Take 5: Zach Husted and the making of a Japow splitboard guide

Interviewed by Phil Lindeman | Summit Daily
Summit County big-mountain snowboarder Zach Husted on a splitboard trek to the summit of Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. Husted is currently gathering experience and training to become a splitboard guide in the wild, snowy backcountry of the Japanese Alps.
Special to the Daily |

Earn Your Turns week

It’s finally March, and that means the meat of backcountry touring season is nearly here. To get prepared, local AT skiers and splitboarders are taking over the Summit Daily sports section in print and online this week with reviews, guides, videos and more.

Thursday, March 2

High Gear — Weston Big Chief splitboard review, plus video

High Gear — Scarpa F1 AT ski boot review

Friday, March 3

High Gear — Unity Whale splitboard review

The Limelight — Local AT and splitboard athlete profiles

Saturday, March 4

Splitboard 101 — All you need to know about splitboarding in Summit, plus video

Thursday, March 9 or 16

High Gear — Voile kit DIY splitboard construction, plus video

The life of a backcountry splitboard guide is more than bottomless powder and endless, untracked lines. And it ain’t all glamorous.

No, for guide hopefuls like Zach Husted, earning the stripes to simply apply for a guide position has taken more than five years of training, working, riding and training again, often at his own expense. The Northglenn native and University of Colorado-Boulder graduate started as a ski patroller at Copper Mountain and soon become an outdoor sports medic. Along the way, he did the endless summer thing by living in New Zealand while earning the standard certifications for a backcountry guide — Avalanche 1, Avalanche 2 and EMT medical training— and then spent three years on the Freeride World Tour qualification circuit. His gutsy riding there won the attention of sponsors like Weston Snowboards, Mile High Mountaineering and Power Bar, giving his name (and social media profiles) even more clout to pair with advanced certs that are in progress: Avalanche 3 for backcountry guides and an endorsement from the American Mountain Guides Association.

But life wasn’t always an adventure. For a year or two after school, Husted worked cush office jobs in Boulder as a cartographer and Microsoft technician. He weathered layoffs and more, but something still wasn’t right.

“I found myself sitting at a desk while I was healthy and thinking about snow the entire time,” said Husted, who’s working at a bike shop in Rotorua, New Zealand this winter season while saving cash for the next big thing. “It’s about doing what I can, while I can. I had friends pass away in freak accidents and that showed me how fragile life really is. I’d be upset with myself if I didn’t live my dream — do what I want to do when I can do it.”

Now, at 27 years old, Husted is ready to live the dream in the final frontier of mainstream riding: Japan. With any luck, he’ll start working at resorts with 50-plus feet of annual snowfall and wild, almost unworldly glades and steeps for the 2017-18 winter season.

Before then, the Summit Daily Sports desk pulled Husted away from the Rotorua bike park to talk about splitboard basics, guiding basics and why a good backcountry partner is hard to find — and impossible to replace.

Summit Daily News: First things first: Why try guiding in Japan? Is the splitboarding scene big out there?

Zach Husted: Japan is world-renowned for its significant snowfall. During an average season, most resorts see 30-55 feet of snow accumulation. This heavy snowfall is caused from moisture-laden clouds blasting into the Japanese Alps from continental westerly winds blowing off Siberia. Skiing or riding here is on the bucket list of most avid snow enthusiasts. Backcountry isn’t a huge scene since they don’t have the sizable mountains or terrain compared to the French Alps, BC, or even Colorado, (but) on the other hand, Japan has over 500 ski fields around the country. This gives skiers and riders a much faster transport up top for more face shots than a grueling, deep skin track, not to mention a culture of true depth and history. (It is) a strong presence when you take a minute to take in your surroundings wherever you look.

SDN: How did you first get into splitboarding? Why “earn your turns” in the backcountry instead of taking a snowmobile?

ZH: After spending more time than I’d like to admit tromping in snowshoes and post-holing to reach further lines, I felt compelled to buy my first split. I simply enjoyed being out in the solitude of the mountains with good people. More efficient modes of travel make the difference between one good run and the ability to fit in a few more.

As far as snowmobiling goes, there’s too much of an overhead cost to transport, maintain (and) repair, and overall less time is spent outside. I can throw on my skins and be touring from outside my doorstep in Frisco within seconds. Something special about that.

SDN: Do you feel like splitboarding in general is getting bigger? AT ski travel is exploding.

ZH: I feel splitboarding is getting bigger in the backcountry due to new innovations and a growing demand to supply riders with the reliable necessary equipment to reach the backcountry. Snowboarders are now able to replace their old snowshoes for lighter, higher-quality and -performing splitboards. Hard to say if more riders are making the switch to skiing, but I’m tending to see more splitboarders out in the backcountry than five years ago. Skiing will never replace the euphoria of carving while snow surfing!

SDN: Imagine I’m a newbie and want to get into splitboarding. What should I look for in a split setup?

ZH: First, no need to splurge on a brand-new kit right away. It’s better to start with the necessities and upgrade if you grow to love self-powered winter travel. You simply pay for what you get (and) the most important piece is your Avalanche Pack (beacon, shovel, probe, first aid kit). Shop around and do your research. Then, become familiar with your avalanche safety products and be sure to take an Avalanche 1 course to dial in your personal equipment. This holds the safety of your life, partner and others while out in the backcountry. I cannot stress this enough in our fragile and dangerous Colorado snowpack.

Next would have to be your splitboard and bindings. It’s smart to get a slightly longer board than you typically ride at the resort. This will give you added stability while riding and stronger footing while touring uphill. The bindings are important because they are your transfer-of-energy from legs to board. The stiffer and lower profile the bindings are, the more controlled and responsive your ride. Over the past few years, (moving from) the original Voile bolt-on binding baseplate to the new Spark R&D bindings makes a world difference.

Next priority would be climbing skins and a pair of collapsible poles. Lastly, the right-sized pack to fit everything comfortable while riding down is crucial. Weston Snowboards is a local company with an amazing initiative — they are currently hosting splitboard days on the first and third Sundays of every month until end of April. This is for riders with an Avalanche 1 course and the correct gear.

SDN: I’ve got plenty of friends who still don’t trust splitboards because they’re not one solid piece. Think that’s a legitimate worry these days?

ZH: The splitboard has come a long way since the first experimental table-saw splits. Our new boards and bindings now have the proper engineering and are as strong and resilient as a solid deck. Along with the new latching systems, snowboard companies have been able to gain performance with less torsional board flow, which gives the board a shaper, more responsive feel. If you have the available funds and are keen to access the backcountry on a board, the sky is the limit.

SDN: Beyond the gear, what else do people need for splitboarding? This can be fitness, special wax — anything that makes a trip easier if you plan ahead.

ZH: Having a good partner while in the backcountry can be the difference between the best day ever and life-altering exposure. Make a plan with your group — taking a moment before you head out to review weather, objectives and route planning are signs of a smart group. Being sure to pack the necessary snacks, water, sunglasses, sunscreen, topographic maps, snow-studying equipment, repair tools and spare parts is also crucial. This may seem like a bit of extra luggage, but will significantly help during a bad situation.

SDN: Where are your favorite splitboard destinations in Summit County?

ZH: Favorite go-to places to tour in Summit would have to be Mayflower for the high avalanche danger days. (I also like) Loveland Pass, Mount Victoria or Peak 1, Montezuma and the Gore Range. They give a large range of different aspects and different slopes to keep you busy. I am enthralled by the fact I can tour from my backdoor to these slopes on purely my own two legs.