Kelly Steele: Backcountry Splitboarder

Kelly Steele Andermatt Switzerland

Today, if you ask the average person about snowboarding and what he knows about it, he will more than likely respond with keywords such as “X-games,” “terrain park,” “Olympics,” “Shaun White” or something related to those words. The younger generations of snowboarders are definitely pushing the barriers of freestyle but for many of these young up and comers, the art and intrigue of the backcountry has lost its appeal. Let’s face it, the backcountry isn’t all about show, it’s about calculation and strategy. As much as mankind tries to duplicate nature, it pales in comparison most of the time. Chutes, crevasses, spines and cliff drops that are present in the backcountry are only for those daring enough to handle its complexities. Here, there are no lifts and if you want to get to get “the goods,” you need to work for it.

Now, before we start sounding like a script from a Jeremy Jones shred film, let us introduce to you a woman who would take the hike over a chairlift any day. Kelly Steele, along with her husband, Jeff, are rarely found at resorts. They were both first introduced to splitboarding about seven years ago when they decided hiking up with snow shoes just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Since then, splitboarding in the backcountry has become the norm and the passion behind her riding. And she’s got a lot to say on the matter.

SBM: You say that you prefer to steer away from the lift lines, which I think many of us hate but enjoy the convenience, but how would you convince folks, women especially, to make the venture past perimeter ropes and marked obstacles?

KS: I think backcountry can be an intimidating place for people who have never ventured out beyond the lift lines. That being said, you know that feeling as you are riding the lift up and see people cutting up the perfect bowl you wanted to hit and your heart sinks? Then by the time you get off the lift and strap in that perfect bowl is gone and all that is left is a chopped up mess? That will never happen in the backcountry. [Unless you tour in Utah!!! Haha]

It’s definitely a different mindset though; you have to love the uphill almost as much as the down. I know for me it is so peaceful to get away from the crowds, to be just with your friends, to experience the beauty of an untouched mountain and to get some killer views. I am weird too – I love the uphill! (Anytime you can get a killer workout not at a gym is a bonus for me!!)

Kelly Steele Snow Bunny Mag Crystal Mountain

SBM: Surprisingly, we like the uphill climb too, you’ve got to get those gains. How has splitboarding transformed your backcountry riding?

KS: It has made everything easier. When I started doing backcountry we would snowshoe with our solid boards on our backs and I would come home with bruises on my shoulders and hips from the extra weight of the board. Now we can go further on the same amount of energy and my back doesn’t hurt! We also have a really great community of splitboarders (we allow backcountry skiers too). I have made some great friends by sharing a skin track with them. The technology has also been a game changer in the splitboard world. Almost 9 years ago we made our own with a table saw, only had one edge on each ‘ski’ and lost a lot of the stiffness of the board. Today I am privileged to ride OZ Snowboards that are handcrafted in Colorado and ride like a solid board.

SBM: Oh wow! That must have been quite the ride on your homemade splitboard. Props for trying though! You say “we” a lot and we can only assume you’re speaking about your husband. How has being married to someone who shares in your passions transformed your riding, and even your marriage?

KS: It makes it a lot easier to get out and ride because we don’t have to choose between hanging out with a spouse or heading up to the mountains. We both know we always have a backcountry partner. Jeff is the one who taught Kelly Steele Mt Rainier Snow Bunny Magme how to snowboard when we were teenagers and he has continued to push my riding, encourage me to keep going, and cheers me on when I hit a big line. He knows how much he can challenge my skills before I break (tears, lots of tears) and is my biggest fan when I push through my own fears/challenges.

As far as our marriage goes, there is nothing but great stuff that comes out of being together in the backcountry. You have to rely on your partner to solve problems, make sure you both are safe, encourage one another, serve one another, and you get a grip of quality time together. Jeff and I have talked about everything under the sun on a skin track.

SBM: We could see how the problem-solving skills you develop together in the backcountry can translate into even “everyday life.” What do you think about women shred films, such as the Leanne Pelosi driven film Full Moon, that is moving away from the terrain park and more to the big mountain? Do you think this will inspire other women to make the leap out-of-bounds?

KS: I certainly hope so! I think the more exposure women have to backcountry, even on a film, the less afraid or not interested they will be of actually getting out there and going for it. I have taken out lots of ladies for their first backcountry ‘tour’ and not one of them has ever said to me after, “meh, not my thing.”

SBM: Come to think about, we haven’t had anyone tell us that either. On that note, what advice do you want to offer women who want to pursue backcountry splitboard riding?

KS: Make sure that you start small. Your first splitboard tour shouldn’t be a 7,000 foot vertical day or you are going to hate it or feel like a failure. Try to partner up with another person or group who has splitboarding/backcountry experience. Go your own pace. I never try to keep up with anyone, sometimes I am last, sometimes I am first but it doesn’t matter. Have at least the basics down when it comes to avalanche safety, buy the gear and practice. Take an avy class. And lastly, make it fun! Bring a summit beer, fancy cheese, wear an outrageous outfit or all three but make sure it is fun!

SBM: Pretty solid advice. What would you say is the scariest experience you’ve had in the backcountry?

KS: I’ve been scared plenty in the backcountry, but they are growing experiences right? I would say probably riding down the Cocaine Chute this year in Yosemite. We read the trip reports and expected the top part of the chute to soften up enough for it to be edge-able. Due to high winds, it did not soften up and was bullet proof ice. Needless to say, I couldn’t catch an edge on a jump turn and went tumbling end over end straight toward one of the rock side walls. Somehow I was able to put my ice ax into the snow/ice and stopped myself before hitting the rocks. Since this was my first big backcountry fall, I was pretty freaked out and was shaking for a while. My kind and patient husband is the only reason I am not still up there refusing to come down!

Kelly Steele Snow Bunny Mag Cocaine Chute

SBM: Those husbands are pretty good to have around. What is one piece of advice you’d like to give to the next generation?

KS: Living life is much better to do in person then through a video game or computer screen.

SBM: Any hidden talents?

KS: I can pee in the back country with a 40-pound pack on without having to take off my board. The perfect combo of laziness and talent! Ha-ha!

Talented and efficient. Kelly shows that you can ditch those lift lines and venture out to the less crowded slopes that are waiting in the backcountry, even if you work an office job, like she does. You just need a little confidence, some awareness and then go have some fun. Kelly and her husband now reside in the Bay Area in California and has spent this last winter exploring her favorite backcountry up in the Sierras.

All photos by Jeff Steele.

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About Brittany Roper

Brittany Roper has a B.A. degree in History from Boise State University. She is passionate about women’s issues and sports. She is an avid snowboarder and outdoor enthusiast, who has worked to build a strong female snow community through events centered on women riding and competing together in order to develop healthy relationships. She believes women are NOT a problem but a solution.