Uphill ski/snowboard gear sales exploding, but it’s not all for backcountry use
Local splitboard sellers have begun rationing bindings
For some producers of backcountry equipment, fall sales this year have been better than Christmas sales were last year.
Karakoram is one such company; the British Colombia-based backcountry binding manufacturer has already ran through its 2020-21 line, a supply that was intended to last well into 2021.
“We usually plan our inventory so that we have bindings year-round,” said Russell Cunningham with Karakoram.
Cunningham was the first employee of Karakoram after engineers Bryce and Tyler Kloster founded the company in 2008.
The Kloster brothers sensed an upsurge in backcountry enthusiasm happening at the time, and sought to greet that new interest with new technology. The company also predicted a popular search term would translate into a successful website and obtained splitboardbindings.com.
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But while they were prescient in their anticipation of splitboarding’s first big growth spurt, the team at Karakoram has been taken by surprise in this latest explosion of popularity.
Once the current supply is exhausted from splitboardbindings.com and the other Karakoram sellers who have bindings in stock, Karakoram splitboard bindings will be unavailable for the rest of the season. The reserve supply has been drained.
“It’s been a rather remarkable year, to be honest,” Cunningham said. “We’ve just never seen this level of enthusiasm for splitboarding, which makes me super happy because we’ve known for years how awesome the sport is.”
Cripple Creek Backcountry’s Avon shop still has a few pairs of Karakoram bindings in stock. But splitboard sales have been so intense in recent months that the shop has had to disallow sales of individual sets of bindings as shopkeepers are worried they will not have enough bindings available for the purchasers of splitboards.
“We’re keeping it to just full packages,” said Jim Howarth, operations manager at Cripple Creek Backcountry. “We have so many people trying to get into the sport that we’re going to run out of bindings before we run out of boards.”
One of the first splitboards to sell out was the Hatchet splitboard from Minturn-based Weston Snowboards. The company took a risk on unveiling a new short and wide splitboard. Marketing Manager Sean Eno said the Weston team was pretty sure there would be interest in trying the new design, but unsure if the interest would translate into sales. The company invested in a full run nevertheless – available in one size only at 152 centimeters – hoping to sell all the new boards by next spring. They were gone by mid-October.
The Hatchet 152 splitboard has since become a ghost on the internet, with website listings brandishing the “sold out” icon. Weston immediately started the somewhat-lengthy process of manufacturing a new run, but the fresh-pressed boards won’t be available until late December. Evo.com will allow you to purchase one now, but it won’t ship until January 15, 2021.
Joe Tilton, assistant manager at Alpine Quest Sports in Edwards, said every splitboard the shop had in stock sold out “in like a month” this year. Bindings have also been hard to keep in stock, Tilton said, with Karakoram’s friendly rival Spark R&D bindings flying off the shelf.
Tilton said Spark offered to send Alpine Quest one more shipment.
“And then that’s it for the year,” he said.
’Hedging their bets’
Alpine Quest has also been selling a lot of ski touring gear. Some of it has been to the typical customer, a skier already familiar with the sport who is looking for newer gear, but a lot of it has been people all new to the sport, as well.
With COVID-19 shutting down lifts early in 2020, uncertainty about lift operations in 2021 has people coming up with a backup plan to get out on the slopes, Tilton said.
Tilton said while increased sales of uphill-capable ski equipment will likely translate into increased use in the backcountry, the ratio is far from one to one. Many people who purchase the gear won’t end up using it all that much, especially if the resorts stay open.
“A lot of people are hedging their bets,” he said.
Tilton said of the purchasers who do end up making frequent use of their new equipment, many of those uses will happen at a ski resort and not in the backcountry.
At Cripple Creek Backcountry, Howarth says he always tries to give splitboard purchasers a talk about obtaining the proper avalanche safety education that should accompany a splitboard purchase. But more and more, “people will say that they’re only looking to go uphill on the resort, and they’re not looking to get into the backcountry, at all, where the patrollers haven’t gone,” Howarth said. “The safety of it can’t be beat, if they don’t want to take the risk factor, and the decision making on.”
Uphill access is currently closed at Vail and Beaver Creek resorts, but Tilton said he often sees people buying setups to be used at places like Meadow Mountain near Dowd Junction, a former ski area with runs that have been cut and parking and public transportation available at a base area.
Near Kremmling, Bluebird Backcountry’s new “backcountry lite” ski area – where there are lessons, avalanche mitigation and patrollers, but no lifts – is set to offer 62 days of skiing between December and March in its first full year of operation this year.
Howarth said while it’s safe to say there will be an increase in uphill ski touring as a result of the recent gear sales 2020-21, “I have no idea if it’s going to translate to backcountry usage,” he said. “Whether it’s on the resort, or backcountry, we have yet to see.”