We finally crested the ridge, and it was time to remove the skins and put our snowboards together.
“Rip hide!” Carlos Cummings yelled, as the wind howled and the heavy snowfall swirled around us.
I gave him a confused look, and he explained that climbing skins, applied to skis and splitboards for traction to climb a slope, were in the past made from animal hides. Nowadays, they are mostly nylon.
Anyway, we ripped our new-school hides and began the process of putting our splitboards together for the powder-filled ride down.
A strong storm had moved in as we skinned up the horseshoe ridge around the west and north flanks of Todd Lake, an area known as Todd Ridge. The ridge is a remote location that requires a significant step-up in commitment and skill level from more accessible Central Oregon backcountry destinations such as Vista Butte and Tumalo Mountain.
Last week, Cummings, a guide for Bend's Oregon Ski Guides and owner of a small business called Center Punch Splitboards, was helping me accomplish two things that had long been on my must-do list: snowboard Todd Ridge and try a splitboard.
Splitboards are snowboards that split into two, allowing the boarder to apply skins for touring and then adjust the two sides into a single board for riding. I was tired of trudging along in snowshoes and carrying my board on my back during backcountry outings — splitboarding seemed to be a more efficient alternative.
The day started at Dutchman Flat Sno-park, across Century Drive from Mt. Bachelor ski area. Cummings picked me up on a snowmobile and we settled in for the three-mile ride down Cascade Lakes Highway to Todd Lake.
A snowmobile is not required to access Todd Ridge, but it certainly is helpful. The distance from the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center (the typical starting point for those not snowmobiling) to Todd Lake is about two miles. The lake can be accessed via Cascade Lakes Highway (on a snowmobile or skis) or via backcountry ski trails from the common corridor that starts at the nordic center.
A well-used skin track starts from the Todd Lake trailhead (elevation 6,150 feet) and continues around the west side of Todd Lake.
At the trailhead, where the closure to motorized vehicles begins, Cummings parked the snowmobile and we started taking our snowboards apart to apply the skins.
The splitboards were much less complicated than I had imagined. Basically, a small pin is removed and then reinserted to adjust the bindings for touring or snowboarding. The board attaches together via small clips at the top and bottom.
We applied our skins, adjusted our poles, and began our trek along the snow-covered lake. Small streams trickling into Todd Lake carved picturesque waves into the snow.
Cummings said that the vertical drop of skiing from the top of the ridge to the lake ranges from about 600 to 800 feet, and it is typically a safe place to ski and snowboard.
“I have never really seen a significant (snow) slide out there,” he said. “However, it's good practice to always bring all that avalanche equipment (transceivers, probes, shovels).”
Indeed, Cummings provided all the appropriate gear, and he gave me a helpful tutorial on how to use transceivers and probes before we began touring in earnest.
He buried a transceiver near the lake and instructed me on how to use mine to find it. The transceiver flashes directional arrows and the distance in meters from the avalanche burial victim (who, presumably, would be wearing his or her own transceiver).
Once the area in which the transceiver is buried is located, probes are used to locate the avalanche victim and shovels are used to dig him or her out.
My search for the buried transceiver was successful, and we continued on our way.
The skin path was flat for a while, until we began heading directly up the slope. Because seven inches of new snow had fallen on hardpack, the skinning was a slippery challenge at times, but we eventually made it to the top of the ridge as the snowfall intensified.
After “ripping hide” and connecting our boards, Cummings gave me instructions.
“Strap in, and head down this straight pitch,” he said, pointing down the intermediate-looking slope. “At this point, I'm totally confident that the snow stability is good. New snow seems to be bonding well to the old snowpack and that crust layer. I'm comfortable sending you down first.”
I stood up on my board, adjusting my balance to account for the weight of my backpack, and headed down the slope. I sunk deep into the powder, snow flying from my board in white waves. The snow was not bottomless, and I did hit the hard crust layer, but the powder turns through a deserted backcountry hill were well worth the challenging skin up.
Cummings followed, and we boarded down the slope through some trees to a meadow. There, we ate lunch, then we took our boards back apart for the skin back to the trailhead and the snowmobile.
Our only encounter with others on the trip was when we came upon a group of hardy female snowshoers early on.
We saw no one after that, enjoying the solitude of a blustery backcountry day at Todd Ridge — and the ease with which the splitboards made it possible.
Transceivers, probes and shovels: Transceivers work in case of an avalanche only if both the person who is buried under the snow and those trying to find the victim have them. The devices' signals become stronger as rescuers get closer to the victim. Probes are long sticks, broken down like tent poles, that are used to search the snow for an avalanche victim. A compact shovel can be used to dig the person out.
Climbing skins: Nylon material that sticks to the bottom of skis to provide traction on the way up the slope.
Splitboard: This snowboard splits in two, allowing the boarder to apply skins for touring and then adjust the two sides into one board for riding. The cost of a splitboard averages about $1,000, but they can be rented from Bend's Center Punch Splitboards for $50, which includes the splitboard, skins and poles.
Timberline Mountain Guides: www.oregonskiguides.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; 541-312-9242.
Center Punch Splitboards: Carlos Cummings, 541-390-1566; centerpunchsplitboards.com (website coming soon).