Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Story of the Union Rover - how, what and why.

There's been some banter on the inter-webs about the development of the Union Rover and where the idea / inspiration came from.   For some reason the people or the peoples over at Drift think they invented the approach ski and the we at Union stole their idea.  Time to set the record straight.  Here is the mostly true story based on events that took place during a Covid pandemic.  

May 1, 2020:  Mike Toohey, Mike Pettit and I are splitting at Stevens, which is closed but there's still a butt load of snow on it.  At the top of our ascent, we put our boards together and Toohey says “I fucking hate riding this board, I just want to ride my Mercury.”  My reply...why such a hater bro?

I start thinking about Toohey's issue at the top of the hill and think about what my split experiences are  like.  Most of them are not deeper, farther or higher.  Splitting for me is a season extender.  Pre or post season, when the lifts are shut down, splitting is a way of getting more days sliding down snow.  There's no way in hell I'm gonna go trekking thru a bunch of deep snow, looking for more deep snow, when the lifts are spinning and delivering me to that deep ass snow in a very efficient way.  These thoughts provide no immediate solutions to Toohey's issue with riding splitboards. 

A couple of weeks go by and this photo pops up on the Gram from Mtn. Locals.  

I see this photo and think, damn, these things are sick looking.  But why the hell is he carrying a board with bindings on his back, when he could use Union Explorers on his approach skis for the walk up and then swap them over to his snowboard and ride them down?  It would give you real support climbing but also pull 7 pounds or so off his back.  I instant message Max at Mtn. Local about what he's got going with these things, then end up sending him a pair of Explorers to test with his Switch Boards.   But the season is over in VT., so no go.   

We on the other hand ended the season with 601" and there's still plenty of shredding to get.   I start looking on the internet to see whats out there for approach ski's.   Mountain Approach was never an option for me because of the durability issues with the hinges and the overall weight.   Drift comes up, and I read some good things said about them from The Good RideBear Pow Surf in Russia has some back yard garage stuff, but looks like nothing more than cut up skate decks with skins attached.  20 years ago,  K2 Snowboards sold approach skis.  They had a solid direction focused on backcountry.  The snowboards came with towing grommets in the tail, so you could leash up your board to your waist, and tow it up the hill while you climbed with your approach ski's.  Simple, functional and idiot proof, all the things split boards aren't.  I end up calling Luke Edgar, who was the driving force of this at K2 way back, and chatted about why they failed.  But in the end, I chose to buy a pair of Altai Ski to test and see if I even like walking with a board on my back and ski's on my feet.  They have integrated skins, edges and the width was similar to my split so I could use our crampons with them.   All I had to do was drill into the ski's and mount my touring brackets, which was pretty simple.

On the hill, they worked ok at best.  Not enough grip with the skins and too long to carry in the backpack down were my first thought.  Then figured out that there needs to be a backpack with a management system to maintain your equipment for the up and down.  The "we can do this better" thought comes to mind.  I have some idea's in my head of what would work better, so I contact Max again at Mtn. Locals.  We text about possibly collabing on something with these things, where he does the boards and we do a binding.  Fine and all, but the reality is we have a world class board factory and if we were going to do something, we'd produce it.   I use a line that The Bombhole podcast frequents "a rising tide floats all boats."  Meaning, Union is a reasonably sized company, with vast distribution and if we get something like this rolling, it will create attention and options for people looking outside of what we do.  The marketing power of Union, its athletes and the shops we have in place can help create acceptance for approach skis and together we'd all win.  He agrees and we go our own ways. 

The first proto is a cut up warrantied Spring Break.  The 100cm size is shorter than the 120cm Altai's, which were bulky on the pack.   We call them Cuddi's as a working name, since a "Cuddi" is a bro.   You want a Cuddi at the hill with you walking up to shred the goods.

The next morning Pettit and I go to the hill to try these out.  

They walk like shit because of the tip height, as its a progressive powder tip.  But the weight and snow grip blows the Altai's out of the water.  Watching Pettit walk, you notice that because they are so short and light, they don't track like a split board does.  You end up stomping all over the tails because most people are slightly duck footed.  We go back to the shop and grab a Super DOA for proto 2.  

The Cuddi 2 is pretty much perfect and cut from a skill and jig saw.  We taper the tails, so you can't stomp on them when walking, but they give you the length to have enough skin on the ground.  The tip height is way better with Flat Kick and the crampons are game changers going up steep shit.   We are convinced that walking with these are way easier than walking up with a split board AND that carrying the right board for the right conditions with no bindings barely weighs anything going up.  Then we realized there's not all that work to get your shit together for the ride down.  It's simple.  You don't get that assemble anxiety with the Cuddi's.  You just pull the pins on the bindings, spin em on to the board your carrying and your ready to shred.  No skin maintenance, no cleaning off snow build up in the clips, and not putting a puzzle together to ride something that's not right for the conditions.  

I end up getting a pair of Drifts to try out in the meantime.  They had done a co-lab with Burton, and seemed to have some support in the Pow Surf circles.   I liked the way they walked on low angle terrain, but liked the Cuddi 2's better for steeper ascent climbs with out crampons because the length gave me more grip.  An edge made a difference side hilling as well.  Also you could glide with our crampons, and with the Drifts you have to walk which was like snowshoeing.  I don't want to snowshoe.  Lastly, ours looked rad, like Max's did from Mtn. Locals.  

We reach out to the lamination experts at CAPiTA to engineer the concepts we were playing with, along with the must haves.  They put the functionality into the design: Camber, Death Grip, sidecut, tail kick etc.  And by October 1, we had the above.  We move on from the Cuddi name to Rover, as it makes more sense to be Rovering around vs. Cuddi-ing around.  Snow starts falling and its off to the hill to see how these things roll.

I E-Bike up to the fire roads at Stevens early October to the deeper snow pack and bring the Rovers to stomp all over the place and see whats up with these creations.  Tip height was too low, the gloss finish looked eh and the Union logo was hidden under the bindings.  Otherwise the Rovers did everything we hoped they would do, but better.  These changes were sent in and a second round of Rover samples showed up the beginning of November, just in time for Stevens to have over a 65" base with no sign of the lifts running.  

It was game on, over and over, weekend after weekend.  Toohey, Pettit and I tested the proto's, samples,  and split boards.  

We ended up doing multiple tours in a day, because the effort to walk up the hill was that much easier.  Hiking with 11 pounds of Rover and Explorer is way easier than hiking 18 pounds of splitboard, skins and Explorers on your feet.  Technical kick turns were no longer a problem with the short ass Rovers like they are with a long ass splitboard.  Instead of needing technique and ski savvy to make a turn, you just turn and burn.  Walking thru deep snow wasn't a problem as the tails are weighted to drop with each stride and stay above the snow.   I Rovered into terrain I had never split into. Low and behold, I was going deeper, farther and higher than I had ever gone.  7 months after the complain-a-thon that Toohey had over what he wanted to ride down the hill, we had production quality sales samples for something to walk up the hill with.  We were convinced that Rovers were a better option for us to access the hill and different than anything else on the market.  

Union Rovers: inspired out of the complexity of split boards, original K2 approach ski's and Mtn. Locals spin on ski's looking like snowboards.   Get yours at a snowboard shop near you.



    1. The Polish/German Nikola Tesla, that's what they call him.

  2. pretty good, not bad, Max is a good dood