The final day of 2017 Board Test Week was far from uneventful. After a week of riding at Crested Butte Mountain Resort and in the surrounding backcountry, a crew of 11 splitboarders put more than 20 standout boards to the test at Irwin Guides, a renowned cat skiing operation in Irwin, Colorado.
When you hit it on a good day, Eleven Experience’s remote Irwin Guides operation provides access to some of the best snow and terrain in the state. And on the 45-minute cat ride from downtown Crested Butte, veteran testers reminisced about sendable cliffs and plentiful face shots during last year’s Irwin adventure. “I was here two weeks ago with 28 inches of powder,” said Crested Butte photographer Petar Dopchev. “Best day of the winter.” Alas, as is often true in the backcountry, you rarely get what you hope for.
Temperatures the previous day spiked into the 40s and then dropped dramatically overnight, and while testers kept their eyes to the sky, praying for a break in the storm clouds and a subsequent corn cycle, none came. Instead, they battled it out with the toughest conditions of Board Test Week.
Calling these conditions “variable” would be somewhat euphemistic. Our capable guides looked for smooth snow, as riding over frozen tracks in the low light was a veritable death wish.
Sticky snow snatched at sidewalls and threatened to hurl imprecise riders into pine trees. Chunder bucked splitboarders like Colorado’s own Denver Broncos. Ice gave the cold shoulder to edges. And, at one point, the cat lurched to a stop halfway up the mountain when whiteout conditions made it impossible to continue.
“Not every day is a powder day in the mountains,” said Board Test Week founder Mike Horn, who brought the splitboard test from Vermont’s Jay Peak to Crested Butte nearly a decade ago and has since been a fundamental member of the testing team.
“A barn door rides awesome in powder,” Horn continued. “When you take a snowboard out on a run where you have to be focused on every turn because you’re dealing with variable spring conditions, the performance of the board is critical.”
Horn went on to credit Crested Butte’s terrain as a piece of the puzzle that makes Board Test Week work. “The ski area’s always been super supportive over the years,” he said. “And Irwin has come on in the past couple years and added the snow-cat element. The beauty of testing in Crested Butte and in the West Elks is that you really have every kind of terrain.”
“Even a lot of the terrain in the ski area, once you get off the beaten path, has a backcountry feel to it,” Horn added. “It’s super challenging and you can get as spicy as you want.”
While we’d all have loved to enjoy Irwin’s illustrious blower pow (fingers crossed for next year!), challenging conditions forced testers to push these splitboards to the brink. Boards that earned top marks earlier in the week disappointed testers as they failed to maneuver defiant terrain. Other boards vied for Editors’ Choice accolades as they allowed testers to make it through the mayhem unscathed. And one board’s sidewalls literally exploded under the pressure.
Still, spirits remained high all day long as testers enjoyed the deluxe amenities of the Irwin operation. In between runs, we bumped music in the plush cab of the cat, washed down steak fajitas and lentil soup with draught beers and warmed aching toes by a roaring fire. Based on the sheer amount of grins, belly laughs and back slaps, you’d think there were at least a few inches of fresh in the mix.
Looking back at Board Test Week in its entirety, this day at Irwin was a fitting way to wrap things up. The crew rode hard for a week straight in every type of condition imaginable. We skinned up icy ridges for steep, sun-affected pow and snowmobiled deep into the backcountry to rip waist-deep snow on shady aspects. We billy-goated 20-foot cliffs with pepper-strewn landings in the resort and slashed turns in locals-only stashes. It wasn’t always perfect—sometimes it was quite the opposite—but it was always a good time.
Think about it this way: If conditions were always perfect, we’d ride swallowtail pow boards every day. But they’re not, so we don’t. Instead, splitboarders look to make the most out of every day we spend in the mountains—regardless of how “variable” conditions may be.
And we look for boards that can make the most out of mediocrity, too. Over the next few months, Backcountry Magazine will be carefully compiling tester feedback, tallying up scores and bestowing awards to the top splitboards. Stay tuned for the September issue to read up on what went down and rest easy knowing that these boards—and the testers who rode them—got battered, bruised and beat up for the sake of splitboarding.