Split The Difference: Luca Pandolfi Interview

[Photos: Guillaume LeGuillou]

Splitboarding has become increasingly popular in recent years. Snowboarders of a certain vintage will no doubt recall Dave Downing’s part in TB9 from the year 2000, which opened most people’s eyes to what such a contraption was, but it nevertheless took a few more years for splitboards to evolve from something usually hacked together in a garage. Today, though, there are a host of brands making splitboards, and companies making split-specific product, along with an increase in performance of the gear with a price that’s – while not cheap – more accessible to the masses than ever before. 

One of Europe’s foremost devotees to the art of the split (and more generally freeriding scary big mountains) is Luca Pandolfi. You’ll doubtless remember him from being Jeremy Jones’s riding partner from the Himalaya ender of Higher and, after a chance introduction, we decided it was a good time to shine some light onto both the dude himself and an area of the shred that’s growing in popularity. And often overlooked by media scum like ourselves…

Photo: Luca Pandolfini

Hey Luca. Can you give us a brief bit of background on yourself and your relationship with snowboarding? I read somewhere you started out as a freestyler?

I tried a snowboard for the first time in 1991 and immediately I had a blast. My parents, as a gift for my 18th birthday, offered me a skiing week in Megeve, France, and at the end of the week I rented a snowboard; I will never forget the feeling of the first turn! The following 2-3 years I rode only on the weekends, learning the basics and carving. Later I moved to a mountain resort, working as seasonal worker and snowboarding everyday. It was at that stage I started freestyle, joining the Sauze d’Oulx “Flying Elks” crew.

Soon my explorative nature pushed me to leave the safety and comfort of the patrolled pistes and structures we were building (there were no snowparks at that time) to search for the unknown magic of the off-piste and backcountry.

Not having a clear idea about my future I decided to spend one winter season in the best 4 European Freeriding Meccas: Verbier, Alagna, Chamonix and La Grave. The moment I arrived in Chamonix my soul became kidnapped by the magnetism of those wild, huge and extreme mountains. In Chamonix I had the possibility of changing my view about snowboarding and big mountain riding; I learned how to climb the big faces and long couloirs I wanted to ride, and I trained for bigger and more ambitious dreams such as riding in the Himalayas and Andes.

What initially drew you out of the freestyle side of things and made you look towards the bigger peaks? And did you start just riding powder in the sidecountry, or did you go more directly into the more alpinist approach?

Nature’s wilderness always had a big influence and attraction for me; exploring the backcountry came naturally and for a few years I was just freeriding and seeking powder. My first step was playing with the natural terrain, slashing windlips, dropping cliffs and using some of the tricks I learned during the previous years in the backcountry. The Alpinist approach came later, when I started dreaming bigger.

You live in Chamonix. It’s long been a Mecca for alpinism and serious big mountain riding. Is it all it’s cracked up to be for the kind of big mountain riding you like? 

Like most of the people living here I came for a short holiday and never left. Chamonix is another level for everything; it is like a Playstation game, you have Peak 1, Peak 2 and Peak 3, all served by lifts. More than a physical place, Cham is a mental bubble where people dream bigger, in any discipline, and your mind gets used to a different idea of what is possible and what is not. Mentally it is an intense place to live and lots of people pay with their lives for dreaming bigger.

Photo: Guillaume LeGuillou

“More than a physical place, Cham is a mental bubble where people dream bigger, in any discipline, and your mind gets used to a different idea of what is possible and what is not.”

Once you start splitboarding there are endless possibilities for freeriding and riding steeps. Many of the areas are overrun with people, but the Mont Blanc Range is huge and if you are ready to skin or walk for few hours you will find yourself completely alone in some wild and challenging corner of the Massif. A whole lifetime isn’t enough to ride all the lines the Mont Blanc Range has to offer.

When was the first time you tried splitboarding? Mitch Toelderer describes the first time he tried one out as almost like a Eureka moment when he realised what terrain it opened up nearby. Did you have a similar reaction?

Yes something like that! I have been almost everywhere with snowshoes before but the splitboard gave me the possibility of playing a different game: being faster, saving energy and being able to keep up with my skier friends. I started splitboarding 8 years ago when Jones Snowboards sent me my first splitboard ever.

Splitboarding has seen a bit of a boom in recent years. As someone who’s been doing it for years are you happy about that? Or are you in any way frustrated by the ‘kooks clogging the lineup’?

I am very happy and proud about it! Snowboarding is not only park and freestyle like the industry wants us to believe. Snowboarding comes from surfing. Freeriding allows you to become one with the element you move in, absorbing its energy, purifying your body and soul; it is a form of meditation.

We are losing our roots, people need to get in touch with nature again and a splitboard is the best tool we have to go into the wild and find our line. In the Mont Blanc Range the number of splitboarders is still small compared to the number of skiers; it is nice to see that changing little by little every year and finding new people with the same passion to share new adventures with.

“Snowboarding is not only park and freestyle like the industry wants us to believe.”

Has the product also improved significantly since you started? 

It has improved a lot! I do not feel a difference anymore with a solid board. The interface and the bindings are much more solid and effective, the heel locker and other small details, like the Whammy Bars from Spark R&D, facilitate the daily use of a splitboard.

In your time riding backcountry you must have taken some insane trips and ridden some epic lines. Do you have any in particular that stick out? I’m guessing the Nepal trip with Jeremy must be up there…?

Yes sure, the Shangri-La expedition was one of the best experience of my life, even if it happened in a tragic moment of my life (my Mum passed away just 4 days before my departure to Kathmandu). No one had ridden such technical terrain at that altitude in the Himalayas before. We tried to do something new, and it was a great adventure!

But every trip has given me something, changed me and my way of looking at life. The Laila Peak Expedition (Pakistan), the trip to Andes (Peru), to Zagros Mountains (Iran) and Caucasus (Georgia) are the ones that touched me the most!

What advice would you give to someone who’s never been splitboarding, but is keen to go on a tour this winter?

I would tell them to start step-by-step – without rushing – learning how to move in the backcountry with a guide, or certainly someone more experience than they are, who can show them the beauty of the mountains and point out the potential dangers. We move in a magical environment that can give us the ultimate experience, but also the worse nightmare ever.

It is important to be humble, respect the mountain and learn to read the signs. Once you have the basic knowledge and skill required, the next step is to learn how to take the right choice and overall being responsible for it and ready to face the consequences. There is nothing better than feeling in harmony with nature and flowing with it!

I’d say the majority of Onboard’s readership fall into the freestyle or mellow powder-riding bracket. Aside from the splitboard itself, what other pieces of equipment do you need to get into splitboarding, and what gear do you personally use?

Aside from splitboard, bindings, skins and poles, the most important gear in the backcountry are the transceiver, shovel, probe and – most importantly – knowing how to use them! If you do not ride exposed lines an airbag could be useful. If you move on hard snow, a pair of rampants are kindly suggested.

Photo: Guillaume LeGuillou

For splitboards I use the Jones Solution 169 (with rocker) for freeriding days and Jones Aviator split 164 (full camber) to ride steep lines; as bindings I use the Spark Surge – they’re very solid and easy to use even in extreme conditions

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m a little unfit but can happily ride lift-accessed pow all day. Why should I consider splitboarding? And how’s best to prepare for the hiking?

Because splitboarding allows you to access remote places far from the crowds, and untracked terrain. It gives you a pure and calm experience with no rush for powder, opening up new riding possibilities.

I guess whatever makes you move is a good training; walking, running, biking… Starting with small tours is ideal; the important thing is learning and getting fit little by little, having fun and, of course, avoiding accidents and shocking experiences.

Have you had any particularly hairy moment you can tell us about, and what did you learn from them?

I have been caught in avalanches, fallen in a crevasse and lost myself in bad weather. I have learned to always be humble and alert, to know where I am going, be prepared for a sudden weather changes, for a slab to break while riding, and for the worst in general. For me anticipation is the key to success.

You recently got your guide qualifications, and we heard you’ll be organising a couple of trips taking clients. Is this a new thing for you? What made you want to get into this side of things?

Yes, at this point of my career I want to share my experience and my favourite “secret spots” around the world, still uncontaminated and far from the crowds, where people still live simply in touch with nature.

I want to go back to the roots of exploring and snowboarding in remote places, teaching how to move on different terrains and sharing my skills: how I choose a line, how to take a decisions under pressure in sketchy situations and so on.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’ll be offering this winter, and how people can find out more?

This year I will guide a couple of trips in February to the remote mountains of Caucasus, in the west of Georgia, and one trip beginning of march on the Atlas mountains in Morocco.

My new website is currently under construction but anyone interested in having more information can contact me directly by e-mail: [email protected]

Finally, saw you placed well at a recent freestyle event. Can we expect you to ditch all that backcountry gear and start practising pentacorks this winter?

Lol. I am too old even to think about that; I guess I need to postpone those ambitious dreams for the next life. Freestyle was an important part of my evolution as a rider when I was younger and now I just keep practicing those few tricks I have in the bag in the backcountry, using the natural features that mountain offers, during those relaxed days with friends.

My body doesn’t cope so well anymore with the side effects of the freestyle learning process; my mind is focused on big mountain freeriding and the research of new steep lines on untouched mountains around the world. That’s my way of being creative right now.

Sounds good Luca. Thanks for your time. Any shoutouts?

I’d like to thank my sponsors that support me in my daily activitiy: Jones Snowboards, Spark R&D, Level Gloves, Patagonia, Fitwell, Happy Powder, Silverskin, DT Socks, Bern, Clifbar, Sensacunisiun, Promosport.


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