Mineral Point Mission

By Dustin Eldridge

The alarm clock rang early that morning. At 4:30 AM I lurched out of bed. Early days are less common in February, but the springlike weather of the past two weeks required springlike rituals. And springlike lines. Our sights were on Mineral Point.
Mineral Point is a prolific peak in the Gunnison Valley. It sits seemingly within reach of the town of Crested Butte atop the Slate River Valley. The summit rises nearly 3,000 feet from Poverty Gulch, a beacon of snow from October to June. Part of Mineral’s appeal is its symmetrical pyramid-like structure; well-defined ridges delineate the broad rocky north, east and south slopes. Our goal was a “town” line, visible from most spots in town, on the south face. A thin sliver of snow parted a large rock band descending fall line from Mineral’s southeast ridge and drew the gaze of one of Crested Butte’s finest splitboarders, Lawson Yow. The line arose at his suggestion, yet I still had dreams of riding the east face on our dawn of departure.

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The trailhead was vacant and dark at 6 AM as I pulled up with Lawson close behind. I followed Lawson’s headlights out the Slate Road, my 1989 Polaris Indy’s lights disabled. My visual world began to expand as the pink light of dawn grew. Mineral Point sat in the shadows as we drove just about to its base. We began skinning in the 2 or 3 inches of new, wind-stiffened snow that blanketed the landscape. This sat atop a seemingly impenetrable sun and wind crust.
These factors made for interesting skinning conditions. In some areas, the Styrofoam snow held tight to the slope, supporting our skis. In others, the snow crumbled, falling down slope with our edges skidding behind. Undeterred, our switchbacks became tighter and tighter, following a ribbon of good skinning snow up toward a bench on Cascade Mountain. We soon came upon a more southerly slope, steeper and firmer than those previously encountered. Our splitboards attached to our backpacks, and we kicked toe-nail sized steps into the slope. Soon, we had reached the bench, and some leisurely skinning.

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The next 1,000 vertical feet went by quickly. The snow continued to be friendly as we skinned under our objective and wrapped around to the west face. As we crossed a broad ridge, the windward slope turned into a nightmare of sastrugi and wind crust. I donned my crampons, the first time I had worn them since buying them nearly four years prior. I slowly ate away at the final few hundred feet as Lawson fought the slope on his skins and skis. I was impressed with the speed he was able to ascend the steep icy slope, holding his edges firmly to the mountain.
The effect of the strong wind over the past couple weeks was apparent as we neared the summit. The windward side of the ridge was blown clean with amber scree soaking up the February sun. The view on the summit was impressive with vistas of Crested Butte, 14ers and even the La Sal range of Utah, in the distance.  Looking down on the east face, the whole rider’s right side had been stripped by the wind. Rocks protruded from the face like fangs; not inspiring for a snowboard descent.

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The south face dropped away out of sight over a convexity. These blind rollovers are always a little harrowing, but we had picked some landmarks on the face to help guide us through the maze of rockbands.
We dropped onto the face at 10:45. Lawson led the way down the ridge to our first landmark, a rock bulge that marked the beginning of our fall line descent. We regrouped there, and the line split into a fork. This was our next landmark. We felt comfortable regrouping once again at the high point that marked the fork. We needed to go rider’s left, but the line once again dropped away blind. Confident in our scoping that morning, Lawson turned downhill into the chute. The new snow rolled into balls and slid down behind him while Lawson turned uphill and waited for the sluff to pass by him. He was then out of view, and I waited for his image to reemerge on the slope far below. Soon he was shooting out of the line, and pulled onto a high point to watch my descent.
My first couple turns were hesitant in the narrow chute, unsure of how the snow would ride after Lawson’s tracks dissected it. The crust underneath the new snow was soft also, and made for enjoyable turns. The chute had a double fall line which pushed me down, rider’s left, into the rocks on the margin of the chute.

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I took toe-edge turns on the right side, as if milking a spine. I stopped as the chute doglegged slightly left, and watched my sluff run out behind me. The chute became skinnier at this spot, and I made slow turns further into the crux. I held onto my heel edge in one section, letting sluff pass. I was near the bottom and turned downhill. I rocketed out of the chute into the apron, hot pow turns embracing my return from the vertical realm. We hooted and hollered, high-fived, and continued on our slushy descent back to the snowmobiles.
We were grateful that this iconic peak welcomed us onto its slopes that February day. This line is not always in condition to ride, and it provided us with quality turns on an exciting descent. Mineral Point continues standing as a beacon in the valley, maybe now just slightly more familiar. And it still has my attention, with more thin ribbons of snow snaking down rockbands on the south face.

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The Waiting Game: East Face of Gothic Mountain

The Waiting Game.

Written by Briant Wiles

The Ease Face of Gothic Mountain The Ease Face of Gothic Mountain

It is inevitable: the scene of craggy mountain peaks reminds me of the bittersweet affliction I have wanting to know every fold of their faces. In some sort of strange unrequited love affair I long for the lines I have yet to feel under my splitboard unsure I ever will. I tell myself that one day the stars will align and I will finally be able to tick off the list a line down the side of a mountain. Well one day came as I stared down the barrel of a gun on Gothic Mountain.

The waiting game consumes an inappropriate amount of my energy studying photos and weather forecasts long into the night or logging hour after hour virtually exploring routes with the help of Google Earth. All this obsessing done with visions of great rewards and everlasting glory in my head. Well I’m not sure about the everlasting glory but I can picture the video game version of myself slaying steep lines on a mythical mountain. It is easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamor of big screen skiing and snowboarding that showcases large cliffs and larger lines. But when you step away from the media hype and it is just you and I standing on top of a line trying to weigh all the consequences of our possible actions it feels a world a part.

I live and breathe the continental climate of Central Colorado. If you have ever had the chance to experience this region on snow then you will know its beauty and notorious snowpack. The words “persistent slab” is plastered on the avalanche bulletins. The season long norm is a “moderate” danger rating or higher. With this typical elevated danger rating and associated avalanche problems my best chances to step out into bigger terrain is relegated to rare “windows of opportunity”. Every once in a while this all comes together to create the moments I live for. It is a satisfying experience to have hard work and patience pay off in a memorable descent.

Briant Wiles beginning the long walk to the top Briant Wiles beginning the long walk to the top

This recipe came together and allowed me to touch a place one can only briefly visit, the East Face of Gothic Mountain. Gothic is a well-known local icon that owns a prominent piece of the Crested Butte skyline. It rises at an un-realistic angle clawing towards the sky bristling with foreboding granite ramparts. It is an impressive mountain to say the least standing geologically apart from the rest of the Elk Mountains but in good company with its large vertical relief. Of all the enticing aspects Gothic offers the East Face holds my attention like no other. It drops from a thin ridge overhung by massive cornices more than 3,000 feet to valley bellow. The upper reaches drain a broad bowl with several defined ribs that narrow into a tortured chute that chokes down not once but twice. The face sustains a steep pitch for thousands of vertical before finally spilling onto a lower angled apron. I have witnessed the ominous sight and sounds of snow slides thundering over the cliffs several hundreds of feet high that flank the central escape rout. This is complex terrain with unavoidable and obvious consequences.

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For years I have stared at the East Face of Gothic. Usually lines of this magnitude are relegated to spring corn cycles. Days are picked with devoted observance of nightly low temperatures. This allows one to reduce the level of risk to manageable levels and enjoy good corn skiing. But no matter how much fun the corn is it is not powder.

The video game version in my head always pictures riding steep faces in great conditions. So I wait. I waited for a chance when my level of risk tolerance matched that of the conditions of the East Face. Finally one morning I found myself climbing through a snowstorm in the pre-dawn light on my way to slaying the dragon that beats deep in my heart. It was a spring storm after several weeks of freeze thaw that set the underlying snowpack in graveyard like stillness. Climbing with me was a partner, veteran of several missions into the near beyond and I trusted him with my life. We climbed past more reasonable and standard south and west facing shots with heads down and our minds fixated on a single goal.

This is how dying in the backcountry makes sense to the second hand couch surfer speculating as to how we may meet our ends. They are right in the respect that a single-minded approach is counter to good backcountry etiquette but are unable to tell half the story as those living it. With a knowing smile we knew that this was our chance to lay tracks on this face, our chance to touch the other side.

Briant ready to drop in Briant ready to drop in

With any late spring storm the chance to ride dry powder conditions is early in the morning necessitating dark approaches. So we found our selves climbing up into a downfall of snow and wind lite by headlamp. We worried about how much snow had accumulated on the face and if we would even get a window to see what we were trying to do. We knew that the spring storm would be short lived and would be clearing out that day. We were more worried about getting to the top before the sun came out and began to melt the snow creating a heavy wet mess. We did have an exit plan in place in case conditions were unfavorable so that we could back down from the ultimate goal and save a little face. But once daylight started to soften the dead of night causing us to switch off our headlamps I knew that we were going to get a chance to test the face.

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Six to eight inches of new snow covered the bowl tenuously attached to a melt-freeze crust. The clouds had parted serendipitously as we strode the last few steps to the summit giving a clear view of the valley far below. We dropped in with little fan fare and I made a downward cut across a gully to test the snow. The new spring snow was heavier than I was hoping for but would still make for a memorable run. The initial cut went well and snow fell harmlessly downslope with no propagation. I found myself sitting sentinel on the apex of a rib below a gigantic house sized cornice exposed on the immense face watching my partner ride the bowl into the chock. From my vantage point I watched as he arced graceful turns down into the bowels of a true monster. The snow looked good with his signature carved on the face. Moments after he disappeared from sight a voice crackled over the radio indicating he had found a safe position wedged somewhere in the twists of the narrowed chute below. I trusted that he was indeed in a good enough spot that I need not worry sending something down on top of him, and then I dropped in. I made the first six turns covering more than a thousand feet like it was on an Alaskan mountain — the snow, slightly heavier than true winter powder, flying from the edges of my board. The feeling of floating or levitating didn’t come close to the experience of pointing my board down that face.  

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As I neared the first choke a customary look back showed more than the expected amount of snow was moving behind me. The heavy spring snow pulled by gravity was slow at first but now had gathered mass and momentum. I pulled off to the rock wall of the chute and grasped a secure ledge and watched a nightmare unfold. The snow I set in motion gathered intensity until a river came roaring down past me. It was just the new storm snow but it quickly gained momentum and now swept by me in an angry flood. I shouted over the radio for my partner to hang on saying “here it comes”. The violent tide swept down the narrow chute jumping off walls and finally fanning out to a stop several thousand feet below. My friend and I were ok. We had held our positions and now all that was left was to try and negotiate the gouged out path left in the slide’s wake.

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We continued our descent with a warm glow of pride from the face above and relished in occupying a space that man can only visit. This glow stayed with us as we slapped skins on and made the long slog out of the valley back to the one where we had started. It was a long day and I rested happily that night. I could check the East Face of Gothic off the list and was satisfied to do so but that immense face has haunted my thoughts. We had put ourselves out there and had taken on more risk than I would like to admit. But is that not the meaning of the lines that we all have on our “list”. They represent a challenge defined by risk. By waiting, sometimes years, for occasions when the risk is acceptable before willingly putting ourselves in places that few dare to tread we can know a deeper sense of satisfaction. The East Face of Gothic is a place we can only visit and I hope one day to again go there. In hindsight my days of tempting a complex line like this in powder conditions may be behind me but I will continue to wait and watch for windows of opportunities. My “list” is still growing faster than I can keep up with but the reward of the waiting for the right conditions to jump into some strange couloir or consequential face is worth it.

A cabin in the woods

Cold Smoke crew ventures deep into the San Juans

By Will Shoemaker

There is something deeply gratifying about discovering a new zone and pilfering its possibilities. Often, it takes work, vision and multiple attempts.

Like playing Jenga drunk. Or hooking up with the captain of the cheerleading squad.

But when the Cold Smoke crew crested a certain north-south ridge in a zone we’d been eyeing, literally, for years, all of the work had paid off. Before us lay an untouched face brimming with possibility. And nobody was skiing it. Untracked, virgin lines spread across our field of vision like a Picasso.

You could almost hear harp music in the background and a chorus of “AAAAAAAAHHHHHHS.” We’d struck gold deep in the throes of a historic mining district, and the pick-swinging was about to commence.

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Flashback to 2012. On a cold January weekend, Cold Smoke owner Kyle Jones and close friend Lucas Martinez shuttled to a little-known hideout in the San Juan Mountains near the site of a mining catastrophe called Summitville. However, hopes of pillow lines and pow turns were snuffed out by a wallop of a winter storm. The group remained hunkered down through the weekend and into the next week, drinking and eating until both sustenance and beverage ran dry, and Jones decided to make a run for antifreeze to feed one of the crew’s two working snowmobiles.

Unfortunately, Jones’ sled found a creek on the way out. Lucky to be alive, Jones limped the three miles back to warmth of the woodstove — on foot, sans skis, in the midst of the storm. As an unfortunate result of the weather, he and his compadres weren’t able to find out much on that trip about the riding potential that surrounded the cabin.

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In the years since, small talk often turned to the Forest Service cabin at the proverbial end of the road. The time had to be right, the crew up to the task, T’s crossed and I’s dotted. And, more than anything, weather conducive.

These factors all came together in early 2016 for a tight-knit posse comprised of Briant Wiles, Josh McEwen, Geoff Heller, Leora Wallace, Jones and me.

The Cold Smoke crew convened on a chilly winter evening at Gunnison’s High Alpine Brewery to hash out logistics — namely, the type and quantity of alcohol that would be needed to fuel three days of shenanigans in the middle of nowhere.

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The sled ride in would be long, but pretty straightforward — relatively flat road through foothills that climb toward bigger peaks. But exploration — and sled laps — once on location would mean the requisite five gallons per person of extra petrol. Throw on top of it food, clothing, sleeping bags and booze for six people and you’ve got a convoy of catastrophe ready to be unrolled.

Leora and I pulled out of Gunnison heading east at 6 a.m., weighed down with two sleds, skis, board, gear, plenty of whiskey (Leora, my wife, is a booze rep) and a boat-load of ambition. A rising sun backlit the mountains named for Christ’s blood as we drove south across the cold, barren alfalfa and potato fields of the San Luis Valley. We regrouped at a step back in time called Rainbow Grocery in South Fork before the final push up the pass.

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From the trailhead, it’s a one-way, 20-mile snowmobile ride to the cabin. Moderately technical riding in the surrounding area once you get there makes this an affirmative “sled-ski” zone.

The 15-foot by 15-foot cabin was erected in 1911 by Mountain States Telephone Company as a “line shack” to support crews maintaining the transcontinental telephone line. Remnants of the old line are still found along the creek to the southeast. Later, the cabin was used as a living quarters for Forest Service employees who worked on numbers projects in the area.

Today, it can be rented nightly for little more than the cost of a couple cases of beer. Don’t be fooled. Amenities are minimal, but the necessities are in place — making for cheap livin’ for as many homies as can be crammed inside the cabin’s confines.

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We arrived at the place with plenty of time for afternoon exploration — and sled laps off a treed rise to the southeast of the cabin. The area sees a fair amount of snowmobile traffic, and while a storm had dumped a healthy dose of snow the week prior, the area west of the cabin held few tracks. This would be the focus of attention the following day — after a huge meal, beer, whiskey and knock-down, drag-out game of Cribbage. This place was starting to feel like we could stay awhile.

Dawn broke to the sun-soaked glow of an alpine sunrise. After a breakfast that put Bob Evans to shame, the posse saddled up and rode west, climbing to a ridge — the ridge — that unveiled the white wall. At the northwest end of the ridge lay an area that one prominent ski mountaineer has called “Little Wasatch.” To the southeast the ridge offered up one summit after another, interspersed with hair-raising couloirs.

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To the north, most of the crew spent the day schralping sled lap after sled lap, while Leora and I toured into the drainage to the west to get a closer look at the goods. The west-facing slope we skied that afternoon gave us a perfect view of a shot Briant Wiles had dubbed the “Sickle Couloir.” Colorado’s continental snowpack is often unforgiving, but for this particular trip we had lucked out. A week’s worth of high pressure after big storms through late fall and into December left a deep snowpack that showed no signs of instability.

Josh McEwen had to head back to civilization early the next day, but the rest of us had our sights sets on not leaving until the Sickle had swung. The climb proved easier than expected, and by noon we stood on top of the route’s definitive entrance that swept left into a dog leg and spit wide into a creamy apron. One by one, we licked the edge of the blade, carving the couli in conditions more reminiscent of spring than the first week of the year.

ed_IMG_7705 copy The Sickle Couloir.

IMG_2598 Geoff Heller sending the Sickle.

At the end of the run, aspirations were still as high as the summits above, but the real world called us back. The 20-mile snowmobile ride out still loomed. We’d only touched the surface, leaving in us all a deep-seated desire to one day return to the vast wall of white deep in the San Juans.

 

Emerald Isle: An Eastern Arctic Snowsurfing Saga

Emerald Isle: An Eastern Arctic Snowsurfing Saga

By: Jaime Van Lanen

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Iceland may seem a distant land—but when you factor in one’s ability to travel across the Arctic Circle, it becomes much closer. With an invite from Icelandic splitboard legend Magnus Smarason to join a sea-accessed backcountry snowboarding expedition to a remote fjord, alongside a newly organized direct flight on Iceland Air from Anchorage, AK to Reykjavik, Iceland, it was doable.

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Six hours on a plane and five hours by car to Akureyri, then a two hour boat ride—a tiresome all nighter—was rewarded upon arrival to Eyjafjordur, a majestic blue fjord surrounded on all sides by snow covered mountains holding sustained pitches dropping straight to the sea shore below. Fourteen hours after departing from Alaska I had set up my tent on a grassy knoll just above the shore of the Arctic Ocean and was already climbing a peak for some turns under the midnight sun. As the sky glowed orange we opened it up on perfect corn snow leading all the way to the precipice of a sixty meter waterfall draining directly into the sea below. A short hike back to camp and I was out cold.

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The following morning Smarason tapped on my tent to let me know he was gonna start skinning within the hour. Jet lagged, but fully aware that the day would be stellar, I scrambled to gulp down some coffee and ready my pack. Soon I was following Smarason towards the largest peak in the vicinity of our camp. Each step further up the face of this high Icelandic peak brought me higher above the beautiful blue colored Arctic Ocean. Somewhere out there, several hundred miles to my left, was Greenland. To my right lay the vast desert-like volcanic expanse of interior Iceland, and beyond that, mainland Europe. With bluebird skies above, the pitch of snow below us beckoned for a ride. Standing on the summit strapping in there was full awareness that this would be a snowboard run of dreams. Soul surfing high above the waters of the Arctic Ocean, linking huge arching turns on velvety corn with the sea sparkling in the sun far below.

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Smarason nailed a steep, exposed line on a hanging snowfield with a tight couloir exit, making it clear that Icelanders know how to handle themselves in the mountains. The turns would eventually end at our basecamp on the beach, where we would stay for the next four nights. Icelandic leg of lamb was cooked over a fire and savored by all. As we ate traditional local food and the Icelanders swilled down the local Viking Ale™ we shared stories about snowboarding and living in the north, making comparisons and contrasts between Iceland and my home, Alaska. As the waves crashed, seals, whales and thousands of different ducks and geese passed by our camp. In my tent I fell asleep reading Icelandic sagas describing the colonization of Iceland by Vikings some 1,000 years ago.

Icelandic splitboard legend Magnus Smarason Icelandic splitboard legend Magnus Smarason

The boat camping trip proved to be an epic session, but my Icelandic splitboard saga did not end with our return to the road system. Through my exploration of Iceland’s mountains, I quickly came to realize that the fjords and valleys of Iceland are a splitboard adventurer’s heaven. Not only were the riding opportunities infinite, on most days, after riding, there was a geothermal hot pool for healing and a patch of green grass for a camp.

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Smarason told me about a place where “the local people swim”, a hot pool inside of a cave. He told me it would be very hard for me to find, maybe impossible. The location was accessed through a small hole in the earth way off in the middle of a massive lava field and required a sketchy class 5 down-climb. On a storm day I went on a mission to find the secret cave. With diligence I found the steaming hole in the earth and as the wind blew the rain sideways out in the open above I swam in a crystal blue pool of steaming water five meters deep in an underground lava tube.

Jaime enjoying the "secret pool" Jaime enjoying the “secret pool”

The next morning I awoke to a fresh blanket of spring snow and soloed my way towards the top of a steep powder filled couloir. The entrance was steep and tight, yet after negotiating my way through it I scored face shots flanked by gorgeous walls of green and black colored volcanic rock. Later, with a plan to climb and ride one of Iceland’s many volcanos I was forced to retreat because of high winds only to discover a geothermal fed hot river tumbling down the volcano’s thawing slopes. I of course salvaged the day by lying around in the water, surrounded by bellowing steam vents, soaking in the view of mountains, waterfalls, and green valleys around me. Finally the weather cleared and I headed to the East Fjords, where I climbed a beautiful peak 1,000 meters above Seydisfjordur and made another brilliant descent to the shore of a waterfall laden fjord, this time on the Norwegian Sea.

Jaime ready to drop Jaime ready to drop

Every moment in Iceland I was blown away by the beauty of its landscape, its history, its mountains, its lakes, rivers, waterfalls, beaches, hot springs, volcanoes, and fjords. Moreover, Icelandic riders and Icelandic terrain are rightfully on the map in the world of snowboarding. Magnus and the Akureyri crew are madmen of pure Viking blood. They climb mountains as if they were taking a stroll down a city street, swim in the Arctic Ocean as if they live in the tropics, and rip big freeride lines and park laps with equal talent. Their ancestors colonized this land 1,000 years ago in order to escape tyrannical Scandinavian kings. They survived on fish, birds, seals, whales, and sheep, and lived in sod houses, which they often heated with dung. Their ancestors were also the first Europeans to arrive in North America, where they could not break down the Native American resistance to colonization and were thus forced to return to Iceland. In retrospect, they did not miss out on much because, in more ways than one, Iceland is a slice of paradise, especially if you want to live a relaxing, pressure-free life in the mountains as a snowboarder.

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The future Icelandic Snowboarding Saga is now being written. If you’ve got some extra time one of these upcoming seasons, I highly recommend you take your Cold Smoke Voodoo splitboard over to the Emerald Isle for a tour.

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2017 Voodoo improved over past models

Some might say, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? At Cold Smoke, we believe in striving for perfection. That’s why our tried-and-true flagship deck, the Voodoo, has received Editors’ Choice award from Backcountry Magazine for two out of the last three years.

For 2017, we increased early rise in the nose, meaning the already hard-charging Voodoo now offers a little more flotation in the fluff — and climbs better in deep pow. To further improve this board’s tractor-like climbing ability, we eased up on the tail rise — an improvement that results in extra stick on slick skin tracks.

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Additionally, the 2017 Voodoo is two-thirds of a pound lighter than the original model — achieved through two primary changes. During the construction process, PSI on the press was cranked up, which resulted in the elimination of excess epoxy. And again this year, we opted for just a partial wrap of steel edges on each ski. Don’t worry, there’s still steel where it’s needed — covering most of the inside and outside edges of each ski, but stopping short of wrapping around the nose and tail. Other splitboard companies also have adopted this approach to achieve a greatly reduced swing weight.

Durability is a hallmark of the Voodoo. “With the improvements the Voodoo is noticeably lighter without sacrificing durability,” said Cold Smoke owner Kyle Jones.

A major improvement to last year’s Voodoo, and continued this year, is a longer “camber bubble” — a section of camber placed behind the rider’s rear foot, providing traction while skinning and boosting ollie-power with a springlike effect. On the 2016 and 2017 models, we extended the length of the camber bubble so that it ends closer to the mid-point between the rider’s front and rear foot.

The camber bubble is technology from Cold Smoke designed to make both the uphill and downhill more efficient by minimizing the effort required to climb and by maximizing the amount of “pop” a rider gets out of the board. The longer camber bubble maximizes this effect.

 

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The Voodoo is still available in 163 and 158 cm lengths, but a shorter version — perfect for the ladies — is now part of the line-up. The 154 cm version not only is a more manageable length for shorter riders but does not have ride-stiffening carbon stringers in the rear that the two longer models come with — providing response that lighter riders will find ideal.

“We now have any size for any rider,” Jones noted.

We also narrowed the width of the 158 cm board from the original Voodoo to provide dimensions more proportional to the board’s length. The 163 cm board still comes with a waist of 26 cm, while the waist on the 158 is now 25 cm, and the waist on the 154 is 24 cm.

And as a result of requests from riders, the Voodoo is available in a solid version as well. Get the same fast, snappy, agile ride that defines the splitboard in a version more suited for riding lifts.

“I have so many customers who love how our splitboards ride,” Jones said. “Now they can get that in a solid version.”

Click here to learn more about the Voodoo solid. We can also be reached at 719.850.0091.

Cold Smoke Voodoo: the 1st Splitboard to kiss the slopes of ‘The World’s Highest Mountain’ – Mauna Kea

Evolving Perspectives on Snowshredding: Coldsmoke Voodoo the 1st Splitboard to kiss the slopes of ‘The World’s Highest Mountain’ – Mauna Kea

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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