Given the level of backcountry skiing and skimountaineering occuring today, few mountains in the lower 48 states have been left unexplored. Nonetheless, the Washington Cascades remain one of the more wild and raw ranges south of the 49th Parallel. Writing a guidebook to skiing Washington’s Cascade Range that represents the current level of skiing and exploration taking place is no easy task, but it’s exactly what Martin Volken, founder and owner of Pro Guiding Service, and his fellow ski guides have done. Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes Washington offers a diverse collection of tours and traverses that speak to today’s aggressive ski scene while still offering classics that should make the to-do list of any backcountry skier.
Three years in the making, the book includes 81 tours in six regions – the Olympics, North Cascades, North Central Cascades, Central Cascades, Mount Rainier and South Cascades, plus a final bonus tour, the Spearhead Traverse, north of the border in British Columbia. From the easily accessible slopes of Mt. St. Helens to aggressive modern descents like the North Face of Buckner and the Cascade-Johannesburg Couloir, Volken and crew offer something for everyone.
Understanding the task to write this book was a large one, Volken enlisted the expertise of his follow ski guides to ensure local knowledge and know-how would permeate the book. The routes are well researched and easy to read, with contributing authors noted for each tour. The included maps are nice for reference, but you’ll have to establish your own gps coordinates if putting together a tour plan. All routes include overall difficulty ratings as well as specific ski skill ratings based on slope angle of descent and an overall commitment rating related a route’s remoteness.
Though Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes Washington shares some common routes with Rainer Burgdorfer’s original (and revamped version of) Backcountry Ski Washington’s Cascades , Volken’s new book looks at the Cascades with an eye for aggressive, modern routes and traverses, where snowmobile access, steep midwinter descents and multi-day adventure define the sport. Volken’s book has plenty of options to keep you inspired, and it lays out 11 multi-day traverses including the classic Ptarmigan and more recently pioneered North Central Cascades traverses.
The Washington Cascades encompass 15,000 square miles. In Volken’s words, it’s the area’s “no huts, no help, no heli atmosphere” that defines it. Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes Washington offers a diverse collection of tours, descents and traverses that showcase this very atmosphere.
It's not always easy letting go of an old, favorite piece of gear in favor of a new replacement, but strapping on the Black Diamond Alias ski pack has been an easy transition this season.
Redesigned for 2013, the Black Diamond Alias offers a clean, simple interface reflective of BD’s alpine climbing packs but with added ski features. It’s a traditional top-loader with a large main compartment, dedicated avalanche tool storage on the front panel plus a floating top lid with zippered pockets. It’s available with or without the Avalung component. The Alias provides a tidy 35 liters of storage – well matched to day touring and perhaps more if you have a strong light-is-right streak. The standout characteristic for the Alias is its minimalist styling.
That’s not to say the pack is short on features. First, there is the Avalung (if you choose the version so equipped), an added piece of mind for many skiers and a feature exclusive to BD packs. Next, the pack cloth is lightweight ripstop nylon, including 210d Dyneema side panels for added durability without a weight penalty. Borrowing from their climbing pack designs, the ice axe attachments – BD pickpockets – provide secure axe storage with minimal loose straps. There’s also a rope cinch strap and a top skirt to accommodate expansion. The avalanche tool storage compartment is in line with the pack’s tidy design. Shovel, probe and handle fit securely in the front zipper compartment. There’s enough room for larger shovels and a saw, but not necessarily your skins.
There’re plenty of small details to appreciate: insulated hydration sleeve, nice pull-tab on top skirt, good buckles. We’re luke-warm on the vertical zipper entry for the avy tools pocket, and the compression straps are a little finicky to keep tight when A-framing skis (female buckle end is sewn tight to pack seam) but, ultimately, the pack works well. The suspension system drops last year’s pivoting hip belt in favor of a much simpler design that worked great, too.
If you're looking for a clean, well-executed top-loader ski pack, look no further; BD has refined the Alias to meet the needs of skiers who prefer a lightweight, traditional loading and functional pack. It’s available in two torso sizes to help dial in the fit.
Favorite Feature: Less is more with this pack’s clean, simple design.
Least Favorite Feature: A-frame ski carry was finicky to keep tight when skis don’t lay flat.
A second area of growth and innovation of note at the trade show is in tech bindings - the alpine touring binding originally designed and popularized by Dynafit and noted for its lightweight, efficient design. The Dynafit design concept is now thirty years old and, a handful of years ago, the patent was allowed to expire. Ever since, new players and innovation have been driving the binding forward. Well, it's clear this year that tech bindings have some serious momentum in the backcountry ski world. Dynafit maybe the "Kleenex" of tech binders, but Black Diamond debuted the new Fritschi Vipec 12 and G3 their new ION tech binding. Both bindings appear to be solid designs with wide appeal.
Following the questionable success of their Onyx tech binding, G3 went back to the drawing board to create the new ION tech binding. It's appearance is more inline with that of the Dynafit, in fact, some aspects are quite similar. G3, however, adds numerous subtle features and innovations that help the ION stand on its own. Perhaps the most remarkable, given our short tour of the binding, is the heel unit. Though it looks familiar, it includes a unique dynamic tension (fore and aft) that is designed to maintain a fixed position for the heel pins during normal ski flex. The Vipec 12 has a similar feature. The ION also moves to a spinning heel, like that of the Dynafit, to switch between modes. The bottom line is G3 is trying to limit the movement of the pins in the boot heel to further improve binding retention and variability in release. Like all tech bindings at this point in the game, the ION is not yet DIN certified. Word is that the DIN world is in process reviewing the ION as well as the Vipec and various Dynafit models. It appears that, in the not too distant future, there will be a DIN cert for tech bindings. The brake system looks beefy and the brake self locks as you step into the binding, regardless of tour or ski mode,; a nice feature. The ION is a clean and easy to use binding. It has a sweet crampon attachment system that appears to allow much simpler attaching and removal of a ski crampon than the other systems.
The new Fritschi Vipec 12 is the other strong new player in the AT binding market. Fritschi took the established tech norm and focused on improving the reliability and continuity of the release mechanisms. The toe is the only tech binding to offer release adjustment (Trab actually has a binding with toe adjustment, but it's a whole new beast and I'll wait for that evolve). The Vipec also features a heel unit that slides fore and aft to switch between ski and tour modes - much like the G3's original Onyx binding. Lou Dawson over at Wildsnow.com has loads of info on the new Vipec if you would like to read more specifics. In the big picture, it looks like a nice viable binding. It also happens to available to consumers now in limited numbers.
Not to be outdone by the competition, Dynafit debuted five new tech binding models including the Radical ST 2.0 featuring a new pivoting toe platform to improve the bindings overall retention elasticity. In addition, the 2.0 has a beefed up heel plate and lifters plus a new brake with updated locking mechanism. Among the other new bindings in the Dynafit line, which now features 11 models, are the Beast 14 and a crazy carbon fiber racing model. The price of the Beast comes down from its lofty 1k this season to something like eight hundred and is available in 14 and 16 DIN varieties. Of more interest to most of us though, is the new Radical ST 2.0 and the Radical ST, which carries forward to next season.
As mentioned the new 2.0 version features a pivoting toe. Basically, the toe can rotate five degrees left or right to improve the overall elasticity of the binding. In other words, it's not all or nothing for retention, the binding is theoretically more dynamic. The design adds a little weight to the system. Another addition is the Speed Turn, essentially a basic TLT from a few years back, and the Speed Radical remains in the line, too.
There's no shortage of Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show beta on the interweb, but I'd feel amiss in my duties as Editor in Chief if I didn't add a little something on what we saw while walking the halls at OR.
In the big picture, I'd say the two biggest themes for backcountry skiers were avalanche airbag packs and tech bindings. I'd say sweet lightweight powder skis, the category most near and dear to me, was a close third with some great looking news boards from Voile, Sportiva, Black Diamond, G3 and Volkl. This post will focus on avalanche airbag packs. I'll take on the tech bindings second and skis third.
The trade show featured a significant increase in airbag pack offerings. There are several new players including Osprey (featuring ABS technology), K2 (featuring BCA Float technology) and Black Diamond (featuring proprietary Jet Force battery powered technology) as well continued refinement and improvement of the offerings from the usual suspects Backcountry Access, Ortovox and Mammut.
The ABS brand airbag system has now been picked up by numerous pack brands including Dakine, North Face, Arva, Osprey and Ortovox, no to mention ABS offers their own line of packs. Interestingly, the ABS system uses compressed nitrogen and an explosive charge in the trigger - seemingly more complex than the compressed air and mechanical trigger of the BCA Float or Mammut's Snow Pulse systems. I'd guess the proliferation of ABS brand components is due to the fact that ABS offers a zip-in unit that pack manufacturers without in-house airbag tech can simply design a pack to plug and play so to speak. The zip-in unit also means that the user can, in many cases, zip in a non-airbag back for use when the added safety of the airbag is not required.
Even more interesting in airbag tech is Black Diamond's still-in-the-works Jet Force airbag system that relies on a battery powered fan to inflate the airbag. Though not yet ready for the market, the new system (co-branded with Pieps - owned by BD) is sure to shake things up a bit. The simplicity of an electronic system has its appeal, but with a forecast price tag of over $1,000, lower price is not one of the benefits, yet. Here is a video demo of the Black Diamond Jet Force pack in action. Arc'teryx has a similar battery powered fan system in the works for an airbag, too. In fact, I saw a functional prototype of the Arc'teryx battery powered system last winter. Arc'teryx was not offering demos at the trade show, but the patent for the Arc'teryx battery powered system is well documented online, and the prototype i saw last year was operational.
The bottom line is airbag packs are becoming fixtures in the avalanche safety world. Pack designs are nicer than ever and the technology is obviously evolving toward user-friendly and functional designs that speak to users of all levels.
The term backcountry skiing has evolved over the years to represent a broad category of skiing from descent-focused big mountain riding to light-duty rolling hill touring. But, for many, it still conjures images of lightweight, touring-friendly gear that's adept on the uphill and the down - the quintessential roots of backcountry touring.
Interestingly, a few companies are bridging the descent-focused world and the light-duty touring world with skis that turn and float like modern fat skis but offer the weight and fish scale bases of lighter nordic skis. Voile Equipment in Salt Lake City is leading the charge in this category with the BC editions of their popular Vector and Charger ski models (read reviews of the Vector and Charger BC in our annual ski review). The Madshus Annum also has metal edges and fish scales, but is decidely more nordic in its design.
I was able to test a new ski that bridges the nordic and backountry worlds, the Kōm from Altai Skis. The ski measures in at 124/98/119. The dimensions may put it in the downhill, touring-for-turns category, but its lightweight construction and fish scale pattern base give it many of the advantages of a more traditional nordic ski. Think a blend of downhill and nordic DNA.
Nils Larsen and Francois Sylvain, veteran ski industry folks, are the minds behind Altai Skis. They've incorporated modern design ideas like tapered tip and rocker into the Kōm while preserving more traditional attributes like a tall tip and pattern base.
On snow, the Kōm is smooth and predictable. Its personality is remeniscient of a nice round turning tele ski that responds easily to turns of all styles. I skied it with a three-pin binding and two-buckle palstic boots - a perfect match in my opinion. Given soft spring corn snow, I chose to climb without the aide of skins, though it can easily be used with skins, too. The pattern can't match the climb of skins, but the bases climbed great in damp spring snow.
The Kōm is only available in a 162cm - arguably short in many people's minds. But don't let the modest length dissuade you. You might just find yourself questioning why we ski on longer skis - especially in this category. The Kōm is a great bridge between traditional nordic backcountry and the more downhill minded backcountry worlds. It gives folks with nordic roots a taste of downhill skiability and those with a downhill bias a taste of the freedom associated with lightweight, skin-free touring. Learn more at www.altaiskis.com
Issue 60, January 2014, is on its way to subscribers and shops this week! Inside, you'll find the usual low-gloss backcountry skiing content for which Off-Piste Mag is well known from avalanche safety beta to honest and useful backcountry gear reviews.
Issue 60 includes an interview with freeskier, farmer and frackticvist, Alison Gannett, part III of Zed, beta on the daily debrief as a safety tool and reviews of some fine jackets well suited to backcountry ski touring.
The cover shot features skier Laura Ogden skiing the Crystal Mountain Backcountry and was shot by Seattle based photog, Bissell Hazen. Subscribe to get a copy in your mailbox!
Good communication in the backcountry means many things, but on the most basic level it's about actually being able to talk to each other. Two-way radios are a great tool to facilitate communication when the terrain splits the group. Whether it's simply to make sure you get a photo set up just right or to share vital terrain and ski line beta, radios make it easy to relay info quickly and efficiently.
There are a variety of good quality two-way FRS radios (FRS refers to Family Radio Service and represents power levels and frequencies that do not require an operator's license - think Motorola Talk Abouts and such) on the market from big names like Motorola and Midland, but one of the biggest obstacles to good radio communication is simply keeping your radio handy, so you can and will actually use it on the fly. A basic handheld model can be clipped to your pack where you risk losing it while skiing or crashing. Or you can zip it into a jacket or pant pocket where it is no longer so handy with gloved hands.
The crew at Backcountry Access (BCA) recognized the ease of use problem and entered the market this season with a cool new two-way radio set-up called the BC Link that addresses ease of use by incorporating a remote speaker/mic into a basic two-way FRS radio. Of course, you could add a remote speaker mic to an existing FRS radio, but BCA takes the idea a step further by adding on/off/volume control and the ability to change frequencies from the remote speaker/mic, too. In fact, the BC Link does not include a speaker/mic on the radio body. It's designed to be used with the remote mic at all times.
I used the new BC Link on a recent week-long hut trip in British Columbia with great results. The radio system worked flawlessly with a variety of other handheld FRS units over the week. The beauty of being in a remote situation is there's no interference from other other users in the area - a limitation to the FRS radios in more frontcountry situations.
As you can see from the top photo, the BC Link radio itself is a little smaller than similarly spec'd Motorola and Midland radios. Signal range and speaker clarity were as good as or better than any of the other various FRS radios on hand. The electronics spec out the same as other FRS radios with 1 watt of power on FRS channels and 0.5 watt on GMRS. BCA claims a max 140 hours per battery charge, and the system is also waterproof enough to handle exposure to snow and precip in the field. The battery held strong for multiple days of use, though when accidentally left on overnight on day three or four, it did require re-charging.
The BC Link is designed so that you can keep the radio portion safe in your pack while the remote speaker/mic can be clipped to your pack strap for super easy access. I actually ran the cord inside the hydration port on my pack strap (I did not have a hydration tube in it) to keep it extra stealth, but it'll work just fine with the cord on the outside too. Having the ability to adjust the volume and even turn the radio off or on within easy reach worked great. Another plus is that the push-to-talk and other buttons/knobs are all relatively functional with gloved hands, so it really works on the fly.
Granted, a radio is one more electronic device to add to your kit, but they can be really useful for everything from photo sessions to emergencies, and the BC Link is designed with skiing/backcountry travel in mind; ie waterproof construction and glove friendly.
Highlights / Unique features:
Radio body has no speaker/mic. It's designed to work specifically with the remote mic set-up.
You can program six FRS/GMRS frequencies for easy access from the dial on the mic.
Built-in rechargeable lithium ion battery uses USB port/wall plug adapter to charge (included).
Charge lasts multiple days with normal use. Easily recharges in a few hours from full drain.
Compatible with 22 FRS and GMRS channels + 121 sub-channels.
Waterproof to IP56 Standards - good enough for weather exposure
Easily programmable for easy field use.
Works with any backpack, but BCA packs now include dedicated radio pockets.
Avalanche safety has been making the news more than ever this season. Given a few recent high profile avalanche accidents (Wyoming avalanche, Utah avalanche, BC avalanche) and a highly variable and generally shallow snowpack across much of North America, avalanche safety is on the minds of many. In addition, there's more interest and effort than ever by the media and avalanche pros around the country to share the message of caution and snow safety.
Since the skiing here in the Northwest leaves a lot to be desired at the moment, I took some time to collect a few good articles related to avalanche education, awareness and professional perspectives related to the current snowpack around North America. Start the New Year with a dose of wisdom related to human factors, shoveling, variable snowpacks and first hand accounts: