The Less I Have The More I Gain
Words and Photos by Mike Ranquet
If necessity is the mother of all invention then holding an idea in contempt before consideration is the dead-beat dad and progression becomes a proverbial Dodo bird. The idea of riding without highbacks draws such an overwhelmingly, unwavering rejection that I see it as a compliment. Trying something pales in comparison to the strides taken in order to avoid the inevitable.
When I started doing switch runs in contests, no one saw the logic, including the judges, as I literally wasn't scored. Furthermore most of my contemporaries saw no point either, so I find it amusing that I get the same reaction now as I did then (verbatim); "you can't ride like that."
In the 80's boards were wooden (sometimes drywall), edgeless, had ropes tied to the nose and we rode in socks with metal skags (whatever the fuck those are); so any support was welcomed. Unlike the west coast; Europe, Japan and the US east coast had been predominately ski influenced (into the mid 90's). Predicated on the likelihood that the competitive forum would be racing (like skiing), the wide acceptance of the highback and stiffening of boots is put in perspective.
The lame-duck two-piece ski boot/binding design has remained unchanged (essentially), representing the best we can offer since 1986. The design factors of forward lean, stiffness and rigidity are taken from ski boots; which in and of itself is a testament to the importance of drawing influence from skating and surfing (wake boarders figured it out), not skiing. Let's not forget; until the fish shape opened the doors to off center, directional boards, eventually leading the way to rockered bases; skiing also blessed us with camber.
In skating and surfing, maximum control is achieved by minimization of what's between your foot and your board. Just as TV and junk food prevent people from being in touch with nature; the highback prevents riders from being in touch with their board. The loss of progression is put into perspective when you realize how much our mobility and balance have not only compromised our ability to manipulate a snowboard but remain untapped.
Before you convince yourself that you can't turn on a heel edge without highbacks ask yourself how do surfers & skaters do it? They use their body to lean into the turn; without boots and in the case of surfing the boards are 18" wide, they're working against a current and they're barefoot (savages). Snowboarders can't absorb kinks on rails because their ankles are locked; whereas skaters absorb kinks with their ankles. To allow this progress inhibiting, ski boot influenced piece of plastic to dictate every aspect of riding is embarrassing (I think).
Heels withstand weight and ankles are the pivoting point of balance; thus the use of highbacks cuts off the ability to balance and distribute ones weight. Theoretically your toes need support before your heels would. I'm sure someone is developing a halo like structure to ensure you don't have to try at all.
The overdesigned, forward-leaning snowboard boot already does the high backs job for them. Boots ensure an unprecedented amount of ankle immobility; the stiffening support to the degree of non-movement is where it stands today. Riding with highbacks is comparable to limping years after an injury; your body works around the limp and doesn't truly recover.
The marketability and overdesign of the highback is matched only by there uselessness, in short; highbacks are archaic, expired training wheels that are rolling the sport into an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
PS: Using lowbacks 'back in the day' has as much validity as using step-in (shit) bindings; they both inhibit the flexing of the ankle.
You wouldn't ever think of it, as it's never been an option; it's so nice to strap-in, stand-up and go without sitting or crouching. No need to dig a strap in pit when in the backcountry and easy toe to heel edge hops (visa versa) when compromised by steep conditions. I sacrificed so much comfort and stability over the years in order to let a 6" piece of plastic dictate how I much I could control my board. Every movement you make is predicated on the highback; the false sense of stability (via burning your quads) is of no advantage to the rider.
The feeling of digging in your heels so deep with all your weight then releasing the energy, rather than absorbing it, allow for more powerful, tighter turns than thought possible. Over-rotating heel turns and allowing the tail to dig in and the board to whip itself back to forward. Also you can absolutely destroy frontside lips, bashing the shit out of anything with all your weight on your heels.
When forced to traverse on the heels, even a caveman will learn to ride switch. Traversing burns your quads because you're squatting, flexing the ankles (like on the toe edge) allow a higher traverse sans the pain associated with heel traverses.
Mind & Body
The natural flow or chakras (look it up dummy) of ones body is skewed; ankles locked at 90° kink the body (ankles, knees, hips). The highback doesn't allow the energy to be distributed throughout your body while on the heel edge. When applying pressure to the heel edge, most of your energy is apportioned to holding the squat position. Essentially you're applying what energy is leftover after burning your quad muscles. The pain one feels after riding has way more to do with squatting all day than it does with riding. The psychological dependence on highbacks is strong, but the physical is nil.
Halfpipe runs are predominantly ridden on the toe edge, as it's easier to generate speed due to the flexing of the ankle when riding up the wall. Ever notice on quarter pipes and heel edge walls that riders are locked? The highback inhibits the rider from pumping the wall (hell edge) or springing off the lip; instead riders float off the lip (not pop) as they run a flat base on heel edge walls. Take Danny Way; he goes just as high as the best snowboarders with half the speed (after landing a back flip) because he pumps the transition then pops off the lip, snowboarders have only momentum.
In the air, your ankles want to flex (slightly) to keep balance; highbacks inhibit the natural balance resulting in snowboarder's "opening up" before landing. Staying tight by minor ankle adjustments is how skateboarders do it. On frontside walls, instead of having to be over your board, you can push the board in front of you (stalefish, lien-crooked cop). Then your feet can adjust for the transition easier when your board in front you; like a proper FS Ollie when skating It also literally answers the age-old question of why straight airs are so hard.
I rode a snow-skate (RIP) once at Snoqualmie Pass; Mike Olsen let me take a run on his. First thing I noticed was that I cold push my back leg out on a heel turns. It made me wonder, as my balance wasn't compromised why snowboards even had highbacks.
I needed to commit myself to the concept, so I clipped my highbacks off with shears and strapped in. I realized that if I can skate 20' (coffee in hand) to chair 7 without falling, then I've proven that I'm able to ride without highbacks. The very first thing I noticed is that I didn't notice anything at all; no really… I can't stress it enough, nothing, zip, nada.
December 2007- April 2008
This is when it evolved from shits & giggles to being an absolute benefit to snowboarding. Reason being; I rode everyday and was able to utilize this factor to change the way I stand on, turn, jump and land a snowboard.