October 4, 2018
Professor Steele teaches in Santa Clara’s College of Arts and Sciences, specializing in medieval philosophy. When he’s not teaching, his passion for snowboarding takes him to the mountains—or wherever he can find snow.
Tell me your history with snowboarding. How long have you been doing it?
I grew up in Southern California in the 90s when snowboarding was kind of starting to take off, so I’ve been snowboarding since probably ‘93. I used to ski and then my friends said to try snowboarding, so I tried it once—never went back to skiing.
How did you transition into riding backcountry?
At a certain point, I got burned out on riding the resorts and dealing with all the people and the crowds. The cost is just astronomical. My family has a cabin in Sequoia National Park and in the winter there are all kinds of mountains that nobody skis or snowboards. I was like, “That looks like a fun place to go,” so I got a pair of snowshoes, took my board, strapped it onto my back and started hiking up and riding down. My wife got into it too—and then splitboarding happened. Once the splitboard came about, it was a game-changer because it allowed us to travel more efficiently in the backcountry without carrying the weight of your snowboard on your back. That just opened up the opportunity to go anywhere.
What exactly is splitboarding?
You can think of it as a snowboard that’s cut in half lengthwise from top to bottom and the bindings pivot like if you’re on alpine touring bindings. And then when you put the board back together as a whole board, the bindings go sideways across and hold the whole thing together.
So we got into splitboarding probably 10 years ago, right when it started taking off. We didn’t have the money to buy one—the factory ones were really expensive—so we just bought some brand new snowboards, took a table saw and cut them right down the middle. We had a friend who had a bunch of tools and stuff, and we put all the hardware that we could get into it.
Looking at your Instagram, I noticed that you’ve splitboarded for 61 straight months. How is that possible in the heat of the summer?
It depends. In the spring, we have what we call “volcano season” and that’s when the volcanoes are just the perfect conditions for snowboarding because the snow freezes at night and then softens during the day. Early in the morning, you can climb with an ice axe and crampons, like mountaineering tools, and you wait on the top for it to soften. Then you snowboard all the way down.
So what we usually do is we follow the snowpack north in the summers and we hit all the volcanoes—Lassen, Shasta, Middle Sister, South Sister and then up to Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker. Sometimes we’ll go up to glaciers in the Cascades and ride a glacier, sometimes we go to South America. It’s generally about finding glaciers and patches of snow—there are spots that generally have snow year-round, although with climate change our go-to patches are no longer for sure.
Are you considered a professional snowboarder/splitboarder?
No, I would consider myself just an average guy who gets after it and who companies give products to for getting after it. You can put it like this: I consider myself a brand ambassador that does a lot of product testing and stuff—like a company has a new snowboard out, I might take it out and do research and development for a year or two with them. So I’m on their team because I’m working with them to make a better product, and then I’m also taking pictures of me riding with that product and so on.
As a philosophy teacher, can you draw some similarities between snowboarding and your area of study?
I think philosophy is about thinking well and living life well. And I think mountaineering—if you want to have a long life as a snowboarder/mountaineer—requires you to make some critical decisions.
There are a lot of connections between problem solving and puzzles: climbing that mountain is a puzzle, you’ve got various conditions, you have hazards like rock fall and avalanches. I ask, “How am I going to navigate this to get up to the top?” And I’ll use the kind of reasoning I do in philosophy and apply it to mountaineering.
I also work and think about virtue ethics—what is it that makes someone a virtuous person? And how does that contribute to human flourishing? I think we can ask the same kinds of questions about mountaineering and snowboarding. It’s important to understand what kinds of qualities and characteristics are necessary for a good climbing partner.
You mentioned your wife shares your love of snowboarding. What’s her history with the sport?
We started snowboarding when we were dating, which is probably close to 20 years ago, so she’s been snowboarding for a long time. We got into backcountry snowboarding together and developed a really cool kind of partnership where we worked well together.
If you go in the backcountry with your significant other, you’re either going to love each other more or you’re going to kill each other because you’re put in all these really high-stress circumstances and you’re often tired, you’re often hungry, lacking sleep, all kinds of things.
I feel like our marriage is better because we’ve dealt with hardship together in these kind of cases, so that when we come back to normal life we’re like, “We got out of that spot where we almost died in an avalanche, we can deal with this.”
What is it like balancing the responsibility of being a parent, professor and a—we’ll call it semi-professional—snowboarder?
Well, it’s difficult to the point where in the last year I’ve dropped a couple sponsors because I just don’t have the time to ride. I was splitboarding 100 days a year when we lived in Washington, so I was in a unique spot for a number of years before I moved here. I had a fellowship that allowed me to basically snowboard every day, and I would work on my dissertation at night. Getting a full-time job versus being a grad student and then having a family, it certainly put some limitations on the amount I can get out. Still, in the winter I get out quite a bit and I take my son with me.
And how old is he?
He’s almost two, and he rides in my backpack. When I take him out, it’s a mellow day where I’m not going to fall, there’s not going to be any avalanche danger, no objective hazards. He has his little goggles and his helmet, and he hoots and hollers all the way down the mountain.
You’re expecting another baby sometime in December. How soon after is he or she going to be on a snowboard?
Well, my first son was on his at 14 months, which is two weeks after he learned to walk. As soon as they can walk, they can ride. So, my next son, as soon as he can walk, we’ll put him on a snowboard.
Does having a family create any inner conflict for you when it comes to riding potentially dangerous terrain?
Now that I’m a father and I have a family counting on me, I’m genuinely conflicted at times. I used to really push the envelope of what was acceptable risk-taking. I consider myself pretty safe, but I took quite a bit of liberty and risk if the circumstances warranted. And now I feel conflicted because taking that risk and riding that big line that no one—or very few—people have ever ridden before just really gets me going. I love that feeling and that rush and the adrenaline of pushing it to the limits of what is actually rideable. But on the other hand, I also now realize that it’s not just about what I want because there are people depending upon me coming home today.
Now, I have to really step back and assess risk more carefully and be a little more certain that what I’m doing is worth it.
There are also issues of self-deception involved. Am I overly-confident in my abilities when I shouldn’t be? Am I reinforcing this idea that, because I haven’t had any serious accidents before, I’m not susceptible—even though it really is dangerous? Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it and I wonder if I need to tone it down a bit. I have that inner conflict all the time.
You mentioned climate change earlier, and I know it’s something you’re passionate about. Has that passion grown since you’ve become more involved with snowboarding or was it always there?
No, I think it’s definitely grown. Part of it is when you’re intimately involved with glaciers,what you ride on a constant basis, you see how quickly—and it’s not over 10 to 20 years, it’s over one to two years—they are shrinking. When you’re involved in the snowboard industry, conservation comes up naturally. You’re literally confronted with the fact that you can’t do what you love without it.
And I think one of the appeals of back country snowboarding is that I don’t need a helicopter and I don’t need this huge carbon footprint and expensive chairlifts. I can go out with my own two feet and I can explore and I’m actually more connected with nature because it’s human powered. Rather than taking a lift to get to where I want to go, I have to travel across this landscape and become familiar with it, and I’m connected in ways that are more intimate.
Explain what backcountry skiing/snowboarding is like to someone who maybe hasn’t experienced it.
You can think of it as just like a blank canvas and you get to decide what to do and where to go.
But you also have to be responsible for yourself. The decision is yours, but the responsibility’s yours too. No one’s doing avalanche mitigation for you, no one is taking care of any of those external factors—you’ve got to take care of it all. And that’s refreshing and liberating, but it’s also humbling.
Contact John Brussa at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.