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April 18, 2017

On the Bench

Yes, this week it's Neil Gorsuch and the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD.

The boot that everyone's been talking about this spring is here in the shop. The Hawx Ultra XTD is a 130 flex, all-Grilamid beef touring boot without the lard. At 1406 grams in a 26.5, the XTD is lighter than any of the "power" touring boots we've seen to date. Lighter than the MTN Lab (1550 grams), lighter than the Zero G Guide Pro (1508 grams), and lighter than the old benchmark carbon-cuffed Vulcan (1560 grams), the XTD was rumored to be ultra stiff, though a bit "blocky" in flex. I was anxious to see how this new boot stacks up against the competition, and jumped on the opportunity to test it when our Atomic rep offered a pair.

The 26.5 Hawx Ultra XTD makes weight like nothing else in the class

I'll start by talking about the fit of the XTD. Atomic says they use the same last as the regular Hawx Ultra boots, which features a 98mm forefoot, relatively tall instep, and average heel pocket. The XTD, which uses the same last, feels both roomier and longer, which I put down to the use of an ultra low volume liner (not that much different from the production Backland Carbon liner). Don't pay too much attention to the nominal "narrow" last numbers, because this boot has plenty of volume for most average to slightly wider than average feet, and Atomic's Memory Fit heat customization process will likely make it fit the majority of feet without the need for a master bootfitter.

For reference, I have a wide 104mm foot with substantial bunions at both the 1st and 5th metatarsal heads (total width is ~112mm counting bunions), an average instep height, and a wide medial midfoot. I also measure out at 27.6 on a Brannock device, so the 26.5 Ultra XTD is not a “natural” fit. When first putting the boot on, I had some trouble getting my foot past the bend in the midfoot, as the shell diameter is quite snug at the base of ankle and the Grilamid very stiff. Most people will find it helpful to pull the shell wider as they pull the boot on, and those with tall insteps may find it fairly difficult to put on. If you're seriously in the market for this boot, however, "easy to put on" is probably not that high on the list of requirements, as you only do this once a day. For the record, my 26.5 Ultra XTD's have a boot sole length of 302mm, right in between the Salomon MTN Lab (301mm) and the Tecnica Zero G Guide Pro (305mm) and Lange XT Freetour (306mm), so fortunately all of my bindings will fit without re-drilling.

I have a long history of making narrow lasted boots fit my foot, and the Hawx Ultra XTD was good raw material. Both the shell and cuff are Grilamid, which is one of my favorite ski boot plastics to punch, and the XTD mods went smoothly. With a punch on each side for the 1st met head, 5th met head, 5th phalanges and one for the medial malleolus on the left side, the boots fit like a glove without resorting to using the oven. For people with only slight width conflicts, the Memory Fit heat customization method should be adequate – our rep suggested baking the shells with liners out for 5-7 minutes at around 240 degrees Fahrenheit and putting the liners on the heat stacks at the same time. My end results were super comfortable before I even skied in the boot, and I was able to use my “thick” custom posted footbeds immediately (normally I use a thinner footbed for 4-6 days until the liner packs out). I’m also using the second and third buckle notches over the forefoot already, so those with wider feet (and access to a good bootfitter) shouldn’t dismiss this boot without trying it on first. For the record, I didn't need to widen the midfoot area (under the medial malleolus, just to the rear of the navicular) on the XTD, whereas both the Zero G Guide Pro and MTN Lab needed a fair amount of work.

Skinning in the boot is very good, with excellent forward range of motion and decent rearward range, and super smooth action due to the same sort of cuff pivots used in the Backland series boots. Atomic literature lists a 54 degree total range, but that’s probably with the liner out and no foot in the boot. In reality, the rearward movement is cut short by the snug fit around the ankle, with the bend in the lower shell being the limiting factor rather than the walk mode hardware. Someone with a thin ankle structure and low instep will likely find the rearward range of motion better, but for average length strides on the skintrack the boot tours very well. Buyers will want to make sure they fully loosen both upper buckles and the power strap for skinning, as range of motion suffers if you leave it partially buckled.

Walk mode lever appears the same as that used on the Backland boots; unscrew the lever and flip the metal retention clip to go from 15 to 17 degrees

Atomic claims a 54 degree range of motion but you'll have trouble using it all

In ski mode, the Ultra XTD is closer to a traditional 130 flex than other boots in the class, notably the Lange XT Freetour, Tecnica Zero G Guide Pro, and Salomon MTN Lab. Compared to my 130 flex “lift-served” boots – Lange RS 130 and Tecnica Mach 1 LV 130 – I’d rate them at a solid 125. While some other testers have reported the flex as “blocky” and “not progressive,” I found them quite predictable, which is the most important characteristic in my book. Let's say they are progressive, but with a smaller "progression window" than some of the competition. They are stiff enough to be confidence-inspiring in sticky spring slop, and engage more quickly under pressure than any of the three boots I just mentioned, but not in a negative way. To be fair, I’ve tried the XTD on in the shop in a 27.5 and 28.5 as well, and both of these felt uncomfortably stiff while also putting a lot of pressure on my lower shin between the two upper buckles, while the 26.5 flexes nicely on my foot, so it’s possible that a snug fit around the ankle is key. The production liner with the thicker, stiffer tongue may also change things.

You feel the stiffness in other ways, too. I normally de-skin without removing my skis, following the late Stéphane Brosse's edict, "chaussure, fix, peau (boot, binding, skin)" - but the Ultra XTD is stiff enough that locking the walk mode lever makes it nearly impossible to reach and twist my heelpieces. With the XTD I've decided it's better practice to leave the boot adjustment to last. With the cuff left unlocked, it's a relatively simple matter to reach around and twist the heels before stomping in and removing the skin. Since preparing the boot for skiing also involves buckling the two top buckles and tightening the power strap, as well as pulling up and re-fitting your pant cuff, it's not the simple flowing set of movements rando racers strive for anyway.

I haven’t yet had the chance to put a lot of downhill miles on this boot, or try to drive one of my bigger freeride skis with it, but I’ll add to this review once I do. Fortunately the lifts at Alpental continue to spin on the weekends, so it’ll be convenient to put in some mileage - Cinco de Mayo, anyone? The XTD comes standard with a 15 degree forward lean, and what feels like about a 5 degree interior ramp angle, and it works well for me. For background, I normally would ski in a Lange alpine boot with the World Cup shims in and shoved well down, looking for about a 14.5 degree angle. People who prefer a more upright stance are out of luck at present; the other option is 17 degrees currently on the XTD, though they may engineer in a more upright solution (13 degrees?) in the future.

Grindable 6mm thick bootboard plus the relatively roomy instep is good news for high instep feet

Atomic would do well to add a cinch type power strap with a “quick release” string (think Dynafit or Arc’teryx). This would simplify transitions and reduce the need to de-glove. The toe buckle is awkwardly placed and protrudes quite a ways from the shell; it’s just asking to be torn off or bent while walking through talus (and even got flipped open while de-skinning by my skins). A lower profile buckle or a flipped buckle that fastens on top of the toe may be in order, and buckles that lock in the forward position would be nice for the two cuff buckles. The top two buckle bales could use a smaller radius curvature, as they don't conform well to the shape of the ankle. I think the slightly burlier liner promised by Atomic will be an improvement in terms of comfort and will fit more like people expect a 98mm lasted boot to fit out of the box. The thin liner in the prototype relaxes the fit and tends to slip down as you put the boot on (the liner has little structural rigidity) and out when you exit the boot. Unfortunately this will also add weight, but thickening liners for comfort and performance is common as manufacturers move from skiable protypes to final production models. As with other top boots in this class, Atomic chose to use certified Dynafit toe and heel fittings, which (along with the ubiquitous use of Grilamid in touring boots) is a welcome trend.

Thin Grilamid walls on both the shell and cuff make for an extremely light boot

The bigger question is where the Hawx Ultra XTD fits into your (or my) skiing scheme. In terms of weight alone, it slips in between most of the existing “power” touring boots and the “light is right” boots. In terms of skiability, it competes squarely with many 120 flex alpine boots. So is it a “do it all” crossover boot or a touring boot? Should you buy it with the aim of doing ALL your skiing in it?

This season I felt I’d reached the lightness limit for my lift-served boot with the 1508 gram Zero G Guide Pro. There were a few times during the season when I felt I could have pushed it harder (or felt more secure doing it) in a heavier boot. The Ultra XTD is 100 grams lighter, and the question is whether the slightly stiffer and quicker-to-engage XTD will be suitable for the bigger skis in my alpine quiver. My gut feeling is that smaller skiers who prefer skis under 110mm in the waist and spend most of their time in softer snow conditions may be fine using it as their only boot, perhaps with two dedicated ski setups (alpine and touring). Larger skiers, freeride competitors, and those pushing the limits of how fast a given slope can be skied may find it comes up a bit short in terms of both weight, dampness and stiffness. Time will tell.

A lot of people who've tried the Ultra XTD are comparing it favorably with the Dynafit Vulcan and Mercury boots, previously some of the stiffest freeride touring boots available. The flex of the Vulcan/Mercury was definitely on the harsh side, and I ended up cutting a "V" in the tongues of these boots to soften the initial flex. The Vulcan also combined a very tall and roomy toe box with an unnaturally low and tight instep, which resulted in a lot of users heat molding the shells (even though it's not technically an oven moldable boot) or switching to another liner with less material over the instep (typically an Intuition Power Wrap). Even so, plenty of people are on their second or third pair of these boots. The Hawx Ultra XTD will fit many more feet right out of the box, and the narrower forefoot width can be altered by baking the shells. The inconsistent height over the forefoot and instep will be gone. The XTD skis better for me, with a more predictable and progressive feel than the Vulcan through the flex pattern but with similar resistance when fully flexed. Skinning is not quite as good as the Vulcan or Mercury, primarily due to less rearward range of motion, but the action is smoother and under most normal touring conditions the slightly reduced rearward range won't be noticed. Plus the XTD is around 150 grams lighter. As a “power touring” boot, I think the Hawx Ultra XTD will be extremely popular in its inaugural season, right in there with the MTN Lab and the new Scarpa Maestrale RS 2.0, and that’s how I intend to use it. Whether I can or want to drive a burly, 118mm ski with the XTD remains to be seen, but in the meantime I plan to spend a fair amount of time in the Ultra XTD and tip my hat to Matt Manser and the wizards in Atomic's Altenmarkt boot lab for pushing the envelope to new dimensions.

Note: If you're looking for a boot that works in tech bindings, alpine bindings, and any of the current popular demo bindings (I need such a boot for demo purposes, but most people won't), the Hawx Ultra XTD will work with most, but not all. The soles are rockered WTR and non-replaceable, so pure alpine ISO 9462 clamps won't work (like your old P18's), nor will the current Marker Griffon demo units, which only accept ISO 5355 or GripWalk soles. The decision on whether or not to use replaceable soles is a tough one for boot designers (it adds weight) and Atomic chose to go with the lightest option that would work for the vast majority of bindings. If you want to set up a bigger alpine ski with non-touring bindings for this boot, you'll have to choose from either a Salomon/Atomic MNC or WTR model, a Marker Sole.ID binding (Squire will be included next season), one of the Look WTR offerings, or the Tyrolia AAAttack 14 AT. Kingpin users and those who feel a need to use frame AT bindings are in luck, as the WTR soles have full ISO 9523 lug depth at the toe and heel.

June 2017 Update:

A few more touring days on the Hawx Ultra XTD convinced me that the toe buckle coming undone while booting was going to be a PITA. I modified it by removing the buckle, cutting off the forward part with bolt cutters and smoothing the edge with a belt sander. I also ground out "hollows" where the buckle contacted the steel base, allowing it to sit a few millimeters lower (see photos). A little experimentation showed that the boot skied with plenty of power when the power strap was totally loose (plus not having to tighten and loosen it when transitioning was way easier), so I removed the strap entirely. Even without the beefy 45mm strap, the Ultra XTD feels stiffer than any of the other "crossover" boots in my collection, and the weight with stock insole drops to 1348 grams per boot. That's pretty impressive - not that long ago touring boots in the 1800 gram range that skied like galoshes were considered pretty cool, and a 130 flex alpine boot was often in the 2300 to 2400 gram range. Taking the power strap off looks simple, as it's affixed to the cuff with normal enough 3mm tab-back fittings like those used to hold buckle ladders on the cuff straps. Atomic seems to have used some industrial-strength Loc-tite on the threads, however, and it's very difficult not to spin the screw backs while attempting to loosen the screws. I ended up drilling them out to remove the straps, though it shouldn't be hard to locate replacements should you want to re-install them.

(Atomic has assured me via email that while the specs for the shells are pretty much locked in, the liners will be modified for the production boot to address some of the problems I've noted. The liners will be slightly thicker to more closely match the fit of the alpine Hawx Ultra boots, and the tongue will include beefier reinforcement to better distribute pressure over the shin. Also, there will be stiffer material used in the liner sole to keep the liner from bunching up as you remove your foot. This will naturally bring the weight up a bit, Atomic quotes the production weight of a 26.5 as 1420 grams)

Snip off the outer aluminum frame and grind flat, and dremel some divots in the steel baseplate to lower the toe buckle profile

Toe buckle on the left used to look like #2 buckle on the right

Fat conditions at the Naches testing grounds on June 17th

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