The world’s powder-filled backcountry was once reserved for a special breed of staunch, hard-working snowboarder. Traveling beyond resort boundaries meant slugging through massive snowdrifts on snowshoes, or trekking up snowy mountain ridges by foot with a snowboard strapped to your back. Ski tourers passed swiftly, thanks to heel-freeing bindings and climbing skins, allowing them to glide up and over any terrain. It wasn’t until the early 90s that snowboarders took matters into their own hands. Utah’s Brett “Kowboy” Kobernik chopped a snowboard in half vertically and reconstructed it with materials from the local hardware store. The board split into skis for ascent, and reconnected for descent. The splitboard was born and the revolution of splitboarding had emerged, but the sport’s development wasn’t automatic.
DIY split kits and factory splitboards were hampered by limited awareness, uncertainties, as well as major technological flaws that existed in binding design. Over the years, pioneers like Voilé founder Mark Wariakois, big mountain prodigy Jeremy Jones, and Spark R&D founder Will Ritter, began to fill these gaps.
“All the pieces of the puzzle really came together, and specialized catalysts emerged in all areas of the sport,” Ritter told Men’s Journal, who’s best known for his contributions to the advancements of splitboard binding development.
Since developing his first-ever prototype splitboard bindings in 2004, Ritter has watched the splitboard industry grow from niche to mainstream. He spoke with Men’s Journal ahead of what is predicted to be the busiest season in splitboard history, about the sport’s development, his technological contributions, and more.
Spark R&D Founder Will Ritter on the Evolution and Allure of Splitboarding
Tell us about your first experience splitboarding.
For me, backcountry travel started on snowshoes. One day, in 2003, a friend of mine took me out on a splitboard, but I didn’t own one yet. The simplicity and ease—I was hooked from the get go. Going back to snowshoes, I’d be sweating like a pig while friends were chatting away, cruising up an established skin track. That was the ticket.
From an engineering standpoint, what flaws stood out in the design?
In the early days, the most noticeable flaws were the bindings. You were mounting standard snowboard bindings onto an adapter, which sat atop a set of pucks. It was a lot heavier, you were raised off the board by half an inch, and the adapters were narrower than the bindings. The input and force that you put into the board was squishy, resulting in an unresponsive, disconnected feeling. At the same time, we were crushing powder, so it was certainly better than nothing. But from that first day, I was already scheming up what could be better.
How did the original Spark binding prototype come about?
Well I did an undergrad degree in physics and then a masters degree in mechanical engineering, and got a job at a product design company straight out of university. I was a fired up snowboarder for 20 years and seemed to possess the expertise to make this happen—the plans were aligning. On my night and weekends, I used the design shop at work to design a baseplate that would slide straight onto a set of pucks, thus eliminating the adapter. My first day out on the prototype was awesome. I dropped a pound off my setup, the connection was more responsive, and I felt like I was riding a snowboard. I knew I was on the right track.
Did you realize you were actively revolutionizing the sport?
Not at all. I knew people who had snowboarded for 20 years who didn’t know what a splitboard was—it was a super niche activity. I wasn’t thinking that I would one day build an international company and have 60 employees. I really just wanted to build something cool for myself so I could ride more pow.
How did this passion project begin to gain traction among core snowboarders?
When I began posting about the first prototype designs on splitboard.com—the world’s first splitboard-specific website founded in 2004—I was receiving a lot of messages from people wanting to buy them. By the time the first prototypes were dialed in, I had a wait list of over 100 people. That gave me the confidence to get it off the ground.
I founded Spark R&D around the same time in 2006. It was a binding research company, as well as an engineering consultancy business. I continued consulting for another 4-5 years after developing the bindings to diversify our eggs. But at a certain point it became clear that the binding business could stand alone.
From year one to two, sales doubled, then doubled again from year two to three; it was all happening so fast. Time after time I would get an email from a snowboarding idol of mine who was interested in getting a pair. That was a huge indicator of our development.
Describe the appeal of splitboarding? Why dedicate your life to the sport’s development and innovation?
It’s the freedom to be able to go everywhere you want to go, in a light, simple, and easy manner. Splitboarding is such a lifetime sport. I’m never going to get bored of exploring and shaping turns, like I would making laps around a bumped out resort. That’s what got me hooked, and I’m just as stoked now as I was years ago.
Splitboarding is a relatively new sport. What do you think were the main catalysts that brought the sport into the mainstream?
Well, all the pieces of the puzzle really came together. Firstly, it became more common that snowboarders would know at least one person who owned a splitboard. Which meant they didn’t have to be a guinea pig. Secondly, the splitboard-focused Jeremy Jones’ Further feature film trilogy—starting in 2009—began exposing snowboarders to the sport, and opening their eyes to the possibilities splitboards introduced. Before that, people weren’t aware of them, or were concerned that they’d suck to ride. Then came product development. We’ve received plenty of compliments over the years for our contribution toward making splitboards ride well.
Moving forward, how do you envision the future of splitboarding?
I think splitboarding will continue becoming more and more conventional and mainstream. This year is a bit of a black swan moment for us. You couldn’t have planned that a pandemic would significantly boost our demand. But as people become spooked on the uncertainties around ski resorts this season, more and more are seeking backcountry experiences. It’ll be cool to see. A whole group of people who never thought about going splitboarding are about to discover a whole new side of snowboarding. They’re going to be pumped. The caveat is that we have to provide the means to make it safe.
That being said, I don’t think there’s been a safer time to start splitboarding. Educational resources are more accessible than ever, avalanche safety equipment is more efficient than ever, and the likelihood of knowing an experienced split boarder (or ski touring guide) who can mentor a newcomer is more likely than ever.
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