Written by Eric Layton
Phantom Team Rider
Lately quite a few people have asked me what my favorite piece of backcountry equipment is or better yet, why do I ride with ski poles in my hands. The answer is simple, they work! Not just for the obvious reasons, but yes, they do help a tremendous amount with getting through the flats or undulating terrain and I wouldn't be caught in the backcountry without them. A buddy and fellow guide recently said that riding with poles in your hand is alot like riding a moped, its really fun to do and until your friends see you!! So is the pole a hinderance and advantage or does it downgrade your steeze? As a snowboard guide working in the heli skiing industry throughout British Columbia, Alaska and a wide variety of mountainous terrain in the US, the ski pole is one of the most important tools in my backcountry kit and this is my reasoning for gripping the sticks!
The big question or debate seems when and where to hold them, let alone differrent ways to store them on your persons. In your hand or on your pack? Behind your back or in your sack? I personally hold them in my hand whenever there may be a change in contour or undulating terrain. I defintely use them alot while guiding! Getting through the maze of forests sideways can be tricky so experiment what works best for you. Depending on how you store your poles on your pack, or wether you hold them in your hands, tucked behind your back, or under your shoulder straps, get ready to have your poles handy when the time arises.
Over the years and with more and more time in the backcountry, poles have slowly become a fixture in my hands. In the beginning, I’d ride as long as I could, then try and slide another few hundred meters more, before breaking the poles out. Thinking they just helped propel me forward, but now I know there's so much more they do! A huge advantage of poles in your hands is that you can constantly feel the snowpack, probing for density changes and weaknesses within the layers. This is valuable tool for understanding and locating where avalanches could be triggered. I turn the pole upside down, baskets up and probe around to find buried wind slab and resistances with in the top layers of snow. Hasty pits can easily be performed on the go, while on slope or while waiting at the bottom for my guest or friends to show up. A quick hasty can identify shear characteristics and be a great way to have a poke at the resistances in the top 50-70cm. With a single pole, isolate a 30cm column by the depth of the layer of your concern, place both hands behind the now isolated column and give a pull. When or if your block shears, it will tell you the depth, slab hardness along with layer character and whether it is resistant or sudden planar. Take into account these are informal tests, but they help put the pieces together. A couple of quick hasty pits can give you an incredible amount of snow information in a little amount of time that goes a long way if you have a good understanding of what is in the snowpack from daily test profiles and shared information within the industry.
As a snowboard guide there is no going down to my knees or sitting on the snow. This is and has always been a huge pep peeve of mine. In the backcountry or in any big mountain setting you have to be at your safe zone, but ready to move away if necessary. Poles allow me to easily balance with my board facing down the fall line set up for success to ride away, usually just to make more turns, but also for a quick getaway in an emergency situation. Terrain is really going to dictate when and where you use poles. In Alaska or very steep to flat terrain, you can get away with not using poles for the downhill especially if you have a helicopter and can get picked up where you run out of speed, but in the mountains of British Columbia, no way! The mountainous regions of North America hold such big country; with massive trees and unforgiving terrain features that not having your poles in your hands on the downhill in specific areas is a disaster waiting to happen. The terrain can vary greatly and be quite unforgiving; if I didn't have poles in my hands I couldn't perform my job as fully or efficiently.
From the medical side of things, poles make great splints and I have on multiple occasions used them to splint a leg or knee in the field. A three-piece pole is ideal here!
So yeah for a splitboard guide they work and make you more efficient and they are more likely to help you find weaknesses in the snowpack. You will start to look at terrain a bit differently as to what line you can take as a snowboarder. If you do find yourself in a pinch or a bit too low, you have the poles to help you slip out or over something that otherwise would of meant hike or a commitment to something you didn’t really want to ride!
There are a variety of good poles out on the market today, from three-piece collapsible poles, to two-piece poles that don’t pack down as much, but do have fewer moving parts. I prefer the flick locks to the traditional twist and turn. Both seem to ice a bit in very cold conditions, but the twist and turns often collapse and are a bit finicky. The snowboarder’s preference is a 3 piece ultra collapsible Z pole that stores inside the pack. Caution, lighter doesn’t always mean better. I have broken these types on numerous occasions, leaving me pole-less. On long expeditions or extreme cold, I prefer regular single piece ski poles that are stronger and have no moving parts, which in return in could hinder your tour. Lately I’ve been experimenting with different grips! I prefer the Black Crows Trios poles which are ideal for storing behind your back for quick and easy access. Try replacing your pole grips with golf grip tape for ultra thin and easy access behind the back storage!!
While poles are not for the every day snowboarder out there, they can be a huge advantage when neccessary. Depending on your geographical location and a few other factors, poles could be just what your spitboarding needs. Poles are usually reserved for those guides or splitters working in a downhill environment on a snowboard and the type of terrain that they are encountering below them. This of course changes run-to-run, drainage-to-drainage, but it’s worth taking them off the backpack from time to time even on the downhill, especially when managing certain types of terrain or when safety is a concern. In the steepest terrain poles are not needed and you can often switch it up for an ice ax.
Oh and they look sick in your hands while getting blower faceshots!!!