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Splitboard event creates ‘safe, open environment’ for female riders – Explore Big Sky

By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR

BIG SKY – It may not often be graceful, but splitboarding is beautiful for its rhythm. Without trying, the back-and-forth movement of climbing skins on snow falls into harmony with the breeze, the birds, the creek, the song of the backcountry.

Today, our song is loud. Fourteen women glide behind me on Beehive Basin Trail, huffing breaths finding the rhythm of the splitboard. We’ve painted our faces with glitter, and a radiant March sun bounces off the sparkles on our cheeks and onto the crusty snow. This area hasn’t seen a decent storm in weeks, and a melt-freeze cycle has created less-than-variable conditions. But today isn’t about getting the best turns. It’s about cultivating community.

About a month after launching, Bozeman-based organization Sisters in Split organized this women’s ride day for March 5, its first in-person opportunity to effectuate its mission to “empower women through sisterhood and safe travel through the mountains via splitboard,” according to its founder, Mati Tressler.

Sisters in Split founder Mati Tressler in Beehive Basin on March 5. PHOTO BY COURTNEY MCNIFF

The ride day was part of the sixth annual Bozeman Splitfest, a multiday event and fundraiser for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. Splitfest presents the broader Bozeman community with gear demos, clinics and raffles.

This year, Pallas Snowboards, a women’s splitboard manufacturer based in Salt Lake City, offered demos, allowing more women without current access to splitboarding gear to participate in the ride day. The Montana State University chapter of Backcountry Squatters, a nonprofit that works to create networks of college-aged women interested in outdoor recreation, also supported the ride day by rallying participants from its community.

Becca Ritter, co-owner of Bozeman-based splitboard binding company Spark R&D, also attended the ride day and helped riders get acquainted with the features of Spark gear.

Earlier at the trailhead, carloads of women spilled out into a pile of gear and glitter. While some were well-rehearsed at rigging up a splitboard, others eyed their climbing skins and detachable bindings with trepidation.

Yvonne Leung from Bozeman scanned the group nervously, looking for a place to start with her demo set-up. Madeline Thunder, an experienced splitboarder from Big Sky, noticed Leung’s confusion and extended a helping hand.

“Bring your stuff over here,” Thunder beckoned.

Thunder gave Leung one end of the folded skin and the women laughed as they muscled the glue apart.

Riders Madeline Thunder (left) and Yvonne Leung pull apart Leung’s skins in the parking lot. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

Soon, everyone was buckled into their boards and ready to step onto the trail. The variability in the group revealed itself during introductions. Women of all ages and abilities had turned out, some looking for mentorship, some looking for new partners, all seeking connection.

A report published by the Outdoor Foundation in 2021 found that women’s participation in outdoor recreation continues to trail behind men.

“Despite significant industry efforts to address gender disparities,” the report reads, “for the last eight years females have represented just 46 percent of outdoor participants, even though 51 percent of Americans were female.” In 2020, the figure grew slightly to 48 percent.

While such splitboard-specific stats are hard to come by, a comparable gender gap is apparent. At the trailhead, I joked with Thunder about feeling surprised to learn of other women splitboarders, like one of the last surviving members of a dwindling species finding its herd.

Many of the ride-day participants said one barrier to splitboarding was the intense environment they had previously experienced recreating in male-dominated groups.

Tressler and Thunder maneuver down a wet slope. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

“I’ve only been with groups of skiers or my boyfriend who’s super hardcore about touring,” said Emily Heaton, a ride day participant and student at Montana State University. “It’s just such a different energy and vibe, because it’s like, ‘I need to keep up, I need to do what he does,’ kind of thing. And there’s just a little bit more pressure.”

Tressler, the founder of SIS, splitboarded for the first time during last year’s Bozeman Splitfest. She was immediately hooked but just as she soon realized the sport would be especially tough to get into as a woman.

“It seemed hard to find mentorship and find other ladies that were willing to take me out and have it be a more fun environment to learn,” Tressler said. “I just decided that since there’s no resources for lady splitboarders, why not create [them]?”

Tressler launched SIS on Instagram and began building a network of women looking for connection and learning opportunities within the sport. The ride day was SIS’s first time bringing its social media network into physical being.

A mile or so into the tour, we picked a low-angle slope in an open meadow and began our ascent. To get to the meadow, we crossed a creek and scaled a heavily treed slope. Leading the climb, Thunder reached a felled pine tree crossing our path. In a choppy series of skillful movements, she hoisted herself over the obstacle and into the meadow. Next in line, I turned around to face the group, worry flooding my system.

Splitboarding, even when performed by the most experienced riders, can be awkward. When your board is split down the middle, the center cut creates only a partial edge, making it more difficult to cut into the side of a slope. Not to mention you have riders used to mount a single plank fumbling with their legs apart.

For the riders behind me braving their first day on this gear, I worried this challenging maneuver would be overwhelming.

Lily Kerlin learns how to transition her splitboard from climbing to descending mode. PHOTO BY COURTNEY MCNIFF

“Maybe it’s better they get a full taste of splitboarding now,” Thunder said from the meadow, the hint of a smile softening the nervous look in her eye.

Without instruction, the women one by one began scaling the obstacle and filling into the meadow. Courtney McNiff, whom Tressler describes as SIS’s “official hype woman” stayed behind to support each rider as they navigated the challenge.

Rather than grips and groans, the only sounds that floated up from the trees were laughter and expressions of gratitude. As each rider triumphed into the meadow, they shot their fists in the air and soaked up the whooping praise from the rest of the group.

One of the first-time riders, Katie Olson, said the support she felt from the whole crew overcame what she called the “stigma of sucking.”

“It was better than expected and [a] very uniquely safe, open environment for people to put themselves out there,” Olson said. “If everybody had an environment like this, it’d be so easy to try something new.”

That sense of safety and acceptance, many of the women later shared, helped them reflect on what they sought in their backcountry experience.

“It’s such a male-dominated industry,” said Sid Garrido, Pallas’ event coordinator and board shaper who joined the ride day, “that they’ve defined the standard of what is fun or what is good.”

“And what does ‘send it’ mean,” another rider chimed in.

“It’s so rad to see women first step up to fill that space and define what it is for themselves,” Garrido continued.

On the ride down, we enjoyed a few punchy turns and then experienced with the dreaded splitboard out on the flats. Back at the parking lot, the crew was already making plans for the next ride day. To the new riders, I asked: “What’s next?”

“I want to go tomorrow,” Olson shouted as everyone from their heads. “I want to do this every day.”