As a boy growing up in Kent, Kyle Miller didn’t have a lot of time for the outdoors. Instead of enjoying the majestic mountains looming not far from his door, he grew up sitting around watching TV, playing video games and living a fairly sedentary lifestyle.
Then he discovered snowboarding.
As a 19-year-old, Miller ventured up to the mountains with some friends and fell in love. It’s been all downhill – literally – from there.
“All of a sudden I just realized I needed to live,” said Miller. “After that, I went up (to the mountains) every day. Whatever the conditions I didn’t care, I just wanted to do it.
“It became my life, my addiction.”
It’s been a pretty steep ascent for the former couch potato kid. Ten years after discovering the sport, Miller is now climbing giant peaks around the world and snowboarding down them. He’s also sponsored by a few snowboarding equipment and clothing companies and is starring in a short documentary called “FreeRider,” which made its U.S. premiere in Seattle on Feb. 3.
“I’m very fortunate to live the life I do,” said Miller, who had already been snowboarding 20 days in January. “I get to do what I love year round.”
TIME TO SPLIT
After a few years of snowboarding, Miller got tired of the groomed runs at resorts and took his game to the backcountry. He joined groups of backcountry skiers and hiked up large peaks just so he could snowboard down the untouched powder.
After a year of that, he took up splitboarding, a sport that allows snowboarders to split their board in half length-wise so they can keep it on their feet as they ascend the mountain instead of having to carry it on their back.
“It gets old having the board hit you in the back of the head all the way up the mountain,” Miller said.
Soon Miller was trekking sometimes more than 25 miles up mountains and climbing peaks like Rainier, Shuksan and Baker and snowboarding down them. Since he’s started, Miller has conquered the top 25 peaks in the Cascades and top 10 volcanoes in Washington, but his favorite remains the peaks in the Glacier Peak Wilderness near Darrington.
“You have to love the outdoors,” Miller said of those who do splitboarding. “It’s 90 percent hiking and 10 percent snowboarding. But the views are incredible and the powder is unbelievable.”
Splitboarding has been around since 1993, but the sport didn’t become mainstream until about two or three years ago, and Miller has noticed a difference.
“It used to be just me and a bunch of backcountry skiers,” Miller said. “But in the past few years there’s a much larger presence of splitboarders.”
Miller can spend months planning his trips: “I study topographical maps religiously.” On long trips he’ll carry packs weighing upwards of 60 pounds that contain food, a tent and a sleeping bag.
Many trips can either be canceled or postponed due to weather. Too much wind, snow or rain makes it too dangerous, often sending Miller to the groomed runs of local ski areas.
According to Miller, splitboarding takes a pretty heavy initial investment. Besides all of the backpacking gear and backcountry specific tools, a splitboard can cost twice as much as a normal snowboard. For those who want to learn how to splitboard, Miller said the Mountaineers offer how-to courses.
Splitboarding requires a healthy sense of caution, Miller said. You can’t get too comfortable or too complacent when you’re up in avalanche zones, and skinning along ridges and cornices is always dangerous.
Even so, Miller has seen some splitboarders let their guard down.
“You learn fast that nature will smack you in the face,” said Miller, who recounted one time when he took shelter under a rock as an avalanche rushed down a ridge he was climbing.
A few years ago Robert and Kathy Chrestensen of Crest Pictures, an independent film company in Edmonds, met Miller on a backcountry hike.
After getting to know him they thought he’d make a great subject of a film.
“Kyle is such an good-natured guy and he lives such a ski-bum lifestyle we thought it would make a great film,” Kathy Chrestensen said. In the couple’s films, she does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work while Robert does most of the filming and editing.
They followed Miller around for a year as he attempted to scale the 10 highest volcanoes in Washington and snowboard down them. Robert filmed much of the every day life segments while outdoor photographers Jason Hummel of Tacoma and Jacob Hase of Seattle got much of the backcountry footage. Miller also had a Go-Pro camera on him or his snowboard for some first-person footage of the descents.
The film made its world premiere in December in the International Free Ride Film Festival in St-Lary-Soulan, France, and also was shown at the Canuck Splitfest in Rogers Pass, B.C., earlier this month. Kyle, who went to France for the premiere, said people who saw the film praised it.
“It’s amazing,” Miller said of the film. “I’ll have that for the rest of my life. It’s very humbling to see my adventures from different peoples’ eyes.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO GO SPLITBOARDING
Here are some tips from Kyle Miller, an experienced splitboarder, on heading up to the mountains and snowboarding back down:
Don’t forget a beacon, probe and shovel: Miller said this isn’t just for you but your fellow splitboarders. An avalanche beacon or transceiver helps locate the victim by sending a signal that other transceivers can detect. A probe is special poles joined together to make a snow probe up to 12 feet long, helping locate the person quickly to save valuable time. Portable avalanche shovels are made of lightweight plastic and aluminum and increase the speed of digging by a factor of four, compared to digging by hand.
Learn to skin: Obviously heading vertically up a mountain on a splitboard isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but skins can make the job much more managable. Skins are a synthetic fabric that cover the bottom of the board and allows for the board to only go forward. Instead of lifting each foot out of the snow with every step, riders can make long strides and glide on the snow saving valuable energy.
Keep good company: Though Miller said he does go by himself very rarely, he would never advise it for a newbie. He advised to go with at least 3-4 friends and someone who is well-versed in backcountry splitboarding.
More information: Check out splitboard.com.