Abby Cooper gets real about the creation of Split Social and some silver linings of the pandemic
“We are all speaking the same language in the backcountry.”
CL: How did Split Social come to be and what was your idea behind it?
Abby Cooper: “It was a slow burn of an idea. I felt the need to build a community, as I was constantly the only splitboarder.
I took my first AST class (the Canadian equivalent of AIARE 1) with my brother at 13 years old. So I couldn't even drive but I had a transceiver, shovel, and probe. I was hanging out with my friends’ dads in the backcountry accessed off my local resort (Sunshine Village or Lake Louise at the time) and then I'd hang out with my friends and ride in bounds in the afternoon.
And at that point, it was just boot-packing out of bounds. And then as I got older, I got some snowshoes so I could go from the valley bottom and up. Later, in university, I really got into splitboarding. I didn't even know it existed until I was hanging out at Targhee and Jackson every single weekend and was like, “whoa.” I've heard about these things, but I didn't really know that people use them all the time. So mentorless, but passionately, I got into splitboarding and found myself surrounded by skiers - no complaints.
It seemed like the baseline knowledge of how to enter the sport was non-existent at the time. I got skins and I didn't even know how to cut them. I went to a ski shop and asked “How do I cut these skins? How do they even work?” And they looked at my splitboard and said “We are not cutting them, we're not going to take that liability. We don't know how to cut them.” Which left me wondering, how do I start?
There were so many barriers and a general lack of knowledge. Now there are YouTube videos for literally everything. But when I first started splitboarding, I didn't have a friend to tell me how to cut skins; the ski shop wouldn't do it, there were no YouTube videos on the matter.
So I very much felt alone in this journey of learning how to splitboard. And that was the kernel of wanting to build a community. Granted, once you’re out there doing it, it doesn't matter if you ski or splitboard. But there is certainly a different learning curve associated with the two. I wanted to be able to address that, and help build a strong community. A supportive and inclusive community.
At first it was a thought in the back of my mind: how do I make this more accessible for more people? I obviously wanted more friends to come splitboarding and make it more approachable. That was a selfish component, if you will. But then the real catalyst was when I got buried in an avalanche and I had a lot of downtime, a lot of reflecting to really check in on myself and think. A big part of my personal identity was and is tied to splitboarding and being in the mountains. I was completely rattled when I was buried - what am I doing? I was questioning everything - risk versus reward and if I should get back out there again.
And so during that much needed reflection period I took a step back and realized what I needed to do as far as personal education, as far as sustainable community growth and how to make this life altering event a silver living for myself and others.
So I came up with the idea of doing a community event that was simple and fun. So I crafted an event where we can just talk about splitboarding if people are curious. Maybe they've never been splitboarding, maybe they've never even heard of it or maybe they’re a few seasons deep - all about education, unity and community.
I invited a bunch of my friends that worked at different gear brands like Karakoram, G3, and Burton, and said I'm gonna give a little talk about what splitboarding means to me and after can you decode your gear to the attenties - tradeshow style where they can come up and look and play with it after and ask you questions. And we got a local company to sponsor it with beer and we had this great, simple, get together. I thought it would be 20 of my closest friends showing up to the event to support me and it ended up meeting max capacity, over 100 people. It really made me feel that the community wanted this as much as I did.
It gave me the confidence to make it into a series, and the first year Split Social events happened a few times and has continued on since then with varying partners and different scopes. But that's what got me started.
CL: I don't want to make this a gender thing. But I'm curious. How have you seen the backcountry community change over time? I'm sure you've played a role in a lot of women and men getting stoked about splitboarding or getting into the backcountry.
AC: “Yeah, thank you for that. It has been an interesting journey. As far as the gender goes, I grew up hanging out with all of my friend’s dads or my older brother when I was going into the backcountry. And when I would go snowboarding, it would mostly be “Abby is the token girl” with all the boys. When I did find another girl that was into snowboarding and at the same level of passion, it was a rarity. We'd stick together like glue until you know, someone had to move, life events happened, or crews changed up a bit.
It was really when I moved to Whistler that I was able to have my eyes opened to how many really rad female shredders there are who are independent and ready to do their own thing. A lot of women are like, “Oh, well, my partner likes to go skiing, so I'll also go skiing.” And for me, I enjoyed those relationships, but I also want to go skiing or snowboarding for myself. You know, I'm not doing this for anyone else. This is fulfilling my soul not someone else's.
The first couple of Split Socials were pretty male heavy. But that changed around the same time I became involved with SheJumps, which I'm sure you've heard of being in the Colorado area. The Alpine finishing school is SheJumps’ top-level offering. It's a week-long mountaineering school out of Revelstoke. You heli into a lodge and you're there for seven or eight days. You've got two guides and you learn everything about glacier travel, terrain management, crevasse rescue, route planning, navigation, literally everything you need to know, all day long.
And that was a huge changing point for me, where I'd always been in mixed gender learning scenarios, and to see how different the communication change was and how quickly this group of girls could gain their confidence in an all female setting was really eye opening. And I not only observed it, but I also felt it because it just took away some of the ego components that happen in mixed gender settings sometimes, or traditionally have.
That was maybe 10 years ago. And that in itself has even evolved. Now, you know, we're really addressing those changes quickly as a society, which is really, really cool. So, yeah, I was kind of oblivious when it first began, and then I definitely was a big fan and still am a big fan of particular personalities pursuing the female specific side of things. I just see everyone progressing equally. As a whole though, as mountain users, we all need to be able to speak together regardless of gender, race, identity, etc... We are all speaking the same language in the backcountry. And so however you build your confidence to be able to speak is what's important. However you get there, go the way that’s right for you.”
CL: So back to Split Social, what does a typical event look like?
AC: “I mix it up every time because I want to keep it fresh so that it always feels like there's an educational component and a social component for everyone attending. I guess the only thing I want is for people to walk away feeling like they've gained something, and also that they're feeling more connected to the community. So sometimes it's trip reports from people, or learning how to pack like a pro, or maybe new gear coming out.”
CL: And are events held at a shop? Are there some held out in the field as well?
AC: “So when it comes to liability and being in the field, I keep my splitboarding intentions running through other outlets. I have volunteered the last few years, I think it's my fourth or fifth season with Mountain Mentors. And so I'm able to go out in the field there and mentor women in the backcountry. And I've also done some classes with Altus Mountain Guides as far as splitboard outings, and have been involved with SheJumps events a few with Arc’teryx as well. When it comes to the in-class or indoor social side of things, I usually partner with Arc'teryx, in their stores. This year, I co-hosted Avalanche Canada’s Splitfest, so that kind of took a lot of my brainpower for this year's Split Social, and I'm confident there will still be something that happens a little bit later in the season. But yeah, that wrapped up mid January  and it was a massive success for attendance and as a fundraiser for Avalanche Canada. The online community is thriving.”
CL: Where can people get more info about Split Social?
AC: “Because I work with so many different brands and try to include so many brands and individuals, I guess through my personal channel is probably the easiest way in order to avoid missing anything by following specific brands. I'll always be chatting about anything I have lined up on my Instagram - @abbydells.”
CL: This can be broad, but any good stories for us?
AC: “Yeah, this year has been interesting and my mindset has been a bit different. So many plans are constantly being changed because of COVID and it's been difficult to get really excited about some big objectives because there's so much uncertainty around them.
I had two different dates to heli up to the Tantalus Range. That’s my favorite zone in the entire world. It's a five minute drive to the helipad from my house and a seven minute heli flight. If you haven’t heard of it you should look up the Tantalus, it's unreal.
But both trips were called off. It's a pretty touchy zone - alpine and glaciated. It’s steep, it's gnar, it's just awesome. But the Tantalus is always in charge and it's just whenever it gives you the green light. But I’m looking forward to getting up there.
*spoiler alert I did get up this season! 5 times! Well worth the wait!*
I will say though that this time has taken away some FOMO which has been pretty cool. I feel like I'm splitboarding and getting out riding for myself; like I said earlier it’s a bit of a selfish pursuit to fill up my own cup and feel connected to the mountains.
I've done a lot over the last few years, traveling for work, and volunteering and working on the community side of things. Those components are still a part of my weekly routine, but I I feel a bit more connected because there's less hustle and bustle and travel. I took my dog on his first couple of tours and things like that. Seeing him getting stoked chasing me on the snowboard, and then he gets tired and I get to carry him and shred, which is funny.
But yeah, these are words that I never thought I would say: I've enjoyed slowing it down.
Like spending more time off Blackcomb - it’s my home mountain and I've spent a lot of time there over the last seven years. But this year without all the travel I’ve ridden new couloirs and new chutes that I didn't even know I could get to, I had never seen before. And so the opportunity to explore more of my backyard has been amazing.
CL: There's a lot of talk about the increasing number of people going into the backcountry this year. Did you see that?
AC: Definitely. I guess that might be part of my different mindset going into this season as well. Particularly in the coastal mountains of BC there was a lot of loss and a close calls early season. And for someone who's experienced what it feels like to be in an avalanche, that definitely hits close to home. Especially when people don't have a story as fortunate as mine, you know, a survival story. So there have been a lot of people pushing to get out there. And I think it's just the sheer number of people that's pushed up the fatalities and the incidents, because it's not always unseasoned people.
Even if you're not the most skilled backcountry user, I think groupthink is probably the most deadly component of being in the backcountry, because when you see someone else doing something, you're like, “Okay, well, they did it, I can do it too.” And when you see lines down a really steep face, it still may not be the best stability. It may look like 10 other people already skied it, but that doesn't mean it's stable. False confidence and groupthink are definitely throwing off the game this season. And after all of the educational events that I've been to, I hope to make a difference in that and just show some resources to people, teach them to be aware and be comfortable acknowledging what you don't know.”