I’ve been slow to adopt helmet use for backcountry skiing. As I’m fond of saying to those who question my lack of helmet (namely, my wife), “My head’s not a vital organ, so why worry.”
Joking aside, I certainly understand the value of wearing a helmet. I don’t get on my bike without one, and I’ve been known to wear my climbing helmet on more technical spring ski tours. Nonetheless, I’ve been slow to embrace helmet wearing for general backcountry skiing because it just feels like an extra item to manage and deal with between runs.
Knowing that a helmet has the potential to save my life and that designs are evolving toward lighter, more vented backcountry-friendly styles, I decided to take a closer look at helmet options. After talking to a few ski guides and various friends who use helmets in the backcountry, the Smith Vantage came up as a solid choice for backcountry skiing – namely, lightweight with excellent vent regulation.
Without getting mired down in proprietary material lingo and protective construction speak, the Smith Vantage has a lot to offer helmet-wearing backcountry skiers: It’s wicked light at 440 grams / 15 ounces, has two sets of adjustable vents and offers easy fit adjustment thanks to the BOA dial-adjust system. Of course, it has leading edge crash protection, meets all of the various standards for ski use and looks pretty cool to boot.
Honestly, from first fit, it felt great. I began using it at the ski hill a bit this winter and, this spring, have grabbed it for high alpine backcountry ski adventures. It mates with my older Smith goggles well and has proven to work with K2 and Julbo goggles, as well as my sunglasses. Really, what has sold me on it boils down to weight, fit and well regulated venting. The fit is light and comfortable on my head and, aside from its volume, it’s pretty low impact in/on the pack, too. The 21-vent system features two controls and actually vents well enough that I have worn it on ascent without complaint. It’s as close to feeling like you’re not wearing a helmet as I can imagine a helmet feeling. On storm days, it adds a nice level of protection from the elements while maintaining goggle venting and a warm head, though I still kind of miss the cozy feeling of my favorite boiled wool toque . . . nonetheless, the helmet offers much better protection.
Finding the right backcountry ski boot has a lot to do with good fit, but it's also important to find the right combination of uphill functionality and downhill performance. La Sportiva nailed both in the Spectre alpine touring boot. The Spectre AT boot offers great walkability with the flick of a lever and excellent downhill performance without being uber stiff. It is a true quiver-of-one alpine touring boot.
Weighing in at 6 lbs a pair (size 26), the Spectre is impressively lightweight for a four-buckle touring boot. Some of the weight savings are owed to the unique buckle system, which turns out to be easy to adjust and easy to open. The micro-adjustability of the binding is the best I have ever used. All buckles open wide for unobstructed boot entry and removal, too.
Walk mode is advertised to offer 60-degrees of cuff range and it feels great. The full range is really smooth and not overly dependent on cuff buckle tension. They walk as good or better than any other four-buckle boot I've ever used.
On the ski front, they are stiff and powerful enough to run some pretty burly skis at the ski hill during testing, more burly than a Garmont/Scott Cosmos and on par with the popular Scarpa Meastrale. But the best part is Spectre maintains a degree of progressive flex and are not uber stiff like many carbon fiber cuff designs. The cuff, like many of the light 4-buckle boots on the market, is made of Grilamid but also adds some carbon fiber in the rear spine. Functionally, the Spectre feels powerful without feeling too stiff; it lets your ankles have a little give and take with the ski, snow and terrain when neceessary - like they should. There are three forward lean positions from which to choose.
Best of all, they are not a strict narrow italian fit. In fact, the boot feels great for for my arguably wider than average foot. To help with fit, the boot features an adjustable tongue to dial in volume, too. Obviously, fit is rather subjective, but if the Spectre feels good on your feet, you should give it a try on snow. The Spectre is a true quiver-of-one alpine touring boot.
Spring is gear testing season here at Off-Piste Mag. And though no one seems to respect how much work it really is to test skis, boots and bindings, we've been hard at "work" checking out 2015 backcountry gear. Mount Hood has served up a classic mix of spring powder, bluebird days and everything in between. There's nothing quite like six inches of maritime, wind affected snow to put a ski or a touring binding through the paces.
Carbon fiber is the name of the game in skis for 2015. G3, Sportiva, Black Diamond and Volkl have embraced the light-is-right carbon fiber construction in their new touring skis. Basically, skis are lighter and more capable than ever. The bulk of the new boards in our test quiver fall into the 95-115 mm underfoot window and here a few highlights:
Preliminary top backcountry ski picks:
Voile V6 - think V8 fun with 100mm waist for more versatility
Black Diamond Carbon Convert - takes last year's standout Convert to new light weight
Volkl BMT 94 - high-tech german carbon fiber design delivers precision power
La Sportiva Vapor Nano - wicked light and remarkably fun and capable in pow and mixed conditions
G3 Synapse 101 - all new pow slaying tapered shape and carbon construction
K2 Coomback 114 - proven Coomback versatility meets wider dims and new tail shape
Softshell Ski Jackets - Patagonia Knifeblade and OR Enchainment
Having trouble regulating your temp on the up track? In addition to wearing too many layers or simply too warm a layer, too many backcountry skiers wear waterproof/breathable shells (top and bottom) for touring. I'm here to tell you that less is more and, more often than not, a fully waterproof/breathable shell (Gore-Tex pioneered the fabric, but there are many varieties) is more than you need for ski touring.
What, how do I stay dry, you ask? Well, unless it's actually raining - and hopefully you can pick and choose your days enough to avoid the rain - most softshell jackets (rated water resistant vs waterproof) will keep you plenty dry, especially if you are moving like one does on a ski tour. Even here in the Pacific Northwest, where the white rain is all too common, I never wear a waterproof/breathable coat when touring. They just don't breathe well enough. Softshells minus the waterproof membrane are the way to go. You can better regulate your body temp without fussing over layers at every transition. Choose your touring shell for its breathability, not its waterproof qualities; you will be drier in the long run.
The Outdoor Research Enchainment and Patagonia Knifeblade jackets are great examples. Check out our reviews on both:
The Knifeblade uses Polartec Power Shield Pro to deliver a very functional jacket for the alpine environment. Designed as an alpine climbing piece, it crosses over to backcountry skiing nicely and simplicity is one of its greatest assets; the Power Shield Pro fabric is its other.
The lightweight yet burly stretch-woven Power Shield breathes like a champ and is as close to stormproof as you need for midwinter ski touring. It also happen to have a windproof membrane adding storm protection without compromising breathability or its soft feel like a waterproof membrane. Thanks to factory taped seams and a robust DWR treatment, the Knifeblade has proven to be very stormproof. The fabric yields a great feel and range of motion. Arm swing is excellent, and there is a slight stretch to the material for ease of movement.
Alpine minimalism dictates you only get three pockets: two vertical chest pockets big enough for today's wide skins and high enough for easy access with a pack or harness, plus a smaller chest pocket for your phone or other small necessities.
Layered correctly, you can leave the car or the hut in the morning and never take this jacket off because it's so breathable. Add an insulation layer over the top at rest stops or for the last run of the day, and the Knifeblade jacket has you covered for the up and the down. Fans of the old Patagonia Readymix jacket will appreciate the simplicity, breathability and performance of the Knifeblade. It's available in men's and women's models as well as in a pullover style.
The Outdoor Research Enchainment jacket makes breathability and movement its top priorities. Using a mix of tightly-woven softshell and breathable Schoeller NanoSphere stretch panels under the arms, the Enchainment is designed for high energy output and extended range of motion. Outdoor Research plugs it for alpine climbing, but I think it makes a great touring shell.
Sure, it’s not waterproof, but it features welded construction and handles snow just fine. Fit is athletic. The feel is lightweight, yet tough. It’s highly wind resistant and, thanks to its NanoSphere DWR technology, it sheds snow well.
There’s no question the Enchainment is designed with alpine minimalism in mind. There's no powder skirt or features that have you scratching your head to understand. It’s a functional and practical ski touring jacket. The Enchainment will treat you right all but the wettest days and its breathability reduces the need to adjust layers during the day.
Outdoor Research delivers a no-frills, git-‘er-done jacket for a hundred-plus bucks less than the competition. It’s available in men’s and women’s models.
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
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.
There's a lot of good ski clothing on the market, but there's the occasional piece that fits and works just the way you want it to, earning it high regard. The Arc'teryx Gamma SK pant is one such piece of clothing. These softshells have become my go-to ski touring pants for a variety of reasons. In fact, I'm on my second pair and not because they don't wear well. But because they fit and feel so great, I've worn them for far too much wood chopping, building maintenance and general après ski chores than I should. Anyway, on to why they are such a great pair of pants for backcountry skiing.
A good ski touring pant needs to breathe, offer protection from the elements and promote a good range of motion. The Gamma SK does all of the above. The fabric is a mid-weight, tightly woven softshell material that offers a nice blend of breathability and protection from the elements with an emphasis on breathability. The Gamma SK material is a shade lighter weight than some of the competitors' fabrics, but still, in my mind, stout enough for mid-winter wear in most climates. Mine have seen a wide variety of days in the Cascades and Central British Columbia. The fit is athletic but still loose, and I really like the suspenders and belt combo for keeping them in place; although the built-in webbing belt does a fine job if you prefer to roll without suspenders. If you are still using a waterproof breathable pant for touring, do youself a favor and upgrade to softshells.
In classic Arc'teryx fashion, the Gamma SK design is clean and simple. These pants were designed for ski touring, versus being an all-mountain pant that can ski tour, too. They perform great in everything from modest sunny days to full storm cycle conditions. The twin cargo pockets are low profile, yet generously roomy. The boot cuffs are cut wide to accommodate ski boots and there's a low-profile, built-in internal gaiter/powder cuff that can be cinched tight if required, but is otherwise unobtrusive.
These pants are great. I can’t think of a single significant thing to change on the Gamma SK. The pockets are well located, the cuffs don’t bind around your boots. They are durable, have nice reinforced instep cuffs and shed precip damn well for a non-waterproof pant. The Gamma SK is a great dedicated touring pant. They are even casual enough to weather a trip to the bar or grocery store après tour without feeling terribly conspicuous. The Arcteryx Gamma SK Pant is everything I could ask for in a touring pant.
Avalanche safety equipment has long revolved around what most skiers will agree are the three essential companion rescue tools - beacon, shovel and probe.
Of course, having these tools in your pack doesn’t make you any safer unless you have the knowledge to use them and at least a basic understanding of how to recognize potentially hazardous conditions and terrain. Education and backcountry experience are the true foundation to safe backcountry skiing.
While avoiding an avalanche remains your only guarantee to survive one, continued innovation in avalanche safety gear is helping to stack survival odds in a skier’s favor. Avalanche transceivers are easier to use and more efficient than ever before, and the advent of the Avalung and now airbag pack are aimed at improving your chances for survival in the event of a slide. Whether viewed as self-preservation devices or essential safety tools, Avalungs and airbag packs are growing in popularity thanks to user-friendly, lightweight designs as well as a few high profile incidents where both devices have helped skiers survive deadly slides.
Although not yet as common a sight in the backcountry as Avalungs, airbag packs are gaining momentum in avalanche safety circles. Although they come with a significantly bigger price tag ($700+) than a standard ski pack or even an Avalung pack ($200+), airbag packs are even gaining visibility among recreational backcountry skiers. Pack and airbag designs have made significant strides in reducing weight and complexity of the system over the past couple of seasons. The newest crop of airbag packs is proving that manufacturers can design and build ski touring friendly systems that maintain the operational feel and look of a traditional ski pack with the added safety edge of the airbag system.
Founded on the basic principle that larger volume objects will better stay on the top of a turbulent medium, airbag packs seek to dramatically increase a skier’s volume by way of inflating a durable balloon or air bag around the upper body. The design serves to promote keeping the skier on the surface of the debris and to help protect the head from potential trauma. The packs have proven to be quite effective, but should not be viewed as substitutes for education, experience, informed decision making or companion rescue gear.
Packs and technology are also evolving every season. While we await new offerings from Black Diamond and Arcteryx that will feature battery driven inflation devices, compressed air technology rules the scene. We sampled a variety of packs last spring and are currently field testing the new Ortovox Tour 32 ABS pack (review to be added soon).
Continuing with our side project to visit and highlight local and regional ski related businesses, I recently made a trip to backpack maker, CiloGear, located in Portland, Oregon.
The small, independent pack company is named after the Cilo Mountains, a remote range in southeast Turkey where Graham Williams, owner and founder, actually spent time climbing while living and working in Turkey. Today, CiloGear occupies space in an old Columbia Sportswear factory in North Portland where they (actual humans) design and build a wide variety of backpacks plus a few travel and urban bags. They've been building packs commercially for nine years.
According to Williams, CiloGear is a "lean manufacturer" meaning they build packs when ordered. This not to say they make custom packs, but rather they offer a stock line of packs that are assembled and sewn in their Portland facility as they are ordered. Williams showed me around the shop on a Saturday afternoon offering a first-hand look at the process. Utilizing a one-piece flow, they prep and stock a supply of pieces and parts for all of their packs (many share components). When an order for a pack comes in, the crew collects the requisite components from the stock on hand and begins the final sewing process. Williams said they average about 6-10 packs a day and customer wait times vary from just a few days to a couple weeks depending on their current workload. The one-piece flow process is very efficient and CiloGear takes every step possible to reduce material waste throughout their pack building process. By batch producing the pack components, they are able to keep wasted fabric to an impressive minimum - literally just tiny pieces.
CiloGear's focus is creating lightweight, practical packs with a decidedly minimalist style. They utilize quality materials, including Dyneema and Cordura laminated five-ply with Dacron X-Pac. All packs utilize their signature d-ring compression strap system, which allows you to custom configure the compression straps and various ski/board carry systems (on ski packs). The packs are impressively lightweight and bomber in feel. Given the collection of well-worn packs hanging in the corners of the shop that have been on a variety of international climbing expeditions, the packs are built to withstand serious abuse.
Williams walked me through the ski pack line, which includes five models ranging from 30 to 45 liters in volume. I've been able to get out and ski with a ClioGear 30Z a couple times, and it's included in a full ski pack review in the December 2013 issue of the mag (due out Dec 2). In brief, the 30Z is a traditional top-loader with a small design twist - a zip-closure lid. Think trad top-loading shape and access with a lid that zips closed. It's a lightweight, minimalist pack with surprising versatility. It features CiloGear's signature d-ring strap system to customize compression and ski or board carry options. The pack’s narrow profile, lightweight construction and minimalist design are in lockstep with the priorities of many backcountry skiers.
As backcountry skiers, we carry a variety of "essential" gear: beacon, shovel, probe and skins. But, in keeping with my "it's the little things in life" mantra, a hot drink on a cold day in the mountains goes a long way and has become part of my essentials list.
For the most part, I've replaced carrying cold water on a typical day tour with carrying a thermos of hot tea. I drink more and can ward off the chill following a long up track or given stormy conditions. My favorite brew is a lightly sweetened chai with a dose of cream but some days a straight up tea or even hot Emergen-C really hits the spot. A thermos of hot chocolate, or even coffee, stashed at the snowmobile or car goes a long way too, especially if you've got a long drive ahead of you.
Sure, I lose the drink-on-the-fly experience of using a hydration reservoir, but I'm able to work my tea breaks into skin transitions and routine snack stops without issue. And my tea never freezes. A good insulated thermos keeps tea hot all day and even overnight. I've owned a variety of thermos bottles over the years - everything from basic REI units to high-dollar push-button models. That said, few have stood the test of time and abuse of life in a ski pack.
I'm looking forward to putting the new Stanley units pictured to work this winter. Stanley literally invented the stainless steel vacuum bottle 100 years ago. I think they've got it figured out. I dig the retro-style, bomber feel and the 25oz size of the smaller green one pictured is an ideal volume. The big guy (1.1 liter) will serve the car/snowmo stash nicely and the flask, well, it'll come in handy in its own way.
Continuing with our side project to visit and highlight local ski related businesses, I recently made a trip to new boutique ski builder, Deviation, located in Gresham, Oregon, not far from the flanks of Mount Hood.
The crew behind Deviation hails from various locales but chose the Portland area to centralize and launch their brand of made-to-order skis and snowboards given its proximity to year-round skiing on Mount Hood and the region’s reputation for and support of handcrafted product culture. Co-founders and brothers, Tim and Peter Wells, set up shop in their Gresham workshop about 14 months ago and began turning out all-wood core skis and snowboards, all designed and engineered in house.
According to ski design and production guy, Peter Wells, “We handle everything in house from start to finish and source as much of the materials as we can [including the wood core stock] locally or regionally.” Deviation uses three woods in their core construction: Ash, Bass and Locust - each chosen for its specific qualities. The cores are glued up, trimmed, shaped and skis pressed on site. Even the graphics are printed and sublimated in the shop. Having everything in house, according to Wells, “… means we control the whole process and can offer a high degree of customization.”
Deviation offers five stock ski models (three men's and two women's) and two snowboards. They’ve got stock graphics, too, but are happy to do custom graphics as evidenced in the custom Powderwhore model they built up as a promo for when the Powderwhore film tour stopped in Portland.
Although Deviation has yet to develop a lightweight backcountry minded model, all of their skis are metal-free and reasonable in weight. We look forward to putting a pair to the full test on snow once the season gets rolling here in the Northwest. We’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. www.deviationusa.com
The Black Diamond CoEfficient Hoody has become my go-to layer for just about everything from technical pursuits to just plain hanging out. The last time a piece of technical clothing worked its way into my everyday life as deeply as this fleece was my old Patagonia Puffball vest, which I still wear. Though Black Diamond has dabbled in clothing over the years, the CoEfficient fleece hoody is part of a new and more comprehensive technical apparel line launched this year.
What’s so great about another fleece hoody, you ask? First, it’s not just any fleece; it’s Polartec Power Dry High Efficiency fleece. It’s got the waffle back and smooth face, breathes incredibly well and serves up a remarkable warmth to weight ratio. The fabric weight is similar to a Patagonia R1, maybe a touch lighter. Next, it’s truly a technical piece. It’s cut long to work with harnesses and under shells. The fit is athletic and simple features like stretch cuffs and a scuba style under-the-helmet hood design really add to its functionality. The full-length zip makes for easy on and off and, when fully zipped, offers great neck, chin and cheek coverage. I’ve taken it skiing, climbing, pedaling and hanging out from sea to summit.
Black Diamond nailed the cut, features and weight on this one.
Given the rate of rainfall here at the office, the seasons have changed for real. There's snow in them there hills, and it's time to get your gear in order. If your favorite ski jacket has lost its like-new glow, you can give new life to any outerwear with Nikwax TX-Direct. Whether you wear a softshell jacket or a waterproof breathable shell, the durable water repellent (DWR) coating wears out with use. The DWR is different from your jacket's (or pant's) waterproof membrane (think Gore-Tex, Dry-Q, Event, etc). The DWR is what keeps mosture beading on the outside; it's a coating or treatment to the fabric. All ski jackets and pants come with some form of DWR. But all DWR coatings wear out with time.
Fortunately, you can effectively renew the DWR coating on your shell or pants with Nikwax TX-Direct. Nikwax makes wash-in and spray-on versions. Both work well, though, I prefer the wash-in simply 'cause it's good to wash your gear before the season gets rolling. Nikwax actually make a special non-detergent soap that they recommend you use before you run the TX-Direct treatment.
Take a look at the before and after shots of my three-year-old Patagonia softshell jacket. The section of jacket is the back, where my pack has really worked away the factory DWR coating. My experience has been that if you follow the Nikwax directions (they specify a certain amount of the bottle per garment), the treament lasts a full season. It's a great way to extend the life of your outerwear.
In doing some research for upcoming soft shell ski jacket editorial, I took notice of a new Polartec Power Shield shell from TREW Gear called the Swift. I've seen TREW's ski shells and pants around at the local hill here and there - their thumbs up logo on the left shoulder is pretty distinctive - but I'd never looked further into the brand. The TREW office happens to be located just a few miles from our office, so a couple of quick e-mails later and I found myself standing in their office, chatting with founding partners, Tripp Frey and John Pew.
TREW's been designing outerwear for five years and, like any young brand, has had its ups and downs negotiating the supply chain. Nonetheless, they have pressed on and their current, 2013, line-up looks great and, according to Frey and Pew, most closely meets their mission to merge performance, function, quality and style to date.
Turns out, Frey originally moved to Hood River to help steer local hat brand Shred Alert but couldn't resist the entrepreneurial itch. He soon reached out to fellow skiers and riders John and Chris Pew.
According to Frey, "As skiers and snowboarders, we loved the quality and performance of the higher-end gear but not always the look and minimalist approach. We said to ourselves, 'Let's make high end technical shells designed for skiing and snowboarding, not for pure alpinism.' We wanted to focus on technicality, utilitarianism/storage, durability and, of course, style."
Well, by the looks of the new Swift jacket, TREW is on top of their game. It offers genuine backcountry functionality - breathability and weather protection, features top-notch materials - Polartec Power Shield and does so with clean, modern style. We look forward to putting it through the paces as winter gets under way.
We recommend you check 'em out. Be sure to take note of the Polar Shift syntheitc puffy, too: Polartec One insulation, thumb loops, super soft nylon face fabric and it weighs in at an impressive 12 ounces!
In the spirit of their ski bum roots, TREW is hitting the road this Friday, September 13 for TREW Tour 2013-14 in "HaRVey", the company's 35-foot RV to meet dealers and customers around the western states. First stops beyond Hood River include Missoula, Bozeman MT and Bend, OR. You can get the latest details on HaRVey's location through TREW's facebook page.
The pile in the corner of the gear room has grown larger over the last few years. My own ski quiver was substantial enough but adding my two teenage children’s collections
has tipped the pile toward entropy modeled after storms in the Gulf of Mexico.
I've dabbled with a couple of cobbled, home-spun ski racks made from 2x4 scraps left over from the remodel, but I never really put in the necessary design time for a quality ski storage solution.
One day, it dawned on me there must be some decent ready-made ski storage racks on the market. Here are three very different takes on the ski storage problem.
Protecting your knees while skiing should be a no-brainer. We pad our heads with helmets and protect our bodies with avalanche safety gear - I'd like to think I'm more likley to hit my knee than trigger an avalanche; it only makes sense to wear knee pads, too.
Once mainly the domain of telemark skiers, knee pads were rather bulky, hard shelled items that we strapped on for fear of dropping a knee into a stump or rock. Sure, pads evolved a bit and became more comfortable than the classic roller derby style hard shells, but I have not worn knee pads since my dedicated telemark days, until now. G-Form pads take the art of protective padding to a new level of comfort and function. The pads are a game changer.
Now, I'm not prone to hucking myself off large precipices or cartwheeling down steep, rock-lined chutes, but I have certainly had the occasional run in with a hard object while backcountry skiing. The G-Frorm pads are soft, flexible and comfortable to wear. They are unlike any pad I have ever worn and, in fact, hardly feel like you're wearing a pad at all. The classic sweaty, bunching and rubbing of old school hard pads are non-issues with the G-Form style. These are pads you want to wear.
The protection technology is called RPT™ – Reactive Protection Technology, a composite blend of proprietary materials - and offers repeated impact protection. The key being: the material stiffens on impact to absorb 90% of the impact energy (so says the tech talk).
The design is flexible and promotes full range of motion. There's no bunching or hindering behind your knee. Thanks to the flexible design and stretch compression fabric, they slip on under your base layers and feel great. I have been using the G-Form knee and elbow pads on longboard skateboard sessions this summer with great results. Fortunately for my body but unfortunately for the sake of testing, I have yet to put their true crash protection to the test, but I'm confident they'll deliver. They are definitely comfortable and foster a good sense of protection without any of the classic bulky or awkward feelings associated with more rigid style pads.
Though I'm not not likely to consider donning full armor on my next ski tour or huck the nearest cliff band like a rockstar, the G-form knee pads are welcome addition to my kit. Not only will they offer crash protection, they'll help to keep my knee joints warm, too. They're even fully washable.
I first took notice of Jeremy Jones when I saw the TGR film Deeper. Jones takes his passion for riding and applies it to the backcountry with the approach of a professional. His 2012 TGR film, Further, is also an example of quality earn-your-turns footage with a good perspective, not simply the normal go-big TGR attitude. Of course, Jones and his crew ride some serious lines, but they are climbing them first and there is far less gratuitous airtime and heli recon than you might expect.
Given his dedication to backcountry and splitboard riding, I decided it would be interesting to check out the Jones 30L backpack designed for touring, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Although a little small on volume when compared to my typical day touring pack (a 40 liter pack), the Jones 30L is a clean and functional day pack designed with dedicated backcountry skiing and riding in mind.
The features list is long, but the design of this clamshell style pack is simple and user-friendly. You'll find a dedicated avy tools compartment to hold your shovel blade and handle plus your avalanche probe, a small and lined goggle/gadget pocket, zippered back panel access and a roomy main compartment. Of course, the pack is designed to carry a snowboard, but it also carries skis just fine, too. It's hydration compatible and is designed to accomodate the hydration tube inside the shoulder strap to help reduce waterline freezing.
Overall, I'd rate the fit very good for small and medium sized skiers, but it's shorter length runs a bit small on longer torsos. The twin hip belt pockets are roomy and accessible, while the overall suspension system is lightweight and well-suited to day touring loads.
The Jones 30L Backpack is a clean, no nonsense pack. I like the simplicity of its design; there's no superfluous straps or design features to solve unknown problems, just clean, easy to access storage and a straight forward suspension system that carries close to the body and stays put when descending. It could be a little bigger to suit my personal packing needs that often include packing a full SLR camera plus an extra lens or two, but it's got enough volume to get you out for a day of skiing with your essential layers, avy tools and food/drink needs.
Avalanche rescue shovels are a tool that backcountry skiers need to carry but really never want to deploy for their intended companion rescue purpose. Fortunately, shovels are also handy for digging out your car, truck or snowmobile when stuck and several manufacturers have worked to combine snow saws and probe poles into shovel handles in an effort to simplify the gear we need to carry. The latest shovel innovation to come across our desk is the K2 Shaxe.
Part shovel and part ice axe, the K2 Shaxe merges the two tools into one unit to save weight and space in your pack. K2 has been methodically building its offering of backcountry tools (including aquiring Backcountry Access) and the standard K2 backcountry shovel has proven to be a great tool: sturdy, compact and full of utility. The Shaxe builds on the same shovel design and platform as K2's standard shovel by adding a stout, full-size ice axe head that can be swapped into the handle. The result is a solid, utilitarian shovel and a solid, functional ice axe.
Unlike shovels that incorporate a snow saw or probe into the handle for storage, the axe head does not store inside the handle between uses - unless it's installed into position as an axe - and it does not compromise on the utility of the axe. Once converted into an axe, you've got a full-size pick and adze on a 20-inch shaft. The connection to the shaft is secure and solid enough for real use (check out this first descent in the Alps using the Shaxe). The Shaxe comes with a small zip pouch to store the axe head - plus the four screws used for building a rescue sled with the blade and handle.
My take on the Shaxe is that on the days that I feel a need for both an axe and a shovel, the axe tends to be my primary tool, so I've simply chosen to carry the shaft with axe head installed strapped to my pack as if it were my ice axe (because it is), while the shovel blade remains stowed in my pack as per normal. The axe head works as a shovel handle grip in a pinch and you can always take the standard handle grip along, too.
The compromise with the Shaxe is you get a fixed-length shovel handle and are limited to a 20-inch (50 cm) ice axe. But all of the components are well made and the simple, yet effective handle connection makes for easy transitions from shovel to axe or vice versa and solid handling in the field. The full package weighs in at 1 lb 11 oz (the same as the standard K2 shovel) and it saves me nearly a pound (13 ounces) when compared to packing my shovel and axe separately - a pretty significant step when packing light is a priority. The Shaxe should be available fall 2013.
If you are in search of one boot to serve your resort and backcountry ski needs, you'll be stoked to see the new boots coming from K2, BD and Scarpa. The past couple of seasons have offered a great selection of lightweight three- and four-buckle boots for dedicated touring and this upcoming season looks to be the season of alpine style AT boots that actually tour well. The industry calls the category freeride boots - alpine minded boots intended to serve in the backcountry, too. In the past, most of the boots we've tried in this category have been great ski boots with poor walkability - glorified alpine boots with only basic walk modes. Times are a changing.
The boot we've got the most time on so far is the Scarpa SL. Developed in collaboartion with Chris Davenport, the Freedom SL features overlap construction like a trad alpine boot and a walk mode that rivals the walkability of some lighter AT boots.
The Freedom's out of the box fit was excellent for my modestly wide feet and it's light compared to its competitors at 3 lb 13 oz (size 26). Scarpa publishes a 101mm wide last and it felt great on my feet from first fit. Up until this point, I have been using a Scarpa Mobe as my general purpose resort/sidecountry boot and it weighs in the same as the new Freedom SL, but that's where the similarities end. The Freedom SL offers more boot in ski mode and a much improved walk mode over the Mobe. Scarpa's specs say 27 degrees of cuff range - 7 back and 20 forward - and it feels great while skinning for a boot of its scale. The specs include details on the carbon fiber core design, which keeps the boot light. Foward lean is 14-degrees plus or minus 4-degrees of adjustability.
The boot also offers interchangable DIN/AT soles and a very nice heat formable Intuition liner. I'm not familiar with Sacrpa's older interchangable soles, but the new design is said to be - and appears to me - quite secure with a bolt-through connection. The AT sole is also tech binding compatible.
The whole package is enough for a jaded backcountry skier like myself to recognize the benefits of a stouter boot. I've had nothing but fun in these boots and believe Scarpa is right on the mark for uphill and downhill performance for skiers who prefer an alpine fit and feel in their boots. View Scarpa's specs for the new Freedom freeride boots. Next up: BD Factor MX and K2 Pinnacle 130.
We've just about wrapped up our annual ski testing for the season. This year we've been checking out backcountry ski offerings from Black Diamond, G3, Voile, DPS, Volkl, Kastle, K2, Dynastar, La Sportiva, Dynafit and Fat-ypus.
Dedicated backcountry skiers should be stoked to hear that everbody's offerings are lighter and more versatile than ever. Multiple companies (DPS, BD) are now using prepreg construction (versus wet lay up) where fiberglass or carbon fiber layers are pre-impregnated with epoxy resins. The approach is helping to make skis lighter by controlling resin amounts and the results are noticable.
There are also more companies offering variations on the five-point shape that DPS and others have helped to popularize where the widest points on the skis are further from the tip and tail than on a more traditionally sidecut ski.
105-115 (give or take a few mm) appears to be the biggest growth sector with several very fun boards fitting the category including the Voile V8, Black Diamond Convert, Dynastar Cham107, Dynafit Grand Teton and G3 Empress 115.
Our final testing wraps up this weekend and I'll post some specifics on several skis once we are done. In the meantine, here is a line-up of a few top picks. From left to right: Dynafit Grand Teton, DPS Wailer 112, Volkl V-Werks Katana, BD Convert, G3 Empress 115, Voile V8
Coffee and backcountry travel go hand in hand. Whether waking up inside a tent or simply between quality coffee outlets while road tripping, a good cup of coffee has a way of making everything better. Yes, I'm surely addicted and, like anygood addict, I'm always on the lookout for ways to get a quality fix on the road or in the hills. My latest find and the best quality portable espresso maker I have ever used is the Handpresso Wild.
This portable espresso maker uses pump action - much like a small bike pump - to build up pressure (16 bar) and delivers an impressively smooth shot of espresso. It is easy to use, quick to deliver and simple to clean. Adding to its backcountry and travel-friendly character is the fact that it only requires hot water and ground coffee to work, no power, no batteries. Hot water can be supplied by freshly boiled water from your camp stove or even hot water stored in a thermos. The Handpresso Wild works with your ground coffee of choice and with special espresso pods.
The specialty espresso pods produce a great shot of espresso and offer super easy clean up, but my preference is for ground coffee, so I am not always dependent on having specialty pods around. Either way, the process is simple:
Pump the Handpresso unit to 16 Bar
Fill the reservoir with hot water
Add coffee to filter basket or insert E.S.E Pod
Push pressure switch
Espresso is ready.
I've been making double and single americanos with great success. The shots are smooth and full of flavor with a healthy coating of crema for an authentic espresso experience. No electricity or batteries required, just hot water, coffee and your energy to pump the pressure.
The only real downside to the Handpresso Wild is its stout metal construction keeps it a bit on the heavy side at 18 ounces (510g), but it's a small price to pay for a civilized shot of espresso in the hills or on the road. The construction also speaks to the tool's durability and quality. It feels as up for adventure as it is ready to deliver quality espresso in the mountains.
If you can't find the Handpresso locally, you can support the mag with a purchase through amazon.
I spend a lot of time waxing skis, mounting bindings and doing basic ski tunes. Between keeping my skis ready to roll, setting up test gear and working on friends' gear, my bench sees use multiple times a week.
The width of skis exceeded the width of my ski vices years ago and I've tried a variety of ski tuning stands and racks for basic ski maintenance over the years.
My favorite off-the-shelf ski tuning stand is the Voile Ski /Board Tuning Tree. I saw these at Voile's booth during a tradeshow a few years ago. They were using them to display some splitboards. Turns out, they own the mold and sell them. They have become my daily use ski stand. The top platform is a full 12 inches across, so they feel rock solid and accomodate a pair of fat skis or a snowboard with ease. They are easy to set up - just clamp them to your workbench. The tops have grippy rubber pads to keep your skis from sliding and they offer a solid platform for waxing and mounting. There's even a slot for putting your boards on edge to do tuning work. The stands are easily removed for storage between uses. You can get them directly from Voile for $50. They are hard to beat for all-around ski maintenance versatility and easy storage.
My favorite do-it-yourself ski tuning bench uses a couple pieces of 2x6 lumber and old bike inner tubes. I built it on a portable bench that rolls around the garage as needed and, the way I built mine, it can handle a handful of skis at the same time. But it could easily be set up for a single pair of skis, too. It's great for when we're ski testing and have a fleet of skis to wax and bindings to adjust. It's also a convenient way to store skis.
Basically, I just mounted a couple of six foot 2x6's on edge along either side of a work bench. (The bench pictured is mobile bench that rolls around my garage as needed). I found the 2x6's better than 2x4's as they put the ski high enough above the bench top to allow clearance for any bindings when the skis are lying base up. I used 2x4's as braces to add stability to the 2x6 (see poto below). I screwed everything together and then screwed it to the bench top. The top edge of the 2x6 is covered with an old mountain bike inner tube to protect the skis and offer grip when scraping or otherwise pushing on the skis. The whole set-up is great for ski work, but it does impact the usablity of the bench for non-ski related work. You could easily set up your 2x6's to be removable for the off-season. To make a smaller, one ski version, just use shorter 2x's that don't run all the way accross your bench.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more skier than mountaineer and generally take powder dreams over summit fever. That said, as the cold snows of winter settle and spring ski mountaineering kicks into gear, a few essential tools find their way into my pack.
For years, I wondered why anyone would need ski crampons. Surely, if it is so hard that it requires crampons to ascend, why would I want to ski it was my thought. I was uninformed. The convenience and ease of ski crampons is hard to overstate when conditions are firm. Afterall, maybe it's the other side of the ridge that warrants the descent or the sun has yet to warm your line.
You'll find ski crampons for just about every AT binding on the market including Fritschis, Dynafits and the G3 Onyx. And for anything else, including telemark bindings, you can use a ski crampon from B and D Ski Gear.
Think of ski crampons as firm snow skinning accessories. They are designed to work in conjuction with skins and in terrain where booting is not warranted. My preference is for the type that pivot with your foot as you skin up the hill. Simple and lightweight, ski crampons save energy and give you added confidence in firm conditions.
There are certain conditions and terrain that require getting a little technical and strapping your skis to your pack, and nothing makes short work of steep, firm snow like a nice boot crampon. Because I am a skier first and mountaineer second, I see boot crampons as a short term solution to reach skiing. As a result, I believe crampons should be lightweight, easy to use and easy to pack. I've been using the Black Diamond Neve Pro boot crampons for a couple of seasons and they work great. You'll also find similar lightweight, aluminum boot crampons from Camp, Petzl and Grivel.
There is definitely a trade-off in durability when you move to an aluminum crampon, but personally, given the amount of use my crampons see, I’m happy to trade a little durability for the drop in weight from a steel model. Staying away from rocks with your aluminum crampons is a great way to help improve their lifespan. They can’t rival the durability of a steel crampon, but the Neve has proven durable enough for varied ski mountaineering use.
Lightweight Ice Axe
Finally, if you are travelling in steep and firm snow, an ice axe is lightweight insurance to help arrest a big slide and for maintaining balanced footing in precarious perches. An axe also doubles as an anchor for your gear, roped lowering and general delicate manuevering in firm snow. My axe stays on my pack more often than not, but when it comes time to transition between skis and crampons or to descend firm slopes, I will often break it out.
I've been using a Black Diamond Raven Ultra ice axe for multiple seasons. It features an aluminum shaft and a steel head - ideal for light-duty ski mountaineering use and it weighs an impressive 11 ounces.
March is here and our last print issue for the season is on the streets. The Granddaddy Couloir on the Icefields Parkway graces the cover (Ryan Creary photo) and inside you'll find tales of adventure from Norway to the Canadian Rockies, ode to a mountain dog and sharing the backcountry ski stoke with kids. Of course, the Grumpy Old Shop Guy weighs in too, this time with his opinion on gaper moments. Not a subscriber? Get with the program and subscribe to the print or digital version of Off-Piste Magazine.
With March, we can hope, comes consistent snowfall and good stability to fuel some epic spring touring. Maybe it's because the magazine work is behind us, but March and April often offer some of the best skiing of the season. So whether it's a trip to your local stash or a well-earned road trip, we recommend you get after it.
Spring is also a great time to score a deal on the skis that you've been eyeing all season. To aide in that effort, we've posted a link to our 2012 backcountry ski reviews to offer our take on the more backcountry-minded skis on the market.
The office ski fleet is flush with sweet backcountry powder boards this season and with a couple months of skiing under our belt, it's time to offer some insights. The full run down of skis includes three models that measure in at 112mm underfoot.: The G3 District, DPS Wailer 112 and Voile Charger.
I have been a fan of the Voile Charger since its inception, so I was excited to add a couple more skis with the same waist dimension for a little head-to-head testing. At this point, I've got the most time on the DPS Wailer 112, so here's the beta on it.
Ski: DPS Wailer 112 (carbon construction)
Weight: 7 lb 1 oz/pair
Binding: Dynafit Radical
Boot: Garmont Cosmos
The first thing to strike me with the DPS was its light weight. It weighs in lighter than the DPS specs by several ounces and given its healthy width, it is noticably light to the hand and foot.
I mounted them in the neutral boot center location, which leaves a fair bit of ski out front. Given my modest size and weight (135lb), I was curious to see how the ski handled. Any concerns I had that perhaps the 178cm was a little long for me were immediately dispelled upon taking them on their first tour. The Wailer 112 is incredibly responsive and forgiving, yet ever so capable.
The 112 delivers incredible turning ease and backs it up with stability and confidence in all terrain. The ski is the definition of playful and easy going, yet it steps up to the conditions and terrain as needed. Low angle meadow skipping through the pow - check. Big radius powder turns in the alpine - check. Fast short swing turns on steep terrain - check. The 112 is as versatile as it is bright yellow in color.
Despite my questioning the ski's tip length, the 112 is balanced and easy to engage. The tips are easy to drive and keep the ski floating through everything that comes their way. This is one forgiving ski. I'd compare it to the Charger when it comes to ease of engagement, turn shape variety and the ability to ride it out. But I'll give it a slightly more surfy feel than the Charger when it comes to turn finish and full-speed big radius arcs.
It also tours well, walking the line between fat and light very nicely. Breaking trail is easy on the thighs thanks to the ski's generous tip rocker and wide dim's without a significant weight penalty.
Every time I switch back to the Wailer 112 after skiing another ski, I wonder if it will shine as brightly, and it does. I have yet to ski it at the resort or in any truly challenging snow conditions, but I'm confident it will rise to the occasion.
Adjustable ski poles: K2 LockJaw and Black Diamond Carbon
Ski poles may well just be a mundane necessity in your ski life, but for those of us obsessed with our backcountry ski gear, finding the right pole is akin to dialing in any of the more glamorous pieces of gear: there's fit (grip), ease and security of adjustability, durability, multifunction applications (probe, measuring tool) and the all-important and elusive perfect swing weight.
While a couple of these characteristics are somewhat subjective or personal in nature - grip fit and swing weight - the other details are pretty quantifiable. Here's a look at a couple of new poles on the market that have been making the rounds in the office this season.
K2 LockJaw carbon/aluminum ski pole: In keeping with K2's multifunction theme for their Backside tools, the K2 LockJaw pole offers several cool features to help set it apart from the crowded field of adjustable ski poles. First, the lower shafts (aluminum on the model we tested) are easily joined to form a 200cm emergency probe. Second, the upper shaft (carbon fiber on the model we tested) is marked at 5cm intervals to offer measurement up to 50cm for checking surface snow depth. Third, and most unique, at the base of one grip there's a small bubble inclinometer calibrated to measure between 30 and 45 degrees (highest hazard angle for avalanches).
The pole's adjustment mechanism, a basic cam, is easily opened and closed with gloved hands and has proven to work flawlessly on its factory setting thus far, including on a seven-day hut trip. The mechanism is adjustable without tools should you need to tighten or loosen it.
The all-important grip gets a thumbs up from everyone, and its ergonomic shape is very similar to my all-time favorite ski pole grip on the Life-Link Carbon Pro pole. Straps are adjustable and comfortablebut, personally, I don't use straps. Swing weight gets a general nod as well, though with aluminum lowers, they're not quite as agile as the all carbon model. The carbon/aluminum model comes in at $140 and weighs a respectable 302 grams.
Black Diamond Carbon Probe Ski Pole: BD debuts their new FlickLock Pro mechanism on these poles and it's excellent - a nice upgrade from the previous version. It's easy to work with gloved fingers and there's no adjustment feature to change over time. It has proven flawless in its function thus far, including during a seven-day hut trip experience.
The lower shaft is a 16mm carbon fiber design, while the upper is 17mm aluminum. Like most adjustable poles, the BD carbon pole converts into an emergency probe. At 1.8 meters long it's not quite a replacement for a dedicated probe, but it is better than not having one at all.
BD put some design thought into the grip to create a nice lip on the top to aide in various binding adjustments like flipping heel lifters and locking tech-binding toes. It's a nice touch that helps reduce time dinking with gear and bending over to reach bindings. On the comfort front, the grip is nice and grippy and, although at first grab it seamed less ergonomic than my Life Link Carbon Pros, it has served everyone well. Swing weight is good, and the pole weighs in identically to the K2 at 302 grams and is priced at $130.
Both the BD and K2 poles offer easy and reliable adjustability in the field and solid service for backcountry and resort skiing. K2 gets the nod for adding small features like calibrated length on the upper shaft and the nifty bubble inclinometer. It would be nice to see the inclinometer go down to 25-degrees, but I can see that space dictated the scale. I'd also like to see removale straps, but I think I'm in the minority on this feature.
Basically, you can't go wrong with either model. If you like to measure snow depth and gauge slope angle, the K2 has an edge, but from a durability and touring functionality perspective, both work great.
Skin glue does not last forever. It gets dirty, it gets patchy and it can get gooey. All of these problems leave your skins performing poorly, and there's nothing like lame skin glue to wreck an otherwise excellent day of skiing.
There are several ways to improve or renew the glue on your skins: retouching with a tube of Black Diamond Gold Label glue and the dreaded full re-glue with iron-on sheets are probably the most common approaches.
In a recent e-mail exchange with Rick Lui at ClimbingSkinsDirect, Rick shared a tip he offers in the FAQ section of his website - reactivating your old glue (Rick was a founding partner in the original Ascension Skins company and an expert on matters climbing skin related).
Basically, he suggests simply running an iron on medium heat directly over the glue surface to reactivate and renew your old glue. Here's how Rick describes the process on ClimbingSkinsDirect.com :
Reactivating the glue is easy to do with a waxing iron.
Heat the iron to a medium heat.
Clamp the skin firmly to a flat surface.
Lightly place the iron on the glue surface.
Be careful not to push the glue, but just let the iron gently float across the surface leaving a "wet look".
If the glue has a lot of water in it, you will see the glue "foam up" and sizzle as the water evaporates.
If the glue has just lost it's stickiness the melting will drive the contaminates into the glue, and bring fresh glue to the surface allowing the glue molecules to spring back to their original (tacky) shape.
If the problem was just lumpy glue, this method will restore the surface for better contact and adhesion.
Intrigued with the idea and in need of some skins to fit my daughter's skis, I thought I'd give it a try on a pair of skins that I'd previously given up as in need of a full re-glue. The old glue was lumpy, dirty and gooey. I was amazed at how well the iron took care of the problem. I was even able to thin out the glue distribution - I felt the skins simply had too much glue on them. Rick does caution against pushing the glue around, but I found a little redistribution and removal helped my skins dramatically.
The process was far easier than a full reg-glue and the results great. I heated the glue base multiple times with the iron set on medium heat. Each pass improved the glue surface and ultimately renewed the skins to functional form! The iron brought back the shiny glue surface, eliminated all bare spots and clumps, and helped to push contaminants off to the side for easy removal. I let them cure for 24 hours and they have seen seven or eight days of use thus far.
I highly recommend this process before undertaking a full re-glue!
Dysfunctional climbing skins are frustrating but most issues can be overcome in the field or, better yet, eliminated completely with proper skin care and use. The following climbing skin care tips will help keep your skins doing what they do best, going uphill.
1. Dry skin glue is happy skin glue. Keep the glue side of your skins out of the snow and dirt.
2. If your glue becomes covered with snow, you can clean them off by running the glue side of the skin across the edge of your ski. Hold one end of the skin
in each hand and pull it across the ski edge (ski standing upright).
3. Maintenance is the key to keeping your skins functioning well all day. Normally, it is the tips or tails of the skin that first develop snow buildup. Check your skins during transitions, and clean any snow from the glue as needed before the buildup becomes a problem. If the glue becomes iced to the point that it fails, scrape as described above and stuff skins inside your jacket or base layers for the descent.
4. Given significant glue problems, a few wraps of athletic tape (or a Voile strap) around the skin and ski can work wonders for keeping your skins working until you get home.
5. Dry skin plush is happy skin plush. In wet snow conditions and warm spring tours, skins can absorb water causing snow to clump on the plush. Treat your skins with skin wax like BD Glop Stopper (apply in the field), or use a skin-specific waterproofing treatment like BD's Free Glide Skin Care (apply the night before). Consider doing this at the start of each season as a preventative step.
6. Always hang and dry skins at the end of the day. Be sure to hang them in a dust free area and away from direct heat. Pet hair, pine needles, dirt and hot wood stoves will shorten the life of your skin glue. If drying skins near a direct heat source, take them down as soon as they are dry and put them away. This will extend glue life.
7. Store your skins between trips folded glue to glue and tucked into their bag. For long term storage, use the glue saver or cheat sheets that now come standard with many brands, and store them in a cool dry place away from direct heat.
8. Skins climb best if they run almost edge to edge, often called wall to wall carpeting. However, it is important to leave at least the width of your edge exposed to allow for edging in firm snow conditions. With today's wide skis, you can get away with wall to wall underfoot and less so in the tip and tail. A general guideline for buying skins is to purchase skins that are approximately 10mm narrower than your tip dimensions. Trim the skins to reveal at least the width of your metal edge, if not twice the width.
next up - restoring your glue without the dreaded full re-glue
The internet is a buzz with news of the new Dynafit Beast freeride binding. Just as Dynafit has been reaching toward the broader freeride market with their beefier boots and skis, the new Dynafit Beast AT Binding is an obvious move to pick up big mountain and more mainstream skiers looking for more than the standard Dynafit binding.
Here's a few specs and images of the binder, but to get the full scoop, see what Lou Dawson from Wildsnow has to say in the vid clip below:
Specs: 935g each (1870g pair); 2 lb 1 oz each (4 lb 2 oz pair)
Marker, well respected in the alpine binding scene, first launched into the backcountry ski market with their popular Duke AT binding. The Duke filled the need for a stout, alpine-style AT binding nicely but, at six pounds a pair, few touring purists have sought it out as a dedicated touring tool. Understanding that not everyone is a Duke customer, Marker developed a lighter weight binding revolving around the same design structure as the Duke and the Marker Tour F12 and F10 alpine touring bindings were born - the 10 and 12 refer to max din settings.
Using a hollow core frame, lightweight hollow spindles in the heel and toe units along with other features, Marker effectively dropped two pounds off the Duke. In fact, the Tour F12 weighs in at just under four pounds (3 lb 15 oz -size small), giving it the distinction of being the lightest of the step-in, alpine style touring bindings.
The 2012 Tour F12 reflects several design improvements from the original Tour series models. Most importantly, Marker has improved the toe pivot system for increased durability. The new toe pivot axle is stouter and includes Teflon bushings. The earlier version was adequate for occasional touring use, but skiers logging many heavy hours in tour mode saw some wear in the original design. The new system appears to have addressed the issue.The 2012 model also adds a couple of anti-icing features to keep the toe pivot snow-free.
I have a limited amount of time on the new binding, but have had excellent results. It has been glitch-free. As a long-time tech binding user, stepping up to the bulk of the Tour F12 is a change for sure but, from a functionality perspective, it works great.
I see the Marker Tour series bindings as a solid choice for skiers looking for a touring set-up offering the familiarity of a step-in binding or anyone looking for a binding that is equally at home at the ski hill as it is the skin track.
The F12's design requires that you remove it for each uphill/downhill transition. The transition lever sits under the boot sole and actually shifts the binding back four centimeters to release it from its heel plate. The heal plate attachment creates a solid foundation when in ski mode, and the four centimeter-shift in tour mode helps to offer a good balance point for kick turns and such when in tour mode.
The real beauty of the binding though is its step in ease and alpine like familiarity with the best weight of the various step-in style binders on the market.
I got a close look at the Plum tech-binding last week when Ian Reid, director of the North American distribution stopped by to give me the full tour. The finely machined binding goes head to head with tech-binding offerings from Dynafit, G3 and La Sportiva.
I was able to spend several days on the Plum Guide (one of three different models including freeride and race versions) last season. Functionally, it skis great. The Guide offered everything I've come to expect from a tech binding with no added fanfare. It's pure and simple in its approach: quality craftmanship and tried-n-true design. The toe unit mirrors the basic Dynafit design and functionality of the venerable TLT, while the heel unit follows the basic "volcano" design. This year's bindings include small design revisions, but big picture functionality is unchanged.
What sets the Plum apart? Aside from the binding's lightweight (670g/pair for the Guide), the craftmanship is the first thing you will notice. The machining and finish yield an elegent look and feel. Next, comes its simplicity. Going over the binding with Ian, I dissassembled (and reassembled) the heel unit in mere minutes with a single torx screwdriver. There is no crazy spring explosion when you open the heel; it's clean and simple inside and features precision parts. Plum has simplified the interior components and design of the whole binding to offer easy field servicablity and the ability to replace virtually every component from toe arm to heel pin.
Born out of rando racing, Plum introduced the more everday user model, the Guide, last season. This season, comes their new Yak or freeride targeted model. The Yak adds a mounting plate front and back that widens the binding mount to 50mm (30mm is standard width). The idea is to appeal to users of wide skis and freeride boots by offering a stouter mount and less ramp angle by raising the toe-piece to create a boot ski interface better suited to the flatter sole designs of a freeride boot. The Yak also adds a heel pad to support the boot while touring. Of course, the Yak is a little heavier but so are fat skis. The Yak looks cool but, personally, I see the Guide as the model of choice for most skiers.
You probably also noticed the lack of brakes. Although not a big deal for many skiers, Plum recognizes the importance of brakes and is finalizing the design and patent on their brake now. According to Ian, the brake mounts behind the toe unit and we should see it soon. By mounting the brake behind the toe, Plum avoids the problem of upward pressure on the heel unit, which can affect releasability. Learn more about the Plum tech binding at their website and look for the binding at your local speciality retailer.
I like simple solutions to problems, and we recently came across a simple little product that addresses the age-old problem of leaning your skis against the car, only to watch them topple over like dominos. The Ski Bumper is a magnetic rubber strip that offers added purchase for your skis when resting against the side of your car.
It's nothing fancy (that's a compliment), and it works. The flexible rubber strip is backed with a magnet that runs its full length. I've been storing mine in the ski box, pulling it out and sticking it to the car before I pull the skis out. Simple, effective and a bargain at $15 - a small price to avoid the inevitable scratches and dings... check it out on sportbumper.com.
K2 just sent out a sneak peek of their new ski boot line and it includes two touring models - the Pinnacle 110 and Pinnacle 130 (number references boot flex). The boots look pretty downhill centric, but we are stoked to check them out. Sounds like first real glimpse will be in January or February 2013 with a retail launch slated for fall 2013.
Here are the details from K2 . . .
Using the All-Mountain boot design as a platform, K2 backs up its dedication...
I'm not much of a packaged energy bar user. I must have eaten too many back in the day. I eat them now and then - usually when I'm tapped out of food and the only thing available from a kind touring partner is a standard Clif bar or similar. I tend to travel with regular food and use the occasional gu or gel when desperate for a few calories to get me back to the barn. Recently, however, I got a box of Pro Bars to test. I had not seen or tasted these bars before, so I read the ingredient list and put them alongside a few gear items in the "to-be-tested" cabinet.
I've grabbed and eaten a few different flavors of Pro Bar now and, to my pleasant surprise, they're pretty darn good. They are definitely more real-food like than any other energy bar I have eaten in the past few years. The all-organic ingredient list full of real, pronouncable items and the flavors I've sampled thus far actually taste great, including an unlikley (in my mind) cocoa pistachio flavor. The whole berry is my favorite so far.
They are still energy bars, but the overall texture and taste is step above the routine options on the market. Pro Bars get my endorsement!
If you are keen to try 'em. PROBAR is offering a one-time 40% discount using the following link. Just enter the discount code “BLOGGER” when you buy directly from PROBAR at theprobar.com/shop
Each season here at the office, we look forward to a host of new and innovative backcountry ski gear. I can always guage the local ski fever by the number of people hitting me up for ski gear advice, and the talk is rampant at the moment as the first turns of the year are now a reality for many.
To help fuel the fire, here is a peak at the Off-Piste office quiver for the season and some beta on each ski. From left to right: Altai Hok, Dynafit Manaslu, Prior Husume XTC, Voile Charger, DPS Wailer 112, Dynafit Huascaran, Black Diamond Carbon Megawatt.
BD Carbon Megawatt - 147/120/126 - The modern, surfy dimensions and generous tip and tail rocker of the venerable Megawatt meet Black Diamond’s lightweight Free Tour construction in the Carbon Megawatt. The result is a big radius powder hog that weighs in at an impressive four pounds per ski (178cm).The overall feel of the Carbon Megawatt is smooth with a bias for big radius arcs - quintessential big platform fun without the weight penalty. The Carbon Megawatt combines the buttery ride of big ski with the responsive feel of lightweight construction.
DPS Wailer 112RP - 141/112/128 - The Wailer 112 is right up there with the Voile Charger and the Dynafit Huascaran vying for the lightest weight rockered powder ski award. It maintains its own lively and stable personality while laying down sweeping turns and agile maneuverability. It weighs in at an impressive 3 lb 8 oz (178cm) per ski. The Wailer 112 is remarkably responsive to variety of styles - from quick turns in the trees to big surfy smears in the alpine - quintessesntial new school powder fun.
Dynafit Huascaran - 134/112/123 - The Huascaran takes Dynafit’s light is right mantra to modern rocker shape. They weigh in at 3 lb 12 oz each (177cm) and have a great combination of stability and playfulness for such a light ski. It serves up a smooth ride and maximum flotation but somewhat less surfy than say the Wailer.
Voile Charger – 137/112/126 - We've had the Charger in our quiver for a full season plus and its reputation as a lightweight and playful touring ski is well earned. The ski is agile, responsive to a variety of ski styles and floats with the best. To quote last year’s review “the Charger makes you feel like you can do no wrong”.
Prior Husume (XTC construction) 2011 model - 137/109/124 - Crafted in Whistler BC, the Husume is one of those unique skis that does it all with a stable and fun personality. Our ski is a 2011 model. The 2013 model adds a few mm throughout the skis width. Modest tip and tail rocker give it a playful ride, while it still offers an impressive degree of groomer ripping performance. It’s an ideal blend of smear-friendly soft snow performance and a more traditional round arc ripper.
Dynafit Manaslu - 122/95/108 - Few skis have hung tight in our quiver like the Manaslu. It’s not the biggest stick on the block, or the burliest. But it serves up remarkably consistent results in the backcountry. The dimensions, tip rocker, and performance of the Manaslu have defined a category, all-mountain touring. The Manaslu can handle it all. From spring ski mountaineering to knee-deep blower, the ski rises to the occasion.
Altai Hok – 124/110/122 - The Hok is quite different from the rest of the quiver. It’s only 145cm long and features an integrated climbing skin on the base. It’s part nordic ski and part adventure tool. The concept was inspired by the skiers and ski shapes found in Central Asia’s Altai Mountain region. Ours is mounted with a three-pin binding and makes an idylic tool when the object of the day to is to explore. Touring on the Hok (especially with a single wooden tyak) has its own unique feel and pace. They are light and foster a great go-anywhere attitude. The Hok fills a niche more like a nordic ski, but with the bonus versatility of a wide platform for deep snow travel and great climbing ability.
Headlamps are easy insurance when ski touring and downright indispensable when it comes to general camping. They have also have come a long way thanks to LED technology. LED’s burn brighter, longer and use less power - a perfect combination for small headlamps. The next best thing to happen to headlamps is rechargeable battery systems.
Hands down one of the best small headlamps on the market is the Petzl Tikka XP2 with the CORE rechargeable battery. The XP2 is small enough to take anywhere and bright enough to facilitate real activity. With a single button, the XP2 offers two beam intensities, one high and one low, and a wide angle diffuser that turns either beam into a broad light beam for map reading or general use. In addition, the light offers a strobe mode and can toggle to a red LED (strobe or continuous).
Petzl’s new CORE rechargeable battery system uses a small Lithium Ion Polymer battery and is compatible with the Tikka headlamps. The CORE battery snaps into place on the back of the headlamp and can be charged via any standard USB charger. The unique piece of the CORE battery is that, when charged with a computer, the battery can be programmed with Petzl’s free software, Petzl OS, to perform as you like. The software lets you regulate power based on burn time. You can set it for regulated light intensity for the life of the charge or go for the slow fade to maximize battery life. The software is super easy to use, and you can save different battery profiles. For example, you can have a dawn patrol setting where you get full intensity for a short period. For longer adventures, you can maximize burn time at a moderate brightness level. Each profile can be saved for future use.
The CORE battery retains full functionality for 300 charge cycles (beyond that, its capacity is approximately 30% lower than its initial capacity). It is equivalent to more than 900 AAA batteries!
We've got new Off-Pistelogo ski scrapers this season for your ski waxing and cleaning pleasure. Of course, scrapers are must-have items for home waxing benches, but they are also under utalized as all purpose field tools.
I always keep a scraper handy in the pocket of my touring pants. You never know when your bases, boots or skins may suffer a litte snow or ice build up, and a pocket-sized ski scraper is the perfect fix to the problem.
Our scrapers are 2 inch x 5 inch - big enough to scrape wax off those new powder boards, yet small enough to keep handy in your pack or pocket. Treat yourself and your ski pals to a our custom scrapers. Your ski bases will be glad you did.
Good deal $6 each. Better deal two for $11. Best deal four for $20.
My kids are reaching the age where backcountry adventure is evolving from a tag-along activity to where they share the enthusiasm, and we have reached the critical stage where we need a functional backpack as opposed to a glorified book bag.
Enter the Deuter Fox 30 backpack. The Fox 30 is a scaled down version of Deuter's Aircontact pack line and offers adjustability, suspension and features worthy of backcountry travel and overnight adventure. It's a traditional toploader with a lower zip panel for easy acces to the bottom of the pack.
The suspension and back panel use the same Alpine Back system as Deuter's adult packs. The shoulder harness adjusts to accomodate a range of torso lengths and for future growth of the user. From the looks of the set-up, we should be able to get multiple seasons of use out of the pack as my daughter grows.
At 30 liters, the volume is just right for packing a light overnight load. The pack holds a sleeping bag, assorted clothes and there's still room for trail food and various "must-have" items. The Fox 30 is also hydration bladder compatible. At this point in my kids' adventure life, I'm still the guy carrying the tent and cooking gear, so there's no need for a monster pack for my kids. The smaller size of the Fox 30 means it doubles as a day hike pack, too. From my daughter's perspective, she is most excited about the bottom compartment zip acccess, the daisy chains and the side zip pockets for storing odds and ends, and we can't forget abot the color.
It's great to see enthusiasm for the backcountry from my kids, and keeping them comfortable is a key ingredient to the equation. Deuter delivers just enough tech features and, in my daughter's words, "real backpack" style to make for a functional kids' backpack that really performs like its adult counterparts.
Avalanches are a backcountry skier's worst nightmare, and the three basics - beacon, shovel and probe - have long been considered required equipment for responsible ski touring in avalanche terrain. There is no question that evolving beacon technology has made searching more efficient, and that continued innovation in avalanche safety gear is providing skiers with more options to stack survival odds in their favor. Although not exactly a companion rescue tool on par with the three basics, the advent of the Avalung and now airbag packs is aimed at improving your chances for survival in the event of a slide. Whether you see them as self-preservation devices or essential avalanche safety tools, these packs are growing in popularity thanks to user-friendly and lightweight design improvements.
The Avalung, originally launched as a standalone sling worn over your shell, has become a familiar site among backcountry skiers of all levels thanks to its clean and affordable integration into the Black Diamond ski pack line. Avalungs add an additional layer of safety in the event of a slide without impacting the overall design, functionality or fit of Black Diamond’s packs.
Following several high profile avalanche incidents last season, the next wave of avalanche safety devices to gain momentum is the airbag pack. Although they come with a significantly bigger price tag ($700+) than a standard ski pack or even an Avalung pack ($200+), airbag pack design has made significant strides in reducing weight and complexity of the system over the past couple of seasons. Although I recognize the value of the technology and its ability to save lives, I have, to some extent, written off airbags as devices most compatible with mechanized operations – heli ski, snow cat operations. That is until the newest crop of packs has begun to show that weight and ski touring functionality are beginning to gain design importance as the technical aspects of the system become smaller and more refined.
The latest crop of airbag packs is lighter and more touring-friendly than ever. We’ll have a good look at several of the new airbag packs in the mag this season. The first pack to arrive in the office is the 2012 BCA Float 32. I have had a little experience with an earlier pre-production version, and the new Float 32 is significantly lighter (about 2 lbs) and cleaner in its design than our previous sample. The new pack weighs around 6 lbs, and is remarkably "normal" in its appearance and layout, save for the airbag components tucked into their spaces. Usable pack volume is 32 liters, hence the name Float 32, and there’s a dedicated pocket for shovel and probe, a generous zip pocket for goggles or other small essentials and one large main compartment.
From a usable pack standard, it’s clean, simple and offers the essentials for day touring. The airbag system has been dramatically streamlined from previous models, and this accounts for some of the pack's overall weight reduction. Further weight reduction comes from the pack’s seemingly regular construction in contrast with the burly, apparently over-built construction of earlier models. The pack is a little long in the torso for me, but at 5' 6" on a tall day, one could argue that I'm a little short in the torso.
One of the standout features of the BCA Float packs is that BCA’s airbag system uses compressed air rather than nitrogen or CO2 gas found in other systems. The Float's compressed air system is easily recharged at outdoor shops around the world. BCA also uses a simple mechanical trigger versus an explosively charged one-shot system.
More details to follow as we get more packs in the office and get dialed in on all of the details.
The selection of lightweight alpine touring boots available gets better every year. What passed for light four or five years ago now pales in comparison to the boots headed to store shelves next season.
We gathered a good collection of three and four buckle boots from Black Diamond, Garmont, Dynafit, Scarpa, La Sportiva and even Tecnica for a little uphill and downhill comparison testing last week. The number of buckles on a given boot is less category defining than it used to be. Most of these boots are aimed at all-around backcountry skiing and for use with good-sized modern touring skis.
Here's the line-up of boots skied:
Dynafit One PX
Black Diamond Quadrant
Black Diamond Prime
Black Diamond Swift
Scarpa Maestral RS
La Sportiva Sideral
La Sportiva Spitfire
Tecnica Cochise Light Pro
The La Sportiva boots are really the only boots here not aimed at the general touring market. The Sideral and Spitfire come from the rando-racing end of the spectrum, yet they still proved to be very skiable. We paired them with a Dynafit Manaslu ski and it was a great combo. One boot absent from this test group is the Dynafit TLT5. I hope to get time on them this month.
Every one of the boots we skied has a generous walk mode. We found that when a boot shows 60-degrees of walk range, much of the range is found in the cuff hinging backward, and as hard as we tried to figure out when that might be important, short of rando racing with really big strides, it seams more like a marketing tool than actual functionality. The Tecnica Cochise Light Pro came in with the most limited walk mode. It walked ok, but when compared to the very walk oriented cuffs of the others, it was the least forgiving. It was also probably them most alpine boot like in downhill performance (no suprises there), still it is respectably light at 3.28kg/pair.
The Garmont Cosmos, a brand new boot for 2012, offered a great blend of natural walking flex, progressive tongue flex in ski mode and downhill performance. Its fit is also a little bigger volume than say the Dynafit or Scarpa boots. It mostly closely resembled the comfortable fit of my Scarpa Spirt 4's, but is almost a pound per boot lighter!
The new Dynafit boots are a strong continuation of their existing line. Moving to a three buckle system where the upper buckle releases the cuff for touring, the One and Mercury felt very capable of driving bigger skis while keeping thier weights very close to 3 kg/pair.
BD's boots appear unchanged on the outside aside form the new colors, but they all sport new, updated liners. They still use the Boa lacing system, but feature all new foam materials. The Prime remains a solid all mountain performer, while the Quadrant was the burliest of the boots tested, and can clearly drive any ski. The Prime, like the Garmont Cosmos, has a nice progressive flex to the tongue and still holds its own in ski mode.
The Maestrale series offer very respectable weights, great freedom of movement in walk mode and a stiff downhill feel given stout tongue designs. The unique foldover toungue entry has withstood a season of abuse without issue, so although we were a little warry of the design when first unveiled in 2011, it has proven to work great.
Dynafit just released the following letter addressing some issues that have arisen with the Radical AT bindings. Although our bindings have been working great, there have apparantly been some issues with the heel unit. Read on . . .
"Dynafit has seen a recent increase in the number of Radical binding climbing aid breakages reported by our dealers and consumers. We take these reports very seriously and have looked into it extensively, both in Europe and in America. The good news is the problem does not appear to be a serial or safety issue.At this point, the problem is being seen in a very limited number of cases (0.17% of all Radical bindings sold to date).It is not a safety concern when the climbing aid breaks. But, we regret every single case and are super sorry as we know how challenging it is to be in the backcountry with broken gear.
In researching the cause, we have determined a small number of the climbing aids are experiencing “hydrogen embrittlement” that causes the metal plate in the climbing aid apparatus to be weaker than designed. For you engineers out there, here is the definition of Hydrogen embrittlement: “the process by which various metals, most importantly high-strength steel, become brittle and fracture following exposure to hydrogen. Hydrogen embrittlement is often the result of unintentional introduction of hydrogen into susceptible metals during forming or finishing operations.”Hydrogen embrittlement cannot be completely excluded from the manufacturing process, but we have improved our production process to further reduce cases of this happening.This production change is in place for all future production.
Dynafit stands behind our products 100%, and we will work with our dealers to replace and repair all affected bindings at no charge to the dealer or consumer. If you have experienced this problem, please contact Dynafit customer service at 303-444-0446 or email@example.com.We will issue a return authorization to repair any broken climbing aids or send the necessary parts at no cost under warranty.
And rest assured, we will continue to monitor the issue very closely.We appreciate your attention to this matter.And as always, we appreciate your support."
Not long ago Dynafit was best known for their lightweight alpine touring bindings and a quiver of rando-racer skis with, literally, narrow appeal. With the launch of the Manaslu a few years ago and then the Stoke, Dynafit began turning heads in the broader North American backcountry ski market. The Manaslu is still one of our top picks for a quiver-of-one backcountry ski. Dynafit's latest ski, the Huascaran, is their widest ski to date and measures in at 134/115/125mm (186cm). It also features generous tip rocker, mild tail rocker and camber under foot. Construction is a blend of bamboo, paulownia, and synthetic core material just like the Manaslu and Stoke, and it'll be available in 167,177,186 and 196cm lengths.
Although our organized ski testing has yet to begin, I had the chance to actually tour on the new Dynafit Huascaran on a recent trip to visit the crew at North Cascade Heli and North Cascades Mountain Guides. We used the heli to bump out in the morning, but filled our days with touring (more on that shortly). As a big fan of the Manaslu but less so of the Stoke, I was not sure what to expect from the Huascaran. It's significantly wider than the Manaslu and has far more rocker than the Stoke.
Turns out, the Huascaran skis great. Its personality is much closer to the Manaslu than it is to the Stoke, in my estimation. It initiates turns easily and proved happy to mix up the radius size. You'd expect it to ride nicely in big open terrain, but the surprise was how well it noodled through treed terrain with very little effort or change in driver style. It has a great natural feel to it, regardless of what type of terrain or turn comes its way. I was really pleased with its performance. Sometimes you get on a ski that just turns down the hill the way you want it to without any get-aquainted period. The Huascaran did just that; it responded happily to all terrain and turns.
Given the Huascaran's 115mm waist, I still see it as a deep snow quiver ski. Yeah, yeah, I know that plenty of skiers choose 115 (or bigger) as daily drivers, but I still advocate 90's and low 100's for all-mountain skis.
A couple of other points worth mentioning include that the Huascaran weighs in at a svelt (for its width) 8 lb/pair (3.65 kg). You can compare that to other backcountry ski weights here. A final point of interest is the Huascaran will not include the Dynafit binding inserts like the Manaslu or Stoke. It will have a traditional deck to accomodate any binding, freeheel or fixed. In fact, Dynafit will be phasing out the insert technology in 2012-13.
Better late than never, it looks like winter is kicking back into gear in the Northwest. Recent storm cycles have give our snowpack a badly needed boost, and backcountry ski conditions are back in top form. The above photo set is from a recent backcountry tour in Idaho.
For those of you still looking for new skis, now is the time as retailers are ready to unload there gear after a slow start to the ski season. Here is our 2011 backcountry ski review to help you hone in on the right backcountry ski for your needs. Happy reading.
Continuing with new AT boot , there are several more new boots worthy of further research. Garmont unveiled the new Cosmos four-buckle AT boot (women's version is Celeste). Paul Parker, Garmont's boot design consultant, gave us the full tour of the new boot, and we were impressed. It proved to be the lightest four-buckle AT boot at the show. The new Dyanfit boots are light too, but the new series are three-buckle styles. Garmont is moving back to traditional tongue construction from recent overlap designs like found the Radium. The Garmont Cosmos offers great cuff range (60 degrees), and the cuff mechanism stands out as a nice piece of engineering. It should translate to nice skinning. There are two forward lean positions (11.5 and 13). All of this comes in a boot, according to Parker, built to drive today's big skis. The boot uses Grilamid (polyamide) in the body to give it its power. Grilamid was the new catch phrase plastic in the boot world at the show - characteristics like lighter and stiffer than PU/Pbex were being thrown around. The bottom line is that the Cosmos appears to be nice bridge between lightweight racer-style boots and stouter freeride boots.
Not to be outdone, the Scarpa alpine touring boot collection includes a good looking new four-buckle boot, too - the Maestrale RS. Although not quite as light as the Cosmos, the RS is only a few ounces heavier and claims asimilar flex rating (120ish). Flex ratings seem to be all over the board, so i am not real inclined to use them to make comparisons. The Maestrale RS has 40-degree cuff range and big ski driving power.
The new Garmont and Scarpa AT boots look like great candidates for touring minded skiers who like to drive big skis. Once we can get samples in something beyond the tradeshow 27.5 testers, we'll put some time in and post more beta. It looks like we will do a full four-buckle AT boot review in the mag for 2012.
One of the growing sectors of the backcountry gear market is airbag or ABS packs. There are now several players in the airbag market. Two of the big players, Backcountry Access and Mammut are definitely working to make them lighter and more appealing to human powered users.
My initial response to airbag packs has been that they are great for mechanized operations - heli and snowcat operations - but that the added weight and cost is a stretch for most backcountry skiers. The new packs are definitely begining to become more appealing, at least on the weight front. The cost is still high at $700+.
The packs are, however, proving to save lives. Check out this video of a snowboarder caught in sizeable slide who walks away thanks to his BCA Float Airbag Pack.
For the first time in a few years there were several new telemark ski bindings at the trade show. G3 debuted two fully redesigned telemark bindings, the Enzo and Enzo R.
The G3 Enzo marks a new era in G3 telemark bindings. It includes a free-pivot for touring and adjustable settings to tune performance from active to neutral in feel. The new set-up blends features and design styles found on other freeheel bindings and addresses icing/snow build-up in tour mode as well as the demand for powerful bindings to match today's powerful boots and big skis. It weighs in at 3.82 lb/pair and will retail for $290.
The G3 Enzo R is a resort-specific version of the Enzo that drops the free-pivot touring mode and adds an additional active/neutral performance setting but retains the same underfoot cable/cartridge system. It is a little lighter than the Enzo at 3.7 lb/pair and will retail at $225.
Black Diamond's telemark binding line-up is mostly unchanged, but the BD 01 has a redesigned mounting pattern that adds two screws to the mounting pattern to address the demands of big boots and powerful skiers.
There is also big news on the NTN front. Rottefella introduced the new NTN Freedom binding. The Freedom puts design and power of the NTN system into a binding designed for ski touring. The NTN Freedom is lighter weight and offers an increased range of motion for touring in its free-pivot mode.The new binding weighs in at 3.25 lb/pair - 1.25 lbs less than the standard NTN. It's a welcome addition to the NTN line-up.
Perhaps, the most impressive offering of gear at the show was the number of new Alpine Touring boots. Not only did the usual suspects like Dynafit, Scarpa and Garmont have multiple new offerings, but alpine boot strong holds like Tecnica even showed a new lightweight tech-compatible boot.
The biggest growth in boot designs is in lightweight four-buckle alpine touring boots and ultra-light randonee racing style boots. Here are some highlights starting with Dynafit boots:
Showing a staggering seven new boots (including women’s models), Dynafit gets the prize for the most comprehensive new boot offering. The big news here is that Dynafit has taken the one-buckle cuff and 60-degree cuff movement technology found in their lightweight TLT5 boots and integrated it into a full line of AT boots called the Dynafit One series and two new freeride boots called the Vulcan and Mercury. The TLT5 boots are ultra-light race minded boots that have gained momentum with the touring crowd given their great walk mode and light construction. The downside has been in fit and comfort. Dynafit's new boot offerings obviously target the comfort and more aggressive freeride user using the same lightweight and walk-friendly systems of the TLT5.
At the top of the collection is the Dynafit Vulcan - a carbon-cuffed, three-buckle boot that touts four-buckle power and a 1590-gram weight. The Mercury uses a fiberglass reinforced cuff, but is otherwise the same design as the Vulcan. These two boots, and the One series, all build on the TLT5 design adding a more comfortable fit, more substantial moldable liner, a taller cuff and the same one-buckle cuff release system. The result, so says the propaganda, is lightweight boots marketed at the backcountry touring market versus the racer market. They look and feel very nice, but we have yet to ski them (none of the Off-Piste crew at the show fit the 27.5 sample size - but given the number of new boots, we'll be running through them come March/April).
You'll also notice in the specs the use of a material called Grilamid. It's light, strong and appears to be the material of choice for lightweight AT boots - Garmont is using it and I suspect Scarpa too, but Scarpa refers to their material generically as polyamide, which is the non-branded technical plastic name. (click on boot images for larger views)
Dynafit Vulcan – this is the high-performance, lightweight freeride boot that leads the Dynafit charge for light and powerful.
Weight: 1590 g
Shell / cuff: Grilamid® / carbon fiber and Grilamid®
Forward Lean: 15-18 degrees
Cuff rotation: 60 degrees
Dynafit Mercury – Still high-performance and lightweight but the cuff is more forgiving than the carbon cuff, not to mention a couple hundred bucks cheaper.
Weight: 1590 g
Shell / cuff : Grilamid® / carbon fiber and Grilamid®
Buckles: Ultra-lock system
Forward Lean: 15-18 degrees
Cuff rotation: 60 degrees
Dynafit One PX – TF
Weight: 1490 g
Shell and cuff- Pebax
Buckles: Ultra-lock system
Forward Lean: 15-18 degrees
Cuff rotation: 60 degrees
Dynafit One U – TF (PU cuff body = lower cost)
Weight: 1650 g
Shell / cuff: PU
Buckles: Ultra-lock system
Forward Lean: 15-18 degrees
Cuff rotation: 60 degrees
The annual winter outdoor industry trade show took place last week in Salt Lake. The Wasatch Range has a habit of delivering less than legendary ski conditions during the event, and this year was no exception. A long dry spell leading up to the show offered hardpack demo day snow, and the subsequent warm storms during the week pegged the avalanche hazard to high for the remainder of the week. If you enjoy looking at avalanche photos and video, the Utah Avalanche Center’s current conditions page has loads of images and vids of the ongoing avalanche cycle in the Wasatch Mountains. It’s worth a peek.
On the new backcountry ski gear front, there's lots of news. Although I'd be hard pressed to pick out a single product innovation that topped the list, there are loads of new lightweight four-buckle AT boots, plenty of good looking (and wide) new skis and some new telemark bindings worth mentioning. Airbag packs are the buzz of the avalanche safety world, and both BCA and Ortovox showed new beacons that are expected to be available in October 2012.
I’ll skip right to my favorite category, backcountry skis (I'll get to other gear in the next post). Light and wide is the buzz here. Here are a few highlights:
G3 Empire: 153/127/139; Lengths: 183, 177; Weight: 4.3 kg / 9.5 lb; Rocker: tip & tail, semi cap construction (similar style women’s ski called the Cake: 138/110/128
Black Diamond Carbon Megawatt: 147/120/126; Lengths: 178, 188; Weight: 4 kg / 9 lb; Rocker: tip & tail
Voile Buster: Don’t have full specs on this one yet – it’s 118 underfoot and will replace the Drifter. It uses sidewall construction and is still in development, but it had a cool look.
Dynafit Huascaran: 136/115/125; Lengths: 177, 186, 191, 196; Weight: 3.6 kg / 7.9 lb; Rocker: tip & tail
K2 BackDrop: 142/112/131; Lengths: 181, 174; Weight: Similar to Coomback; Rocker: tip
DPS Wailer 99: 126/99/110; Lengths: 168, 176, 184, 192; Weight: 3.6 kg / 7.9 lb; Rocker: tip & tail
La Sportiva Lo5: 125/95/115; Lengths: 168, 178, 188; Weight: 2.9 kg / 6.4 lb; Rocker: tip
BD Revert: 120/95/108; Lengths: 165, 173, 181, 189; Weight: 3.3 kg / 7.25 lbs; Rocker: tip & tail; Sidewall construction.
A shovel, the most basic of avalanche safety tools, is one of the least glamorous items in our packs, but we all carry them. We have to. Because when the situation calls for a shovel, there is no substitute. K2 has been slowly introducing backcountry tools into their product line (there is even news of K2 ski boots in the future), and I’ve been using the new K2 Backside Shovel and Carbon Avalanche Probe this winter. The shovel is designed with companion rescue in mind, but has several cool details that add to its overall utility beyond that of basic avalanche rescue.
The K2 Rescue Shovel delivers a strong first impression, literally. Obviously built to last, everything from the powder coated handle to the blade gusset and handle/blade interface are stout. Still, it weighs in at a respectable 1 lb 14 oz (850 g) including the rescue sled hardware that is included with the “plus” model. You can find a slightly lighter shovel, but given the 9”x11” blade size and extendable handle, the weight is competitive.
One of the first things you notice on the K2 shovel is the asymmetrical t-grip. The grip is designed to attach to the shovel to create a hoe tool, so one side of the grip is longer to interface with the blade. The idea seems pretty cool, and the hoe configuration proved useful for clearing snow in some basic digging scenarios. In practice, this shovel digs, chops and moves snow great, regardless of which configuration you use. The secure handle/blade interface delivers a solid feel when digging. The handle also happens to doubles as a hammer for driving pickets (or stubborn gear and ski partners).
The blade is middle-of-the-road in size, offers holes for creating a deadman-style snow anchor and I found its shape great for easily creating flat snow pit walls and conducting various stability tests. The fully extended handle measures about 22 inches, pretty average when compared to other brands.
A feature unique to the K2 Rescue Shovel Plus is the addition of hardware stored in the shaft to facilitate the construction of a rescue sled using the shovel components, a pair of skis with holes in the tips and tails and the addition of a cordelette. The idea is simple enough, and works great, but only if your skis are set up with holes – tip and tail, like K2’s Backside line. Without the holes, the added hardware is just an extra few ounces in your pack.
All in all, it’s a great shovel. Although I hope to never have to use it for companion rescue, I am confident it is up to the task. More on the carbon avalanche probe in a subsequent post.
I posted a video clip and information about the the new Gecko glueless climbing skins back in November. At the time, I had yet to use the skins on snow. With the season underway, I have now had the Gecko skins in about every condition possible except bitter cold. The results have been great. They work every bit as good as any skin I have used. In fact, they function incredibly similar to a typical glued skin, in a good way. The biggest difference being that they are very easy to peel apart from one another.
Although they are called glueless, the Geckos are still adhesive. It's just not a skin glue like we all know. It's a proprietary tacky silicone adhesive and, according to the specs, requires no reapplication. Debris like pine needles, leaves and dirt can be washed off with warm water.
Will it last forever? I don't know. The adhesion has been great for the two months I have had them, and I plan to keep testing them (if we could just get some more snow). They work every bit as good as they did the first day I opened the box, and the adhesive side is every bit as clean and smooth as it was when new. Interestingly, they actually stick to my skis better than some of the glued skins I have used. Not that I have really had trouble with glued skins staying on my skis, but the Gecko's grip to the ski is actually more vigorous than a glued skin when it comes time to rip skins for the descent. They still peel just fine, but it's comforting to know they are securely attached.
One characteristic the Geckos share with traditional glue skins is that you need to keep them out of the snow. Snow on the adhesive side has the same effect as snow on a glued skin. So when dropped in the pow, they need some attention. The good news is they are easy to clean, just rub them along your ski edge or pop them inside your jacket, and they return to full functionality just fine. If your looking for a truly glueless skin, you need to check out Clip Skins. Made in Canada, the Clip Skins use small stainless clips to stay attached to your skis and have no adhesive of any sort. You can read more about the Clip Skins in this review of climbing skins or in this blog post about skins.
The bottom line thus far with the Geckos is all good. The tip and tail work well and the mohair plush glides (and climbs) very nicely. The glueless adhesive has been treating me great, and I look forward to more time with them, not to mention some fresh snow for the forecast!
I recently mounted up a new pair of Prior Husume skis built with Prior's new XTC Carbon Construction. Based on the Husume dimensions, the carbon construction reduces the ski weight relative to Prior's standard lay-up and is designed with backcountry skiing in mind. The 2011 Husume also features a new tip profile (more taper). The result is a healthy dimensioned backcountry ski (124-102-112) that weighs in at 7lbs 8oz a pair compared with 8lbs 8oz for the standard construction model (all specs for the 175cm and as weighed in our shop). The Husume has tip and tail rocker matched with positive camber underfoot. We tested the XTC Husume, along with its big brother the Overlord, in a mixed bag of resort pow and carvable snow last spring with great results. I was finally able to get the XTC Husume out ski touring this month.
The flex is impressively similar to the regular fiberglass lay-up. If anything, they feel slightly softer, which is the opposite of what I expected and a plus in my opinion. Many carbon construction skis are stiff and not-so-forgiving, but Prior was able to retain the original ski's great flex. The weight savings on the 175cm ski is a remarkable pound per pair - you can still find lighter boards in the 100+ underfoot category - but it is definitely nice underfoot while breaking trail.
On snow, the Husume is lively and confident. The lighter swingweight of the XTC construction helps it come around quickly, and the ski really comes to life with a little speed, just like the original construction ski. It's not a low-speed wiggler; it likes to run, and does so with confidence. At 102 underfoot, the Husume is a do-it-all ski that is equally at home in deep snow as it it is boot top conditions. It serves up a freeride feel with the ability to roll into traditional short radius turns without complaint. Prior's XTC construction offers a noticable improvement on the uptrack with no compromise in downhill performance. Although still modest in weight in the eyes of the fast-and-light crew, the XTC Husume strikes a great balance between lightweight construction and all-mountain performance. It begs to open up in big terrain and responds to short swing turns with ease; it made me feel like I could do no wrong.
We are stoked to announce our November subscription promo with Genuine Guide Gear.Off-Piste Magazine subscribers have a chance to win G3 avalance safety gear this winter! There will be drawings each month and a final drawing in March for a pair of G3 skis!
This month's lucky winner will receive a killer G3 avalanche tool kit that includes a G3 Bonesaw, AviTech Shovel and Speed Tech Probe.
We'll be giving away great G3 avalanche safety tools all winter, so subscribe now for a chance to sweeten your avalanche tool collection. In March, we'll conduct a final grand prize drawing for a pair of G3 skis! One lucky subscriber will win their choice of skis from the G3 Mountain Series. The winner will be able to choose from the Tonic, Zen Oxide and the Saint.
I recently got a pair of the Gecko glueless climbing skins in for testing. I first heard about the Gecko skins about a year ago, but this is my first experience with them. Although we do not really have enough snow to warrant testing in the mountains yet, I thought they were interesting enough to warrant a blog post.
Touted as glueless, the Gecko skin system is still an adhesive skin. It just happens that the adhesion is delivered through some high-tech rubber compound, not the traditional glue that we all love to hate. Still, the Gecko skins function very much like a traditional skin with glue. The big difference is that the adhesive side is not sticky like glue. The included spec's refer to the adhesive side as the "vacuum area." It's sort of akin to an easy peel window sticker. The skin has very little adhesion when put "glue-to-glue", so to speak. But when you put the Gecko on your ski, it sticks just great (at least in the garage). The upside being that the skins are super easy to handle, the adhesion never wears out and you do not have to worry about them falling in the snow or getting dirty.
The skin surface appears to be mohair, which I happen to prefer over synthetics. The Gecko skins are lightweight, supple and easy to handle.
According to the regional distributor, the skins can get wet, are easily cleaned with luke warm water if they become dirty, and are easily cleaned if they fall in the snow. The spec's describe the adhesion as "molecular fusion (suction)" and say that repeated application and removal of the skin does not affect the performance. The spec's go on to say that the skins perform reliably in a wide range of snow conditions and withstand temperatures from + 250° C to - 70°C.
Of course, we have yet to test them in cold temps on snow, but from our dry run use, I am very intrigued. Here is a short video clip of the Gecko glueless climbing skins.
Our recent October newsletter included a list of regional ski swaps that has received a welcome response. So we thought we would post it here for all to see. This list is by no means comprehesive; it is just what we gleaned from friends.
Check out your local ski swap! Score a killer deal or get some cash for your old gear! Here a few Ski Swap Links. Want to add your local swap? Just e-mail us or add a not eint he comments awith the details.
The multi-tool market is full of cool tools, but most miss the backcountry skier niche, requiring that you carry an additional tool to cover what the multi-tool lacks. The Brooks Range Backcountry Multi-Tool aims to fill the backcountry skier tool void. Designed with input from mountain guides and dedicated skiers, the tool hits the mark on target.
The Backcountry Multi-Tool includes a knife blade, a flat blade screwdriver, needle nose pliers, and a ¼-inch hex socket that accepts any number of screw bits. The flat blade screwdriver is big (#4), doubles as a bottle opener and includes 6, 8, 10 and 11mm wrenches. The pliers include wire cutters, and the handle of the tool holds four bits for the hex socket, including a #3 Pozidriv,T20 Torx driver (fits Dynafit bindings), standard #2 Phillips bit anda #4 flat blade bit. The tool comes with five additional bits, a #1 Phillips, a T10 Torx, a 1/8-inch Allen, a bit extender and a 1/16-inch drill bit. The extra bits are stored in a small pouch in the carrying case. The entire tool folds into a Leatherman-like package and includes a Cordura carrying case.
Functionally, it works great. The #3 Pozidriv and T20 Torx bits alone are super valuable, and combined with pliers and a sharp blade, you have a solid all-in-one tool for skiers. The weight is reasonable and construction quality is pretty good, too. We did come up with a few gripes, but none of them really speak to the tool’s actual functionality, they are more of wish list for the Backcountry Multi-Tool 2.0. First, we’d like to see a pivot on the ¼-inch hex socket on the tool body. It would help add power to the using the bit tool. Next, the blade lock requires opening the screwdriver to disengage and this seems silly. Finally, a pair of small scissors would be a nice addition. Of course, a more complex blade lock and adding scissors would likely add to the tool’s weight. All in all, the Backcountry Multi-Tool covers just about all ski binding and boot-related tool needs. Finally, there is a single, functional tool to complete the backcountry skier’s repair kit.
We recently got a pair of the new Dynafit Radical ST Bindings to demo. If you are immersed in the world of ski touring (read ski geek like me), you likely know that Dynafit unveiled a new generation of their tech-binding last winter called the Radical Series. If you are not fully up to speed on Dynafit bindings (and other tech-bindings), check out past blogs under gear for a primer.
The Dynafit Radical ST is the standard version from the new Radical Series. Dynafit also makes a stouter model called the Radical FT and a lighter more race oriented model called the Speed. Our focus is on the Radical ST because it is the go-to binding for most backcountry skiers.
There are many subtle changes to the binding including an improved crampon slot, a new mounting pattern, easier to read DIN settings and stouter components. However, the more significant changes include the addition of small towers or stops adjacent to the front pins. These new stops facilitate a truly easy step-in process. A process that, although it becomes second nature with a little practice, has been daunting to new tech-binding users - at least until now.
The second big change is in the heel and climbing lifters. The new Dynafit Radical ST heel unit has two easy to use flips that create low and high heel lifters. The new heel unit is also uni-directional (turns only in the clockwise direction).
The new Dynafit Radical ST toe unit is a 100% upgrade from earlier models. The new stops do a great job of helping you line the boot up for a clean step-in process. I am really impressed at just how much easier it makes getting into the binding, and I was pretty proficient at the old style. Check out the video of stepping into the Radical ST binding.
The new heel unit offers increased functionality when it comes to heel lifter use, but loses some of its on-the-fly mode change functionality. The new lifters are super easy to use and are sure to eliminate the pole tip problems and assorted issues people have had had over the years. However, I miss the ability to spin the heel unit with my ski pole. The new clockwise only rotation eliminates my favorite ski pole grip maneuver to spin the unit back to ski mode, which means that I need to work on a new program to facilitate removing skins and swapping over to ski mode without removing my skis or bending over to twist the heel unit.
According to Dynafit, the new heel system was designed to keep the heel from pre-turning on the ascent and locking you into ski mode mid-slope. The lawyers also recommended that you remove your ski to switch into downhill mode to ensures that you have stepped into the binding correctly. It also keeps people from skiing with the toe locked, and the lawyers like this feature, too.
All in all the new Radical binding is a great upgrade to an already rock solid system. I will likely whine a little about having to reach down to turn the heel back into ski mode, at least until I figure out a new system.
Here is a video demonstrating just how easy the step-in and heel lift deploying processes are.
I have had the opportunity to check out a variety of new gear this summer that I will posting about here on the blog. Today's gear item is a new sidecountry minded ski pack from Osprey called the Karve 16. It is a small day pack designed for resort skiing and short sidecountry runs - not exactly our focus here at Off-Piste, but an important category, nonetheless. A functional and properly sized resort ski pack is a great piece of gear to own. A small dialed pack makes for smooth transitions between the lift and backcountry gates. The Karve 16 is the largest of three packs in the Karve series; the other two are six and 11 liters in size.
I have not taken the Osprey Karve 16 ski pack out for resort skiing, so I can not speak to its lift riding comfort, but I have taken it for a few summer tours where its small size matched my mission well.
At 16 liters, the pack's volume is just big enough to comfortably accomodate skins, shovel, probe, snacks and a layer or two. The pack is hydration compatible and insulates your hydration hose by running it through the shoulder strap. When packed with the basic essentials, the pack feels great, but do not expect to put a full day's touring gear in this guy. Its 16-liter volume is definitely sized for sidecountry skiing, not a full day of touring.
I definitely pushed the pack to its carry limits when skiing with it this summer, but even so, I have no complaints about its performance. It met my needs to carry minimalist gear and food just great. Its limits arise when it is overstuffed with bulky items. It actually carried skis reasonably well for a small pack, but I was carrying lightweight tourinig skis, not burly sidecountry boards. My take is that it will carry your alpine boards for a short boot hike up a ridge, but it is not designed to do much more than that. A pair of big resort boards with Marker bindings would be better left on your feet or shouldered for a quick hike, versus strapped to the pack.
The system for your avalanche tools is great. Probe and shovel handle fit nicely in each side of the pack, while the shovel blade slides into the outermost pocket. This leaves just enough room for your skins, a layer or two and some bars or food to fuel your laps. The suspension system is appropriately lightweight, and it includes an adjustable waist belt and sternum strap.
Overall, the Karve 16 is a resort ready pack. Whether you are looking for a slim pack to carry your avalanche safety gear while you chase lines at the hill, or you want a ski pack that will carry the essentials while you head for a lap out the backcountry gate, the Osprey Karve 16 will do you well. It offers easy access to all of your gear and rides nicely on your back. Want to slip out of bounds for a longer day of touring, look for something larger.
Summer is in full force and, although there is still good skiing to be had in the Northwest, it is prime mountain biking season. I have had a new mountain bike hydration pack on my wish list for a couple of seasons, and when I saw that Osprey was making hydration packs, I decided it was time to try something new. My old bike hydration pack was a minimalist - little more than enough space to carry water and a spare tube. I wanted to upgrade to a pack that was big enough to carry a layer or two and a reasonable lunch, but not so big that it felt like a full daypack - enter the Osprey Raptor 14 hydration pack
The Raptor packs come in four different volumes: 18, 14, 9 and 6-liter. The three larger sizes include a 3-liter Nalgene hydration reservoir. The smallest pack uses a 2-liter. I chose the Raptor 14, the second largest in the series at 14 liters (850cu in.) It is small enough that it cinches down to a minimalist style when empty and large enough that I can take a wind/rain shell, a warm layer, food and the essential trail repair gear without over stuffing it. The size has proven ideal for full- and half-day rides.
The construction is quintessential Osprey - high quality and bomber. Like Osprey's ski packs, the design pushes thoughtful innovation with functional features. The suspension system is excellent without being overdone. Unique details like the magnet that holds the mouth piece to the sternum strap help set this pack apart.
The Raptor has three primary compartments (excluding the hydration pocket) - one small top pocket, one large main compartment and a third medium-sized compartment. The large and medium spots add mesh pockets and sleeves for tools, pump and tube storage. There are also two stretch-mesh side pockets and a nice stretch pocket with a clip closure on the face of the pack.
It took a couple of rides to learn how to best pack the Raptor 14, but I have found the layout and size to be a great match to my needs. In fact, I have found myself grabbing it for day hikes as well as mountain bike rides. The Raptor 14 has proven to be a do-it-all hydration pack. It carries well fully loaded, water and all, and it cinches down to a compact quick-ride size, too. As with their other backpacks, Osprey has found a great blend of technical features, functionality and comfort in the Raptor 14.
Snowy pursuits have taken a back seat to summer travel and mountain biking. I am in Telluride for the 38th Annual Bluegrass Festival. The music has been inspirng as are the peaks of the San Juan Mountains. As an Oregon boy though, the sun here is a bit overwhelming. I have been lucky enough to get out for several mountain bike rides to enjoy the local hills. I have been putting an Osprey Raptor hydration pack through the paces, too. Osprey has recently started into the bike hydration pack market and, as you might expect, they put together a sweet pack. I'll have a full review of the Raptor 14 in my next post.
Looking back a month or two, I have some beta on a few select skis that I took up to British Columbia for a week of ski touring. Here is a quick report on the Volkl Nunataq, Voile Charger and Dynafit Stoke backcountry skis.
Volkl Nunataq - 139-107-123: Volkl steps into the backcountry ski world with four new skis featuring lightweight construction. The Nunataq is the widest of the new skis and matches the Gotama width profile. It weighs in at a respectable 7 lbs 12 oz a pair. The ski matches flat camber with moderate tip and tail rocker. The Nunataq served up excellent powder skiing. It is lively and ready to turn at any moment. Bigger skiers felt it reasonably soft, with a big sweetspot. Lighter skiers found the same big sweetspot, but found it stiffer than expected. Regardless, we all found it to be a fun ski. The Nunataq serves up a blend of traditional turning merged with the ability to smear and slide with new school style. The proprietary climbing skin system was developed with Colltex skins. The skins are very lightweight (a blend of mohair and synthetic plush). The tip connection is specific to the Volkl ski tip, and although a little fussy, they worked great and offer great glide. It is so nice to get skins precut to you skis.
Overall, the Nunataq is a lively, wide powder ski ideally suited to mid-winter and deep snow conditions. It is wide enough that we see it as a quiver ski. The kind of ski you take for pure powder skiing fun. Of course, once you get used to the 107mm underfoot and rocker profile, you may redefine what constitutes pure powder skiing fun.
Voile Charger - 137-112-126: Although not new for 2011, the Voile Charger remains a standout in the backcountry powder ski category. The Charger is a super playful ski that is incredibly agile for its dimensions - and respectably light at 7lbs 8oz per pair. The Charger makes you feel like you can do no wrong. It floats and turns with incredible ease, making short work of any soft snow.
We see the Charger as a quiver ski - a playful mid-winter powder board. It handles the gamut of backcountry snow conditions, but it excels in soft and deep snow. The Charger offers up quick short turns in the trees and opens up without hesitation in alpine terrain. Its moderate tip and tail rocker profile lend the ski a little new school smearability and make sure you float with ease.
Dynafit Stoke - 129-105-119: The Stoke was released last season, but holds its own in the freeride mountaineering category. The new more forward binding location gives the ski a more responsive feel and make it more varsatile in its turn shape. The Stoke is a very capable ski, but rather than a playful powder board, it is a do-it-all ski with soft snow dimensions. Its personality is more serious and get-it-done oriented than pure hedonistic powder consumption. The Stoke is at home in mixed alpine snow. From the wind effected ridgelines to protected basins, the Stoke is ready. Its modest early rise tip does not have the easy initiation of a more rockered ski, but it keeps the Stoke ready for the next turn in any condition. The Stoke weighs in at an impressive 7 lbs 1 oz (173cm) and is ideal for big tours and varied backcountry snow conditions.
In my pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee, I am always on the lookout for interesting ways to make coffee while on the road or an extended ski tour. A true coffee addict (and snob), I always travel with some level of coffee making apparatus and some quality beans in case I need a fix.
My default apparatus of choice is a simple cone (preferably a #2) filter set-up. This system is reliable and makes an excellent single cup of coffee. It is light and easy to pack on a multi-day ski tour or road trip. And it requires nothing more than coffee,hot water and a paper filter.
Recently, I was turned on to a cool new coffee making tool that may well replace my standard cone filter set-up, the Aeropress Coffee Maker. It is a simple espresso style coffee system, and it makes an excellent cup of coffee. It is light and very packable. It is also unique in its brewing method.
Using a small paper filter and an espresso style coffee filter basket, the Aeropress pushes hot water and grounds into the filter basket using its plunger. Unlike a French press, the Aeropress plunger forms a tight seal and it is air that actually pushes the forces the water through the filter.
In the end, you are left with an espresso style puck in the filter basket, a great cup of coffee and very little clean-up, as the plunger completely flushes the aeropress cylinder. The small paper filter allows no grounds into your cup, so you have a completely grit-free cup of coffee.
I have been using it to make an Americano style cup where I essentially brew a double shot of espresso and then top up my cup with hot water. I am a harsh critic of a poorly made cup of coffee, and the Aeropress coffee maker brews an excellent cup. It is not a pro-level shop made Americano, but it is smooth and tastes great. It is a smooth, supercharged version of a good cup of drip. The Aeropress appears to be similar to a French press, but the process is actually pretty different, and the cup of coffee better.
In addition, the Aeropress is very portable and super simple to use. At 7.5 ounces, it weighs more than a cone filter, but the lack of a messy filter post brewing is a nice bonus. The small paper disc filter from the Aeropress is easy to deal with.
The Aeropress Coffee Maker is available online including through Amazon - cost is around $30. Sure, I may be addicted to caffeine, but at least it is legal, inexpensive and readily available...
I recently connected with a company that makes cool and functional goggle covers and cases, Tailgate Industries. Goggles are a required item for most backcountry ski tours. I often use a hard goggle case when travelling, but only use a goggle bag when I head out touring, and my goggles tend to suffer as a result. Jeff over at Tailgate developed a cool goggle case that offers the protection of a hard case without any of the bulk. It is called the 49R. The fleece-lined case uses a rigid core (made of 100% recycled plastic) with a pocket and overlapping fabrics to secure and protect your goggles when not in use. The case is curved to match the shape of your goggles and is easy to use. The result is excellent goggle protection when in the case, and a slim, non-bulky case that packs easily in your pack, with or without the goggles in it.
I have been using the 49R for a month or so now, and it is the perfect solution to protecting your goggles without adding unnecessary bulk to your pack. The case takes up no more room than the goggles themselves, but it offers full lens protection and fits nicely into the top lid of a backpack. The case is even slim enough to fit in a jacket pocket. It is a great concept and an excellent way to get rigid case goggle protection without the bulk of a boxy case.
Tailgate also makes the Gondom - a soft goggle case that fits over your goggles while they are on your helmet. Although not as backcountry skier specific as the 49R, the Gondom is perfect for protecting your goggles if you leave them on your helmet for your resort setup. Below are shots of the 49R case. Check out www.tlg8.com for more beta.
March and April storms have made for some fun ski testing conditions the past few weeks. Although the bulk of our testing occurs at our local ski hill, I did take a few select skis up to British Columbia for a week of ski touring. Here is a quick report on the Volkl Nunataq, Voile Charger and Dynafit Stoke backcountry skis.
Volkl Nunataq - 139-107-123: Volkl steps into the backcountry ski world with four new skis featuring lightweight construction. The Nunataq is the widest of the new skis and matches the Gotama dimension profile, but it weighs in at a respectable 7 lbs 12 oz a pair. The Nunataq matches flat camber with moderate tip and tail rocker. The Nunataq served up excellent powder skiing. It is lively and ready to turn at any moment. Bigger skiers felt it reasonably soft, with a big sweetspot. Lighter skiers found the same big sweetspot, but described its flex as moderate. Either way, the Nunataq serves up a blend of traditional turning merged with the ability to smear and slide with new school style. The proprietary climbing skin system was developed with Colltex skins. The skins are very lightweight (a blend of mohair and synthetic plush). The tip connection is specific to the Volkl ski tip, and although a little fussy, they worked great and offer great glide. It is so nice to get skins precut to you skis.
Overall, the Nunataq is a lively, wide powder ski ideally suited to mid-winter and deep snow conditions. It is wide enough that we see it as a quiver ski. The kind of ski you take for pure powder skiing fun. Of course, once you get used to the 107mm underfoot and rocker profile, you may redefine what constitutes pure powder skiing fun.
Voile Charger - 137-112-126: Although not new for 2011, the Voile Charger remains a distinct standout in the backcountry powder ski category. The Charger is a super playful ski that is incredibly agile for its dimensions - and respectably light at 7lbs 8oz per pair (171cm). The Charger makes you feel like you can do no wrong. It floats and turns with incredible ease, making short work of any soft snow.
We see the Charger as a quiver ski - a playful mid-winter powder board. It handles the gamut of backcountry snow conditions, but it excels in soft and deep snow. The Charger offers up quick short turns in the trees and opens up without hesitation in alpine terrain. Its moderate tip and tail rocker profile lend the ski a little new school smearability and make sure you float with ease, but it still turns our old school arcs if you prefer. If your quiver is in need of a playful powwder ski, the Charger deserves your attention.
Dynafit Stoke - 129-105-119: The Stoke was released last season, but holds its own in the freeride mountaineering category. The new more forward binding location gives the ski a more responsive feel and makes it more versatile in its turn shape. The Stoke is a very capable ski, but rather than a playful powder board personality, it is a do-it-all mountaineering ski with soft snow dimensions. Its personality is more serious and get-it-done oriented than pure hedonistic powder consumption. The Stoke is at home in mixed alpine snow. From the wind effected ridgelines to protected basins, the Stoke is ready. Its modest early rise tip does not have the easy initiation of a more rockered ski, but it keeps the Stoke ready for the next turn in any condition. The Stoke weighs in at an impressive 7 lbs 1 oz (173cm) and is ideal for big tours and varied backcountry snow conditions.
Snow build-up on your topsheets is a fact of backcountry skiing, and spring is probably the worst season for snow build-up on your topsheets. Warmer temperatures mean heavier snow. Heavier snow on your topsheets means you are dragging more weight up the hill than you need to. K2 tried to address the issue wth p-tex topsheet material on their backcountry skis, and it helps reduce build-up, but even the p-tex topsheets benefit from some sort of additional coating to help shed snow.
I have tried a variety of things over the years to reduce snow build-up on my topsheets while ski touring. On the advice of a buddy, I recently began using a product called Rain-X. It is one of the best and least expensive options I have tried. It was developed for car windshields and works great at making rain bead up and disperse on your car windshield. Well, it turns out that it does a pretty damn good job of keeping snow off your topsheets while ski touring, too.
Every topsheet material is a little different, but Rain-X is super easy to apply. Just squirt a small amount on your topsheets and rub it around with a cloth or paper towel. It does not take too much, but you have to apply it every day or two to maintain its effectiveness. Longevity of its effectiveness is dependent on your topsheet material and the snow conditions. I recommend applying it in the morning before you head out the door.
You can find Rain-X at auto parts stores, gas stations and even some grocery stores. The 4-ounce bottle pictured runs around $4 and will last quite a while.
I am a fan of synthetic insulation. Its all-weather versatility is unbeatable for backcountry skiing. Sure, I live in the land of heavy precip and moderate temps, but even when skiing in colder climates, I still find my gear gets damp. Maybe it is my afinity for storm cycle skiing, or maybe it is my not-so-careful gear management skills, but one way or another my gear often ends up damp by the end of a day of ski touring. Synthetic insulation handles the rigors of storm cycle use with ease, insulates when damp and drys quickly when the opportunity presents itself. Recent advances in synthetic insulation have created insulation that rivals down for weight, compressibility and warmth. One such synthetic insulation is Primaloft® One.
I have been using a couple of great, super-lightweight insulation pieces this winter that use Primaloft® One insulation.
The first is the Rab Xenon Jacket. Rab is a UK based company that makes high quality clothing for expeditions and climbing use, many of which fit backcountry skiing needs very well. The Xenon is a no-frills hooded jacket that weighs in at an airy 12 ounces. One chest pocket and two hand pockets add utility. I'd like to have zip closures on the hand pockets, but it is a minor complaint. Rab uses a super-light Pertex fabric for the outer shell material and 60g Primaloft® One insulation. The Xenon is incredibly warm for its weight and bulk. It has become a go-to piece for day tours and go-light adventures.
The second jacket is the Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover. The Nano has no hood, but the pullover-style jacket has quickly become a favorite layering piece on bitter cold days and as a quick lunch break layer. Like the Rab Xenon, the Nano Puff packs down into its own pocket for easy storage and weighs in at a stealthy 10 ounces. A couple of handwarmer pockets would be a nice addition, but it is the sweater's no bells and whistles style that make it such a simple luxury.
If you have not checked out synthetic insulation in few years, it is time to consider it. Down is great and has its place in extreme cold, but a quality synthetic unsulation layer will stand the test of time and abuse of day to day ski touring use while keeping you warm to boot.
This weekend is the annual Sven and Glenn Memorial Telemark Race at Stevens Pass. This year marks the 28th annual Glenn Race and the 4th annual Sven Race. The whole weekend makes for a great teleamrk festival event.
The Sven Race, Saturday March 26, combines nordic skills with classic cross-country downhill technique. Pay tribute to a longtime Stevens Pass local at this race that includes jumping, relpelykkje (360), skate and downhill gates.
The Glenn Race is a giant slalom down Big Chief. Glenn Willcut first introduced telemark ski racing to Stevens Pass in the 1980's. The Glenn Race includes a "best costume" division.
Both races have novice, open and mature divisions. Join the crew for a weekend of freeheel fun!
Ski testing season is upon us. 2011 is our twelfth season of testing and reviewing backcountry skis. We have already been able to get on a few skis, but the bulk our testing happens in late March and early April. I will post more information about our ski line-up as they begin to arrive, but the list includes backcountry skis from Voile, Black Diamond, K2, Volkl, La Sportiva, Dynafit, G3, Armada, Faction, Prior, Movement and more. We just got word from the crew at Backcountryskiingcanada.com that they have been out on a variety of the new G3 skis and posted beta on some of G3's new skis here
There are a surprisingly large number of new backcountry skis for the 2011-12 season and quite a few holdovers from this season. We conduct most of our testing up at Mt. Hood with a dedicated crew of experienced skiers. A handful of select boards then head up to BC for a final hut trip of the season where we put the them through rigorous field testing and discuss their merits on the uptracks. Yes, it is a difficult job, but we manage.
We get more requests for our ski review issue than any other copy of the mag all season (it is always in the October issue). We always hold off on setting the review loose on the web until our publishing season comes to a close. The idea here is that you subscribe to get the mag - thereby supporting our dedicated efforts. We definitely appreciate your support.
In other interesting product news form the tradeshow, Dynafit showed a new binding design evolution that they are calling the Radical. The Radical design uses newly designed toe and heel pieces. The new design creates new stops or towers on the toe that help with boot alignment, or in Dynafit's words, allow for step-in functionality. The Radical also introduces new climbing towers on the heel. The new set-up uses two seperate flip-up climbing aids that eliminate the quintessential Dynafit move of turning the heel to change your heel height.
The new design is available in several models ranging from a new burly Radical with torsion bar to the standard fare akin to the current Vertical models and even a Radical Speed model for the gram counters. I could go on to explain all of the details, but you can glean all of the beta from the Dynafit video posted on Youtube.
Here is a guest blog from our web guru, Karen Holt.
I decided I wanted an insulated ski jacket in my life this season. I often find myself skiing at the ski resort in my backcountry ski gear and, frankly, I am tired of wearing so many layers. My only alternative was to throw on my nice warm puffy, which is great in blue bird conditions, but not very effective during a damp Northwest storm cycle. Fortunately, the industry understands my needs and provides a nice selection of...
More Backcountry Ski Gear news from the 2011 OR show
In other ski gear news, Voile announced a new ski at the show, the Vector BC. The Vector BC adds a waxless pattern base to the Vector. At 94mm underfoot, The Vector BC is the widest, most downhill oriented waxless ski yet to be offered by anyone. I have always been an advocate of wide waxless skis and find them (i have some prototypes from past years) super fun for light touring, long approaches and general ski fun.
In other subtle changes, the Dynafit Manaslu will change for 2011. The 2011 Manaslu drops the synthetic stringer construction in favor of the all-wood construction of the Dynafit Stoke. The result is a slightly stiffer tip on the ski. Overall, the 2011 Manaslu seemed to have a damper ride than the original, but was not dramatically different. I am a big fan of the original Manaslu ski, and the new version is a nice evolution without reinventing the wheel. The Stoke comes in with the same construction as before, but with the new binding mount locations (further forward).
G3 showed several new skis at OR. The new G3 HighBall (140-116-127) and the G3 Infidel (128-97-119) feature tip and tail rocker and are flat underfoot, what G3 calls Progressive SweetRise. G3 also updated the ZenOxide (131-105-123, 7.5lbs) and the G3 Saint (122-93-112) to include early rise tips. The Saint now weighs in at an impressive 6.7lbs/pair and features anew semi-cap construction.
In other interesting ski news, DPS announced a radical, new ski design call the Spoon. There are a couple of standout characteristics that set the new spoon apart from other skis. First, the base is convex. Second, there are four points called cleats, where the base is shaped to allow contact with firm snow (and thus allow you to stop, if need be). I was not able to ski the new board, but it is truly a new take on powder skiing. Can't say that convex bases will take off like rocker just yet, but it will be interesting to learn more about the ski. In the meantime, for a true description that does the new spoon ski design justice, visit the DPS Spoon Ski information page.
We will have a chance to ski just about all of these skis, and lots more, during our annual ski testing in March and will post updates at that time.
The news on the ski front for 2011 is that, surprise, rocker is still the name of the game. If you have not moved to a rockered or early rise ski yet, you will have even more options to choose from next season. Check here for a great article describing ski rocker.
The usual suspects all have new boards for 2011-12. Black Diamond showed nine new skis for next year. Most of the new BD boards are part of their Power Series and include the Gigawatt (163-135-141), a redesigned Megawatt (151-125-131, 188cm) with a tighter turning radius, Amp (141-115-123) and the Warrant (130-95-118) featuring new sidewall construction. The new skis also include a redesigned Justice (140-115-125) that is lighter and now takes its place as the biggest ski in BD's Efficient series line-up. The new Justice weighs in at 8lbs 6oz in the 185cm length, not exactly featherweight, but lighter than the last year's Justice.
K2 has revamped all of their Backside ski line graphics and showed a redesigned Pontoon (157-132-122) as well as the new Sideshow (132-90-115) and two new women's skis: the Sidekick (139-108-127) a Sidestash with no metal in its construction and the Brightside (132-90-115).
In other cool ski news, Volkl showed four very cool new skis built with light , backcountry minded construction: the Nunataq with tip and tail rocker (139-107-123), Nanuq with tip rocker (131-96-114) and Amarauq (127-88-109). The Nunataq takes the popular Gotama dimensions and lightens the ski with new construction.
Also new to the backcountry ski front is La Sportiva. These guys launched three skis and a very nice looking tech binding, not to mention new rando-racer minded boots. I am short on specs for the new skis, but I will post them when we get them. In the meantime, the one standout ski from La Sportiva is the green Hi-5, a big 100+ waisted ski with aggressive tip rocker.
There is more to report, but it will go up in the next round. Look for details on new skis from G3, Dynafit, DPS and more.
Walking the halls at a trade show is not my favorite pastime, but between ski days in Salt Lake, I managed a couple of days at this year's Outdoor Retailer trade show. There is a lot of new product for Fall 2011 of interest to backcountry skiers.
From new Dynafit bindings to a host of skis from the usual suspects including BD, Volkl, G3, K2 and Voile there is plenty to talk about. There are some new names in the ski world too. La Sportiva (rock shoe and climbing gear company) steps into the ring with a new tech binding that is not just for the racing crowd as well as a line of skis that includes the Hi-5, a fat ski with generous tip rocker that fully breaks from the narrow Euro ski design stereotype.
Here is a brief slideshow that offers a window into some of the new gear. I will follow up with blogs by category: bindings, skis, boots, softgoods, transcievers and miscellaneous.
Black Diamond Equipment is making a voluntarily announced recall of a limited portion of Fall 2010 Black Diamond AvaLung Packs because of a possibility that the intake tubing may crack under cold temperatures.
For more information regarding the AvaLung recall from Black Diamond Equipment, please go to:
The Marker Duke alpine touring binding made waves in the market a couple years ago offering stout alpine-like lock down in a touring binding. A lot of resort and sidecountry skiers adopted the Duke, for good reason; they are solid binders. Dedicated touring aficionados, however, shook their heads saying, why tour with a five-pound binding? Well, Marker has addressed the head shakers with their new Tour bindings the F10 and F12 (number refers to max DIN setting). The new Marker Tour bindings weigh in at 4.4lbs (over a pound less than the Duke), making them virtually the same weight as the venerable Fritschi alpine touring bindings. In fact, the F10 actually weighs in slightly less than the Fritschi.
My primary touring binding is a Dynafit, so the thought of a four-pound binding still sounds heavy for touring, but the Marker Tour F12 does offer certified DIN to 12, alpine ski boot compatibility, alpine-like step-in convenience and bomber downhill performance. I know there is a large group of skiers who are less concerned with the weight of their gear than I am, and the new Marker binding will most certainly develop a solid following.
The primary criticism of the binding revolves around the fact that you must remove your boot from the binding in order to change between ski and tour modes. Most of us pull our skis off when it is time to put on skins, but having to remove the skis when pulling skins and switching to ski mode is a solid gripe. But for many skiers the downhill performance of the Tour will compensate for the inconvenience.
The Marker's wider mounting footprint and the binding's bomber construction create an excellent, responsive connection to the ski. These bindings are the biggest competition the Fritschi has seen. They may not turn the heads of the go-lite crowd, but the new Marker Tour bindings are a solid choice for mixed resort and backcountry use.
The Backcountry Access Alp 40 ski pack has been around for several years and has received high marks from us for its simple, skier-centric design. The traditional top-loading pack is well sized and simply organized for full-day backcountry touring. The shovel compartment, probe storage and general clean design make it an efficient and utilitarian ski pack. When BCA announced they were updating the Alp 40 for this season, I was curious and apprehensive to see what they would change. There was definitely room for improvemnt (we are opinionated when it comes to packs), but there were several key elements that we thought best left untouched.
Well, we got a new Alp 40 here in the office last month, and I have had it out skiing a few times. Many of the pack's main elements that made it popular with us remain; over all volume, dedicated avalanche tool storage, Stash hydration system, general top-loader style, modest straps and waist belt (with pockets).
The new Alp 40 also has several siginificant changes that alter the packs personality. The first big change is the materials, the new pack's material is significantly stouter than previous models. The previous model was arguably a bit light-duty on the pack material and, with time, the pack definitely suffered some abrasion wear. The upside was the old version was noticably light weight. The new pack material is bomber and a nice upgrade, though as a result, the new pack is a little heavier. The second big change is the top access. The pack is still a top-loader, but rather than a traditional drawstring closure, the pack uses a dry-bag style roll-top closure. It keeps a traditional lid to cover the roll-top, but the new lid is removable. The old lid was fixed to the pack. The last big change is the new zipered back panel access. The zipper runs around about half of the back panel (replacing the sidezip on the older version), and allows reasonable access to the depths of the pack, but it is not a full fold-out opening.
Initially, I was skeptical of the roll-top acccess. It creates a great, dry closure, but seems like overkill. In use, it works great. I miss the ability to stuff the top lid in the pack and draw the top closed around it, but the roll-top is definitely secure. The new material significantly improves the pack's durability, even if it does add weght. Still, the part of the pack that really makes the pack for me is the excellent avalanche tool storage. Shovel blade and handle and probe all have dedicated storage areas that do not interfere with the main compartment, yet they are easy to access from outside the pack when needed. The new pack adds an extra velcro flap for the probe and shovel handle sleeve, adding to the security of the pocket. The new pack also carries well, maybe even better than the old one. The back panel access is ok, but not a highlight of the new pack. Someone hoping for a full panel entrance will be dissapointed, and for those happy with traditional top-loader access, the back access is nice, but not really a significant feature.
Overall, the new pack is nice upgrade from earlier versions. I am always suspect of redesigned gear that already had a lot going for it, but the new Alp 40 is a great backcountry ski specific pack, maintaining the overall simplicity and functionality of the original with a few nice upgrades.
The October issue of Off-Piste (#46) included an article on ski rocker that has garnered a lot of requests for copies of the magazine. Written by Jeremy Rooper from the Mountain Shop in Portland, Oregon, Rocker 101 offers a window into the evolution of ski design and the rise of rockered skis.
I had orginally asked Jeremy to put togther a paragraph on how rocker influences ski length choices. Well, I should have known that when I asked a 20+ year veteren of the ski industry a question like this, I might get more than I asked for, and I did. Jeremy's article is a must read for anyone interested in rockered ski technology. In fact, the article may even convince a few misanthropic old schoolers to at least consider the merits of rocker technology. If you are not a subscriber, consider kicking down and getting the best in grassroots ski culture delivered to you door.
Read the full article on ski rocker technology here: Rocker 101
Fresh on arrival here in the office is a pair of Salomon's new Quest 12 AT boots. It is the same boot that was realeased last winter with tech fittings (Dynafit compatible) and quickly recalled due to failure of the fitting. The boot has been re-released this season without tech fittings. The touring pads with Dynafit compatible tech inserts are NOT being released this year, and according to Salomon "there is no set date for release in the future." So, the Quest 12 does NOT have Dynafit compatible steel inserts in the toe pads. The boots are still compatible with other ISO norm touring bindings from Fritschi, Silvretta, Marker, etc, and they are currently compatible with the ISO norm for alpine DIN standard by swapping out the appropriate heel and toe lugs.
The boots are, for a guy with a strict nordic background, very alpine-boot like. The Quest weighs in at 4.58lbs/boot (9.17lbs/pair) and is decidedly stout relative to my normal Scarpa Spirit 4 set up and most other AT boots I have tested. The Quest 12 is obviously targeted toward the alpine skier who wants a little touring flex for short walks and boot packs.
Burly, wide buckles are complimented by a very wide power strap. Although only a "three-buckle" boot, the Quest feels like it should be able to go head to head with any burly touring boot on the market without any problem. Walk mode is noticeably minimal, but improves when you release the upper buckle. Without skiing in them, I am willing to go out on a limb and say these boot are mostly about the down. With any luck, I should be able to get a day or two in this month and will report back on their on-snow and uphill performance.
I have used an MSR XGK or Whisperite stove in the backcountry for nearly two decades. This summer, I was turned on to the new wave of super efficient and light canister stoves pioneered by Jetboil. I was quickly impressed with the Jetboil's efficency and functionality. Not to be out done by the new kid on the block, Primus, longtime player in the camp stove market, has their own version of the super efficient canister stove called the EtaSolo.
The EtaSolo follows the same basic design as the Jetboil Flash system. It is an integrated cookpot and stove system that runs on a standard isobutane/propane canister and can boil about half a liter (16oz) of water. I wrote up the Jetboil Flash Java Kit in a September post. When Primus offered up their EtaSolo for comparison, I was stoked to check it out.
A couple of details set the Primus apart from the Jetboil. First, it comes standard with a kit that allows cooking with any standard camp pot, and it includes a hanging adapter for use with its integral pot that allows you to hang the whole apparatus. Second, the pot is a little smaller than Jetboil's 1-liter system. Third, the Primus does not include the French press coffee plunger like the Jetboil Java kit, although, the lid is plunger ready. The added accessories are a plus. The hanging kit attaches directly to the integral pot making for a bomber hanging sytem. The kit that allows for standard pot use is easy to set up, and although not as bomber as the integrated system, it does extend the stove's rang of use. The difference in pot size is minimal and, since both manufacturers only recommend running a half liter of water at a time in their pots, there is no functional difference. Overall weight (minus the fule canister) for the Primus is 384 grams. The Jetboil comes in at 388 grams.
The Primus is every bit as nice as the Jetboil. The push button ignitor works great, construction quality and durability look great, it all packs inside the pot (except for the canister legs) and it is super easy to set-up and use. Like the Jetboil, the Primus EtaSolo is a minimalist stove. These stoves are designed to boil water, not prepare gourmet meals or cook for six people.
I decided to run the stoves head to head for water boling times. Results were predictably close. Both stoves boiled a half liter of water in just over three minutes. In three tests, the Primus hit a roiling boil between 15 and 25 seconds faster than the Jetboil. Not really a big deal, but it was faster.
Both are nice stoves. The Primus adds some functionality by including the hanger and standard pot conversion parts. The Jetboil Java Kit is French press ready. Both run a hundred bucks.
A self-professed coffee snob and addict, I am always looking for a way to get a fix in the backcountry or on the road. I recently started using the Jetboil Java Kit on road trips and in the field. The Jetboil Java Kit mates a one-piece cooking vessel/French press and proprietary heat baffle with a small, easily packable canister stove. The entire apparatus weighs less than a pound and packs into the cooking vessel making for a compact, portable unit.
Functionally, it boils about 16 ounces of water in under three minutes. Depending on how long you steep your coffee, you are drinking fresh coffee in mere minutes from starting the process. The system is slick. It is also functional for more than making coffee, provided you can do it with approximately 16 ounces or less of water. Jetboil recommends only filling the cook pot to the 16oz mark, but with a watchful eye, I have been able to boil closer to a liter (the cook pot's full capacity). A cool aspect to the system is that the stove and cook-pot actually connect together, making the set-up more stable than traditional systems. Adding even more stability is the three-legged base that clips to the fuel cannister. The base is a great little tool that folds up and fits into the cookpot with all of the other components.
The Java Kit is not necessarily a replacement for a full cook stove system (Jetboil makes more full service kits, too). I see it as a cool road trip tool and go-lite sytem for the minimalist. Heck, it is small and light enough, that I would consider taking it on a day trip to melt snow for drinking or to brew up hot drinks on the go.
The snow on Hood is holding up remarkably well for late August. The skiing at the Timberline ski area last week was pretty darn fun. I spent the bulk of the day trying out Black Diamond's new Efficient Series boots: the Slant, Prime and Quadrant. All three boots performed well, and I'd say that BD's new AT boots set a high standard for lightweight, touring-minded construction and downhill performance. The Quadrant, a four buckle boot and the burliest of the series, weighs in at 1.64kg/boot/size 26.0. The Quadrant offers enough boot to drive a big ski, but is every bit light enought to keep most gram counters happy.
My pick of the day was the Prime - a three buckle boot weighing in at 1.55kg/boot/size 26.0. The Prime is a little softer than the Quadrant - similar to Scarpa Spirit 3 or 4 in flex. The Prime was there to drive the ski when called upon, but forgving enough to wear all day and its weight is very respectable.
The Efficient boot series as whole is pretty impressive. All are Dynafit tech-fitting compatible. All include heat moldable liners, and they all incorporate BD's propriatary Triax Pivot in the cuff that allows for 40 degrees of movement - 20 degrees forward and 20 degrees back - while in walk mode. For a company that has touted, "it's all about the down" the past couple of seasons, BD's new light-weight, touring-minded efficient series boots and skis are a welcome addition to their line-up. We will have full reviews of the new boots in the December issue of the mag along with boots from Garmont, Dynafit and Scarpa.
We just recieved Black Diamond's new Efficient Series AT boots. All new for 2010, there are four models, the Slant, Prime, Swift (women's), Quadrant. All of BD's new boots weigh in at less than my Scarpa Spirit 4's, and they all look great (except for the color choices on the Quadrant - but maybe it's just me).
I plan to get out on the boots this week. Hood is still turning chairs and it has been a solid six weeks since I have skied. Time to get back on it and check out BD's new touring minded AT boots. I will post more information once we get out and ski. In the mean time here are few shots and a link to BD's website with more info.
Voile's introduced two new skis in Janauary 2010: the Charger - 134-112-123 ; 2.8kg pair (171cm); 171/181/191cm, and the Vector - 118-94-107; 2.7kg pair (170cm); 160/170/180cm. Both skis build on Voile's Drifter design incorpating camber with moderate tip rocker and slight tail rocker. The Charger was a top pick in its size category during our testing. The ski is light, responsive and remarkably versatile in turn shape. The Charger is a backcountry powder ski that is at home in all terrain.
Unlike the Voile Insane, a traditionally cambered ski with a pretty darn small turn radius for its width, the Charger opens up the turn radius, yet remains lively and easy to turn. The Charger skis with ease in mid-size boots and its light weight keeps it managable for a full day of skinning.
We have not had as much time on the Vector as we did the Charger, but we should be heading up for some final ski testing and to ride the new BD Efficient Series ski boots in the next week or so.
The spring issue of Off-Piste included an article on the handmade or boutique ski movement by Don Pattison. The article looks at the current growth of small ski manufacturers, and it looks at a few of the higher profile operations. You can check out the handmade ski article here.
While researching the piece, Pattison spoke with Mike Hattrup from K2 Skis. As one of the biggest players in the ski market, K2 is far from a boutique manufacturer, but Hattrup defended the large scale manufacturer position with the the idea that no small producer can match the testing and R&D that a company like K2 has at its disposal. Hattrup then went on to say that we should check out the K2 testing and prototype factory up in Seattle sometime.
Well, it took a couple months to fit it in the schedule, but Pattison and I took a tour of the K2 facility this spring with K2 ski engineer Ken Schiele. The factory was a mix of testing equipment, ski tooling equipment and K2 ski and snowboard museum. It was good fun and K2 does have an impressive set-up for manufacturing and testing skis. And yes, it is hard to imaging that a small "garage" set-up can match what K2 can bring to the table. Here are a few images of the factory . . .
K2's 2010 backcountry ski line-up has a few notable changes from the 2009 season. First, all of K2's Backside line feature their new p-tex top sheet material. The idea behind the p-tex is to keep snow from building up on the top sheets, a great way reduce uphill weight. Does it work? To be honest, we did not get to tour on the skis in conditions that would normally produce snow buildup. What we saw was good, but it was far from a true evaluation. Other changes include an all new Darkside and the addition of tip rocker to the Wayback (formerly the Mt Baker Superlight).
The new Darkside has loads more tip rocker than last year's and all new graphics.The 2010 Darkside (156-128-144) combines K2's most aggressive tip rocker with a traditional tail. The result is a super stable and fun ski, but it does weigh in at 10.4lbs a pair. But just think, hopefully you will be carrying less snow on the top sheet in the uptrack. No doubt, it is a fun ski, and it encouraged our testers to attempt setting new speed records at the ski hill, but it is leaning pretty far toward mechanized access.
Of more interest to dedicated touring skiers is the 2010 K2 Wayback. The addition of tip rocker to the Wayback makes for a very lively, yet predictable and modestly stable ski. The Baker Superlight of old and last year's Wayback were a fine boards, but they lacked the personality and lively feel of the 2010 Wayback. I will go out on a limb and call the new Wayback a significant improvement over an already good ski. It is not the lightest (6.8lbs/pair) in its class, or the fattest (124-88-108), but it held its own in a variety of snow conditions, and I was impressed.
The rest of the 2010 K2 Backside line remains the same aside from the new top sheet material and some new graphics (women's skis too).
Rooftop cargo boxes are a great way to haul skis and keep your gear out of your vehicle. I have a Yakima Rocketbox and I use it all winter long (and then some), but I have found that my ski edges often rust when I leave my skis in the box for multiple days. Basically, snowmelt from the skis pools in the base of the Rocketbox and the skis end up sitting in water and the edges rust. The problem is particulary noticable when I haul multiple pairs of skis - more skis equals more snow to melt. So, I came up with a quick fix to eliminate the problem. I drilled drain holes in the bottom of the box with a 1/4" drill bit. The holes allow the snowmelt to drain away and my skis no longer have to sit in puddles of water, problem solved. The water issue may be more pronounced in the Northwest where the temps in town are often near or above freezing, but the modification does not compromise the box and will help keep the inside of your ski box dryer, regardless of where you live.
I drilled my box while it was mounted on the roof of the car. This worked fine but, obviously, you have to use a level of caution so you do not put drain holes in the roof of your vehicle. If you do not trust yourself, pull the box off the car or create a stop on the drill bit with duct tape. I simply drilled holes in the low areas of the box (see photo). All told, I have about eight or ten holes. Happy drilling.
Armada JJ 126-136-115-133-121 @ 185cm. The Armada JJ first caught our attention when we learned it weighed in at around four pounds per ski (1.96kg or 4lbs 5oz to be exact). Most skis in this width category push 5lbs (or more) per ski. The JJ uses what Armada refers to as their “ultralight core”, and it combines generous tip and tail rocker with positive camber underfoot. Add sidewall construction and healthy dimensions, and you get an agile powder ski for the deepest of days.
"Wow" was the most common first impression of the JJ – related to both its lack of heft (we mounted it with Dynafit binders) and its on snow performance. The JJ impressed everyone who tried it. Can you say Powder Technician?
Sure, it is a quiver ski, and it is most at home in deep snow, but it is equally as fun at the ski hill as it is touring. Its positive camber underfoot gives it a carving ability not found in fully rocked out skis, seemingly without compromise in its soft snow performance. Overall, it is a lively short radius turner that was forgiving and fun in a variety of snow and terrain. It elicited many comparisons to the Voile Drifter (145-121-133 @ 172cm), and although the two skis do have similarities (light-weight, fat rockered boards), they are pretty different skis - more on the Drifter soon.
Sneak Peak at Our Ski Testing Notes - Dynafit Stoke
Despite the fact that it is snowing at elevation (again), the majority of our backcountry ski testing is now done. I get countless questions regarding what we liked during our testing, so thought I would share some notes from our highlights. The crop of truely touring-minded skis gets more diverse every season, and this year's line up is especially flush in light, capable skis.
First up - the Dynafit Stoke
The Dynafit Stoke is a touring-minded freeride and soft snow ski with an early rise tip and inserts for Dynafit bindings. It measures in at 129-105-119. We were able to ski the Dynafit Stoke in everything from ideal deep and cold touring days to recycled groomers and spring goo. The Stoke moves Dynafit skis into the world of big mountain “freeride” feel, but it remains relatively lightweight at around seven pounds a pair.
On snow, the Stoke is a big radius, big mountain turner. Aggressive, big terrain skiing are its forte. It has its roots in Greg Hill’s pursuits around Revelstoke and it shows. The Stoke felt a little forced in boot top snow, smaller terrain, and tighter tree skiing. Sure, it can ski tight, technical, and treed lines too, but this requires more attention and skill from you, the driver. Its soft, early rise tip is relatively mild in its rise, but it rides out of the snow as you would expect while the ski’s solid platform and relatively stiff tail hold it steady when conditions require. I see the Stoke as a quiver ski - a premium midwinter big mountain touring stick, but not necessarily an all-mountain, all-conditions ski.
It skied well with a variety of three and four buckle boots. We mounted them in the forward-most binding location after skiing them in the second position and felt it became more responsive to varied input, but its sweet spot remains big radius turning. Dynafit recently sent out a note that the mounting position for the fall production run skis will be 3.3cm forward of the production run we skied. This move will make the ski more responsive and will likely make it more nimble when the going gets tight, but its overall personality should stay true to its big terrain, Revelstoke roots.
It is a premier player in the big mountain, touring-minded world for aggressive skiers.
The minute I saw Black Diamond’s new Couloir harness, I knew I needed one. In the never ending quest to lighten my kit, it was immediately apparent that this harness would likely bump my current ski harness out of its favored spot. I have spent the last month using the Couloir while in the Chugach and the North Cascades. Here is what I have found.
The BD Couloir is a simple, clean, and ultra light ski mountaineering harness. It is made of 1 and 1 ½ inch webbing, weighs in at a mere 8oz, yet it comes complete with features not typically found on this type of harness. Right away, I appreciated the ability to put the harness on without stepping through the leg loops. It’s difficult to find a harness that allows you to do this and that still offers a belay loop. The Couloir has very usable, soft gear loops that aren’t even noticeable under a pack hipbelt, but the loops are ample enough to carry glacier travel gear. There is even a full strength haul loop on the back in the event that you find yourself wanting to ski a pitch on belay.
While ski touring on glaciers, we often wear harnesses regardless of whether we are roped up or not. Thus, it’s ideal to have a harness that you don’t even notice you are wearing. Between the harness’ light weight and the thin webbing leg loops, it was easy to forget that I was wearing the Couloir. As with many lightweight harnesses, the time you really notice them is while hanging in them. While practicing crevasse rescue and rappelling in the Couloir, its lack of lumbar support became readily apparent. BD has tried to beef up the 1” hipbelt with some extra fabric to spread the load, but the Couloir was not designed for hanging on a rope for extended periods. Personally, I can live with this for a harness that packs down smaller than a can of Red Bull.
The BD Couloir is not a do-it-all harness, but if you are looking for a ski mountaineering specific harness that is both ultra light and fully featured, BD’s Couloir is a great choice.
I have been using a wide variety climbing skins the past couple of months. With skis getting fatter, a skin's glide is more important than ever. I have been using, Colltex Extremes (full mohair), G3 Alpinists (synthetic), Dynafit's inhouse skin (mohair blend), and a new glueless clipskin (synthetic) from Canadian designer/inventor Kaj Gyr.
I have seen some great results with all of these skins, but arguably the most unique is the glueless clipskin from Kaj Gyr. If you have been around the backcountry ski world for a while, you may roll your eyes with memories of the old, rubber snake-skins, but Gyr's clipskins are much closer to a modern glue type skin than they are the old snake-skins. The clipskins I took on a hut trip were one of Gyr's early prototypes, but I still had pretty solid results with the general concept. He has made a variety of refinements on the attachment and tail pieces since the pair I tried. My pair used some temporary tape and test glue solutions for attaching clips and tip bails, but the general concept was the same as the more recent versions.
The glueless clipskins use a standard synthetic skin material like we are all familiar with (and it has nice glide and climbing characteristics), but they utilize a new glueless backing material and small stainless clip system to attach to the ski. As a result, the skin is remarkably easy to attach and remove from the ski. Tip and tail connections are akin to the various systems on the market with a wire bail on the tip and a stainless clip on the tail. One of the big differences here is that Gyr's proprietary backing puts stretch into the skin itself so there is no elastic tail like a G3 or BD Ascension skin. The tail clip simply engages stretch in the skin and pulls the skin tight against the ski. The sides are held on with small stainless clips that grab the edge of the ski. The clips are small enough and dispersed along the skin enough that they do not interfere with the ski's edging properties, at least in non-extreme edging situations. The majority of my use was in soft snow, but I was surprised at how well the skins performed.
I have never had much trouble with my standard glue based climbing skins, but Gry's new glueless system is intriging and worked well in my prototype testing. He has been refining the trimming process as well as the clip attachment process this spring. He has a video describing the trimming and skin set-up steps here and a website dedicated to the clipskins. Below is a video of the clipskins in use. This was made back in late February using one of the early prototype pairs.
Praise be to Ullr for providing us with outstanding snow conditions the past couple of weeks here in the Northwest for our annual testing of backcountry skis. Following a rather lackluster winter in these parts, Ullr stepped up to the plate with a great mix of cold storm cycles and bluebird ski conditions.
Surprise, surprise, skis keep getting fatter and more skis than ever are introducing rocker and early rise tips into the mix. After skiing so many rocker and early rise tip skis, it feels a bit odd to get back on a traditionally tipped ski. I'd say the evolving tip shape is here to stay. This year we have inlcuded skis from Faction, Drake Powder Skis, Icelantic, Volkl, and Armada, as well as the usual suspects like G3, BD, Trab, Voile, Dynafit, etc.
We have also had a chance to get on a number of ski boots including the new Scarpa Mobe, the Dynafit TLT5, and the Garmont Radium. Another interesting addition to this year's testing is a new race binding from Ski Trab (see image in slide show). It may not be the binding for your average ski tourer, but it is pretty slick and is sure to please the rando-race crowd.
I have not mounted them up yet, but will get a chance this week.
It is ski testing season here at Off-Piste. Backcountry and powder specific skis are rolling into our office every day. The recent blast of winter here in the northwest gave us an opportunity to get out in some good deep snows on on the Armada JJ and the Voile Drifter.
Both skis served up fine perfomances and both are incredibly light at under 9lbs per pair (without binders) given their 120+mm waist dimensions. It was expected that the Voile would weigh in light, but the Armada was the surprise at only 8lbs 10oz pair.
I mounted up the latest production model of the G3 Onyx binding this fall. Although by all appearances the same binding as the beta model released last winter, the 2010 production version is actually a more refined version. The primary changes are as follows:
• Reduction of force required to open toe jaws to allow for easier toe entry
• More positive engagement of the heel tour mode lever into ski mode as well as more protection around the lever to eliminate unintentional mode changes.
• Better retention of the high heel lift in the stowed position to reduce unwanted flipping up of the heel lift.
• Modified heel cowling shape to increase boot support and ensure proper heel pin alignment.
The big change is really the reduction of force required to open the toe jaws. The production model requires a very reasonable amount of pressure to open the jaws, making getting in and out of the binding much easier than the beta model. I think G3 has reached a good compromise on the jaw tension and the binding's on snow functionality is truely improved from the beta model. In the field, I have found the Onyx easy to learn and use. Downhill performance has been excellent with no unexpeceted release or unsual behavior from the binding.
The low heel lift is a little stubborn to move when putting it back into no-lift mode, and it has taken a little time to perfect a clean maneuver with my pole to engage and disengage the heel unit, but with a little time, the system has become second nature (my standard AT set-up is Dynafits).
I added the brakes to the program this time too and have found them to operate well. A nice feature of the Onyx brake is how it locks into up-mode when touring. Unlike the Dynafit, the Onyx brake can be left deplyed when you shift the heel to tour mode. The brake then locks in up-mode as soon as your heel makes contact with the binding.
We skied all of these and they all delivered excellent performance at the demo day. The Stoke (short for Revelstoke, BC) takes the successful Manaslu platform, adds abot 10mm all around, and truley steps up performance. It weighs in at a respectable3.1 kg (just under seven pounds). Sure, it is heavier than the Manaslu, but it is signifigantly more powerful, too. The ski combines a Paulownia wood core with synthetic material and a mild rockered tip. Although the Stoke may not replace the Manaslu's quiver-of-one status, it will be a welcome addition for deep days.
The Voile Charger was inspired by the wider Drifter and uses the same tip rocker and camber profile, but drops some 10+mm in width. The result is a light and lively ski that was easy to control and capable at speed. The Charger's manueverablity and overall personality were super lively and fun. The Charger and the Vector will replace the Insane and Asylum in Voile's line-up. The new skis both use mild rocker, lightweight aspen cores, and are made right in Salt Lake by the Voile crew. Inspired b the Drifter's performance, Wally, Voile's founder, saw a need to update the line with more versatile rockered skis. The Vector will vie with the Manaslu for quiver-of-one touring ski status, while the Charger goes head to head with the Stoke for powder touring fun.
Black Diamond introduced six new skis at the show; all part of their new Efficient Series. The Flagship board from the new line is the Drift. It is great to see BD move to ski design than keeps an eye on weights. The Drift was a solid performer at the demo. At 100mm underfoot, it could be viewed by many as an all conditons touring ski. Like many of the lighter skis, the Drift uses Paulownia wood in its core. Its rocker tip is relatively subtle, but the tip is soft and makes for a maneuverable and lively ski.
Our annual ski testing session wll ramp up in about a month, and this year's line-up has some excellent potential for serious touring-minded boards. I look forward to getting to know these boards and more in the coming months.
Lightweight Alpine Touring Ski Boots - Scarpa - Black Diamond
The go-light AT scene appears to be on the rise. Black Diamond showed four new lightweight AT boots (all tech binder compatible) . The new line includes one women's model and three men's boots - Quadrant 4-buckle, Prime 3-buckle, Slant 3-buckle, and Swift 3-buckle (w's). I actually had the opportunity to ski several of these boots last summer during development. They ski well, matching solid downhill perfomance with lightweight Pebax construction and a generous toe box fit. The boots are competitively light with boots like Zzero, Spirit 3 and 4, and the Radium, all of which weigh in the neighborhood of 3.2 - 3.6kg pair.You can get the full propoganda from BD's microsite. The Prime is my pick as the nicest of the new collection, but we will be sure to get time on all of the production models this winter and spring.
I was surprised to see Scarpa offering a new lightweight four buckle boot called the Maestrale (Gea women's model). It takes over for the Spirit 3 and 4. It is lighter (3kg/pair) and Scarpa now claims the lightest four buckle AT boot on the market. The boot has a couple unique features/construction characteristics. First, the tongue system is unique and folds out of the way for easy entry. Second, Scarpa has redesigned its forward lean mechanism (throughout the tele and AT lines) reducing flex in the system. Finally, Scarpa is using a new plant based Pebax that not only reduces the boot's carbon footprint, but the new material also holds its characteristics through a wider temperature range than traditional Pebax. I was surprised to see the Spirit 3 and 4 out of the line as I have been using both boots for several seasons and see them as leaders in their categories. The new boots still use Intuition liners (some of the nicest most durable liners in the business) and weighing in at 3kg a pair, they are now the lightest four buckle boot around.
Scarpa also added a walk/tour mode to the long popular T-Race tele boot. The original red T-Race boot had a tour mode, but when it went through the redesign a few years back, the white model lost the tour mode switch. It is good to see it back.
Garmont and Dynafit each showed two boots that set a new standard for lightweight At boots. More on those in the next entry.
The annual Outdoor Retailer Trade Show (OR) took place in Salt Lake City last week. The show offers an opportunity to see what's new for next season. Just about all of the backcountry ski related companies are there showing everything from skis and boots to packs, beacons, and socks. The Wasatch received some badly needed precipitation during the week sending the avalanche hazard to high and setting off a series of close calls in the backcountry. You can check out the currrent conditions page on the Utah Avalanche Center for a window into the conditions. There are some interesting shots of slides - check for entries dated 1/19-1/22 or newer.
As for interesting products at OR, the backcountry ski market is alive and well. There are a number of new touring minded skis from the likes of Dynafit, Voile, and Black Diamond. There are new beacons from Ortovox and Backcountry Access, new boots from Garmont, Black Diamond, Scarpa, and Dynafit, several new packs of interest, not to mention some good looking new softgoods for ski touring minded users.
Skis are always a point of main interest and between Black Diamond, Dynafit, and Voile, there are three new touring minded skis over 100mm wide underfoot, all with rockered or early rise tips. The new Voile Charger is modeled on their Drifter ski (120mm+ underfoot), but is narrower at 110mm underfoot (171cm). It was light and responsive at the demo, but handled the resort push piles with ease. It should be a standout in the powder touring category. Likewise the new Stoke from Dynafit (105mm underfoot) was also light and responsive with a rockered tip. The Stoke (named after Revelstoke, BC) was developed with the help of Revelstoke resident and all aorund ski touring fanatic, Greg Hill. Black Diamond also stepped in this year with six new skis all dedicated to the light touring market. The Drift was the standout ski in their line - 100mm underfoot and features an early rise tip, too. BD has a new micro-site dedicated to their new touring minded line. Like the Stoke and the Charger, the Drift was a lot of fun on hill at the demo day.
Here is a short slide show of the OR show visit. More on specific gear this week.
The boutique ski movement is gaining momentum. Numerous smaller manufacturers are popping up in North America. From Ski Builders.com to 333 Skis to Wagner Custom to ON3p, small manufacturers run the gammut of variety and approach. I hesitate to use the term handmade skis because even the big ski operations use plenty of hand labor in laying up skis, and even the little guys use some type of mechanical press.
For the most part, except for the full custom shops, the small builders are making more resort oriented (broader appeal) skis. Arguably, Voile could be considered a small ski manufacturer and, although their skis are not custom, they are most definitely touring-minded in their design and weight. The Insane has garnered top ratings in our ski testing for several seasons, and the new Drifter rockered ski did well this season, too. Winter in the Northwest has been a bit off the past few weeks to say the least, but we have plans for more time on the Drifter once the snow cycle comes back into shape around here.
I recently connected with a new boutique ski company out of Vancouver, BC called Crown Skis. I spoke with CEO Mike Alexander and Marketing Director Jeff Bos about their current line of skis and the potential for some touring-minded boards in the future.
Right now, Crown has two skis in their line-up: the Satori 127/97/118 and the Kensho 142/106/122. Both skis offer good softsnow dimensions, but they are more resort focused than touring-minded in their construction/weight specs. This is Crown's first season offering open retail sales, but they produced skis the past two seasons as part of in-house development and beta testing. We should have a pair to demo here shortly.
More on the boutique ski movement in the March issue of the mag.
A pair of the new Ski Trab Stelvio Light XL's showed up just in time for the holidays here at Off-PisteMag HQ. If you are not familiar with Trab's Stevio line, it is a bit of a departure from their standard ultra-light rando race fare and features what I think is a very cool, traditional wood veneer topsheet.
The Stelvio Freeride has been around for a few seasons now and last season they introduced the Stelvio light - a lightweight construction version of the 84mm waisted Stelvio Freeride. The Stelvio is a great all around ski. I have toured on them in every condition imaginable, but at 84mm underfoot they get overlooked by many North American skiers as being too narrow. Why ski 84mm when you can ski 90-100+ right? Well, there are many sides to that debate, but in the meantime, Trab introduced the Stelvio XL which measures in at 90 mm underfoot - 125/90/112 - a great all around touring dimension.
The XL skied well in last spring's ski testing. It offered up nice round turns with a medium radius bias. It's light swing weight allow it to come around quickly when needed, but it will run it out pretty well, too. I am stoked to get this pair mounted up and in the snow. Did I mention they are beautiful! More details to follow.
Strike out at the local ski swap this year? Still trying to sell some ski gear?
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I don't own an i-phone. I am not a big advocate of safety through gadets, and I'm not so sure I would tote my i-phone in the backcountry if I happened to have one. I know, they are great cameras, you can make short movies, some day they may even save the world from self destruction, blah blah, blah. For all the skiers who are i-phone compatible and less fearful of gadgets in the backcountry than I happen to be, I just got wind of a new i-phone application (not to mention the concept of applications in general) that works as an inclinometer.
Mammut has a free i-phone application that turns the oracle (that's what i like to call the i-phone) into an inclinometer and offers a variety of avalanche safety related beta and resources..
Now, before you get all excited and tell me I am promoting something that I hardly believe in (safety through gadgets), I am not necessarily promoting gadget use in the backcountry. Being able to estimate a slope's angle is a valuable skill to have. Just because you have an inclinomter on your phone does not mean you have to take it out on ski tours. Seems to me, it could make for a great party game - guess the slope angle. Or take it resort skiing and check slope angles between fielding phone calls on the chairlift. Bottom line, it's free and I have been known to use my now old-school (read non-electronic) inclinometer while driving, hiking, or generally goofing around - because, like I said, estimating a slope angle is a skill. Now you can practice it with your i-phone.
I recently got some interesting photos from Wally over at Voile. I won't take it personally that he did not call me to head up on Hood (or the Clolumbia River) with him, but it looks like he was able to have fun without me (imagine that) while testing Voile's new Drifter ski.
Voile showed an early rendition of the Drifter at the winter trade show, but according to Dave Grissom, Voile's director of marketing, the ski has undergone some changes since January. Because Voile does...
When the snow conditions are firm, nothing offers uphill security like ski crampons, or as the Euros say, ”harscheisen”. As a long-time telemark skier, I only came to appreciate the utility of ski crampons when I began to more regularly use alpine touring gear a few years ago. However with many telemark binding manufacturers now offering crampons and the B&D Ski Gear aftermarket options, ski crampons are accessible to virtually all binding set-ups.
Unlike boot crampons, most ski crampons pivot under foot so that they engage in the snow when you step down and pivot up and slide when you lift your ski to stride forward. There is very little resistance or even change in the cadence of your stride when using ski crampons, but there is considerable benefit and grip when they engage.
If you know the feeling of “holding on” while skinning on firm snow or steep side-hills, imagine how much energy can be saved if each step is significantly more secure feeling. Well, that is what ski crampons do for you. They offer security and stability that is unmatched by skins. They are not a standalone climbing tool; they work in conjunction with your skins, and they save climbing energy.
B & D makes a variety of crampons and they are compatible with virtually all bindings except the 7tm tele binders. They also make a fixed crampon; one that is fixed to the ski and does not pivot as you stride.Voile’s universal crampon is also a fixed style. It mounts under the boot and is locked in the “on” position. The advantage of the fixed program is that it works the same regardless of your heel lifter use. The downfall is that it does not stride as cleanly as the pivoting variety. B & D makes a variety of shims and accessories that allow pivoting crampons to work better with heel lifters (personally, I rarely mix heel lifters and ski crampon use). B & D also makes crampons that accommodate wide skis (100mm+). Not all of the in-house varieties are compatible with all ski widths, but most folks seem to be catching up with the ever widening ski widths available.
The ease of use varies for the various crampons varies, but for the most part they are designed to be installed on the fly, and are easily removed when not needed. Obviously, you can live without ski crampons, but they are a pretty useful tool to have along, especially on high alpine and spring adventures. There is very little weight or space penalty for carrying them, and the reward when the going gets firm is big.
In this day and age, it is pretty normal to take some level of electronics into the backcountry with you. From cameras to gps units and mobile phones, there are a multitude of gadgets to help fill your pack. Said gadgets require batteries and or charging. On a multi-day trip keeping your gadgets charged can pose a problem.
A few years ago, while on an expedition in the remote reaches of central Asia, I needed a way to charge the battery on an ipod that I intended to use as a storage device for digital images. Short of carrying a load of double-A batteries and an external battery-pack for my ipod, there were few options available. I came across a portable solor charger at the annual Outdoor Retailer show that looked promising. A company called Solio and had a single product, a compact portable solor device that could charge a phone or ipod size unit. To make a long story short, I got one and it worked great.
The unit was not large enough to charge my camera batteries, so I had to use a portable, roll-up panel made by Brunton to do that, but the Solio charger unit was perfect for keeping my ipod powered up as a portable, digital storage unit.
Solio now has a couple of products in addition to the original Solio unit that I used on that trip. This season, I upgraded to one of their new units, the Hybrid 1000 . It still works on the same principal. Essentially, it is a solar chargable lithium-ion battery that can pass its charge to a seperate device or it can be plugged into a variety of devices and act as a power source. The new unit weighs in at five ounces, is about 3/8 of an inch thick, six inches long and about 2 inches wide.
The unit takes eight to ten hours to fully charge and then will charge a hadheld device in the normal charging time. Eight to ten hours sounds like a long time, but functionally it works great. I simply clip it to my pack while out skiing or climbing for the day and then can charge in the evening when I return. You can also run a device directly off of it. Specs show that it will run about ten hours of play time on an MP3 device of fully charge a phone. I found it charged my ipod just enough to allow me upload about a Gig of data before the ipod ran out of power - almost a full charge.
The new Hybrid 1000 comes with a variety of tips to allow the unit to interface with different devices.
The weather cooperated the past few days for some time in the hills. I took the opportunity to take a crew of light weight skis and do some head to head tetsing.
I partnered up with Jeremey from the Mountain Shop in Portland and another friend Bruce to partake in some skin powered laps up at the ski hill now that it is closed. We grabbed the following skis - from left to right - Ski Trab Stelvio Freeride, Stelvio Light, Dynafit Manaslu, Stelvio Freeride (notice the Onyx binders), Dynafit Mustagh Ata Superlight, K2 Wayback (based on the Baker Superlight), Dynafit Seven Summits, Ski Trab Free Rando Light. We also had the new Stelvio Light XL ( it looks just like the Stelvio Light but moves to 125/90/112), but it is not pictured here.
The day started with some short laps to ski the boards back to back. I was most keen to run the Mustagh Ata head to head with the Wayback and the Stelvio Lights . Both the Mustagh and the Wayback are 88 underfoot. The Stelvio Light is 84 the Stelvio Light XL is 90. The Wayback is the heaviest of the group (although light when held against any other standard) and skied with the dampest feel. The Mustagh Ata and the Stelvio XL weigh in about the same at, and the 84 waisted Stelvio weighs in just a but lighter, but all handled the firm morning snow very well. The Mustagh Ata moved from edge to edge quickly and confidently, while the Stelvio Light offered up its trademark round medium to small radius turns with ease. The K2 definitely offered the smoothest ride, but it was noticably heavier underfoot than the others, too. The Dyanfit and Stelvio Lights were all fun. The Stelvio's have a smaller turn radius bias, but all of these skis handled a range of conditions well and will run the full range of turn sizes without complaint. Granted, none of them are resort ripper skis. These are skis made for touring and mountaineering.
The snow conditions quickly deteriorated on us as the sun turned the new snow into sticky glaunch as the sun neared midday. Nonetheless, we still rallied for a higher tour on a single pair of skis for the afternoon. I stepped into the G3 Onyx for the tour. It was my first touring experience on the binder. Although I hardly had enough time on it to give any sort of full report, overall, I can say it worked well. Just to set the scene, I am dedicated Dynafit user when it comes to AT gear. I step into the Onyx as a bit of a skeptic, but also with an open mind. I really like the easy action of moving between ski and tour modes. The whole system worked well for me, but as with any new system it requires perfecting new pole tricks to get all the moves down. So far, my biggest criticism of the Onyx is getting in and out of the binding. The toe lever requires a lot of force to open the toe jaws. This is comforting with binding retention in mind, but not so comforting when trying to get into (or out of) the binding on a steep slope of a precarious perch.
As for its ski performance, the attachment feels bomber. I took a digger hopping over a small moat and although I augered pretty good into some deep glop, neither ski released - a good thing as I did not think it was a big enough hit to release them. I look forward to getting a few more days on them, but right now the weather is turning sour again . . .
Spring is up to its usual mixed weather cycle here in the northwest - sun, snow, rain. I am hoping for the weather to settle out a bit so i can get out on a few more test skis.
In addition to skis, we recently got a pair of the new G3 Onyx binders in the office. I mounted them up on a pair of Ski Trab Stelvio Freerides. The mount was relatively painless. No trauma or problems. The binders use the same jig as the Dynafits, but they actually use a mounting plate that allows for the binding to be moved fore and aft to accomodate different boot sizes without a full remount - not a big deal for most users, but nice for testing. The plate system also potentially allows you to run one binder on more than one pair of skis if you have multiple sets of mount plates.
Because the binders can be moved foreward and back, I was able to mount them in some existing Dynafit binding holes and still match boot center. Again, not a big deal for most users, but nice for testing as I did not have to redrill the ski.
The binding is built on the fundamental Dynafit attachment concept. The biggest operational differences between the Onyx and the Dynafit are: 1.) The Onyx toe piece always reverts to locked and requires constant downward pressure to open versus the Dynafit that locks into open mode. 2.) The Onyx heel piece switches between ski and tour mode by moving backward and forward versus spinning like the Dynafit. 3.)The heel lifters for climbing are seperate from the heel unit and engage by pivoting forward versus the integrated lifters that require spinning the heel on the Dynafit.
There are numerous design differences between the two binders as well. G3's web site does a good job of explaining the ins and outs of their binding. Gram counters will take note that the Onyx weighs in at 1,430 grams/pair (no brakes) versus about 1,000g for the Dynafit Vertical ST with brakes (I did not actually have an unmounted pair to weigh). G3 definitely stepped out on a limb being the first company to go head-to-head with the Dynafit program and deserves some recognition for doing so. However, seasoned Dynafit users are a loyal bunch. It will be interesting to see how the Onyx takes hold next season, and where it fits into the user hierarchy for bindings.
Here are a few shots of the mounting process . . . hopefully, the weather settles out a bit and I can get some spring volcano fun in on the Onyx in the next few days and report back on touring with the Onyx. In the meantime, you can (if you have not already been there) visit G3's dedicated and informative web site for the binders where you will find video and dialog highlighting the operation of the Onyx - www.g3onyx.com
We are working to wrap up our 09-10 ski testing with a few final days of ski comparisons. Basically, we have skied everything, and now we are doing some final side by side comparison skiing. For example, skiing the G3 Tonic side by side with the K2 Coomback, the new Dynafit Mustag Ata side by side with the Ski Trab Stelvio XL and the K2 Wayback. Side by side testing helps define subtle differences in the skis.
Other skis of note include the Black Diamond Zealot and the Havoc. Both are new for 09-10 and, although they fill distinctly different categories, both are very capable skis.
The majority of our ski testing is done by riding lifts. There is no other way to get through the volume skis with any efficiency. However, we do hand pick a few skis every year and tour on them. One ski I was able to get some good soft snow touring days on was the Voile Insane. The Insane, at 100mm underfoot int he 172cm length, is a prime choice for a fat touring board. It is light, accomodates just about any turn radius, and makes short work of a wide variety snow. It is far more than a powder pig. It handles mank and chunder with ease, too. No other ski offers the same realestate underfoot for the same weight.
You can learn more about Voile in an interview with Voile founder Mark Wariakos that appeared in the January 09 issue of Off-Piste. download the interview pdf and you can see the voile insane in action below
I am back to the ski testing regime at Mt Hood following a week of ski touring up at Powder Creek Lodge in BC. Our week at Powder saw the move to spring weather. North slopes stayed cold and dry while solar aspects began the spring transition.
I skied the Scarpa Spirit 3 and Spirit 4 boots while up at Powder. I have skied the Spirit 3 for about two seasons, but this was my first time on the Spirit 4. The boots appear to be virtually the same mold, but the four uses four buckles while the three has, you guessed it, only three buckles. The four also comes with a second toungue for downhill performace and a small spoiler for the back of the liner. I skied both boots with the same liner and spoiler, but did not experiment with the downhill tongue. The black downhill tongue is significantly stiffer and has no hinge point like the traditional touring tongue. I have no doubt that it adds downhill support, but to keep the boots touring friendly, I opted for the hinged tongue.
Both boots tour well. The three is my known quantity, and over the course of a week I skied the four on one foot and the three on the other and skied with just the threes and just the fours. The boots are very similar. Although subtle, the four does offer a snugger fit with the extra buckle. The three can be buckled down to compare, but the four is capable of a more uniformly snug fit. Anyone with a low volume foot or more used to the snug feel of an alpine boot could benefit from the four's fit. When it comes to actual ski performance, both boots are capable of managing a good sized ski and skiing any terrain.
From a touring perspective both boots were super comfy. The new Scarpa Intuition liner is one of the best liners I have used. They are super comfortable, durable, and hold their thermofit molding shape very well. From a downhill ski performance perspective the differences between the Spirit Three and Spirit Four are subtle. I see the Spirit Three as a very capable three buckle boot and the Spirit Four is a solid four buckle performer that tours like a three buckle boot. Both boots use the same foward lean adjustment and it can be dialed into your favorit angle with the twist of an allen bolt.
Our ski testing of next year's boards continues. We have had some killer soft snow conditions up at Hood with classic tweener conditions (spring temps with new snow) thrown in for good measure.
A couple of interesting boards of note include the new Volkl Gotama (rockered tip and tale and 105ish underfoot) and the new Ski Trab Stelvio Plus which, at 90mm underfoot, is Trab's widest ski to date. Although the Volkl and the Trab are very different beasts, they both proved to garner praise while testing.
The new Gotama is a confident agile ski that makes short work of just about evrything we could find at the ski hill. The subtle rocker in tip and tale make for a very responsive ski, yet showed no weakness when ramped up on firmer carvable snows. It is a heavy beast at about 10lbs 10oz/pair unmounted (178cm) when compared to more touring oriented boards. I see it as a classic slackcountry ride, but that does not diminish its fun factor. I skied with a relatively light boot (Scarpa Spirit 3's) and had a blast.
I am stoked to see Trab with a fatter ski. I have been a fan of the Stelvio Freeride for a couple years. The new ski takes the Stelvio light construction and adds 6mm to the waist and more to the tip. I talked to their designer about such a ski last spring, but he did not give up too much info. It could have been the language barrier though as my Italian is nonexistent and hisenglish was limited. Trab also has a Dynafit style binding in the works, but they would prefer to keep it under wraps until they have finalized all the design charcteristics and such. The new ski is a classic look and has the fine workmanship you would expect in a handmade ski. These guys lay up all their skis by hand in their Italian factory and source all their own materials. It is a great set-up, and thier skis reflect the care they receive during design and construction.
On the boot front, I have been running the Scarpa Spirit 3 head to head with the Spirit 4. The boots (sans liner) weigh in at 3lbs 1oz and 3lbd 6oz, respectively. I have always suspected that there was little difference between the spirit 3 and 4 aside from an extra buckle on the four. Ski performance with the touring tongues is hard to differentiate. The Spirit 4 does come with a "ski tongue" that is remarkably stiffer than the tour tongue, but I have yet to use it yet. I am taking them out this next week for extended side by side touring, i'll report back any obvious differences.
We have begun testing the 2009 skis here on Mt Hood. The weather has dished out some classic March Mt. Hood conditions with over a foot of new snow during the past few days. Of course, the snow has been delivered with some serious winds and relatively balmy temps hovering around the upper twenties.
Nonetheless, skiing has been great for testing. I find a good dense snow quite nice for testing, actually. Soft, full-bodied snow really works the skis and defines their personalities nicely.
We test a mix of free and fixed heel set-ups, including the latest rendition of the new NTN from Rottefella with Scarpa's new TX Pro boot.
I have never been an outspoken fan of the NTN system. It just seems to go in the opposite direction of touring friendly gear for my tatses, but the new Scarpa boot and the latest version of the binding proved to be quite fun for resort ripping. It's a powerful setup for sure. It's not for everyone, in my opinion, but it clearly delivers a tight, responsive interface for resort-style skiing. I was pleasantly surprised at its on-piste functionality. The system mates well with a big ski for aggressive skiing.
On other fronts, the new G3 Tonic and Zen Oxide (lightweight ski with same dimensions as the Hombre) have been popular as was the Rossignol Powder Bird. The Powder Bird is one heck of a stable ski for aggressive resort skiing. The Zen Oxide and Tonic have more touring apeal and proved to be very adept in soft snow.
We will have more from K2, Atomic, Dynafit, Volkl, and Karhu in the coming weeks, as well as a look at the BD Method AT boot, the Scarpa Skookum AT boot, and more.
OSLO, Norway (March 20, 2009) – Rottefella AS, a leading manufacturer of bindings for Nordic skiing, this week announced that it will close Naxo AG, its wholly owned subsidiary that produces Naxo alpine-touring bindings. The move will allow Rottefella to refocus all of its resources on the Nordic and telemark skiing market, where it dominates ski binding sales worldwide and has introduced 13 new binding designs in the last five years, including the innovative New Telemark Norm (NTN) binding system.
“Despite strong sales and marketing support for Naxo since Rottefella purchased it in 2006, the bottom line is that Naxo hasn’t achieved the critical mass worldwide that we needed in a very crowded market,” said Torbjorn Ragg, Marketing and Sales Manager for Rottefella.
The upside of Naxo’s closing is that it will free up resources to help Rottefella re-double its focus on the core of its business, Ragg said.
“And that will help us continue to lead the market in innovations for Nordic skiing in all its forms – racing, touring, backcountry and telemark,” he said.
Beyond the obvious ski gear, what gear is important for a ski tour? There are a few fundamental "must haves" - a shovel, probe, beacon, skins, but beyond these items, there is a fair bit of lattitude as to what is necessary for touring. I went through my pack for a typical day trip and my pack is pretty sparse. It goes along with the pack light mooch heavy program to which I like to subscribe, but it is also utilitarian.
This selection includes a spare hat and gloves, but does not include my normal synthetic puffy layer that I pack, too.
The contents here are for day tours where I am familiar with and confident about the terrain. I use and inspect my gear regularly, so I do not carry much repair gear. I have spent more time repairing other people's gear over the years than I have my own.
A good criticism of my day gear is that I am noticiably short on first aid, but even when I pack first aid it is typically minimalistic - athletic tape, advil/vicadin, gause pads.
Climbing skins are, obviously, essential equipment for backcountry skiing. For a piece of gear that we use as much as we do, climbing skins do not get a lot of press. Skis are more fun to talk about for sure, but a good skin is key to a good day.
I have a variety of skins going at the moment. Dynafit makes a skin to match their Manaslu ski and I have used them quite a bit this winter. The skin's unique attachment system interfaces with the slot in the tip of the Manaslu ski. I am not one for equipment designed for a single use, but the tip attachment system does work well. It is easy to release and I have never had any trouble with it getting kicked free or falling off during use. The skins are one of the better gliding skins out there,too, and their uphill traction is pretty good, not the best, but i would rather have a skin that glides well and climbs pretty good than a skin that glides ok and climbs the best. One of the best things about the dynafit skin is that it stays pretty darn dry in all conditions, and it is, as you might expect from Dynafit, nice and light. The glue has been reliable, but I question its ability to stand the test of time as it seems a bit thin. So far so good, but time will tell.
Another skin I have been impressed with is the G3 Alpinist. It has proven to glide as well as any skin I have, and climbs great. Like the Dynafit, the G3 skin is also quite light. It is tough to compare them as they are cut to different width skis, but they definitely fall into the lightweight skin category. The cool thing about the Alpinist skin is its unique and functional tip attachment. The system uses two swiveling clips and the design accomodates a wide variety of tip shapes. It has proven to be bomber. With a season-and-a-half of use, the glue has proven reliable, too.
The last pair of skins i have in the mix is a pair of Black Diamond Glidelites. The offer a great reliable tip and tail attachment. The tail clip is similar to to the popular tail clip systems available, but i think it is one of th best. My complaint on the GlideLite is that the glide does not measure up against the Dynafit or G3's. The old blue and white GlideLite had one of the best glides around a few years back, but the newer version is sluggish. They do climb great and the glue is the oldest of all the skins i have and has stood the test of time well.
Key to a good skinning experience is good skin care. It is not rocket science to treat your skins well, but there are a few key elements to using skins.
Rule #1 - Do not let the glue side touch the snow.
Rule #2 - Keep them folded glue side to glue side when not in use. I fold them in half as best as the wind will allow.
Rule #3 - If the glueside begins to ice up, tuck the skins inside your jacket on the descent, and or you can scrape the glue side against your ski edge - holdskin on either side of the ski edge and run it over the edge - and then stuff them inside your layers to warm up.
Rule #4 - keep the glue clean. Things like pine needles, sap, and animal fur will compromise your skin glue.
Rule #5 - Be sure to dry your skins over night
Rule #6 - Keep the skin side away from open water. Skins ice up when they get. stepping in wet snow or letting the tails dip into a creek on a creek crossing will set you up for clumping. I like to carry a plastic ski scraper (it has numerous applications) and use it to scrape my skins if they begin to clump up at all. A ski scraper and some skin wax go a long way, but applying skin wax without scraping them will limit the effectiveness of wax.
I get a lot of questions about layering and clothing for touring. I have a standard set-up that serves me well in a pretty wide range of temps/conditions. For me, everything revolves around a good breathable set-up while climbing and an easy way to stay warm when stopped. I dress as minimalist as possible for the uphill. On my legs I use a highly breathable softshell pant and a very lightweight base layer. Looking at the upper body, I normally use a simple, lightweight base layer with a light fleece layer like a Patagonia R1over it (if the temps warrant) and a superlight, breathable softshell on top. Staying well vented and relatively sweat free while climbing is key to all day comfort. A key element to my layering system is a warm synthetic puffy jacket that I can easily put on over everything when I stopped.
I never leave for a tour without a synthetic puffy. It is essential for staying warm during transitions, snack breaks, and in the event of a problem. Typically, my layering is just enough to keep me warm when working uphill and I do not have to adjust these layers. However, anytime I stop for any lenght of time I throw my puffy on over everything I already have on. This makes for a good simple system, and you never have to take off your shell or change layers below it. This minimizes transition times and reduces overall clothing management. The last thing I do before skiing down is pull off my puffy jacket and stuff it in my pack. When it is cold, I often find myself skiing down in my my puffy, and just pack it for the uptrack.
For me, it is key that a good puffy be light, compressible, hooded, and sized to fit over all of my layers. I choose synthetic insulation because I am hard on this piece of gear. It gets packed and repacked all day long, often damp with snow. The synthetic insulation stands up to this abuse very well, maintains its warmth well, and drys quickly at the end of the day without any special attention.
A variety of companies make jackets that fit the bill for this piece. Two of my favorites are the Outdoor Research Chaos jacket and the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody. The Chaos jacket offers a bit more insulative value than the Micro Puff Hoody and it actually uses a waterproof Gore paclite shell fabric. It still packs well, and it stays dryer than my Micro Puff in marginal weather. The Micro Puff Hoody packs smaller, is a little lighter weight, and has endured several years of abuse without any undue wear. The OR Chaos has become my go-to jacket for mid winter cold, while the Micro Puff Hoody is my choice for more moderate Northwest temps.
I will look at more key items that I think are well suited to touring later this month.
There are still a few details from the tradeshow that I have not posted because I have been busy getting the fourth issue of the season ready for the printer, but I thought I would grab a moment this morning to share a couple items.
First, Voile unveiled new graphics for their Insane and Asylum models as well as a new rockered ski called the Drifter. It was not that long ago when the Insane made most of the other skis out there look narrow. Now, the other skis out there are starting to make the Insane (100mm underfoot) begin to look on the narrow side! Pretty crazy. I am still a firm believer that 90-100mm underfoot is ideal for general softsnow touring. The Insane stioll makes a hell of a powder ski.
Word from Wally (Voile founder) is that the Drifter is an all new experience. He actually compared skiing it to snowboarding. I have yet to ski any of the big fat rockered boards in really nice deep snow, but they do offer an incredible amount of stability and (obviously) flotation.
In other interesting news, Backcountry Access showed a new airbag avalanche pack. There is a fair bit of talk about avalanche survival these days (didn't the talk used to be about avalanche avoidance?). Anyway, on the subject of avalanche survival, the Avalung has been making headlines and there is a lot of talk about airbag packs. Many experts tout the airbag pack as one of the better options when it comes to survival. The packs help create a buffer around your head and neck that helps protect against trauma, and it also helps create an air pocket as it deflates after burial - not to mention that the pack is designed to help avoid burial alltogether.
BCA's pack was still in the develpment stages and I neglected to take a photo, but it looks promising. BCA also showed a new shovel/probe and shovel/saw system. The shovel is available with either a probe or a snow-saw option and stows neatly into the shaft. The idea is not new, but the execution of the idea is cleaner and more solid than past versions.
The trade show yielded a few cool items this season. Given my relatively short time in the show, I focus on the main hardware related to backcountry skiing. There are a variety of cool items in the pipe for fall 2009.
BD has a new skin that is designed for skis over 110mm underfoot. The skin is split in the middle and a strip of ripstop nylon runs up the center of the skin, seperating the skin into two sections that cover the outside edges. If you have ever skinned with 100+mm of skin, you know that this is a cool idea. According to BD, offering it in a narrower version simply did not offer the advantages they found at 110mm and above. Great idea and good to see some thought going into the weight and drag of skins.
On the skin front, K2 jumps into the climbing skin world this year. Rather than reinventing the wheel, K2 pursued Rick Liu, former partner with the original Ascension skin company, to source skins. The new K2 skins use the well known and trusted Ascension skin materials paired with a new tip and tail connection system developed to work with K2's new skis. The skins use a simple, low profile tip and tail connection system that works with tip and tail holes found in all of K2's new skis (see images). The system is slick and easy to use but we have not had them in the field yet.
K2 did not stop with skins. They developed a line of new adjustable poles as well. They are modeled on the flick-lock type mechanism for adjustability. The poles are marked with centimeter markes on both the upper and lower shafts to allow for on the fly snow evaluation purposes, checking the new snow depth and such. They also include marks that allow you to measure slope angle without an extra inclinometer. They are clean and straight forward and available in alluminum and carbon fiber models.
Moving to bindings there was a big buzz at the show surrounding G3's new Onyx AT binder. G3 stepped up to the plate with the first binding to go head to head with Dynafit's "tech" binder. The Onyx uses the same toe and heel attachment system found on any Dynafit compatible boot, but they set their sights to take the binding to a new level. I was able to ski the binding for a few runs at the on-snow demo, and I got the full run down on its functionality from one of the two primary engineers behind its design.
The Onyx is well thought out and offers a solid platform for skiing. The big debate amongst show goers was simply - is it better than the Dynafit? The answer is not so cut and dry. Both are rated to Din 10. Both offer brake and crampon compatabilty. Both have their idiosyncrasies for stepping in. For some, the fact that the Onyx weighs in at 1.43 kg/pair and the Dynafit TLT Vertical weighs in at .85kg/pair answers the question. Some see the extra beef of the Onyx as a positive. We should get a pair here before too long so i can spend some more time getting to know it.
I have a bit more on some new boots from Garmont and other assorted items.
I am back in the Hood after several days of trade show fun. I managed to get out skiing a couple of days while in UT. In fact, we found good skiing on Friday despite the Utah Avalanche Center's discouraging words about the snow quality . . .
We got slimed yesterday afternoon and overnight with weather right out of Blade Runner—drenching rain falling through the choking smog. Rain fell yesterday up to 9,200’. Sundance reported over 2 inches of water overnight, almost all from rain, while Alta UDOT reported 1 inch of water with 6 inches of snow, which is a leg-wrenching, 20 percent. It might pass for powder in Oregon but it goes by much less flattering terms around here. Ridge top winds are light and temperatures have barely dropped below freezing at 9,500’.
Fortunately, Larry, Tim, and I all have plenty of experience with such snow. Despite the report's Oregon reference, the UAC does an awesome job with thier reports, and their icon driven style along with the avalanche rose and excellent presentation should be a standard for other avalanche centers around the country to emulate.
The snow quality did not seem to keep too many people away from the mountains though, and we took to referring to the mountains around Little Cottonwood as the Wasatch Mountain Resort give the plethora of skin tracks and skiers we saw out in the "slimy" conditions.
A trip to Salt Lake is not complete without a meal at the Lone Star Taqueria. We stopped in for dinner and made sure to update the "sticker mobile" with some new Off-Piste stickers.
On the trade show front, I have many more details and images of the gear we checked out, and i will get that up tomorrow - if not later today.
I am in Salt Lake for the annual winter Outdoor Retailer show this week. We spent today up at Snowbasin Ski Resort for the on-snow demo. We checked out new skis from all the usual suspects including, K2, G3, Black Diamond, Karhu, Dynafit, Rossignol, Atomic, Movement, and Goode.
Predictably, rockered tips and big dimensions are the name of the game in 2009 ski design. BD showed a full fleet of revamped boards as did K2. BD introduced a couple of new skis, but also has updated versions of the Kilowatt, Havoc, and Zealot. K2's entire line is new and is flush in rockered tips, with the Coomback, the Sidestash (108 underfoot), and the Darkisde(128 underfoot) among others. G3 introduced two new rockered tip skis, the Tonic and the Zest (women's). Ski conditions were on the firm side for testing backcountry powder skis, but it is remarkable how well most skis handle the firm snow despite their dimensions.
It was great to get to check out the new G3 Onyx Alpine Touring binders in person. It offers an interesting variation on the classic Dynafit TLT. I look forward to spending more time on it in the near future.
Tomorrow, we head indoors for the traditional inside show. More details to follow.
I recently got a helmet cam for some testing. I have always been a still camera guy and know very little about video. The camera I have is a VIO POV cam, and it has proven to be nearly fool proof. Not only was it easy to use, but it was also painless to edit and upload.
The video below is my first attempt at skiing with the camera. It is no TGR, hopefully the conditions will improve and i can atleast capture some good turns. Yesterday the conditions for skiing were grim, but the weather was great. I went up on Hood's northside where the temp was pushing 50 degrees, and the wind was howling out of the west. As you can see from the vid, the snowcover is poor. I skied down through a burn from last summer, known locally as the Gnarl Ridge Fire. Most of the snow is covered with a light coat of ash, but it is an interesting window into the burn if you know the area.
Back in early December I wrote about the various telemark boots we have here at the office. The line-up includes, Scarpa T1 (all black vintage), Garmont Syner-G, Garmont Veloce, and the newest boot - the Black Diamond Seeker.
The Seeker is BD's three-buckle, touring friendly freeheel boot. We selected it over the Push as our preferred toring boot. Our choice of a three-buckle boot for touring sets our bias for a lighter boot for all-around touring use. The bigger boots certainly have their place, and there are many skiers who prefer big boots for all pursuits, but I believe that a boot like the Seeker or the Syner-G are plenty of boot for a wide range of skiing.
The Seeker is similar in cuff height and general style to the a boot like te Syner-G and it weighs in at about 3lbs 13oz (1.73kg) - about five ounces more than the Syner-G.
On snow, the Seeker performs well. It offers excellent control and power for a boot of its size. Skiing it at the resort on a pair of K2 Work Stinx, I found that I could crank down the liner, snug up the buckles and get everything I needed from the boot in mixed, cut up snow. The flex is reasonable and the upper boot is there when you need it.
The Seeker tours well too. Although I have only used it on day trips, I found it to be soft enough for a comfortable all-day fit. I did find myslef loosening the liner and upper buckles to allow for good uphill comfort, but all in all the boot tours well.
Overall, I found it a bit stouter than the Syner-G in both flex and touring comfort, but some of this could be attributed to the small number of ski days on the Seeker versus the large number of days on the Syner-G. There may be better boots for driving a twin tipped fat ski, but for all around use on more moderately waisted, touring oriented skis (mid 90's and narrow), the Seeker is solid option.
G3 Announced their new Onyx AT binding today with a fancy interactive website. The binding takes its basics from the Dynafit TLT binding and requires a Dynafit compatible boot. We have yet to use the binding, but it looks very promising. It weighs in at 1430 grams. check it out www.g3onyx.com
I've been getting a lot of requests to load our 0809 ski review on the web. Remember, you can always subscribe and request the October issue, but in the mean time; here is the oft requested 0809 Off-Piste Mag backcountry ski review. Our ski testing is not comprehensive, but we feel we offer a good cross section of the backcountry skis that are available.
The weather is finally beginning to resemble winter around here. If the current storm system tracks as forecasted, we could be skiing any day. The NWAC forecast shows over 2inches of water equivalent in the next two days. We need it, I have boots to test.
I have been tele skiing for about 20 years. Having started in leather boots and experienced the plastic revolution first hand, I have skied just about every plastic tele boot at one time or another over the years.
Right now, the gear room has four different tele boots: the Garmont Synergy, The Garmont Veloce (a discontinued model), a Scarpa T-1, and the new Black Diamond Seeker. My preference in tele boots is for softer three to four buckle varieties, and I keep the Veloce (two buckles) around for lighter xcd gear and longer go light needs. The two-buckle plastic boot category appears to be evaporating as both Scarpa and Garmont (and now BD) seem to devote all their attention to bigger stiffer boots. I find this surprising as the XCD ski category (skis like the Karhu Guide) seems to be growing. It makes me wonder what everyone is using on these skis; a boot like the Veloce (2-buckle 1.33kg/boot) or the now discontinued T-4 are ideal.
The Scarpa T-1 has long been a favorite of mine (3-buckle 1.66kg/boot), but as boots have become bigger and stiffer (the T-1 itself has evolved that direction), I have moved the opposite direction and the Synergy (3-buckle 1.57kg/boot) has become my go-to tele touring boot of choice. It is even in its flex, soft enough for good ankle flex, yet stout enough to drive a 90-100mm waisted ski in variable conditions.
Having looked at the new BD tele boot line, we honed in on the Seeker as the comparable boot from BD. It is a three-buckle boot and weighs in at 1.72kg/boot. The bigger four-buckle boots are helpful for driving bigger skis (100mm+ waist) and aggressive resort skiing, but I find them overkill for most of my touring needs. I will not ramble on about our current lack of snow, but given our current snow conditions (although that could change this weekend), I have not yet skied the Seeker. I look forward to getting some on them soon.
G3 just announced a new ski program for next season. The program revolves around their new relationship with ski designer Francois Sylvain.
". . . Previously the lead designer of Line and Karhu skis, and most recently a consultant for K2, Francois comes to G3 with more than ten years of extensive ski design, construction, and manufacturing experience.
Francois will design future additions to the G3 ski line-up in...
Although we may not be making turns yet, we have had a good flow of gear in the office the past few weeks and I thought I would offer a look inside our gear room for the season. I will go through everything over the next couple of weeks, but I will start with the big one, skis.
The Manaslu (5lbs 12oz / 2.64kg) and the Stelvio light (5lbs 14oz / 2.68kg) take the awards for lightweight. Considering that the Manaslu is about a cm wider underfoot, its weight is impressive. Our experience with the Manaslu has been great, goes up easy and skis well. Its early rise tips keep it afloat in all conditions; it is especially adept at mixed/variable snow. Dynafit introduces its new binding insert program on the Manaslu. The inserts are set up for Dynafit binders only and I have a set of the Vertical TLT's to use on these. The ski performed incredibly well last season in a wide range of snow. Its long rise tip stays afloat in everything and it was one of our top picks in the ski review for a dedicated touring board. Depending on ski length, the Manaslu comes in at 95 or 92 underfoot, and although it may not be one of the widest skis available, it is incredibly versatile and capable. The Stelvio is narrower but has been a favorite for boot top and spring days. It is lighter and a little less beefy than the regular stelvio freeride, but we feel it skis backcountry snows every bit as well.
The Karhu Storm BC takes the place of the Jak BC in Karhu's line up, a ski that has been my go-to touring board for several years in both tele and AT. The Storm BC weighs in at 6lbs 10oz (3kg). I have not had enough time on the Storm BC to fully define its personality yet, but given its 96mm waist and 128mm tip it is a hair fatter than the Manaslu and full pound per pair heavier. The Storm BC and the Manaslu will go head to head to replace the Jak BC as my go-to touring board of choice.
I see the Coomba from K2 as a slightly different beast. It weighs in at 8lbs 10oz (3.68kg) and offers 102mm underfoot and 135mm at the tip. Given its size and weight, I see the Coomba fitting into the mechanized access end of my quiver. I am relatively lightweight at 135lbs, and although big skis are loads of fun, I have yet to move to 100mm+ underfoot for touring. I know there are plenty of folks who will suggest that I am missing out, but for now I am satisfied with the mid 90's underfoot for touring. Maybe, what I need to do is fit a pair of Voile Insanes into the quiver, and I will change my mind about touring with 100mm+ . . .
Our new batch of Off-Piste stickers just arrived here at the office. We went for a new shape this year that is more elongated than earlier models. They are still the same high quality vinyl we have always used. For a limited time, just send us a self addresses stamped envelope (SASE) and we will drop a few in the mail for ya. You can find our address under the contact us heading.
We just received the Ortovox S1 avalanche transceiver with the updated software here at the office. It is a very interesting beacon, and we are stoked to check it out in the coming months. I have long used the Backcountry Access Tracker and still believe it is great beacon, but late last season I began testing several of the newer three antenna digital beacons. I must say I am impressed with their various operations.
The S1 takes the prize for the most high tech appearance - it reminds me of a Star Trek communications device - however, It is remarkably simple in its interface. I have not had it up in the snow yet this season, so I am not going to speak to its field performance yet. You can look for more beta on each of the different beacons as winter unfolds. In the meantime, you should check out the article we published last season about the Barryvox Pulse, the Pieps DSP, and the Ortovox S1. You can view a pdf version of the article here or download the entire January '08 Issue here. I look forward to some extended use of these beacons this winter.
A pair of the Black Diamond's new Seeker tele boots arrived at the office last week. Ski conditions are a bit marginal right now, but I thought I would give a quick heads up on the boot before we get a chance to ski in it.
First, we chose the Seeker over the Custom or the Push (BD's four buckle boots and part of their Power Series) because we were looking for the boot we thought would offer a good compromise between touring and turning. Unless you are pushing the biggest ski's around, the Seeker should be enough boot to ski most boards. Comparing to the Garmont Synergy (a boot we feel is a good blend of power and comfort for touring), the Seeker is nearly identical in cuff height and buckle set-up.
The Seeker is lower volume than the Synergy in the instep but the cuff and ankle flex are similar. Out of the box, the Seeker is stiffer in the bellows, but that is likely because the boot has yet to be skied, while the Synergy we have in the office has a full season of skiing on it.
There is snow up on Hood right now and if the good weather holds this week, I will try to get on this boot asap and get some more solid info on its performance - you can get all the specs from BD.
In April, I was able to visit the Ski Trab ski company's factory in Bormio, Italy. I was skiing in the mountains nearby and realized it was much easier to ski into the town than it would be to drive or take a train.
Giacomo Trabucchi made his first wooden ski in 1946 and Ski Trab as a company was born. Today, the company is still run by members of the Trabucchi family. Ski Trab is best known in North America for their super lightweight skis designed with randonee racing in mind. Skis such as the Free Rando and the Free Rando Light are very popular with the the fast and light racing crowd.
Less well known but equally as well designed and constructed are the Ski Trab Stelvio Freerides. It is the fattest ski that Ski Trab makes, but at 84mm underfoot the ski is often overlooked in the North American market. It may not be the fattest board around but the Stelvio is an excellent ski and handles a wide variety of ski conditions with ease. I have been using them for a full season and am impressed with their versatility and fun factor. We have reviewed the Stelvio here.
My visit to the Ski Trab Factory in Bormio was a great window into a small but high-tech company dedicated to making quality handmade skis. From the 3-D software based design room to the custom flex testing machiines and the room where each ski is layed up by hand, Ski Trab uses cutting edge materials and design techniques. They do everything in house, from milling the wood core materials to creating the molds and pressing the skis. For a humble family owned ski company, Ski Trab offers an impressive set-up.
We suggested and questioned about the possibility of producing a wider ski more geared toward the North American touring/freeride market. Our questions were answered with "we are working on it". These guys make some great skis and although the rando race skis may not serve the broader backcountry market here, the potential to blend aspects of their lightweight construction with the characteristics of their Stelvio into a wider ski is there. Our ski posse urged them to push into wider skis, they laughed a little at our insistence on wider skis, but I believe they heard us too and do have some plans in the works. I will write up a longer article on the factory tour for the mag this fall.
I have long been a user of insulated leather work gloves for backcountry skiing. They are inexpensive, offer great dexterity, take a fair bit of abuse, and still seem to keep me warm and dry in most conditions. They are not the best for biting cold or serious storm cycle skiing, but they are excellent for general ski touring. There are a variety of these gloves available at your local hardware/ranch supply type store and you will pleasantly surprised by the price. I prefer deerskin...
In search of the perfect soft-shell for ski touring I have tested close to a dozen jackets. One of the best is the Patagonia Ready Mix shell. It is is one of the most versatile and simplist jackets I have used. Right beside it in perfomance and simplicity is Patagonia's new Ascensionist soft-shell. Both shells are incredibly lightweight and packable, yet offer the true breathable protection that suits ski touring so well.
Both Jackets are lighter than...
It was in January 1978 that Karhu introduced their original XCD ski - it was a marriage of Nordic construction and downhill performance into one ski, the XCD. A ski that subsequently launched a genre of skis for karhu. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of their XCD ski program, Karhu invited a group of skiers to the North Cascades for a couple days of touring on the Guide, the flagship ski from their current XCD ski line.
What is an XCD ski you ask? XCD or cross-country...
Climbing skins are an underappreciated tool. We spend more time using them than not using them on most days. However, without skins, ski touring would be a different sport. I have used just about every skin on the market over the years. They all do the job and many of them have had their bouts with bad glue or various issues. The Alpinist Skin from G3 was new this season and although it took us a while to get a pair, they were worth the wait.
Nalgene, long time maker of water bottles for outdoor users, has announced it will be pulling bottles made with the controversial bisphenol A chemical (BPA) from store shelves. The full release from Nalgene is viewable here on their website. You can also read more about it from various major news networks including msnbc here.
My understanding is that the bottles in question are the popular hard plastic Nalgenes that we have all used for so many years. Nalgene has a special webpage with details on their bottles here. The chemical industry experts are saying that the low level of BPA present is not a concern. Health experts suggest further studies are in need. Nalgene, to their credit, is taking a big step here. Please pass along any other info if you come accross good sources on the web.
We have been ski testing the past week and have more on deck this week. It is quite a process to get all the skis mounted and tuned up, not to mention getting them on snow. The weather has been great for testing. We have had new snow and cold temps for several days. Now it looks like we may get a dose of classic spring crud to add into the mix. The wet snow is actually quite good for testing as it pushes a ski to its limits pretty well.
We have ski s from K2, Karhu, G3, Atomic,...
I have been testing the SPOT messenger device for a few weeks now. SPOT is a hand-held unit that uses GPS satelites and commercial communication satelites to transmit a call for help or to send a message that everything is ok. In addition to your message, it includes your gps coordinates.
The device retails for $169 and requires a fee based service plan to run the messages. The unit must be programmed at home on the computer. You set up three recipients for your ...
We just got a note from Scarpa about an upgrade they are offering for folks who purchased this year's Terminator X. Here is the note from Scarpa -
Hey Dave –
Wanted to shoot you a little beta on a free upgrade that SCARPA is offering to customers who bought this year’s Terminator X. As you may or may not know, we are going to triple-injection molding in this boot next year that will allow the bellows to have a softer flex while still retaining the tornsional and...
Mt Hood has been in the midst of a major snow cycle and I used the opportunity to give G3's El Hombre a good test. El Hombre measures in at 136/105/124, the snowpack has measured in double digit every day this week. The combination seemed like a good match.
The Hombres are mounted with AT binders and I have skied exclusively at the ski area with them. Although they weigh in at a respectable 3.9kg/pair, it is a big board for touring and I simply have not broken the touring barrier with such a big ski yet.
On the snow El Hombre likes to go. There is no need to be shy in any condition, these skis make short work of it all. They are remarkably lively for their size. They prefer medium to big radius turns but I have found them equally as reliable when a few short radius turns are needed.
El Hombre simply like to go fast, turns with ease in all snow, and rides up and over everything you would hope it would. That said, the Hombres do all this without taking you for a ride. Some big skis make me feel like I am just along for the ride. With the Hombre, I always feel like I am driving.
From windbuff to fluff and cut-up pow to groomers, El Hombre is up for the task. The skis have personality and allow you to ski in snow and places you would not venture with a narrower ski. Hood is famous for its wind and dense snow. The Hombre never waivers, regardless of what is underfoot, they float up on everything, and really come to life at speed.
With the trade show on the horizon, a lot of the 2008 ski gear is starting to emerge. I was just up a Scarpa clinic where we got a peak at the 2008 boot line. All 2008 boots feature nice Intuition thermofit liners and a variety of upgrades from the 2007 line including a new NTN compatible boot and new Alpine like performance AT boots. You can get a quick look for yourself on this video clip as Scarpa's Chris Clark walks through the new line.
Black Diamond recently released info on their new boot line and it sounds like we may have a chance to put a few on snow at the trade show in late January.
The AT boots (three models) look like all business for the descent and BD suggests they make no compromise on the touring end. The teles (six models) look clean and straightforward and the release says they have different bellows flex for their different niches, "Each style of boot is designed with either...
Jarl Berg from Bergs Ski Shop in Eugene, OR has been experimenting with the new NTN telemark binding. His latest creation adds a Dynafit heel piece to the NTN system to create a Tele/AT hybrid - very interesting Jarl.
Here is a video of his creation and a few words from Jarl.
Garmont introduced their new Axon boot earlier this fall. It is billed as the "stiffest, highest-performance Dynafit®-compatible boot on the market". We got a pair in the office and I took them out for a week of testing.
Good fit is ensured by their thermofit liners and I heat molded the liners for the trip. There is no question that these boots are stiff and I was suspect about how well they would tour. The boot is not necessarily marketed to the hut touring crowd, but...
Finally, after years of being asked for them, we now have Off-Piste ball caps. In keeping with current trends these babies are 100% organic cotton and come in two earth friendly colors, brown and jungle. We have two styles, regular ball cap style and corps style.
We used the various "free-pivot" telemark bindings for a good part of last season and have continued using them into this season. I have been psyched with the results. Now that they exist, it is hard to believe that it took this long for free-pivot systems to evolve. The bottom line, in my opinion, is that free-pivot or touring bindings evolved because of beefy plastic boots. As boots got bigger and stiffer, bindings evolved to meet the performance needs of the...
I have been using a pair of Outdoor Research Tremor Pants for about a month now. I am a longtime user of soft-shell pants for touring. These pants are what I would call a hybrid soft-shell. They use a soft-shell outer fabric that adds a Gore Wind-Stopper membrane to the mix. They are light, breathable, and functional.
I have used the pants for both touring and lift skiing this year. Upon first inspection, they are light in weight, well constructed and clean in design. I have toured and ridden the lifts with these pants and the have performed very well. They have built-in gaiters that zip out for folks like me who prefer a gaiterless pant. Although the gaiters looked perfectly functional, I had no complaints without them and removing them makes the pants easier to put on.
The side vents offer great ventilation and my initial concern that the pants might be too warm for a day touring relative to my traditional soft shell pants was no concern at all. I would suggest a regular softshell for spring touring, but for all around winter use, the Tremor is a great blend of traditional Gore-Tex protection and a light comfortable softshell feel. They offer significantly better protection from the wind and elements than my regular soft shell pants and this makes them better suited for lift skiing and storm days. I also like the boot cuffs that are ample in size and reinforced on the inside to protect from ski edge and crampon damage. The pants also have loops for suspenders, which are key to keeping the pants in place for me while touring. I missed the side cargo pocket found on my old softshells but I can learn to live without it.
If you are in need of pants that can tour as well as offer decent lift skiing protection, the Tremor is worth a look. I am headed on a hut trip next week and will give them the full-week-long-tour-test. I am confident they will be the only pant I need.
In the spirit of free heels and free minds, Voile is offering a new program for recycling old tele binders. The program, spurred on by Voile's own internal recycle program and an effort to keep old bindings out of the landfill, offers skiers a 30% discount on new Voile tele bindings when they send in an old pair for recycling. According Dave Grissom, Voile's Sales and Marketing guy, they "can scrap all steel, aluminum, and most plastic parts".
Voile has been in the tele binder business for nearly 30 years and already had an active in-house metal recycling program for old parts, miscellaneous scrap, and such. The program is open to any old tele bindings from Voile or their competitors. The 30% discount is offered on any Voile binding, except the their new Switchback free-pivot touring binding.
My wife and I have the same ski poles, they are Life-Link Carbon Pro poles, adjustable length with a great swing-weight and they have proven nearly indestructable. My pair is six plus years old and has been around the world; I use 'em for all my ski needs winter, spring, and summer. The ovalized upper shaft works flawlessly for adjusting length - my pair is well worn and well loved.
Well, on my first ski day this winter I grabbed my wife's poles instead...
Although the weather forecast calls for clear weather through Thanksgiving, the hills are starting to look more like winter in these parts. The resorts are opening limited terrain and there is skiing to be had above treeline.
We had a small wax and tune party the other day to get the sticks ready for action. It was warm and raining while we worked on skis and, by the next day, it was snowing; we even got our first snow in town.
It was fun to get a variety of skis together and compare everyone's opinions on them. I decided we would post our 2007-08 ski review here as a pdf to feed the fire. Praise Ullr and have a good Thanksgiving . . . and don't forget to subscribe to Off-Piste!
Softshell fabrics like Schoeller have been gaining momentum for a handful of years now. They are great for ski touring because they really breath. They do not always offer the same protection form the elements that laminated shells offer but the improved breathability is a worthy trade off when your focus is climbing to ski.
The recent surge in softshell products has created quite a diverse collection of shells and fabrics. The December issue of Off-Piste takes a look at a handful of different hooded softshell jackets. One jacket that we have been using for almost a full year now is the Outdoor Research Mithril Stormshell. Although most softshells do not offer full storm protection like a laminated shell, the Mithril offers incredible protection from the elements. The Ventia fabric that OR uses is, simply stated, bomber. The trade off is in breathability. The Mithril may not be the most breathable shell but its ability to repel the elements is unmatched. This is a jacket designed with the worst Cascade weather in mind.
I used this shell for several days of climbing and skiing on Mt Hood during a search and rescue effort in weather that set records for wind and precip levels. Imagine high winds combined with precip ranging from rain to snow to ice for several days running, the kind of weather where your hood and goggles never come off and you can wring the water out of your gloves. Well, the Mithril survived this cycle with style. I stayed warm and dry in literally some of the worst weather you could imagine and was physically active the whole time. The Mithril is not as breathable as most softshell fabrics (like the more common Schoeller fabrics) but if protection from the elements is your priority, the Mitrill can handle the worst. The Mithril has become my goto jacket for foul weather adventure.
Garmont introduced a new Dynafit compatible boot this month. A beafy four buckle job, the Axiom is designed to meet the needs of the folks looking for big boot performance. We have not skied them yet but here is what Garmont has to say . . .
November 1, 2007 - Williston, VT - Garmont introduces the innovative Axon, available in select stores this fall. The Axon combines the most aggressive alpine freeride performance with the easy touring of the Dynafit® binding system. It is the stiffest, highest-performance Dynafit®-compatible boot on the market, enjoying the light weight, easy touring, and rock-solid turning performance of this clean, ultra light binding system.
Evolved from the benchmark Adrenalin and Endorphin, the Axon has a Garmont Ski Mountaineering sole, molded-in Dynafit® binding fittings, high-performance anatomical lower shell, and close-fitting double-injected cuff for quick, precise turns with maximum leverage. The Axon’s new G-Fit liner is the most refined thermoformable liner on the market, using different thicknesses and densities of foam in key areas for the best comfort and function. Its new separately sewn sole design sits flatter inside the boot shell to get the most width and comfort out of the shell without increasing the volume.
The Axon is as responsive as the best alpine boots, powerful to arc the biggest skis, and as mobile as the best ski mountaineering boots. The Axon hits the mark with the growing popularity of big skis mounted with Dynafits by serious big-mountain backcountry skiers.
Look for more details when we can get a pair to test.
While we are hanging onto a fine sunny October here around Mt. Hood, ski season is not far off and the press releases and announcements are a flying. Following Garmont's announcement that they will be working with Rottefella to offer an NTN compatible boot, Black Diamond recently offered a press release describing their new boot line and giving Fall 2008 as the launch date.
BD plans to offer both AT and Telemark boots. According to BD, they will debut three AT models in the Power Series – the paradigm breaking, four-buckle Factor, a softer flexing Method and the Women’s Shiva. Each boot blends alpine overlap construction with lightweight touring functionality combining the performance an alpine skier demands while providing a highly articulated walk mode for access to the backcountry.
On the telemark side, BD will break out with two collections geared around its Power and Efficiency platforms. The Power Series is built around the Custom, Push and Women’s Stiletto. All three boots raise the bar with progressive flex, torsional power, and alpine inspired fit technologies. The Efficient series adds the Seeker, Women’s Trance and Axis blending smooth, predictable bellows with high torsional stiffness in a lightweight versatile package.
Another release we got was for a clothing company called KJUS Skiwear. Founded in Norway, I am not familiar with the clothing but they produced a movie/infomercial to promote their line and it is available on the web. Big deal? Well, yeah, except for Lofoten, the location where it was filmed. This island chain in Norway is stunning and the movie is worth watching just to see the area, some very cool terrain right on the sea. you can check out the video here - 2007/08 film.
Garmont recently signed on board with Rottefella's NTN (new telemark norm) binding program. This means that now Scarpa, Crispi, and Garmont will all make boots compatible with Rottefella's NTN telemark binding.
Garmont, who had previously commited to work with the new system being developed by Black Diamond released this statement about their decision to support the Rottefella NTN,
“Garmont is pleased to be invited to rejoin the NTN program. During the past year, we have kept a close eye on its progress. We are impressed with what Rottefella has achieved with NTN. The NTN boot-binding system perfectly meets and exceeds the performance requirements of the most demanding free heel and Free ride skier. Thus, the new NTN system will allow Garmont to continue on our mission of building the best ski boots on the planet,” states Achille Morlin, President of Garmont.
It should be an interesting year ahead for the tele world as the Rottefella NTN binding becomes available in North America this fall and Black Diamond continues to pursue their independent development of a new telemark boot and binding interface.
Rottefella released this statement about having Garmont's support,
“This is a crucial step in establishing NTN as the future Telemark norm. The close collaboration between Rottefella (binding) and boot producers Crispi and Scarpa has helped to create a binding/boot interface that has proven itself to give the skier a superior performance - and thus superior skiing experience - when compared to existing Telemark equipment. With Garmont joining Rottefella, it gives us added inspiration and confidence to continue developing NTN as a dependable, universal choice for all alpine and telemark skiers out there,” says Ulf Bjerknes, President of Rottefella AS.
New in 06-07, the Osprey Switch 36 returns for the 07-08 season. I used this pack all last ski season and for a variety of climbs and hikes over the summer. At 36 liters, it has enough space for a big day but packs small for lighter days without feeling like too much pack. A modified top loader design, the Switch 36 is divided into two main interior areas plus a large lid compartment.
The top, called a hatchback by Osprey, offers the convenience of a zipper top while...
I skied the Scarpa Spirit 3 all last season. A three-buckle boot with a touring bias, the boot is a step above the Matrix in the Scarpa line-up, offers Dynafit compatibility, and seemed like a logical step for my next boot.
The Spirit 3 uses a new strap system that broadens the pull of the straps thus giving four-buckle security with three buckles. The straps use a broad base of attachment to increase their potency and it works. The boot actually snugs up and offers the power...
Here are a couple links to older gear reviews we carried over from the original website. They link to pdf copies of the review as it appeared in the mag.Stay tuned for new gear reviews on the main blog.