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Steph Nitsch is a brand and board visionary. Photo: Re Wikstrom

Her Own Way

Stephanie Nitsch is the leading lady at Pallas Snowboards, a brand that is defying boundaries in snowboarding.

Pallas Snowboards is a snowboard and splitboard manufacturer fueled by innovation and inclusivity. We spoke with owner and founder Stephanie Nitsch on her snowboarding origins, thoughts on the current womens’ backcountry scene, and building a burgeoning womxn-specific brand. Pallas team rider Blake Hansen opens things up with stories of her working relationship with Steph:

I remember my first time meeting Steph Nitsch like it was yesterday. It was 2016 and I was new to splitboarding. We were with a group of women I didn’t know, I was just coming into my own womanhood at 26 years old. I was carrying 65 pounds of camera gear to shoot video for Pallas. I had a lot to be nervous about. As we moved into our tour, Steph walked with me for a bit and expressed some of the kindest sentiments of inclusion I’ve ever received. I remember the initial moment of relief I felt after she voiced to me how stoked she was to have recently learned a little about me and that I was willing to help her with Pallas. I wouldn’t say that the rest of the day went smoothly though.

The snow was shit and we came to find out a few of the other girls were new to the sport as well. We all experienced learning curves that day—film clips were not stacked. One thing I quickly learned was bringing an entire cinema kit with multiple lenses on a backcountry tour was not the way to go. At one point, I was the last person on top, strapped in and ready for my run. All I had to do was stand up and cruise. But have you ever tried to stand up, strapped to your board in heavy, wet snow with 65 pounds on your back?

Yeah, the ladies waited for me for a while that day.

I’ve since made a lot of changes to my backcountry camera kit, but one thing that’s been a consistent presence over the years is Steph’s constant smirk. It just oozes with her confidence in me and shows her cynical enjoyment of watching my growing pains. Love her to death!  -Blake Hansen

Steph ripping deep Utah Pow. Photo: @dirt.coast
Steph ripping deep Utah Pow. Photo: @dirt.coast

How and when did you get into snowboarding?
I started snowboarding around 1996 at Mt. Hood, mostly because I was an impressionable 12-year-old that just wanted to be a cool ‘90s kid. It did nothing to help my street cred, and I was a pretty terrible snowboarder for about 7 years. Then I got to college, did summer school so I could bump chairs in the winter, and logged a few hundred-day seasons. That’s when snowboarding really got into my blood.

When and where did you first start to get into splitboarding?
I finished school and moved back to Park City in 2006 and learned about ski touring from my friends. I was too intimidated to try splitboarding with them, so it wasn’t until 2009 when I finally got the courage to try it out. I kept it really safe, which meant going “touring” on packed-out snowshoe trails behind my house and learning what to do through trial and error.

After a few “practice” runs, I got invited on a guided backcountry program at Solitude Resort, and I was not prepared for the gongshow I put on. Wanna learn how to hate splitboarding? Go touring your first time with a crew of experienced backcountry skiers who don’t know shit about you or splitboarding, then have the local TV station film it all as part of a news segment (which they kept rebroadcasting even a few years later). I’m sure it’s still out there on the internet… But standing on top of a new mountain with a completely new perspective and appreciation for riding pow was pretty good, and I was willing to keep suffering through the learning curve if it meant doing more of that.

What was your first splitboard gear like?
I don’t remember if I didn’t have enough money for a real setup, or I just wasn’t sure if this was a sport I was ready to commit to, but I went the homemade route, which is what a lot of people did at the time. I handed off my Option Bella 159, a pair of regular Rome bindings and the Voile binding adapters to Jake Lawlor in Salt Lake City. He was splitting boards in his garage for a bunch of people. It was a clunker. Rode like a door and heavy as hell. I guess that was kind of the norm then.

Funny enough, that homemade split was the only split I rode before starting Pallas. My mind was blown when I rode my first “real” setup. That alone got me excited about my future of splitboarding.

Yet it wasn’t until maybe four or five years ago that splitboard tech finally latched on and gear quality shot up. I think the binding companies—Spark, Phantom, Karakoram, Voile—have really fueled that development. The basic construction between snowboards and splitboards is much more similar than resort versus touring bindings. I think a big reason splitboarding became more viable is because of what all those guys have done for binding development.

I logged a few hundred-day seasons and snowboarding really got into my blood.

Who is a female splitboard pioneer you look up to?
When I was getting into it, I didn’t know many splitboarders in the first place, let alone women doing it. The only girl I knew who was splitboarding was Cindi Lou Grant. She was either sponsored by Voile or soon to be sponsored, but in any case, I knew about her because she was just out there all the time and became a staple in the Wasatch. I loved that splitboarding was an extension of her everyday life. Her approach felt so simple, accessible, and welcoming, and as a new splitboarder, I think I really needed that kind of gentle inspiration. How else do you get into this sport when you don’t have an existing community to support you?

What were some of the things Cindi did that influenced you and possibly others?
The year I started splitting, I was in a really low place in life. My best friend died, my mom got cancer, my parents divorced, I had surgery from a bike crash… all within a few months. And my coping mechanisms were not healthy. I remember grasping for a positive change, and from what I knew of Cindi, she seemed to embrace a force of tranquil energy within her riding in a beautiful, healthy, and holistic way that I could maybe relate to.

It sounds funny, but I never really considered that playing in the mountains could coexist with a softer side of myself. It was either push harder, deeper, steeper, further—or nothing. And with the exception of a few pro riders, I saw women in snowboarding chronically recognized as glorified ski bunnies, which is a shitty baseline for women in any sport. So I’ve always felt like I’ve had to push and push and push in snowboarding to break that mold, to the point where it’s physically and emotionally damaging. But Cindi’s approach to splitboarding inspired a more dynamic and balanced mindset, and I think that’s so deeply important in this sport, where your mindset is arguably your most critical piece of gear.

Tell us about Pallas Snowboards! When, how, why did you start this?
Pallas came together in Salt Lake City, Utah in the fall of 2013 from two directions. One was the culmination of my experiences learning to split, the challenges that came with it and wanting to build a bigger community of women splitters. The other was from Alister Horn of Chimera Snowboards who wanted to bring his split designs to the women’s market and was looking for a woman to partner with. He had the physical tools to bring Pallas to life. I had the life experience to make it happen. We both saw a profound hole in women’s splitboard design and general support for its riders.

Alister was stoked to share Chimera’s innovations with Pallas, meaning we weren’t just building boards for the sake of filling this void. We wanted to build really cool stuff and elevate the integrity of women’s board construction and design.

But more than boards, we’re driven to bring knowledge and community into what we do. These are things that are essential for the safety and happiness of all backcountry and resort riders. That’s been a driving force from our start and is even more critical this year with new splitboarders expected to enter the backcountry.

So edgy. Photo: Re Wikstrom
So edgy. Photo: Re Wikstrom

In your opinion, where are women currently in the splitboard movement?
There are way more women taking initiative to get into splitboarding lately, and it’s exciting to watch the momentum build. I’m also excited to see new creative programs that encourage women to continue building their current knowledge and level up. It used to be that rec programs of any sport were geared only towards beginners and low intermediates, but they seem to be slowly incorporating more advanced skills, which is most excellent.

Where I see fewer women is in lead roles within their own touring groups or community hubs—women tend to take more of a back seat to trip planning, decision-making, or even showing up to events. But the continued pursuit of backcountry education and riding more frequently are really valuable to equalizing the participation.

What females do you see pushing splitboarding now? How so?
I’m a big fan of women who are pushing splitboarding from the inside. My friend–and Pallas team rider–Christine Feleki out of Squamish, British Columbia, has been busting her ass in the guiding world, teaching avalanche and skills courses and educating other women in the backcountry. Hands-down she is the strongest, most qualified splitboarder I’ve ridden with. Lexie Anderson, Iris Lazzarechi, and Izzy Lazarus are also really passionate about bringing more women into the mountains within their own communities, and I hope that’s a trend that continues.

What has been your biggest struggle building Pallas?
The struggle for me is drawing a line between the nature of business and the nature of being a human. There’s so much pressure from the world right now to be a positive catalyst for change, and I’ve always thought that businesses play a powerful role in evolving social behaviors. So as people rally behind gender equality, Pallas is in a position to really speak up. But how do we use our voice? If we talk about it more, we have less time to actually do something. And at the end of the day, we’re a small company that wants to make a living wage. So we gotta shut up and do the work and hope that our actions speak louder than words.

Remember kids, every job requires math. Photo: Re Wikstrom

Snowboarding as a whole needs to be better at being inclusive to all. How do you do that at Pallas?
Pallas was born from a lack of inclusion, and I like to think we inherently understand the importance of encouraging different perspectives to come deeper into the sport. Our most valuable tools for that are education and community. I think by design, snowboarding is progressive, fun, and inclusive—but if you don’t have the supportive environment you need, that world will feel exclusive, isolating and uninviting. So let’s make it supportive and unlock that world for everyone who’s ever felt left out.

The “cool vibe” of snowboarding and splitboarding has really stunted the progression of the sport, and I’m not talking about the level or style of riding. Somehow, falling under the lift, or buying the wrong gear, or asking a question became something to ridicule. And when you’re singled out for not knowing any better–and it only takes one or two times–it’s pretty demoralizing to your progress. So your progression is shot down. Which leads to hitting a plateau with riding. Which leads to frustration and eventually leaving the sport altogether because it just isn’t fun anymore. It sounds dramatic and over-simplified, but I see this happening over and over, particularly (but not exclusively) with women.

Where do you see Pallas’ trajectory? What are the biggest stumbling blocks to get there? How can your community help?
We don’t offer beginner-friendly boards, so speaking to new snowboarders at the start of their new adventure is kinda tough. But once they get hooked on riding, that’s when we’re ready to say hey, come join us and let’s go a little deeper into this new adventure together. Join us for a splitboard clinic, meet us for a beer after, stay in touch, and let us know where your next adventure takes you. These small acts are a powerful force in creating a progressive and inclusive community. They’re contagious, too. Everyone thrives when you’re given the space to learn and explore freely.

Favorite Jackson Hole shred memory and why?
On the last day of ShaperSummit, some fellow shapers and I started the tradition of grabbing our favorite boards and going for half laps on Sweetwater or Teewinot while everyone else is doing a top-to-bottom party lap. It’s the culmination of everything that makes me happy when I’m riding: sunny weather, snow, friends, and good energy.

How can women get involved with Pallas or demo a board?
We’ve always hosted women’s splitboard clinics and meetups–mostly during splitboard festivals–as a way to help connect women within their own communities and expand their backcountry skills. We’re hoping to do more of that this year, with limited-capacity demos and backcountry 101 workshops around the West, including the Tetons, but it’s totally dependent on COVID. We’ll have demo and retail boards in Needle and Shred in Victor, Idaho, opening this winter. Demos and retail gear are also stocked on our site: pallassnowboards.com

Heather Hendricks likes to live life on the road. Maybe one day she’ll settle down… Maybe.
@heatherhendrickshh