Breaking Trail: Stephanie Nitsch, Founder of Pallas
It feels imperative to begin a profile about Stephanie Nitsch, founder of Pallas Snowboards—a women-led and women-owned company making women’s splitboards—with a description of her curly, wild, red hair. Not because that kind of thing matters to her—she currently has it squished unsuccessfully into a slouchy beanie—but because it’s the best way to explain her energy, which is so powerful that it seems to have embodied itself there.
Nitsch has had many successes—creating an entirely new product, founding a company, building a community, empowering women—but she gets to that topic by describing her failures, because that’s the way it happened. She could not have achieved the former without the latter.
Take her sport, for example, in which—like everything else—she was a self-described late bloomer. She grew up skiing at Mt. Hood, about an hour and a half from her home in Vancouver, Wash., and her earliest memory of skiing was when she was in kindergarten. “I went straight down, hauling ass. I forgot to turn. My parents told me the look on my face was one of horror and terror. That pretty much defined my ski career.” Then, around the age of 12 or 13, she picked up snowboarding because that’s what all the “cool kids and hot boys” were doing. “Turns out, I sucked at snowboarding, too. It took me seven seasons to learn how to turn.”
Nitsch credits her rise up the learning curve to the year she got a fake ID while attending the University of Washington. “I was 19 and was not super happy with the winters in Seattle. So my sister suggested I do summer school and then work at a ski resort out West.” She applied to a bunch of different ski resorts and got a job at Park City Mountain Resort.
The first day on the job wasn’t a smooth one—she had to snowboard to the lift she was working at, which required taking two lifts up to get there. “I lost the guy I was supposed to follow and I didn’t know where I was going—it took me an hour to get to the bottom of the lift.” But she eventually logged 100 days that season and fell in love with the lifestyle (the fake ID helped), the snow quality, and the weather: “The fact that you could have sunshine in the winter was mind-melting,” she said. “I had no idea you could get goggles with lenses that weren’t yellow or orange, because that’s what you need in the Pacific Northwest.”
Nitsch’s path from there felt at the time circuitous but, looking back, she sees a necessary zig-zag that led her straight to Pallas. The year was 2013, and she was living out of her car, trying to build a career as a writer, and hanging out with a bunch of demo drivers in the mountain bike industry. “I would go to these demo events and mountain bike festivals and wonder, ‘Where are the girls at?’ I was missing my community. I wanted people to talk to about riding in a way that didn’t involve bro-ing down on the number of teeth on your cassette.” So Nitsch decided to start a traveling demo program for women. She wanted to create one that was based on clinics for both technique and maintenance, with social hours for building community. “It was going to be hands-on and really fun—like we’re all going to be besties and ride bikes.”
She pitched it around to every major bike brand she could think of but soon grew frustrated by the dearth of support out there. Then, just as she was about to throw in the towel on the idea, she got a phone call from an acquaintance in Salt Lake who had a friend, Alister Horn from Chimera Snowboards, who was looking for someone to build women’s splitboards. “That was literally the moment,” Nitsch says. “The backstory of the bike thing was really important because when I finally called Alister, who’s now my business partner, he was like, ‘I see this huge gap in the industry. I don’t see any good women’s splitboards out there.’ The exact same structure I had with this bike program was identical to what I could accomplish with women’s splitboarding.”
Nitsch had started splitboarding years before that in 2009 on a homemade board. As with the rest of her athletic endeavors, she had to work really hard at it. “I got my ass kicked. The first time I went on a group tour, it was a media trip, and they documented evidence of my struggle. It ran continuously on Park City TV.”
Those first few years she was learning, she saw very few women outside the resort, and longed for a mentor. She also saw a huge gap in media representation of women in splitboarding—and snowboarding in general. There were a few high-level athletes and then the mainstream intermediates to whom gear was predominantly marketed. “I felt like I couldn’t align with pros and couldn’t align with the mainstream. I didn’t want to ride with my jacket half-zipped going, ‘Wee, I’m out here for fun and giggles.’ I wanted to fucking shred. And when you’re not supported, it’s hard to figure out how to get from point A to point C. I really wished I had someone who could help me weed through the knowledge and education and not make me feel like an idiot. But if you don’t have the role model or support to get what you need, you’ve got to make it yourself.”
As she transitioned to Pall years later, she drew on her experience and viewed the opportunity not as just to create women’s specific gear, but to help create and support a niche for women, period. “There are so many capable women in this sport who don’t feel like they belong. This is a huge conversation in this industry that is long overdue.”
Nitsch centered the company around education, community, and experience. She created Pallas-run women’s backcountry clinics, for example, and employs female builders, designers, sales reps, too. The company walks the walk on every level.
“Snowboarding changed my life,” Nitsch says. “To me it is really serious. It is my job, my passion, my outlet, my everything. If I can give another woman an ounce of how it’s impacted me, it will make them feel like they can accomplish incredible things in their lives. And at the end of the day, this world needs more strong, loving, supported women. It’s a huge catalyst for moving the needle on so many issues. If we can support women to climb a mountain and snowboard down it, sign me up. I want to be a part of that.”
Nitsch then looks out the window of her home in Rossland, B.C., where her mountain bike hangs from the porch above. Her wild hair catches the light. “But then again, at the end of the day, it’s just snowboarding,” she says, laughing. “There’s no reason to take it all that seriously.”