should use Skins on the next day’s tour.  However, Joe and Kellen offered some advice that turned out to be key to me getting through the next couple days tours. My first problem was that I was stepping and not sliding. Instead of sliding the skis which keeps the skins against the snow and drives traction I was instead stepping and lifting the skis. This led to poor traction as I stepped I removed all skin contact with the snow, forcing my other foot to hold the load. To avoid this I would have to focus on sliding my ski forward with short deliberate motions. My next issue was that I was leaning forward onto the front of the ski and trying to muscle through the slippery section. This also leads to poor traction as the back of the ski is unweighted which reduces friction. The key move here is to put your weight on your heals. This forces the entire skin to make good contact with the snow which creates friction and holding power. My final issue was trying to take large steps on steep terrain. I quickly learned over the course of the next few days that I had to make small sliding steps on steep terrain. By doing this it allowed me to evenly balance my weight over my skis and maintain good traction.

After some parking lot beers and pizza I returned to the bunkhouse that night and stayed up watching some skinning technique videos to try to further prepare myself for the next day’s tour. I debated if I could actually make it skinning but ultimately decided to give it a go based on a few key factors. First off our planned tour was up to Hermit Lake from Pinkham Notch and then down the mellow Sherburne Trail. I felt that the low angle terrain would be a good place for me to learn. I also felt that since we had a larger group we would move slower and my overall fitness would allow me to keep up even if it meant switching to crampons at some point. The next day I started in the back of the pack and really focused on my technique. We encounter a bunch of short but steep bulges, water crossings, and icy spots which all made for great practice. By the end of the day I was feeling much better about my abilities and was easily staying with the pack. I did however encounter my first downhill section on the Splitboard Skis. That went about as well as you would guess, but that’s a story for another time. The next day we skinned up the Gulf of Slide trails where I encountered the steepest uphill terrain yet. While I certainly had my struggles I felt like I got better as the day went on. Here are a few shots from that day:

Finally, on our last day in NH I was able to skin up some short but steep sections in local only Glade area. I again had some struggles but absolutely felt like I was improving. Each time I started to slip I stopped, focused on the technique, and took my time. However Tyler was kind enough to take this video of an epic struggle in the glades, warning the video quality is poor and the language may be mildly offensive:

Overall these past four days of backcountry touring taught me some key lessons:

  • No matter how good you (think) are there is always something to learn.
  • It helps to have great mentors.
  • There is no place for ego in the mountains.
  • I suck at downhill skiing.
  • The turns are more fun when you earn them.

Stay tuned for a couple posts on some other key learnings. These include transitions, problems with rushing and cold stress, and communication. Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit my up on Instagram with any questions. pack_mule_piotrowski

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