Splitboarding Snoqualmie’s Mount Catherine (which can be cruel or kind)
For snowboarders craving the backcountry, Mount Catherine, near Snoqualmie Pass, is a challenge suited to splitboards.
Special to The Seattle Times
It’s always tempting to anthropomorphize — that is, apply human traits — to natural phenomena.
That being said, I’ve heard Mount Catherine described a bunch of different ways by backcountry skiers, and most of them could be considered rude.
The girl-next-door to Summit East (commonly known as Hyak) off Interstate 90 has a maligned reputation for difficult route-finding and time-consuming and confusing approaches. I’d heard tales of people skiing out under the cover of darkness after what was only meant to be a half-day ski tour.
However, when staring at the thickly gladed Snoqualmie Pass peak from the top of Hyak, my thoughts have always run along the lines of “it looks pretty easy.” After all, it tops out at a tidy 5,052 feet with a defined ridge running to the top. Plus, with considerable tree anchoring and several descent options, it’s a sensible alternative on a deep snow day when avalanche danger is high in the Cascades.
To top it off, there’s a veritable nordic-skiing groomed highway running around the whole base, providing 360 degrees of access points to start your ascent. Seems simple, right?
Simple is always relative, especially when talking about splitboards. For the uninitiated, a splitboard is a snowboard basically cut in half with the aim of using it as randonee or touring skis for ascending mountains. At the descent point, the rider then joins the two “skis” back into one solid board with a series of hooks and slider tracks for the ride back down.
The idea is to simulate the advantages of backcountry travel on skis — better float in deep snow and efficient glide — while still retaining the flow of a snowboard on the way down.
I’ve always seen it as part skiing, part snowboarding and part MacGyver.
What started as a small tribe of backcountry snowboarders experimenting with gear, splitboarding has made gains in popularity among snowboarders looking to get away from the resorts over the past few years.
Although major brands, including Washington-based Lib Tech and K2 snowboards, are now creating factory models, splitboarding still remains a small grassroots subset of the overall population of snowboarders. In fact, smaller manufacturers, such as local binding-maker Karakoram, are pushing much of the new innovations in splitboarding versus the larger snowboard companies.
My own initiation into splitboarding started on a cold November night five years ago in my friend’s woodworking shop in Ballard. Having ridden backcountry routes on snowboards for 10 years prior, the functionality of a splitboard proved attractive.
With factory-made splitboards running out of my budget at the time, we took an old wood-core Lib Tech and, in a satisfying bit of surgical destruction, cut it in half. After six stressful hours of using power tools to drill more than 20 new holes in a perfectly good snowboard, I had a functioning DIY splitboard.
Confused on Catherine
When I first started splitboarding, a telemarking friend gave me a bit of advice that always stuck with me: “Don’t pretend you’re going downhill skiing (or snowboarding). You’re basically going for a hike on skis, and hopefully you get a few turns.”
My outing partner, Seattle-local Eric Bartanen, and I opted to reach the base of Catherine via a quick climb over the saddle of Hyak from the Summit East parking lot.
After a quick avalanche-beacon check and discussion of the snowpack and the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (www.nwac.us) daily forecast for the zone — low danger — we converted our splitboards into ski mode and began skinning up.
With the maze of interconnected cross-country trails in the Summit at Snoqualmie Nordic trail system, it’s easy to get turned around on the approach
In just under an hour we reached the base of Mount Catherine, which now had an ominous layer of fog sitting at the top of it. Perfect. The route still seemed clear, and we planned to just ride down near our ascent route if visibility deteriorated.
We planned to climb through the obvious clear cut at the bottom of the mountain, gain the ridge through thick forest and ride down in about two or three hours.
However, Catherine’s reputation for confusing route-finding proved true in the thick forest, and we ended up veering on the wrong side of the cliff band on the face of Catherine.
With good snow stability, we continued skinning up the steeper terrain for another hour, but opted to stop short of the summit due to visibility issues and the fact that the crusty snow conditions just weren’t really worth it.
Taking a few minutes to convert our splitboards into downhill mode and grabbing a snack, we then picked our way through the thick forest back to the clear cut. After an awkward valley creek crossing, we gained the top of Summit East and took a surprisingly satisfying high speed run down the inbounds back to the car.
Despite not quite reaching the summit, we decided Catherine had been kind to us.
John Kinmonth is a Seattle-based freelance writer.