2 splitboarders take the term "side hustle" to a whole new level
Many splitboarders have a 9-to-5, but live for 5-to-9. Thoughts of riding pow may dominate our minds around the clock, but the realities of work often shunt play to the margins. Lines we’ve visualized over and over again are approached blindly in the dark, hidden in shadows beyond the scope of headlamps, or they’re summited as the sun sets and ridden as the last glow of today fades into tomorrow. For the average splitboarder—the one who rides despite a lack of sponsors and a film budget, who funds their addiction with a regular gig, who scrapes ice from their windshield while the city sleeps, who returns home as the moon rises—for those splitboarders, weekends are sacred, dawn is holy, dusk ordained.
And no splitboarders are perhaps more attuned to chasing dreams in the periphery of the day than Alister Horn and Steph Nitsch. Like most of us, they have normal 40-hour-a-week jobs. Horn works as an engineer in Salt Lake City, and Nitsch is a writer and creative for an ad agency in Whistler. Unlike most of us, however, they run small companies in their spare time—Horn and Nitsch own brother-and-sister splitboard manufacturers Chimera Backcountry Snowboards and Pallas Snowboards.
"Mornings, evenings, and weekends. We’ve watched the sun come up."
"It’s an after-hours thing," says Nitsch of her company, Pallas, "or before hours in some cases." While they didn’t start Chimera and Pallas out of thin air—Horn took a six-month sabbatical from his engineering gig to found Chimera, and a few years later, Nitsch took advantage of her flexibility as a freelance writer to get Pallas off the ground—they’re both now committed to growing their businesses during what can no longer be rightly considered their time off. "Mornings, evenings, and weekends," laughs Horn when describing his Chimera work schedule. "We’ve watched the sun come up."
Splitboarding is a tiny market, and there's not much money in it, and Pallas, aimed solely at the women’s market, is a "niche within a niche," says Nitsch. Last season, Venture, one of the industry’s most respected split manufacturers, took a breather from production. While the exact reasons for Venture’s hiatus are shrouded in haze, it’s arguably symptomatic of a larger issue: With more brands entering the splitboarding market and a relatively small demand, it’s hard out there for any company, let alone the boutique ones. To survive, Horn and Nitsch partnered up in a seemingly desolate market.
"Our incremental costs are much lower if we buy the same materials, share the same place, swap ideas back and forth, and use the same tools," says Horn. But he's not one to sugarcoat. "It becomes a more cost-effective way to run two companies. If we ran them both completely separately, I think either one would become unaffordable."
Following the skin track of small business owners before them, Horn and Nitsch have adapted. Out of the gate, Pallas crafted solid boards in addition to splitboards, hoping to snag the interest of resort riders and in turn increase chances of success. Technically speaking, they share manufacturing inputs and board tech. Most notably on the technology side is Buhmpher Technology, which swaps customary steel inside edges with a damper (yet still durable) UHMW plastic to more closely replicate solid board feel. "There’s no manufacturer in their right mind who is going to do what we do with the inside edge, because it’s expensive and a pain in the ass to make, and no one is going to buy it," says Alister. "We do it because we put the time into it, we’ve had the experience with it, and we know that it works."
Because Nitsch and Horn are everyday splitboarders—yes, they still manage to sneak dawn patrol missions into their packed work schedules—they’re able to make decisions based on passion rather than only the bottom line. "When you’re doing it because you love to do it, you’re going to make different decisions than when you’re doing it because it’s a business," says Horn. "Now that said, I’d like to make a damn business out of it so we can keep doing it."
Pallas and Chimera aren’t just here to survive. They’re hoping to shake things up.
Horn, who first started making splits in 2009 because he couldn’t find a pow shape he loved, developed his first board with a short edge and a dramatic taper. It was the precursor to the Unicorn Chaser, currently one of Chimera’s most singular backcountry shapes, boasting a pow-blasting broad nose and a half-moon swallowtail. When bigger snowboarding brands get involved in splitboarding, Horn says, they often do so not out of passion or personal need, but to stay relevant with changing times. "Splitboarding is very grassroots," he says. "When you look at what’s advanced technically in splitboarding, it’s all been done by very genius small companies, not by major companies. When you look at Spark, at Karakoram, Phantom Bindings, guys like us, Oz, Smokin', the real innovation is coming from the bottom up."
Pallas and Chimera aren’t just here to survive—they’re hoping to shake things up, both in terms of technological innovation and the backcountry community. "That’s really been the core of Pallas: to bring snowboarding and backcountry adventures to the everywoman," says Nitsch, who also builds high-performance boards for intermediate and advanced women. "But [we're] doing so while bridging the approachability factor of splitboarding in women’s mindsets and knocking down a lot of barriers." By pairing splitboard demos with educational clinics that foster an inclusive and welcoming backcountry community, Nitsch says Pallas strives to give people a platform to start their backcountry lifestyle.
"There are hardly any female splitboarders out there compared to males," says Horn, who says he's beyond stoked to watch his partner turn Pallas into "a voice for females in snowboarding."
So far, the educational route is paying off for Pallas. "I was blown away last year at the clinics that women would tell me, totally seriously, 'I thought you had to hike in five miles and do something really extreme before you even got to a place where you could start hiking up the mountain,'" says Nitsch. And those clinics took place in Salt Lake City, a historical hotbed and hub for winter sports at the base of the Wasatch and one of the most accessible ranges in the country, where backcountry riders regularly bang out quick tours before work. Perception, it seems, is at the heart of the matter, and Pallas is out to educate interested parties without scaring them off before they strap in.
"We’re not going to coddle women."
Nitsch approaches the lack of female snowboarders in the backcountry with a sort of optimistic realism. "We’re not going to coddle women, get them in a box and pander to them," she says. "But ninety-eight percent of the time you go into the backcountry, you’re probably going to be doing some reasonably tame stuff."
Horn agrees. He says many don’t realize a huge part of the splitboarding experience is, not the one or two crazy lines you do once a season, but "all the time you spend on the tour up, talking with your friends, going to a hut, riding mellow tree lines. That’s what builds the experience."
Most splitboarders can and do get inspired by the clips of Jeremy Jones & Co. waiting out ten-day storms and shredding no-fall zones in Alaska, but while it’s something to aspire to, it’s not always relatable. Pallas and Chimera recognize that, for the majority of us, splitboarding is much more realistic, equal parts backyard fun and community. It's the meditative dose of sweat and adrenaline we crave daily and a fantastical realm we squeeze in between the obligations of real life.
This, perhaps, is where Pallas and Chimera can own a chunk of the market: They’re everyday splitboarders, people like you and me, who instead of simply chasing lines in their free time happen to be tinkering away in a workshop under the waning moon, spending their weekends educating women about getting their boots wet in the backcountry, and still hopefully snagging a few turns at first light.