Doing the splits

Standing at the summit of Figerhorn, surrounded by stunning mountains and a vast expanse of untouched powder, the four hour uphill slog to get there already felt worth every second, and we still had the ride down ahead of us. It was only my second ever day of splitboarding and here I was at a height of 2743m, having climbed 1000m of that on a bisected snowboard.

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We’d travelled to MoaAlm Mountain Retreat in the small Austrian resort of Kals am Grossglockner, to take part in their first dedicated splitboarding week. As passionate snowboarders themselves, owners Xania and Craig Wear were drawn to this lesser-known part of Austria’s Tirol region for the endless possibilities for backcountry skiing and snowboarding, and having spent the previous season exploring, were now keen to share the fruits of their research with people who, like myself, are keen to venture into the backcountry

Although physically demanding, the climb had been easier than expected, and actually surprisingly enjoyable. There’s something incredibly relaxing about steadily gliding though deep untouched snow, taking in the spectacular scenery, with only the swoosh of laminated planks and rhythmic tapping of boots on bindings to disturb the serene silence of the backcountry.

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It was a very different story to the previous day, where I’d learned, the hard way, many of the dos and (mostly) don’ts of splitboarding. Arriving at the top of the comparatively modest climb, dripping with sweat, my backpack brimming with superfluous clothing, I discovered that the mantra “be bold, start cold” even applied to cold-blooded Raynauds sufferers. Until that moment sweating hands was a phenomenon I’d only ever dreamed of, but after a few hundred metres of schlepping a bisected snowboard uphill, it soon became the stuff of nightmares. And it didn’t take me long to work out that heavy duty Hestra mittens aren’t the best hand attire for fiddling around with intricate splitboard bindings or fitting skins either, although having to do it with no gloves at all soon brought my hands back to their usual reptilian temperature. It was also the first and last time I wore my helmet to trek uphill.

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Learning what kit to wear and carry was just one of many invaluable lessons that we learned from our mountain guide, Sale over the course of the week. Our education covered everything from setting up and using the kit, to avalanche and mountain safety, and, of course, technique. It was learning the most efficient skinning technique that had allowed us to climb twice as high as the previous day without feeling anywhere near as wrecked, although it was by no means plain sailing. When trying to master kick turns, I gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘splitboarding’ when a loss of footing mid-maneuver resulted in me getting stuck in a somewhat undignified pose with legs akimbo, and a very near wardrobe malfunction.

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Now that we’d earned our turns, it was time for the fun part. But first we had to transform our climbing apparatus back into something resembling a snowboard for the ride down. This in itself was no mean feat, especially with six of us perched on an exposed peak in deep snow, all wrestling with snow-caked planks, sticky skins and metal pins. After much faffing, we were finally all set for the descent. Although excited at the prospect of all the deep, untouched pow that lay in wait, I was also a little apprehensive. The blanket of virgin snow that surrounded us may have looked pure and enticing, but I was all too aware of the potential perils that could be unleashed with one false move. It was now that I fully appreciated the importance of having an experienced mountain guide. Sale had already taught us a great deal, and led us to the top safely, but now we had to put our faith in his expertise and leadership to get us down unharmed. However, I knew at the back of my mind that if something was to go wrong, we were on our own.

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I did, at least, feel in safe hands, and as I watched the first of our group disappear into a cloud of light powder and snake their way down to rejoin Sale a few hundred metres ahead, my trepidation was replaced by excitement and the desperate urge to follow suit. Fortunately I didn’t have long to wait, and after leaving a safe gap, I launched myself into the whiteness below. I too was engulfed by the spray I’d created, and for a few moments couldn’t see a thing. It should’ve been a bit unnerving, but as I was floating through an open expanse of soft pow, with no rough terrain or obstacles to avoid, I was able to just relax and let my board carry me, shifting my weight every now and again to put in a wide sweeping turn. Unlike snowboarding on piste, where you can feel the ground beneath you, this felt like surfing, but without any of the resistance that you get from water. It was completely effortless, until, that is, a sudden dip caught me unawares and knocked me off balance. Falling in the soft snow was no big deal – I’d even go as far as to say it was quite fun – however, trying to get up again was a completely different matter. With such fine and light particles of snow, it was impossible to get enough leverage to push yourself up. After flailing around for what seemed like an eternity, getting increasingly hot and bothered, I eventually managed to get back on my feet and stay there, determined not to repeat that experience.

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Over the course of the week we enjoyed many more splitboarding adventures, with a good balance between touring days that were as much about the journey to the top as the ride down, and a couple of freeride days, which placed more of an emphasis on the descent, using ski lifts as well as our boards to clock up as many vertical metres as possible.

On the whole, we were very lucky with conditions and there were only a couple of occasions where our plans were thwarted by Mother Nature. One day, after climbing for around three hours, the weather closed in and we were forced to abort the tour and ride down in very poor visibility. Had it not been for our guide, it would’ve been a pretty scary experience, but Sale led us down in such a calm and controlled manner that we were almost oblivious to the potential dangers. Almost. It was a reminder that the mountains are a volatile and unpredictable environment that need to be respected, and demonstrated the importance of knowing an area well and understanding how to read and react to conditions.

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The team at MoaAlm recognise the importance of balancing strenuous activity with relaxation, and describe their holidays as being “relaxingly active”. As soon as you set foot in the chalet, you immediately feel the day’s exertions melt away, particularly when you’re served tea, coffee and delicious homemade cake in the cool café/bar. Whether you choose to unwind there, or in the comfort of your own room is up to you, but guests are usually lured back to the bar area early evening for a pre-dinner drink.

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The food at MoaAlm is fantastic, and in keeping with their healthy living ethos, most of it is organic and locally sourced, with a strong emphasis on vegetarian cuisine. Rarely have I tasted such delicious and creative vegetarian dishes, or indeed dishes of any sort, and at no point during the week did I find myself craving more meat. In fact, if I could’ve taken the chef home with me, I would quite happily have become vegetarian.

MoaAlm even has its own resident yoga teacher, Barbara, who hosts regular classes in the onsite yoga studio with its incredible views of the surrounding mountains. It’s the perfect way to limber up for, or stretch off after a long day of climbing up and cruising down mountains. Looking up at those peaks towering above, it was hard to believe that I’d been up there only a matter of hours beforehand, striking some poses that weren’t too dissimilar to the ones I was in now.

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My introduction to splitboarding at MoaAlm has left me hooked, and I’m now looking to get my own splitboard with a view to embarking on more backcountry adventures this coming winter. And with their wide programme of activity weeks including a snow safety course and advanced ski touring & splitboarding, I’d love to return to MoaAlm to explore more of the region and practice doing the splits.

Massive thanks to the team at MoaAlm for their incredible hospitality and an unforgettable experience. 

To book your own ‘relaxingly active’ holiday, visit the MoaAlm Mountain Retreat website. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

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