March 19, 2018
I spent the last 16 days in the heartland of alpine ski culture.
Austria is a place where immersion in the sport of skiing is taken for granted. Alpine racers like Marcel Hirscher, who happens to be Austrian and is sponsored by the Austrian company Atomic, and Mikaela Shiffrin, who happens to be American and is also sponsored by Atomic, are revered. Towns with names like Kitzbühl, Schladming, and Flachau ring with World Cup history. And mastery of any facet of the sport brings with it instant credibility in the eyes of the locals.
The powers that decide at evo pegged me to accompany two groups of customers to Austria this year, zeroing in on the Dachstein-Krippenstein area for its freeride-oriented terrain and relative lack of grooming and crowds. With the Alps receiving a healthy amount of snow this season and the European holidays mostly done for the year, this turned out to be a fine decision. We spent the first week headquarted in the scenic town of Hallstatt, a favorite of travel maven Rick Steves and a few hundred thousand of his Chinese friends. The town is ancient, owing to the presence of salt in the hills above which has been mined for thousands of years before the first skiers found out about the place, and the mine is still actively visited by tourists. The second week we stayed at the top of the Krippenstein gondola at a place called "Lodge am Krippenstein" - an awesome retreat that guarantees you first tracks and provides the rustic ambiance of a mountain hut, but with nice beds, hot showers, and minus the eight or ten smelly ski tourists you'd normally share a room with.
Both the Heritage Hotel Hallstatt and the Lodge am Krippenstein provided "half board" lodging, meaning breakfast and dinner were included, and there was no reason to stray to find delicious food. Austrian portions tend to be large, and the fully-buttered and sauced meals were hard to resist. Schnitzel, dumplings and Goulash were everywhere, and any break in the skiing was a chance to enjoy a delicious Weiss Bier or Radler (half beer, half grapefruit soda). I was able to continue the Apfel Strudel streak I had started in Taos the week before in pretty much any restaurant in Austria.
The terrain at Krippenstein, where we spent the most time, is incredibly varied and challenging. It combines an alpine summit much like the top of Whistler-Blackcomb with a steep and tecnical lower mountain that compared favorably with our local favorite, Alpental, with access to the top provided by two gondolas and a combined vertical drop of 4,921 feet. Impressive. The terrain is whimsical, with dozens of huge holes called "Doline" stuck right in the middle of runs - a few are actually caves that pass through the mountain, and most are large enough to cause serious damage if you're unfamiliar with the terrain. To top it off, the visibility changes dramatically throughout the day, with dense fog common. Snow conditions can be challenging as well, as the top of the mountain was usually cold but often wind-affected and the bottom often slush or corn with wet fresh snow on top. In short, perfect for someone trained in the Pacific Northwest who relishes riding in all conditions.
The amazing thing about Krippenstein is that most of the skiers stayed on the single groomed 11 km run that circled the mountain and ignored the pristine goodness elsewhere. It was common to still find untracked turns on the final run of the day, and it was a mystery to even our guides why more people didn't ski it. The same terrain at Whistler would be tracked out in two hours. Having the pow to ourselves wasn't a problem. For what it's worth, most Austrians are still focused on carving and racing culture, and experienced skiers were often seen in plug boots and "citizen" race skis, with waist widths over 100mm a rarity (with the exception of myself and the guides) so groomers make sense to some degree. Still . . .
Our guides Rob and Sebastian were incredible. Whippet-thin and tireless, they are the kind of skiers who can break trail all day and not even break a sweat. They also know every nook and cranny of Krippenstein's complicated terrain, and would give up detailed route descriptions as we skied. "To the right of my track there is a big hole, and when I stop there is another hole just behind me." Their knowledge was of critical importance, especially when navigating the upper slopes of Krippenstein in a dense fog, which happened often. They also had a talent for swooping in at just the moment when a client couldn't finish their lunch, saying "so, you're not going to finish that?" and devouring the rest of the plate. So goes the life of a guide.
Two days were spent on the Dachstein Glacier, which is something like Mt. Rainier's Paradise Glacier but with a lift nearly to the top and a convenient spot for lunch called the Simonihütte. Most of the skiers (not that many on either day) concentrated on the central valley, but there was SO MUCH MORE it was ridiculous. If you had touring gear and enough fitness, it wouldn't be hard to imagine doing two or more laps on the upper part of the glacier and spending the night at the hut.
We finished off each week with a trip to the "Mothership," Capita's state-of-the-art production facility in Feistritz. Capita co-sponsored the trips, and went out of their way to make us feel at home, starting with espresso and donuts (actually an Austrian version called Krapfen) and moving on to a full factory tour that culminated in a presentation of one of a kind "evoTrip" Capita snowboards with each person's name printed on the topsheet. The factory is especially impressive, built from the ground up to create the least possible environmental impact that starts with a zero-emissions compressed ammonia heating system and extends to the wood pellets made from core scrap that employees can use to heat their homes. Capita is a brand with deep Seattle roots, and Greg and Blue were both on hand to talk old times and mutual acquaintances. And yes, I now am the proud owner of two Capita snowboards bearing my name!
We spent a final night in München at the beautiful Platzl Hotel just off the Marienplatz, and had a few hours to kill sightseeing. My advice is to skip the over-hyped Hofbrauhaus and head straight for Pork Knuckle Heaven at Haxnbauer. If you love crispy skinned pork (think Chinese Siew Yook, with an even thicker crispier skin and some meat behind it), the sliced Pork Knuckle platter with gravy, mashed potatoes and fresh sauerkraut will make your day. If you think you can handle more, full knuckles are available by the kilo with all the appropriate side dishes ala carte. We had a smallish portion in the early afternoon and didn't even think about needing dinner. Wash it down with a cool Russn (wheat beer with grapefruit soda) and know the meaning of satisfaction.
March 2, 2018
Apprehension was the key word as we headed to Taos, New Mexico for our annual family ski vacation.
A "worst ever" snow year for Colorado and New Mexico made us wince at the non-refundable hotel and travel arrangements, but it did snow some 23" the week prior to our arrival, and we were determined to take advantage of a fresh atmosphere and get at least a few turns in. Looking at the webcams at Taos Ski Valley, I decided not to take our own skis - boots only - just in case it turned out horribly.
Luck was with us on this trip. The previous week's snow, combined with some superb grooming, made for great conditions on the main runs and temps down to 5 degrees kept it light all day. If you were looking for steeps, the options were limited to hiking Skyline Ridge, though only a few lines were open and those featured huge bumps. Chair #4 and the new Kachina lift (which services some incredible terrain) had unfortunately been closed all year. Still, we got some great skiing in and were able to demo our regular skis (Rustler 11 and Black Pearl 98) and the bonus was no crowds at all, even on the weekend.
After and before ski activities focused on food, of course. It's hard to find a bad breakfast burrito in Taos, and we made the rounds, with Taos Cow (ostensibly an ice cream place located in Arroyo Seco on the way to the mountain) coming out on top. Relleno-based steak, pork, chicken and egg dishes were all hits. Maybe the find of the week was the Bavarian, an authentic German restaurant located on the mountain at the base of Chair 4. From the Goulash to the mixed Wurst plate with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes to the mandatory Apfel Strudel, everything at this place was top-notch. We spent a day touring the UNESCO World Heritage site at Taos Pueblo, which was an impressive way to pass a rest day. We'll be back, hopefully in a better snow year, for more of the same.
February 8, 2018
Each year the bar gets pushed higher in the light-but-powerful AT boot category.
Last spring, the buzz was all about the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD, a 1400 gram touring shoe that skied as well as many pure alpine boots and walked well enough for many dedicated tourists to adopt as their do-everything boot.
This year the industry is aflutter with talk of the new, totally re-designed Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro, and for good reason. The new Tour Pro weighs in at a reported 1315 grams in a 26.5, and has a drastically improved tour mode with a unique two-point attachment in ski mode that stiffens the flex considerably. The demo boots at the two North American retailer shows had faux plastic levers mounted, and the few skiable boots reportedly had expensively CNC'd allow levers, but at least one production boot has made it into the hands of our rep and he had it hiding in his trailer.
I was able to handle the boot in person and try it on, though skiing in it would have been painful without some artful punching. So far what I know is that even though it looks narrower, the fit is about the same as the 99mm Zero G Guide Pro I currently own, and actually feels a bit wider through the medial midfoot. It feels damn light, though I didn't have a scale with me at the time, but I have no reason to question Tecnica's claimed 1315 gram figure. The new walk mode seems extraordinary, and the boot actually feels stiffer than the original Zero G Guide Pro when flexed side by side. More to come on this boot later, when I'm able to get my hands on a pair and put some uphill and downhill miles on it.
January 29, 2018
Amid all the hoopla about "crossover" bindings like the Fritschi Tecton and Salomon/Atomic Shift, the quiet introduction of the Atomic Backland Tour (also known as the Salomon MTN) tech binding hasn't drawn much attention. Released on a limited basis last season in Europe, and available for the 2017/2018 season in the US, this binding bridges the gap between pure race bindings and more durable, brakeless models like the Dynafit Speed Radical and G3 Ion LT. I've mounted up two pairs of touring skis - my go-to Zero G 95's and 108's - with the Backland Tours and have about 5 days of mild touring on them.
As a ski tourist, I'm constantly looking for ways to lighten and simplify my kit, but without compromising durability. It seems like the Amer Sports Group, parent company of both Salomon and Atomic, has done just that in developing this "evolutionary" binding, and I'm stoked to be able to put some miles on it.
The Backland Tour embraces old school technology, using a single "U" spring for retention in the heelpiece (the original Dynafit TLT pioneered this design, still used in virtually all race bindings) but adds several modern twists. For starters, instead of a heel top plate held in place with exposed screws, the heel on the MTN/Backland is held together with a single oversized bolt tightened from below. Instead of the entire unit turning, the body of the heel rotates under the top plate, which is super solid. Those who've had top plates come loose or break in the field or screws break will appreciate this design. The toe piece uses a wider 40mm screw hole pattern (Speed Radical, by comparison, is 30mm) with functional step in guides, and the heel has a usable 30mm fore/aft adjustment for those of us who use more than one pair of tech boots during the course of a season (FWIW, the heel gap is 4mm, as with the original TLT).
Weight for the Backland Tour without brake is 298 grams per binding, including screws. Not mind-blowing, but 97 grams less than the Speed Radical and 185 grams less than an Ion LT is noteworthy. Although the release values are fixed and the vertical and horizontal axes can't be adjusted separately, three "U" springs are included in the box. Amer won't provide a number, instead labelling the springs "Women," "Men," and "Expert" - but other sources have put approximate values of 6, 8 and 12 on them respectively. If you're wondering, you turn the heel 90 degrees, loosen a single allen bolt and tap lightly to remove the spring. I've been using the "Expert" springs and they seem much stiffer than my Speed Radicals set at "10" both in terms of stepping in and turning the heel housing. Your mileage may vary. This isn't the sort of binding you'll be seeking out if you're looking for indemnified product or safety "guarantees" anyway.
Ramp is another issue that's bothered many users of lightweight tech bindings over the years. Usually defined as the differential in height between the center of the heel and toe pins, I've gradually been working my way down from 18mm (Plum Guides) to 16mm (Dynafit Speed Radical) and 15.5mm (Dynafit Speed Turn) and 11mm (G3 Ion LT). Ramp affects some skiers more than others, but almost everyone agrees that the ideal is to be closer to the ramp on one's alpine setup. The Backland Tour's ramp of approximately 8.5mm is very close to that of my normal alpine setup with Atomic Warden 13 bindings - measuring the height of the heel above the ski (not the pin height, obviously) puts the Backland Tour just about 1.5mm taller than the Warden setup. Using the same boot (in this case the Atomic Hawx Ultra 130 XTD) the stance feels remarkable similar.
Using the Backland Tour has been simple and trouble-free. This is the one new tech binding that has seen literally zero breakage or recall issues since its inception, which is something of a record. You can twist the heelpiece to access a flat mode, but typically I've just left it facing forward and used one of the two climbing lifters right from the trailhead. The climbing aids are pretty narrow and take a bit more concentration to flip up and down with your pole than some of the competition, but are still easy. Partially due to the reduced ramp of the design, even the "high" level feels a bit low compared to other bindings I've used, so you may find yourself setting a slightly less steep skintrack (or working on your hamstring stretches at night).
The Backland Tour is available with or without brake - if you order it, the brake comes in a separate box and uses a different base plate requiring one more screw hole. For the record, the brake is very well conceived and will stay up without rotating the heel. If you wish to swap back and forth between brake and brakeless modes, I'd suggest mounting the heel with inserts.
The combination of lighter, simpler and more durable is usually pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, but in this case I'd give the Salomon/Atomic guys a standing ovation for bringing this outstanding fusion of race binding technology and robust functionality to market. I'll report back on these once I've gotten a full season on them, but for now it's all thumbs up.
January 25, 2018
Yes, we've worked hard this season and you can only take so much of touching sweaty feet and listening to people's boot horror stories before you simply have to get out and ski. We saw Eric R. and Joe H. in the flesh, and Billy and I were there as well, so it left us wondering who was minding the shop at some of Seattle's best boot emporiums. No matter, winter is back and the powder season is on in earnest. Get some yourself while you can!
January 19, 2018
Though a little late to the cross-over party, the new Head KORE 1 G boot aims to please with an average weight of 1540 grams (boots were 1532 and 1548 grams, respectively) in a 26.5, a stated 130 flex, and a super solid “GrilFlex” shell (most likely Grilamid with a marketing tweak, eh?) . . . The super stealthy matte anthracite colorway is designed to enhance the popular KORE ski line, and the stated 100mm last is quite roomy by industry standards, especially over the toe box. My 104mm wide feet needed only mild punches at the fifth met heads to achieve “all day comfort” status, which is pretty rare. Overall I think the fit is going to be a winner for those with wider and higher volume feet, they ones who have been wishing Atomic made a Grilamid XTD version of their Hawx Magna boot, or those who find the Lange XT 130 Freetour a little too constricting in the 100mm last. The KORE boots are heat-moldable, with Head suggesting 8 minutes in a standard shop oven, though I didn't feel a need for more room and so haven't yet cooked one.
Soles are GripWalk (don’t know yet if there is a bolt-on alpine version) and the BSL, though not marked on my pair of prototypes, is 306mm in a 26/26.5. There are a bunch of logos on the shell including ones for Graphene, Duo Flex, Form Fit, Perfect Fit 3D, and Liquid Fit. My gut feeling is that the marketing department got a little carried away thinking up names, and it seems like there’s a bit of redundancy in the terminology, but essentially Form Fit and Perfect Fit 3D refer to Head’s heat moldable shell and liner technology respectively (you put the boots in a convection oven much like other companies do, though the catalog shows the liners in the shells), while Liquid Fit is an additional system designed for better ankle and heel retention and allows a dense two-part parafin material to be pumped into the ankle area through tubes in the rear of the liner cuff. Supposedly the Graphene is used as a matrix material in the shell plastic to enhance stiffness, much like the strands of carbon fiber or fiberglass used by other companies.
Claimed range of motion for the Ski/Hike mechanism is 45 degrees, and genuine Dynafit tech inserts are standard. Using the nice, full-length retention clips (the buckle bale can go either under or over it) and loosening both top buckle straps as well as the Velcro power strap yields a smooth walk mode on a par with the Lange XT Freetour, but lacking a bit of range when compared to a Tecnica Zero G or Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD. The 130 flex feels solid – much closer to the feel of a standard 130 alpine boot than some competitors, but it's still not the equal of my RS 130 or Mach 1 130 LV. Interior ramp according to the catalog is 4 degrees and forward lean 14 degrees but feels flatter standing on my kitchen floor – this seems to be due to the thickness of the GripWalk sole under the ball of the foot – on the snow it feels quite familiar and the forward lean seems about right to me with the cuff shim removed. For reference, I normally ski 12 degree Lange boots with the 2 degree World Cup shim in place, the Tecnica Zero G Guide Pro with the 1 degree shim in place, and 15 degree Atomics with no shim at all.
On the snow, the flex feels like a firm performance boot somewhere in the 120 range, and is quite progressive through the range. The boot has a slightly "spongey" feel, especially when flexing forward, due to the plushness of the liner and tongue - this could be adjusted by substituting a stiffer liner like a Pro Tongue, but the OEM liner gives the boot a more relaxed feel than some other boots in this class. Instep height is average and heel hold is good for my medium volume ankle and medium width heel, but not snug by any means.
I put in a solid day on the KORE 1 G’s, driving my big mountain ripper setup (186 Blizzard Bodacious, 2018 version) and found plenty of power to lay the heavy 118mm-waisted skis over on edge and enough stability to blast over the hard frozen debris left over from the rains from two days previous. The KORE 1 G is also damp and powerful on fast, smooth groomers, not something you normally expect from a sub-1600 gram boot. Though the shell is very stout and appears to be made from the same "hard" Grilamid used in boots like the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD, the KORE 1 G is a snap to put on and take off. For lighter weight and less aggressive skiers, Head will also offer a 120 flex version called the KORE 2 G.
I have yet to hit the skintrack in the KORE 1 G, but roaming around home in walk mode indicates the boot has a smooth and functional range of motion that should be more than adequate for the freeride day-tourer segment – if not multi-day hut tours. For people with a higher volume, wider foot looking to lighten up their sidecountry setups and provide the option to use a tech touring rig when desired, the KORE 1 G provides a great alternative. After all, when Ted Ligety and Lindsey Vonn give up racing and start hunting for pow turns, they’re gonna need some ski boots, right?
January 12, 2018
My friends Steve and Betsy raised a family of rippers. They and their brood have been fixtures of the Crystal Mountain extended family for decades, and Arne, Ingrid and Ralph are all household names among the snowsports community.
When their daughter Ingrid and her husband Jim Delzer found out they were going to be parents, a flood of uncertainties went through Ingrid's mind - "How much skiing am I going to be doing?" "Will I even want to ski?" "Will my sponsors abandon me?" Being a new mom and a globe-trotting professional skier at the same time wasn't exactly a well-trodden career path, but she knew she wanted to do both with a passion.
"Lineage" is a film that documents the Backstroms, including new grandparents Steve and Betsy, as three generations explore the meaning of "family" within the context of a season-long road trip to 25 of North America's most celebrated ski resorts, laying down tracks in places we've all dreamed about while caring for a new baby and a dog. The film premiered at the evo Portland store on January 10th, and was shown again at the evo Seattle store in Fremont on January 12th, with all of the participants and the film makers in attendance. The "all ages" crowd loved the change of pace from the usual "huck yer meat" video offerings that permeate the industry, and there was a palpable sense of family and community among the audience, many of whom had small children of their own in tow. "Lineage" comes as highly recommended viewing, with a message that transcends the ski movie norm and shows us how one family has managed to combine a love for snowsports with the responsibility of raising a family. It's a revelation when someone manages successfully to meld the things and people they love into a coherent lifestyle, and even more special when those people are friends. Check out the trailer at https://www.powder.com/lineage/
December 4, 2017
With rumors of an Alpental opening later this week, the handwriting was on the wall. Either get out in the next couple of days, or put it on hold until after the season.
Patrick, Silas and I decided that a clearing trend on Monday was enough reason to go, and headed out toward Pineapple Pass in ideal skinning weather. We looked for signs of a Crispin & Geeb trail up through Big Trees but didn't find one, and joined up briefly with a crew of 3 headed in the same general direction. A thin layer of dry snow on top of the weekend's hardpack made traction a little tenuous at times, but spirits were high and the turns off the top of Pineapple were worth the effort.
November 26, 2017
We're in a Pineapple Interlude for the moment, but not before many of the ski areas in the Northwest were able to open and pow turns were had.
The first rain and melt phase of the season is drawing to a close, and flakes are starting to fall again. The craziness of Black Friday at the store is past with new sales records set and it was time to get the 2018 quiver in shape. First up were another pair of Zero G 108's with Atomic Backland bindings, then came a pair of Rustler 10's with Kingpins as my "all mountain" setup. The mounts went smoothly and the tuning and waxing are underway as we speak.
November 6, 2017
Winter is starting to settle in, as evidenced by the lingering cold in the shadows and the fluffy 18" of fresh snow on the ground at Crystal.
Monday was the first clear day after several days of on-again, off-again snow and the crew was itching to get out. We stopped off at the Enumclaw Safeway to talk car pool strategy, and the skier scene was in full force - early mid-week is the time when the serious ski bums and pros head out to get the goods. The "A" lot at Crystal was half full when we arrived at around 9:10, with the stoke level high as people put on boots and applied skins.
The skies were blue-ish and skiing was excellent as long as you stuck to relatively low angle slopes and didn't edge too hard. The Soul Wiggle had it all over real turns, and we figured out the best way to preserve the bases for another day in short order. Crispin and I did two laps of Forest Queen, while Silas felt obliged to work the crowd at the base area for a while after run #1. Crews of good friends and ski partners were seen throughout the day, with Don D., David B., Eric R., Drew T., Seth W., Joe H., Carl and Tara S., Bob G. and a host of others in attendance. The Crystal crews were busy grooming and putting the finishing touches on the new snowmaking system, and word from the top (John K.) has it they are shooting for a Friday "soft" opening. Stay tuned.
October 16, 2017
October was half over and the clock was ticking. With today being the last forecasted nice day before a week of rain and rising temperatures, we decided to make some turns on Rainier while the getting was good.
Our mini-crew consisted of Silas, Zack and myself. DOD and Alicia waited patiently at the Paradise lot for our arrival, and texted some key advice (like watch out for that black ice above Longmire). We skinned from the car in what turned out to be perfect conditions - brilliant sun and temps in the high 40's. Turnaround was at 8,530 ft. when the whipping wind and firming crust started to dampen our spirits. And the skiing? The hooky crust turned to carvable semi-frozen corn soon enough, and we managed to ski to the parking lot with a few strategic carries. Silas, insisting the the Pan Point face was skiable (he had done it on Saturday), succeeded in ripping out a two-foot section of edge, but barely felt it and remained upright, so all turned out well.
September 21, 2017
Silas was back from Europe and itching to get his 240th consecutive month of skiing in. After three days of on-again-off-again snowfall on Mt. Rainier, Thursday seemed ripe for the picking. We met up with Mark and David for the usual Muir snowfield September pilgrimage, and lo and behold excellent skiing happened.
July 10, 2017
Silas had been in his usual July frenzy, working the Cowlitz glacier for all it was worth this past week. The usual array of partners came and went, and the skiing had been excellent. I managed to sneak out on Monday to join in the fun, and we headed up from Fourth Crossing at a rather late and relaxed hour. Silas had promised we could be skinning within 100 yards of the car, but it turned out to be more like 100 feet, as long as you didn't mind a little vegetation in the mix. Skiing turned out to be superlative, with an inch or two of fast and smooth corn running all the way from 8,200 feet to the base of the glacier.
June 10, 2017
After years of coaxing on the part of my friends Francine and Kevin, I took up the sport of mountain biking a couple seasons ago, borrowing Kevin's spare bike and beating myself into shape by following them around on the trail. Like most sports, the lessons tend to stick best when you apply yourself over the course of several days, and I made big strides last year when I spent 5 days in Hood River with the Curds and mutual friends. This year I went back for more and Hood River proved even more rewarding.
The cooler and wetter spring meant less wear on the trails and less dust, and temperatures in the mid-eighties made for perfect riding in short sleeves - last year had been over 100 F. most days, which takes it out of you. We did a variety of trails this year, with one rest day (massages in town) when it was raining heavily, but found well-maintained trails everywhere in Post Canyon and saw very few other riders. We did several rides starting out at the Family Man staging area, warming up with Eight Track and Spaghetti Factory, and throwing in loops in part of the Mitchell Ridge trail one day and the bottom part of Dirt Surfer another.
One day was devoted to the Washington side of the river, where we rode the Hospital Hill loop on private property. The trail is "old school," meaning pretty narrow (watch those uphill pedals) and technical, with no bermed corners and some super tight steep turns on the descent. Fortunately, my bike handling skills are improved from last year and I managed to keep the rubber side down except for one dab directly on a stand of poison oak (washed off before any harm was done). Highlights were a spectacular view of the Columbia River from the top, and a nice chat with a working rancher and his dogs herding cattle as we climbed.
Our last ride was a loop of the Whoopdee Trail, also on private timber land, but super well maintained and seemingly popular with the locals. We rode this the day after the rains, and actually caught a good shower on the way up to the parking area, but the dirt was in perfect condition. We wandered a bit off the route for half a mile or so, but figured out the right direction after watching a super fit local woman stomping a jeep road climb out of the saddle and figuring she knew where she was going.
When you've got a town full of world-class and full-time wind freaks, mountain bike hardcores, and assorted outdoor industry types (half of our ski reps seem to call Hood River home), fueling the human machine becomes a sport as well. You can't go more than half a block in either the lower or upper part of town without finding a world-class coffee shop, brewpub, or excellent ethnic restaurant. Some of my favorites included Dirty Fingers for coffee with a bike back, Stoked for iced Americanos and kite boarding action, Lake Tacos for homemade-to-order Carne Asada tacos, and Pho River for Viet-Thai fusion cooking (the cooks from the old standby Thai House apparently ended up here). Burn some calories and fill 'er up again was the rule of the day.
April 18, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
April 9, 2017
This year's Sunnyside Slider on-snow event was scheduled a bit earlier than usual due to family conflicts. Even so, a record number of key members found themselves unable to attend, with several injuries keeping people away from the hill and absentees emailing in regrets from places as diverse as Canada, Switzerland and the Amazon (not the one in South Lake Union).
Four to eight inches of fresh snow of varying quality covered anything from punchy frozen corn to bulletproof ice depending on where you happened to be skiing, with higher north-facing slopes skiing quite well for the most part. This is always a great gathering of the tribe, and an opportunity to talk former greatness in the context of current reality. One welcome addition was the presence of several grandchildren of original members, a sure sign that time waits for no one.
March 15, 2017
A pair of Arc'teryx's Procline Support AT boots showed up last month for testing.
This is the non-carbon cuff version, with the heavier and reportedly "better skiing" Support Liner. In a 27.5, they weigh in at 1281 grams (1308 with my super thin cork posted footbeds in place). After 6-7 punches on each boot (small silver dots indicate punch zones), they fit like a glove and were ready to test. Kitchen impressions: insane range of motion in touring mode, more progressive flex than I would suspect, flex index ~90. Since the pass was on lockdown for accidents and tow trucks after I finished my morning chores, I was forced to wait until the next weekend at Whistler to try them on snow.
I spent a day skiing the superlative groomers at Blackcomb on the Proclines, pairing them with my Blizzard Zero G 108's mounted with Dynafit Speed Radicals. The conditions were great, perfectly groomed with about 2 inches of fresh over the top, around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The boots are relatively soft (I normally ski this setup with Salomon MTN Labs) and the Zero G 108 is no pussycat, but once I had a few thousand vertical feet on them I got the hang of it. Still, the Procline Series is probably better suited to a narrower and lighter ski that initiates turns with less effort. The other factor that required some adjustment was the stance - I felt that both the forward lean and the internal ramp at the bootboard were more than I usually prefer, putting me in a "tiptoe" position. It will be interesting to try the boot with some other bindings that feature less ramp (the Speed Radicals have just over 14mm difference between the toe pins and the heel pins).
Today I took the Proclines on a wet weather tour of Hyak. As expected, they are a revelation on the skintrack, with better articulation and a smoother skinning action than pretty much anything else in the business. If I was planning on a trip that involved big distances one of the Arc'teryx boots would surely be a top contender. If I can iron out the stance issue, possibly with a minimally ramped race binding, this may be perfect for long spring and summer tours with lengthy approaches. Stay tuned.
February 20, 2017
We spent three days last week in Bend, Oregon, decompressing from a hard season of non-stop bootfitting and testing some of next season's product.
The drive to Bend always seems to take longer than it should. In our case, the trip was prolonged by slow Valentine's Day service at Try My Thai in Sandy, though the wide noodles with chicken and excellent curries made it worthwhile. On the return trip, it was to be a freeway-width landslide near Woodland, WA that required a 35 minute detour through the countryside. Oh well. We made it in time to check in to a house owned by evo team rider Austin Smith and have a few beers and a yogurt before hitting the sheets. When we woke on Wednesday to driving rain and 50 MPH wind gusts, I suspected the upcoming testing sessions might be a bit abbreviated, but we headed up to Batchelor in time for the opening bell.
The rain-soaked corn groomers with a bit of sheet ice poking through on the ridges actually proved to be a decent testing venue. I stuck to my usual, convenient line off the Pine Marten chair, putting each ski through its paces with short, medium and long radius turns and a final straightline stability test. Thanks to a fresh set of Gore-Tex outerwear, I managed to stay dry the entire day, while the gusty winds at the top of each run made the huge raindrops run horizontally off my goggle lenses. Though I stopped trying to take notes in the rain due to illegible streaking and sticking pages, skiing three skis in a row and then stopping in the lodge to record my impressions seemed to work well. With many shop owners and employees hanging out under cover, there was no wait to try next year's "hot" skis and I was in my element. Here's some of the Day 1 highlights.
Armada's new Tracer line of lighter freeride skis is a winner. The Tracer 98 owes its heritage and Karuba core to the soon-to-exit KUFO, and it's a great replacement. Nimble and easy to turn, it holds a clean line in medium radius turns and has surprisingly good stability at speed. The Tracer 118 is another standout, extremely maneuverable for a wider pow shape, and very balanced from tip to tail. The sweet spot is huge, and the 118 should be a tremendous powder tool in trees and tight spaces.
The ski of the day for me was the Elan Ripstick 106, which I'd been hearing about from several quarters since last spring. When you find a ski that turns seamlessly at all speeds, reacts instantly without thinking about it, and requires no adjustment of line or technique, you know the designers have hit on something good. The Ripstick 106 is that good. On the touring side, the Faction Prime 2.0 skied well, initiating the turn snappily but without any hint of hookiness to finish the turn. It should be a solid choice for backcountry skiers who favor steep, controlled short radius turns.
The temperatures dropped overnight on Wednesday, and 6-8 inches of thick wind deposit fell over the corn, producing at least three super fun untracked laps before the crowds hit. Even afterward, the chop skied well and allowed the wider skis to get a realistic workout. I started out with the limited edition Rossignol Black Ops, which was insanely good. Much like a slightly heavier, damper Gunsmoke, the Black Ops was the perfect size for me (one size only, 186) and had the semi-twin shape to slarve at will but still railed hard turns when needed. I moved on to the Black Crows Nocta, at 122 millimeters wider than I usually need in a powder ski, and was blown away. Power, balance and responsiveness were all in perfect proportion in the Nocta, and it even inspired confidence on the icy ridgeline leading into the trees. The redesigned Black Crows Atris (slightly burlier build, longer 20 meter radius) is even better than last year's version which I liked a lot, with more power and an uncanny feeling of precision. G3 is introducing a more freeride-oriented line of skis to complement the FINDr group, and the new SENDr 112 offered smooth and effortless turns and plenty of flotation for those favoring a surfy feel.
The ski of the day (Day 2) in the ultra-competitive 106mm class was without a doubt the new Dynastar Legend 106. I was a big fan of the Legend Pro Series skis, and had ambivalent feelings about the Cham skis, but if the Legend 106 is an indication of what's to come I'm stoked. With perfect tip to tail balance and instantaneous response at any speed, this is a ski that will appeal equally to everyone from advanced intermediates to full blown experts. Lots of other testers agreed.
The Blizzard Rustler 11 may or may not take the place of my go-to Gunsmokes. It's more powerful and damper than the 'Smoke but lacks the pop and easy, on-demand smearability. It promises to be a better hard snow ski, and seems to already be successful as a Euro-comp ride, but it definitely falls more on the Cochise/Bonafide side of the performance equation. The new 192 Spur, on the other hand, was a huge and welcome surprise. Whereas the current Spur is balky at slower speeds and transmits more shock from hard snow than desireable, the new design turns readily at any speed and is much, much damper. Though they look enormous on your feet, they don't feel any larger than many 185's. Also, the new graphic scheme is the sickest 2018 look on the market.
February 18, 2017
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of US Team skier Mikaela Shiffrin. Backcountry, slackcountry, telemark or snowboarder, anyone who values the act of sliding on snow can learn a few things by watching this woman ski.
At the recently concluded FIS World Championships, where Mikaela decided to skip the Super G and Combined events to concentrate on slalom and giant slalom, it was obvious that she had turned the volume up a notch in the GS, where she was narrowly beaten by French star Tessa Worley.
When it came time for her specialty, the slalom, it was obvious that Shiffrin was out to prove something. After a superb first run, after which she led by .38 of a second, she puts it all together in the second to absolutely light up the course and win by a combined time of 1.64 seconds. At the Worlds, when only the top three places really count and every racer is skiing flat-out, that kind of margin is monumental. Eleven gates into run 2, you can tell she's on a mission and taking it to a new level as she lays waste to the flush, bam, bam, bam. Take a few seconds to witness genius - the balance, the fire, the cleanliness of line - and bear with the German commentary, though it's probably the most appreciative and knowledgeable in the business. At any rate, "Ayy-yay-yay" and "Wow" are the same in any language.
February 13, 2017
Seattle legend and sometime co-worker Drew Tabke was money in the first Freeride World Tour event of the season, held in Vallnord-Arcalis, Andorra. Drew's typically flowing and creative skiing put him in the lead with a solid score of 95.0 points, and none of the riders who followed was able to top it. Maybe you've seen Drew in action at Crystal Mountain (or even been coached by him), but check out his superior style across the pond here:
January 23, 2017
Happy to report that I've survived the holiday season and things at the shop are back to a manageable but still busy level. We've sold an unprecedented amount of ski gear with a big portion of that being "backcountry" oriented. Most of the growth is in the "crossover" segment, meaning people are asking for setups that will work both in and out of bounds with touring "potential," but there's also a huge leap in public awareness about touring-specific gear. Good? Bad? I'm a bit ambivalent myself, but it's definitely the way the industry is moving.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Northwest seems to have "weathered" the rain event of last week without too much damage to the snowpack. Kevin (glad to be back in action after an enforced injury-related rest) and I inspected the goods around the pass today and found widely varying amounts of wind-affected fresh over a sheet of ice (I seriously had to dig down a few times to make sure my pole wasn't hitting rock on the skin up). This resulted in smooth turns when you picked the right aspect, but grinding ice in the apex of each turn when the soft layer was thin.
December 21, 2016
Spent the day yesterday skiing these Blizzard prototypes.
Two sheets of Titanal, 139-116-129, runs like a truck . . . sound familiar? You'll be able to buy it next season.
December 5, 2016
With the tremendous early season conditions and recent openings of several ski areas in Washington, work has been super busy lately. A new sales record was set in the Seattle store on Black Friday, and an new company-wide record for single day sales marked Cyber Monday, so the atmosphere has been crazy for both bootfitters and techs - Black Friday was literally standing room only in the ski department.
What's a little wait to get the right gear when the conditions are as good as they've been, right? Crystal Mountain and Mt. Baker opened Thanksgiving week with better than expected conditions, then got hit with successive storms that laid down several feet of snow. Stevens followed suit shortly thereafter, and Snoqualmie's Summit West opens tomorrow with an excellent snowpack.
October 24, 2016
Snow has fallen in the hills recently, and friends have been out. Some reports from the Upper Paradise Glacier and Chinook Pass last week mentioned the "P" word repeatedly, as did a text from the North Cascades Highway yesterday. I went out today for a quick hike on the northeast side of Natches Peak and managed to make around 1,000 vertical feet of reasonable turns, but more snow would definitely be welcome. Should be coming in the next week . . .
September 27, 2016
This guy showed up today.
August 29, 2016
Wandering through the Salmon/Atomic store in Whistler, BC yesterday I spotted a mounted sample of the often talked about but seldom seen Salomon MTN tech binding, and snapped a few pictures. It's an interesting binding that departs from the current crop of burlier and increasingly more complicated "freeride" tech bindings other manufacturers seem to be concentrating on. Essentially a beefier race type binding that relies on old school "U" pins for heel retention but with a normal range of fore-aft adjustment in the heel and a usable high lifter for steeper terrain, the MTN (Atomic will market the same binding as the "Backland") is simple, relatively light, and resolves the problems most race binding users complain about, namely lack of a flat skinning mode, lack of a high touring lifter, and no adjustability for varying boot sole lengths.
An interesting design feature is a stationary top plate and riser assembly with the U-shaped heel pin assembly pivoting underneath to allow lateral release. You turn the U-pin assembly 90 degrees to the side to engage the flat climbing option; otherwise you can just leave the pins facing forward. There are three different U pins available with different release values, though Salomon North America refuses to give any of them a numerical release value (the official reason is liability, as they feel the release characteristics are so different from ISO 9462 values as to be potentially misleading). The U pin choice also regulates the lateral release, and the choices are "women," "men," and "expert". Salomon team riders have reportedly been using the "expert" pins with success, while "men" is recommended for rider weights (with gear) between 130 and 180 lbs. and "women" is recommended for those under 130 lbs. with gear.
The heel track is quite long, and the adjustment range of 30mm would accomodate all five of the tech boots I currently use - 288mm, 297mm, 301mm, 305mm and 306mm. That's a welcome change from the non-existant or very limited adjustment usually found in lighter bindings. Weight is 297 grams per binding, not especially light but nearly 100 grams lighter than the current iteration of the Speed Radical with the anti-twist nubbin installed.
As for availability in the North American market, Salomon NA says they will offer a limited number of bindings in Europe this season but are waiting for a suitable brake to introduce the product in the US. Buyers will be able to use or remove the brake according to their preference, and delivery to US dealers is scheduled to commence in August of 2017.
August 11, 2016
I celebrated 144 months of year-round skiing today, heading over to the Paradise Glacier with the legendary Silas Wild. A beautiful hike through fields of still vibrant wildflowers lead to skinable snow at the 6,300 foot level, and the glacier itself was silky smooth corn with ice just starting to emerge on a few steeper aspects. With only one other party of 10 climbers sharing the glacier, we had a glorious and peaceful day.
August 4, 2016
I'm talking about Boot Soles here, but there's a fair amount of the other kind to deal with this year when it comes to determining boot and binding compatibility.
If you've read this far, you've probably seen your share of ski boots in your time, and are familiar with the flat alpine soles that come on "normal" ski boots (officially known as ISO 5355 soles) and the rockered touring soles that come on most AT boots (ISO 9523 soles). The former are normally paired with alpine bindings used primarily at the ski area, while the latter are used with touring skis and bindings. The main differences were in allowable toe and heel height (see diagrams below), as well as the use of lugged traction soles with no smooth AFD (Anti-Friction Device) pad on the forefoot of the 9523 variety. In addition, the toe of the ISO 5355 boot must be "unbroken" around the perimeter, while the ISO 9523 sole allows the addition of "tech" fittings at the corners for use with tech bindings like Dynafit.
For those used to calling an alpine sole a "DIN" sole, that's technically correct as well but ISO is the more universal term - DIN stands for Deutsches Institut für Normung (the German standards institute) while ISO is the International Standards Organization. Both organizations maintain specs and quality standards for thousands of items, ski boots being only one example. The two standards for boot specifications are identical.
The compatibility issue we're talking about here primarily concerns rockered touring type soles in alpine (non-touring) bindings - frame AT bindings are falling out of favor for the most part due to weight, and most tech fittings seem to work quite well with most tech bindings (the exceptions I've seen are a few Garmont/Scott and La Sportiva models). This isn't a touring issue per se, but many if not most of my touring acquaintances wouldn't mind being able to use a touring boot with their alpine setups at least some of the time.
As touring boots got lighter AND more powerful (they were always more comfortable than alpine boots), things got more complicated. Avid skiers, especially working skiers like patrollers and guides, wanted to use their burly touring boots in their alpine skis without having to swap soles. While a few alpine bindings would "fit" - meaning the toe height adjustment went high enough for the taller AT sole - release could be inconsistent (this didn't stop a lot of pro patrollers and race coaches from using Endorphins and Typhoons with, say, Salomon STH bindings). Many alpine bindings simply didn't have sufficient toe height adjustment, so using a touring boot in them was applying a constant upward force to the toepiece, and toes that went high enough like the Salomon STH and STH2 had no sliding AFD. A few years ago, Marker introduced a binding called the Lord SP (Ski Patrol) which had both adequate toe height and a sliding AFD but no touring mode, followed shortly thereafter by the Salomon/Atomic Warden 13, which had similar features. These two products allowed AT boot owners to use their touring boots "safely" in an alpine setup (meaning the binding manufacturers would indemnify the bindings and back up the shop in case of lawsuits). Plenty of professional skiers simply crammed their AT boots into alpine setups and went skiing, as well.
Things got more complicated in 2012 with Salomon's introduction of the Walk-to-Ride (WTR) sole. Basically a rockered, 9523 shape with a harder, smooth area at the AFD contact point, WTR is a proprietary standard with no actual ISO or DIN standard to back it up. As such, there's nothing to compel boot manufacturers to adopt it, though Atomic (a Salomon sister company), Lange and Rossignol have begun to use it in some models. Accordingly, Salomon/Atomic and Look/Rossignol (Lange sister companies) now build WTR-compatible bindings that also accept ISO 5355 boots. The Salomon/Atomic versions are called MNC (Multi-Norm Compatible) while the the Look/Rossignol models are dubbed Dual WTR. It's worth noting that neither MNC nor Dual WTR bindings are officially compatible with a true ISO 9523 sole without a smooth AFD pad.
For the 2016/2017 season, Marker has joined the fray with yet another non-ISO standard boot sole called GripWalk. Similar to the WTR sole, it's lower profile in the forefoot and has a smooth AFD pad, and also includes harder plastic longitudinally placed heel pads to facilitate release with tech binding systems that release laterally at the heel (that means all tech systems except Fritschi Vipec and Trab at present). The hard heel pads may also enhance power transmission at the heel. Simultaneously Marker is adding more AFD travel to its Griffon and Jester (but not Squire or Jester Pro) models, so these popular alpine bindings will be officially compatible with ANY ski boot sole including ISO 9523. GripWalk soles will be standard on many "crossover" boots from companies with Marker allegiances, namely K2, Dalbello, and Tecnica for the 2017 model year. To my knowledge, the GripWalk standard only specifies a rocker shape and tread pattern and will not be offered as swappable sole and heel blocks. Manufacturers in general are moving away from swappable soles (this applies to WTR, too) because of the added weight (more mass and metal inserts) and limited life span of the screw/insert interface - the leading crop of light crossover boots this season (Tecnica Zero G/Cochise, Lange XT Freetour, K2 Pinnacle/Pro, Dalbello Lupo Ti Carbon) have molded in tech inserts and no sole swap option, only replaceable rubber.
To further complicate matters, Look seems to be taking a hard line toward compatibility with any boots that are not "by the book" ISO 5355 or WTR soled. This means tech boots with "flat" soles like the existing K2 Pinnacle 130 and 110 boots are NOT officially approved, and full ISO 9523 soles also get the thumbs down with Dual WTR bindings. For expert level skiers, this mostly applies to the Pivot 14 Dual WTR binding, but there is also a hard to find aftermarket replacement WTR baseplate for Pivot/FKS 18 toes. It remains to be seen what Look will say regarding GripWalk equipped boots, but I'm pretty sure there are some politics involved in the decision and it's a bit like getting a Donald Trump endorsement of Hilary Clinton's choice of email server.
Several people have asked me about the possibility of swapping out WTR or ISO 9523 soles for flat ISO 5355 soles. This is a possibility in some existing models from Atomic, Dynafit, Scarpa, Salomon and Tecnica where the swappable portion of the sole slides on and contains the molded in tech fittings, but means you'll have to swap at least the toe part each time you want to use your tech touring setup. Not exactly ideal, since it's more of a PITA than it sounds like and the screw inserts have a finite life. The trend in this year's crossover tech boots from Tecnica, Lange, K2 and Dalbello is to save weight by having the tech inserts permanently molded in. K2 and Dalbello have flat front sole options available, so this could work for some people wanting to use, say, a Pivot 18 and a Marker Kingpin with the same boot, but don't count on Look to chip in if you get hurt using this combination.
Confusing? It is to me, and I write about skis and boots for a living. Consumers are bound to be perplexed, and there's a low level of recognition of the compatibility issue even in the ski industry. What most expert freeride skiers want is to be able to use the same powerful (i.e. 120-130 flex), reasonably light, walk mode-equipped boot with both regular alpine bindings on their "resort" skis and with tech bindings on a touring setup. The boot offerings for 2017 are pretty impressive, as are the new crop of burly tech bindings, but compatible alpine binding choices are still meager and top out at 13 DIN.
What I'd like to see happen, and what would make sense from the perspective of the customer, is for the binding manufacturers to make all of their bindings (or at least a subset of their performance offerings) work with any of the four sole configurations. Marker is already on this track with their "Sole ID" Griffon and Jester toes with enhanced height adjustment, but it would be nice if they'd extend the Sole ID program to the Squire. Salomon could join the club with the STH2 series by simply installing a sliding AFD and recalibrating the spring rates - probably not too tough to implement, as they previously offered sliding AFD's in the 9xx toes. Look might require a bit more re-tooling to install a moving AFD in the Pivot toes, but it wouldn't go unappreciated. With the trend in alpine boots moving toward lighter, medium-stiff walk mode boots with full-time tech fittings, I think this change needs to happen sooner rather than later.
While they're at it, they should give some thought to revising the ISO 5355 standard to include boots with tech fittings. Look's argument that the toe fittings could create friction during lateral release is suspect. The K2 Pinnacle 130 tests consistently with most alpine bindings, and though ridged tech fittings like the Dynafit Quick Step and MasterFit variants could possible conflict with some toe designs, these are only supplied with Dynafit and Scarpa boots at present. Thorough testing is in order, and allowing ISO 5355 soles to include tech compatibility would give the green light to the Pinnacle and Dalbello Lupo with optional flat sole.
While it would certainly behoove binding manufacturers to make each of their bindings work with every type of boot sole, realistically this is a few years off. In the meantime, if you want to use your alpine skis with your touring boots, or take advantage of one of the excellent lighter crossover boots coming out this season, the boot you choose could well dictate your choice of alpine binding.
Here's a comparison of ISO 5355, WTR and ISO 9523 soles:
July 24, 2016
I had a ski dream last week, something about not being able to get my boot to stay in some sort of new binding. This is more than an idle threat this coming year, as there will be more compatibility issues than ever. I'll try to put together some information and write something next month, but for now I'll just say that there is yet another rockered boot sole type for 2017 and no consensus yet among the boot and binding manufacturers as to how to make all boots work with all bindings.
Dreams about skiing usually mean it's time to make a few turns to regain the "feeling." Time constraints and a need to make it on a weekend meant easy access was a priority - in July that means the south side of Mt. Rainer. As usual, Rainier's Paradise Glacier delivered the goods. 4,000 feet of smooth corn turns (well, some it that was just skating out the exit valley) is nothing to scoff at in the middle of summer and I count myself lucky to live in the Northwest.
It hasn't been hot at all, but business is cooking at evo. I'm constantly amazed by the imagination and vision of those charting the company's growth, as well as by how they manage to implement the ambitious plans. For those that don't follow the retail end of the business closely, evo has purchased an existing ski and bike shop at 860 Broadway in Denver in a vaguely art deco-ish one story building in a good, centrally located spot. The interior had been remodeled several times with a generic sheetrock-and-dropped-ceiling esthetic so it looked like a tax preparer's office in anytown USA.
Much as they've done with the new Seattle and Portland locations, the design team went into jackhammer and sandblaster demolition mode and found some good "bones" several layers down. Beautiful original brick and wood has been exposed, along with some window and door framework that will be incorporated into the working design of the new store, with the buildout commencing immediately. As for operations, two management ringers from the Portland and Seattle stores have made the move to Colorado and I'm confident the transition will be smooth (I've worked with both of these people extensively). Look for the Denver store to open to the public sometime in October.
June 7, 2016
Too much time behind the computer at headquarters, plus a month committed to Cascade Bicycle Club's "Bike Everywhere Challenge" meant not much time spent in the mountains in the month of May.
Elissa and I took a quick trip to Natches Peak for June turns last Thursday, followed by a solo blast down to Hood River to join my friends Kevin, Francine, Tom and Lori. The trip started out well, but I got stuck in traffic in Portland (at 2:30 PM? WTF, PDX is getting worse than Seattle). Then a train managed to derail with a bunch of cars full of Bakken crude oil, which then caught fire (Bakken crude boils at around 95-100 degrees F. and this was a 96 degree day). Since the tracks were right by the freeway and the fire wasn't really controllable all I-84 traffic was routed over the creaky bridge connecting Hood River with White Salmon, WA and it took me another hour to go the last mile to the first Hood River exit. Oh well.
Summer with the Curds means mountain biking is going to be on the agenda, but Kevin had unfortunately taken himself out of commission by breaking his fibula the week before and was confined to the flatlands and a walking boot (though he couldn't put any weight on it and so had a contraption that connected to his knee and functioned as a sort of peg leg. He did shuttle us out to several rides where we either left a car or ended up close enough to town to ride home. We hammered the trails on the Oregon side of the Columbia in 100 degree weather for all we were worth. Two days in Post Canyon (Bad Motor Scooter to Grand Prix was memorable) and two days closer to Mt. Hood on the FS Road 44 trails (Dirt Surfer and Surveyors Ridge) were epic. Francine filled in as our guide, and her local knowledge and tutelage were key to having a good time. Highly recommended if you're in the area!
April 17, 2016
Perfect weather and sweet spring turns with good friends made for an epic end to the regular lift-served season at Crystal Mountain today. Since the Slider Reunion also commemorates the life of my old friend Hunter Eng, we tipped a few and slid a few for Hunter throughout the day. Multiple slushy bump runs down most of Crystal's front side, mixed in with a few in Powder Bowl worked our aging and replaced joints pretty well but the soft cushion and sticky surface helped keep the speed in check. This was one of the best Crystal closing days in memory.
We roamed the mountain like we had in the old days, at least in our minds. Highlights included a crowd of twenty-somethings erupting in spontaneous admiration as Lowell Skoog threw a perfect 360 off the Lucky Shot cat track and a mass descent of "Brain Damage" from the summit of Silver King to finish the day. Somehow I missed the Martin Rand/Silas Wild tiki bar celebration at the top of Exterminator, but we made up for it afterward on the patio. A day for the memory bank, and one I'm glad I witnessed firsthand.
April 3, 2016
Ever wish you could find a lighter alpine setup that didn’t compromise performance? Ever wish you could find a more powerful touring setup that didn’t weigh a ton?
Almost everyone I ski with expresses both desires on a regular basis. If you fall into this group, the upcoming 2016-2017 season promises to deliver.
In February I wrote about the new Lange XT 130 Free Tour boot, a lighter Grilamid version of the venerable polyether-shelled XT that saves 343 grams. I’ve since put in a number of days on the Free Tour and am sold on its downhill performance for all-conditions skiing with even my widest skis (my quiver goes up to 125mm in the waist, but mostly I’ve been riding 186 Blizzard Gunsmokes with a 114mm waist or 185 Cochise with a 108mm waist). At 1796 grams in a 26.5 mondo, they aren’t the boot I’d choose for a 5,000 vertical foot tour or a week-long hut trip, but for a trip to Japan or Europe that might include some adventure touring they’d be perfect. I’d have no problem using them as my everyday ski area boot for the entire winter.
Last week another contender in the light-but-powerful boot class arrived at evo headquarters: the Tecnica Zero G Guide Pro. I’d tried on a pre-production version of the Guide Pro a while ago which weighed in at 1508 grams (26.5); the example I’m using weighs slightly more at 1524 grams (this is probably the production model) with a 305mm boot sole length and what seems like a slightly thicker liner.
Some fit impressions straight out of the box:
The nominal 99mm forefoot seems accurate, slightly tighter at the forefoot than the 100mm Cochise last and much like a Full Tilt Classic last (insert grimace from overlap boot snobs here). I’ve read some online reports about the heel and ankle being much closer to the foot than the previous Cochise fit, which is generally true (the Cochise was quite roomy) but the more noticeable difference is in the midfoot just under and to the rear of the pre-punched navicular zone – the Zero G fits much tighter in this area than any other average width Tecnica, maybe even tighter than my Mach 1 LV which required quite a bit of punching for my foot. Two of my co-workers who normally wear narrow lasted 97mm boots with ease also commented on the tightness in the medial midfoot, so it’s not just me.
Compared with last year's Cochise (2017 Cochise will use the same last as the Zero G), space around and in front of the ankle is substantially reduced, which should provide better stability in the boot as the liner packs out. Instep height, as one would expect from Tecnica, is quite relaxed, as is toe box height all the way to the front. Additionally, the shape of the toebox is less pointy than typical for Tecnica, allowing a bit more room for the third and fourth toes or “boxy” feet. If you go to a shop to try the Zero G on, make sure you bring along your footbed of choice, as my pair shipped with no footbed at all – this gave the illusion of a very tall and high volume fit over the top of the foot; with my normal thin “break-in” footbeds (Dynafit paper-thin blanks molded and posted with very thin 1/8” cork) the forefoot volume feels typically Tecnica, e.g. on the generous side for the given width.
Tecnica manages to build this remarkably light four buckle boot without resorting to exotic plastics like Grilamid or Pebax – instead the majority of the boot is Triax plastic (they’ve been using various versions of Triax in the Cochise boots for years). The lower shell is bi-injected, with the sole using polyurethane (if my memory is correct). Buckles are new, light, and very elegant, with full alpine functionality and micro adjustment. As with other CAS (Custom Adaptive Shape) Tecnica shells, the Zero G includes pre-marked “punch areas” at the first and fifth met heads and navicular which proved to be very accurate for my feet. Joining the trend in light but powerful tourable boots for next season, the Zero G includes genuine Dynafit tech fittings (though not with Quick Step or Master Step contours). Pared-down walk mode hardware functions very well and blends smoothly with the contours of the boot spine - in response to criticism of play in the older Cochise mechanism, the new design is spring loaded to adjust for wear and keep movement in ski mode to a minimum. There is no cuff angle adjustment on either side of the boot, but care has been taken to reduce friction in the pivots to a bare minimum – in tour mode, the Zero G is as smooth as any boot I’ve had on recently with the exception of the Arc’teryx Procline series. Tecnica has chosen to go with full ISO 9523 soles (no WTR) with the Zero G series boots, so officially they are only compatible with tech bindings or alpine/AT bindings with full height adjustment and sliding AFD’s. The 2017 Cochise line will use the same shell mold and ship with flat ISO 5355 sole blocks, so presumably you could swap the front rubber and use the Guide Pro with your existing alpine bindings (tech fittings notwithstanding). To date I’ve been skiing these with either Dynafit Speed Radicals (no issues) or Atomic STH2 16’s (not a problem with toe height, but not officially sanctioned because of a static AFD).
The Zero G Guide Pro skis like a real 4 buckle overlap boot because it is, and Tecnica deserves a round of applause for making a boot this light ski this well. Not as stiff as my “reference” Lange RS 130 or Tecnica Mach 1 LV 130, the Guide Pro is still well within acceptable burliness limits for almost any hard charging skier of normal weight. Side by side with the Lange XT Free Tour, the Guide Pro flexes very similarly, offering slightly more initial resistance than the Lange and about the same level of resistance when fully flexed. The boot board feels a few millimeters higher off the ski with slightly more internal ramp than the XT. Power and comfort are both exceptional – the wholly redesigned 218 gram Palau liner uses far fewer stitched seams than most liners, and is very comfortable even before cooking.
In terms of skinning, the Zero G Guide Pro is extremely capable as well. With a range of motion that fits in between the Lange XT Free Tour and the Salomon MTN Lab (quite a bit better than the Free Tour, quite close to the MTN Lab but lacking just a bit of range to the rear). The lack of friction in the pivots is remarkable, and touring is smoother and quieter than you’ve probably experienced in an overlap boot design. One area of potential concern is the softer Quick Instep material in the throat of the shell – this is a common feature in Tecnica boots that allows for easier entry and exit, but in one short day of skinning the material was already showing signs of wear from the lower front buckle strap. To be fair, I was skinning with the lower buckle strap fastened and the bottom edge of the strap has a sharpish edge – I’ll try undoing both top straps and see if the problem persists. Comparisons with the MTN Lab may be premature as well, as I’ve got a number of tours on the Salomon boots and the Zero G’s could easily loosen up with use.
Is the Tecnica Zero G Guide Pro the future of all mountain skiing, at least from a boot perspective? I think it makes a pretty strong argument for itself based on my first few days with it. Who does a boot with true alpine power and feel, very good touring capability, and a weight just over 1500 grams appeal to? Pretty much everyone I meet on the hill or in the backcountry, I think. The lightweight crossover boot battle is just starting to heat up, and it will be interesting to see how it shakes out, but with the Zero G Guide Pro Tecnica has fired a pretty powerful warning shot over the bows of the competition.
Bootfitter notes: The Zero G Guide Pro uses a bi-injected shell which fuses two different types of plastics. As any bootfitter who’s tried manually punching Custom Shell (Salomon) or Memory Fit (Atomic) shells significantly knows, you run the risk of splitting the plastics at the juncture if you use much force. The Guide Pro is not immune to this – I need big punches in the fifth metatarsal area and first metatarsal area, and while the bunion punch at the first went cleanly the shell opened up at both the “sixth toe” areas. Fortunately the overlap between the two plastics is a good ½ inch wide, and there was no rupture of the seal on the inside of the boot. My advice would be to just go for it, but watch the split carefully and back off fast if it widens to more than about 2 millimeters. The Triax plastic seems to take heat well and doesn’t get too “tacky” like the first generation Cochise plastics which would preserve a perfect impression of the bootfitter’s fingerprints.
As previously noted, the medial midfoot region of the Zero G Guide Pro is quite narrow for a medium width last, feeling much like my low volume Mach 1 shells before I got to work on them. Three or four mild punches with a flat disk will resolve this issue, but be careful around the base of the shell as the plastic is very thin and doesn’t taper where it joins the sole.
In addition to the pre-marked CAS "punch zones" at the first and fifth met heads and navicular, the Zero G's buckles are all thoughtfully installed using Phillips head screws, so they can be easily removed and replaced. Nice touch.
March 17, 2016
About a year ago, Oakley introduced a new series of lenses which promised to increase your perception of specific terrain by increasing visible contrast.
I'm typically slow to jump on the bandwagon for these kinds of claimed advances without a thorough test, but was able to try two of the new tints at the WWSRA demo days in Bend, Oregon. At the time, there were three PRIZM lenses available for snow goggles (they've since added more) - the tints were called Rose, Jade, and Black. All were based on the Rose, which had the highest VLT (Visible Light Transmission) rate, with additional lens coatings making the Jade significantly darker and the Black very dark indeed. I skied several runs each with the PRIZM Rose and Jade in fine spring Bachelor conditions, moving from open sun to shade multiple times per run.
I found the increase in depth perception and ability to read the contours of the snow quite remarkable, and was able to add both lenses to my quiver of tints for the Oakley Airbrake goggles I was already using. Though the PRIZM Rose seemed pretty much ideal for the spring season in the Pacific Northwest, I seldom used the Jade and could tell I'd prefer a tint with a higher rate of visible light transmission on a foggy storm day in our neck of the woods. I mentioned this to our Oakley rep Eric Schnibbe over the summer, and he said they were "working on it."
Flash forward a year, and Oakley has PRIZM lenses for a myriad of sports - road cycling, mountain biking, shallow water fishing, deep water fishing, baseball, golf - you name it, they probably have it already or have a version in the works. Oakley's optical engineers carefully add tints to the lenses to minimize distracting colors in the terrain and maximize critical ones, effectively upping the contrast. Visually it's a lot like moving the "contrast" slider in Photoshop over to the right of your screen - things just seem to pop out better, and the overall effect is one of greater acuity. Eric let me demo a set of a new for 2017 snow lens called PRIZM Hot Pink, which is significantly lighter than the Rose, and I've been quite satisfied with it in low light storm conditions. Whether the Hot Pink is better than the old standby for storm days (Smith's Blue Sensor Mirror) is open to debate, but the PRIZM Hot Pink is damn good. Like the Blue Sensor Mirror, the Hot Pink doesn't sear your retinas if it happens to clear up for a few minutes, which tends to be a problem with Oakley's previous top choice for low light, the Hi Fi Yellow. Overall I'd recommend the entire series of PRIZM snow lenses for skiers or snowboarders who spend a lot of time on the mountain, leaning toward the lighter models for coastal zones and the darker ones (Jade, Sapphire, and Black Iridium) for intermountain/Continental areas.
The frames in the photos are not the Airbrake but the new Flightdeck XM, following the lead of World Cup Slalom champ Mikaela Shiffrin. The Flightdeck XM is a mid-sized goggle that lacks the quick and simple lens change system of the Airbrake, costs less and protrudes less at the sides but still works fine with most helmets.
February 22, 2016
More times than I'd care to count, people ask me to recommend a boot that will ski like a powerful alpine boot and still dish up adequate touring performance.
While anyone who's put in their time in either style of boot realizes there are always compromises when you're trying to accomplish two things with one boot, and each individual has their own concept of what is "adequate" on both the uphill and downhill, this "crossover" category continues on a hot streak, with most of the major alpine players vying for a step on the podium for next season. In addition to superior skiing, the new generation of "power touring" boots needs a decent walk mode, a weight conducive to serious day touring, and the option of using one of the new burly tech bindings (preferably without swapping the soles).
Tecnica has sold thousands of Cochise boots ever the past few years, but to use a tech setup you had to buy (unless you chose the "Light" model) a separate aftermarket tech sole and attach it yourself. K2 entered the category with the Pinnacle 130 a few years ago, a boot that skied like a legitimate stiff alpine boot, had a fair walk mode, and molded-in tech fittings. Unfortunately the boot weighed over 2300 grams in a 26.5, which made touring for any length of time in it less than optimal. Now, molded-in tech fittings are hot, and next year Tecnica, Dalbello, and Lange are set to join the party.
I was lucky enough to snag a pair of 2017 Lange XT 130 Free Tours for some long term testing a couple weeks ago, and I've put a few days on them since. To give you some background, I've used many pairs of Lange boots over the years, and until very recently kept a pair of RS 130's around as my "reference" boot - that is, it was a boot I considered a true 130 flex (both the RX 130 and XT 130 are softer) and defined how I wanted my performance lift-served boot to ski. The RS 130 was a 97mm low volume shell, and it took some hours of work to get it to fit my 103-104 (plus bunions) foot.
I asked for the XT 130 Free Tour in a 100mm last, thinking I would save myself some bootfitting time and discomfort, but I didn't suspect how easy it would be to make this boot fit. I spent about 20 minutes punching the first and fifth met heads on both boots, then simply heated the navicular area on the left boot while my foot was in it flexing, and bingo, they fit like a glove. The lower shell is made of Grilamid, one of my favorite plastics to work on, as it requires minimal heat to move and holds a punch admirably. The new Ultralon liner is exceptionally comfortable right out of the box (I still haven't bothered to cook it) and I assume it's also lower volume than the standard XT liner since I didn't even consider chopping out the vinyl and elastic over the instep. The "Langectomy" is something I've done for years with both 100mm and 97mm Langes to get some extra volume in this area, and the new XT Free Tour was perfect on my slightly higher than normal instep right away (at least on the first buckle notch, after 3 days I'm on notch #2). I was able to throw in my normal cork posted SIDAS custom footbeds before I even skied in the boot, which is a good sign for tall instep people - I normally use a super thin "break-in" footbed for 5-6 days before I use my "real" ones.
Hard charger types and those who simply don't realize that forward flex isn't the whole story will ask, "How stiff is it? Is it a real 130?"
The answer is no, it's not as stiff as my RS 130 plug boots, but most other expert level 130 boots aren't either. Wearing them side by side with a pair of 2016 Lange RX 120's (one on each foot), the flex felt nearly the same, and it's pretty hard to say whether the Grilamid shell on the XT Free Tour will flex stiffer than the polyether shell on the RX 120 in the cold. I'd call it a wash.
How about the walk mode?
The Lange XT walk mode has traditionally not been one of their strong points, but it's undergone several changes for the better since its inception. It's smoother than the original, has decent rearward range of motion (still not as good as the class leading Cochise), and good forward range if you remember to undo both top buckles.
My sample boots weighed in at 1796 grams per boot (26.5) with the OEM insoles. For comparison, my Salomon MTN Labs weigh 1550 grams and my Tecnica Mach 1 130 LV's are 2286 grams. I've done some lift skiing on the MTN Labs this season and found that 1550 grams was pushing the lightness limit in some variable conditions - the boot/ski combination starts getting deflecting with crust or frozen debris underfoot. The Mach 1's are bomber in most any snow, but I'd never consider touring in a boot that heavy. My first full day in the XT 130 Free Tours was a pow day at Crystal Mountain - to be more accurate, there was 8" to 14" of dense fresh snow over semi-frozen chicken heads and bowling balls. I didn't bring another boot, and my crew wasn't about to slow down as long as they kept opening fresh lifts on a staggered basis, so it was a bit of an experiment in how light a boot would work for all purpose variable skiing. I'd have to call the experiment a huge success for the 1800 gram boot group (at least this boot), as I generally felt I had all the power and control I would ever need.
As for touring in the XT Free Tour, I've only put in a single lap to date at Hyak on the boot (~1000 vertical feet). Yes, I notice the additional weight over my normal boots (Atomic Backland Carbon @ 1122 grams, Salomon MTN Lab @ 1550 grams). That's not really the point, at least for me. If I truly spent more than half of my days on hill touring, this would not be my only boot. Could you realistically buy this boot and spend 20% of your time touring but still rip lift served sidecountry like you mean it in the XT 130 Free Tour? Very possibly yes. Would this be a great choice for a boot to take to Japan or Europe when you planned on skiing lift-served pow and glaciers but might also throw in a few day tours? Absolutely. If you do plan to skin in the XT 130 Free Tour, be sure to undo the top two buckles completely (I tend to get lazy after years of skiing in TLT5's and TLT6's) or you'll drastically limit your forward range of motion. Also, you'll notice that your heel stays remarkably stationary as you skin - many boots in this category seem to have rather loose heel pockets (compounded by thin foam in the achilles region to save weight) and the Lange bucks the trend, though the liner is relatively heavy at 324 grams.
Some notes on soles and compatibility: The XT 130 Free Tour comes with molded-in tech fittings (real Dynafit ones, though without the Quick-Step or Master-Step ridges) and a WTR (Walk-to-Ride) sole. Walk-to-Ride is a sole spec devised by Salomon and adopted recently by several other companies including Lange and Rossignol. Essentially an ISO 9523 shaped sole with a rockered forefoot, the WTR version includes a smooth surface where the boot contacts the binding's anti-friction device to help keep lateral release consistent (the ISO/DIN 9523 standards do not require this smooth patch). Lange's official stance is that the boot must be used with a WTR compatible binding or a tech binding, and my STH2 16's are conveniently "multi-norm compatible" (including WTR). The STH2 toe easily adjusts high enough to accommodate the extra sole height, with about 2 millimeters to spare. Other alpine bindings that will work, as of this writing, are the Marker Lord SP, the Look/Rossignol Pivot 14 WTR Dual, and the Salomon/Atomic Warden. 2017 Marker Griffon and Jester bindings will also be compatible.
More to come on the Lange XT 130 Free Tour and other boots in this class as I find out more . . .
February 11, 2016
Sorry for the lack of updates the past two months, but it's been a busy season.
With the snow came the business, and with the business came some long days in the store with little time left over for either skiing or writing about it. The shop has been slammed, the bootfitting crew has been pulling 11 hour days, and the pressure is just starting to ease up. Evenings between 6 and 8 are still very busy with people in a rush to get their boots fit or skis mounted. Crazy, but it's also a relief to be busy after last season, so no one's complaining except maybe a few customers who can't get their gear ready in time and refuse to admit it's their own fault for not planning ahead. So be it.
We got a break this week, heading over to Mission Ridge to attend WWSRA Demo Days - the West Coast ski industry get together that allows retailers to see, ski and fondle next year's product. Some people treat it as a paid holiday, but I consider ski testing "work" and am on the run for most of the two days trying to get a feel for as many skis as possible as well as try on boots with new lasts and touch base with people I've known for years but don't necessarily have contact with regularly.
I managed to ski 26 skis, as well as check out some new Leki poles and try on several new touring boots. The vast majority of the skis were more than competent, with no real dogs among the samples I skied. I broke the two days of testing down into alpine on Tuesday and alpine touring on Wednesday, and to keep things fair I skied my Tecnica Mach 1 130 LV's the entire first day and my Salomon MTN Labs the second. I'm well accustomed to both boots and both have long since had the necessary modifications done for all day comfort.
Some of the highlights in the alpine ski group were the Salomon QST 106, the new Blizzard Brahma, and the Armada ARV 106. The QST line takes a cue from Salomon's MTN skis and adds a woven ribbon of carbon fiber and flax (CFX Superfiber) that effectively dampens vibration with minimal weight gain (compared to adding a layer or two of Titanal). The QST 106 is the gem of the group, with a super solid feel underfoot and a willingness to make precise turns at any speed. For a relatively light freeride ski, it feels remarkable stable on hard snow. The Brahma brings Blizzard's Carbon Flipcore construction to the 88mm class. This ski is a rocket, railing as well as any ski in the test on skittery glazed corduroy (groomed the day before, but it melted and froze hard overnight). It also responded predictably to turn input at any speed and was as rock solid as any 180cm ski had a right to be. The Armada ARV 106 is another "series" ski (they've brought back the ARV name, but the skis are quite different). It loses the Titanal of the 2016 ARV Ti (a ski I like a lot) but still is remarkably damp at speed, responds instantly to turn input, and lets you choose between carvy and surfy as the situation demands.
Day two of testing was fortunately a little warmer and less chattery - more "light and fast" ski-friendly. I concentrated on the 95-105mm waist category, since that's the best selling range of touring skis in the store. Standouts included the 97mm Black Crows Camox Freebird, a lightened version of their five-point, blunt-nosed best selling alpine ski. The Camox FB was extremely predictable, with good edgehold and the ability to consistently power through short and medium radius turns. The G3 FINDr 102 was awesome as well, skiing much like a lighter version of the Camox Freebird (and with a very similar sidecut), but with a seriously CNC'd sidewall profile that keeps mass to a minimum. Line's Sick Day Tourist, their balsa/flax cored 102mm AT offering, was predictably "sick" and dished up extremely smooth and versatile performance. Black Diamond's new Helio line improves on previous BD offerings with full sidewall, made-in-Austria construction (they chose Blizzard to build the skis) and the performance is better balanced and more responsive than before.
On to boots. I tried on the re-issue of Scarpa's F1 (the previous version was recalled on account of a non-functioning auto ski/walk mode feature) and it felt great - once I was able to get it on my foot. It's a typical Scarpa forefoot, but less boxy around the ankle and heel than a Maestrale and has a nicely progressive forward flex. Even after some modifications to the shell rivet system and liner, the boot is still difficult to get in to (and I don't have a particularly high instep). I'll reserve judgement on this one until production samples start to show up this fall. The Dynafit TLT7 Performance is a radical departure in terms of both fit and design. With no tongue welt at all and a unique cable system lower "buckle" that interfaces with the normal Ultralock upper buckle, the TLT7P looks like footwear from space but is much less fiddly than I had expected. The fit is remarkable for its relaxed dimensions, especially the instep and midfoot (traditional Dynafit tight spots) and borrows more from the Radical CR (their 104mm "comfort" boot) than the TLT6 series or the now re-named and re-linered Khion. The boot is extremely light, has exceptional range of motion in tour mode, and feels quite stiff in ski mode. The Arc'teryx Procline Carbon, a super light boot aimed at winter alpinists and ice climbers but sure to be of interest to light-and-fast ski tourers as well, had mind-blowing range of motion with virtually zero friction or noise, a generous 98mm fit (much like the Salomon MTN Lab), and a trendy orange and black colorway.
A new category, "lighter" alpine boots with tech fittings molded in (no swap soles) is catching fire as well. Aimed at the "one boot quiver" group of skiers, this group has attracted the attention of most of the major alpine players including Tecnica (Zero G Guide Pro), Lange (XT Free Tour), Salomon (QST Pro), and Tecnica (Lupo Carbon Ti). More on this later, after I get a chance to test some of these on snow.
That's all for tonight. Get some rest and don't forget your stretching - more powder's coming.
December 14, 2015
The powder is back, winter is for real this year. Best holiday wishes to you and yours!
November 17, 2015
In fact, this did involve some actual skiing on roads, many with only a few inches of fresh snow covering the gravel. Thankfully I have access to some fine Wintersteiger tuning equipment, but resurrecting my skis is going to take some time.
I've been lucky to land a pair of the much talked-about Salomon MTN Lab boots, which I'd skied on and liked last season and are now available for sale in the US. The MTN Lab targets the performance freeride touring market, with a legit 120 flex and a flex pattern that is much more similar to traditional overlap alpine boots than anything I've tried yet in its weight class. For the record, the 26.5 mondo MTN Lab weighs in at 1550 grams - not mind-blowingly light, but right in the thick of a category that includes the Scarpa Maestrale RS, Dynafit Vulcan and the discontinued Mercury, as well as the new Dynafit Khion Carbon.
Unlike the others, the MTN Lab is remarkable for its simplicity. No removable or hinging tongue, only two buckles, and with a minimalist walk/ski mode lever that is barely noticable at the top of the boot cuff. The Grilamid lower shell is built much like a three-piece Dalbello shell, with scalloped reinforcing for lateral stiffness and no overlapping tongue, only a waterproof fabric cover to keep your feet dry. Forefoot width is a "roomy" 98mm (I was able to ski this boot for several hours last season without any punching with my roughly 103mm foot). There is a small "mini tongue" under the instep buckle, but it's of relatively soft plastic - the boot derives it's considerable stiffness from the rigid lower shell, equally rigid cuff (buckle straps are quite stiff) and super solid "oversized" cuff pivots.
I needed extra width in the forefoot at both the first and fifth metatarsal heads to make this boot a keeper, and though I'd punched plenty of Grilamid shells in the past it's always a bit unnerving to punch a new boot for the first time. Fortunately a friend showed up with some Labs days before I received my boots wanting some extra sixth toe room, so my pair was actually not my first attempt. The Grilamid used in the MTN Lab is quite stout, much thicker than in the TLT5 and TLT6 shells I've punched, and takes quite a bit of heat without complaint. The plastic has a light pebble grain to it, which will turn slightly glossy and tends to show ring marks from the punch, but it's nothing you can't live with. The bootboard in the MTN Lab looks like styrofoam and is hard to remove from the shell, but experimenting showed it will take quite a bit of heat without melting. Punching to accommodate a 101-102mm wide foot should be no problem; a more aggressive width stretch will cause a deformation of the shell opening at the tongue area (much like punching a Dalbello or Full Tilt shell). You can't re-heat the edge of the shell and clamp the tongue down on it to flatten it like in the cabrio design alpine boots since there isn't a tongue, but so long as the reduced height in the toebox doesn't bother you it won't be a problem. The punches I've done in three pairs of boots are holding their shape well after two to three weeks, typical of Grilamid.
OK, making the MTN Lab fit a damn wide foot is one thing, but how about the skiing?
Just a few turns in 4 to 6 inches of wind-deposited fresh over a frozen base (not really tricky skiing, but not a gimmee either) convinced me that my previous appraisal of the MTN Lab's skiability was right on. This is probably the best skiing AT boot I've used, with superb lateral power transmission and a very progressive "alpine" feel. Skinning in the boot isn't bad either. While it doesn't have the range of cuff mobility that the TLT6 or Backland Carbon has, rearward range is fine and smooth. Forward range of motion, which some people have criticized, is acceptable but you may notice the abrupt end of the range when the track gets super steep - it's not as bothersome as some people on web forums have suggested, but to get the most out of the forward range of motion in the MTN Lab be sure you open the top buckle fully and completely loosen the power strap before you start skinning. On balance, it's less time consuming than removing and installing the tongues on a Mercury or Vulcan at each transition, and there's no chance of losing your tongue in a strong wind.
Nitpicks include the top buckle wire falling out of the ladder when in tour mode (they should just walk over to the Atomic line and steal some of the buckle ladders with the retaining wire from the Backland) and some difficulty engaging the top buckle to close the boot (very stiff plastic in the cuff straps accounts for this, but also results in the tremendous skiing performance). The wide power strap is a little tough to loosen as well - you need to dig your fingernails under the rear of the buckle while simultaneously depressing the release tab with your thumb (see bottom photo below for my DIY fix, thanks to Dynafit for the inspiration). Everyone should have a version of the new Dynafit quick release straps - forget about licensing tech fittings, they should sell their power straps to everyone else in Montebelluna!
It'll be interesting to see how the hard charging/big air group takes to the MTN Lab, and how it stacks up to new offerings like the Dynafit Khion and Khion Carbon. Certainly there's a niche for a simple, stiff and fairly light boot that skis great in the burgeoning world of alpine touring gear, and I strongly suspect Salomon has a winner on their hands.
October 17, 2015
Finally, there's competition.
For a few years, people who wanted a 1200 gram touring boot with decent descent capabilities had one choice - the Dynafit TLT6 Performance. Until this year, the TLT6P was offered only with the heavier, more durable "Custom Ready" liner in North America, but it was the only game in town and almost everyone I know uses the TLT6 or its predecessor, the TLT5P.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Atomic burst on the AT market early in 2015 with a brand new line of superlight touring boots and skis, dubbed "Backland." I was lucky enough to get a pair of their mid-weight (actually feather-light at 1122 grams per boot) version, the Backland Carbon, and have been skiing on the boot since then.
As a longtime TLT6 and TLT5 owner, I'd long since taken for granted the superiority of these models for fast-and-light ski touring, even going to the extreme of cutting slots in four pairs of softshell pants to accommodate the Dynafit top buckles. The introduction of the Backland Carbon was a breath of fresh air; at last there was another choice that offered a higher volume fit, even better rearward cuff mobility, and lower weight than my TLT6P's. Another benefit of the higher volume fit of the Backland Carbon was being able to fit into a 26.5 shell, my normal size in an alpine boot - I'd had to upsize to a 27.5 shell in both the TLT5P and TLT6P to get enough volume and instep height for my somewhat wider than average feet. I followed Atomic's advice on heat molding the Memory Fit shells (12 minutes in the oven with liners INSIDE the shells), supplemented the heat mold with a few manual punches at my met heads, and the boots fit my 103mm wide feet like a charm (the nominal width of the Backland shells is 98mm, but the out-of-box fit is much more relaxed than the 98mm fit of the Atomic Tracker). I had a few suggestions regarding the thin padding in the maleolus area and pressure distribution in the tongue, and Jake at Atomic responded this summer with a revised liner that adds a few grams of weight but seems to have addressed these issues.
With Atomic's cards on the table, Dynafit responded for the 2015-2016 season with a new Pebax-shelled version of the TLT6 Performance, finally offering the lighter Custom Light liner in the US. The new liner is dramatically thinner and lighter than the previous CR version, weighing in at 154 grams for the 26.5, has a smooth and seamless tongue and stiffness enhancing pads at both the rear of the cuff and top of the tongue. I'm not sure if it's just the change in liners, but the new TLT6P has a much more relaxed fit than last year's model pretty much everywhere. The increase in volume is especially noticeable in the medial midfoot/heel area and over the instep. The difference is so pronounced that I'd definitely drop down a shell size in the new boot, so be sure to try the new one on if upgrading even if you own the older TLT's.
Fit aside, the new liner has virtually no rearward support above the level of the carbon shell, so the slight edge in stiffness that last year's CR version enjoyed over the Backland Carbon is gone. I'd say that both the Backland Carbon and TLT6P CL hover in the 100 to 105 flex range depending on how tight you buckle them (highly subjective, I know, but I put on and flex a lot of boots).
In summary, I'd say that the two boots are much more similar than not. Weight is pretty much a wash - I weighed two TLT6P CL's and got 1118 and 1119 grams, the two Backland Carbon weights I have are 1122 grams and 1125 grams. I give the Backland Carbon a slight edge in rearward range of motion, but both boots are exemplary and you'll probably not notice a difference. I have a slight preference for the Dynafit UltraLock buckle system over the top buckle and rear latch mechanism of the Atomics, but that may be partly from years of using the Dynafit buckles. While I haven't skied the new TLT6P CL, I suspect that the downhill performance of the two boots will now be very close (the extra stiffness of last year's Dynafit came from the CR liners). In terms of shell modification potential, the Pebax shells of the TLT6 are an unknown (other Pebax shells I've worked with have been less than ideal) while the Grilamid shells of the Backland Carbon are very easy to punch (and most skiers will be fine using the Memory Fit option alone). For curb appeal, I'd give the shiny new finish on the Dynafit a slight edge, but both companies decided to go with a Halloween black and orange theme this year so there isn't much to choose from. Price is another matter, since the TLT6P CL retails for $999 and the Backland Carbon holds the line at $749. Not that $250 buys you much more than a pair of skins in backcountry gear these days, but still . . .
September 10, 2015
Everywhere in Seattle today, people who ride bicycles were quietly talking about it.
Even Jim, the homeless vet who lives with his humongous bike and trailer rig and sleeps on a bench on the Burke-Gilman Trail knew.
"That dude, Jerry Baker, died today."
I'd already heard. If you lived in the Northwest and rode a bike seriously for very long, you knew Jerry. I had been lucky to grow up a couple miles from his home on Mercer Island in the late 60's, and when I became enamored of bikes as a middle schooler my friends and I would spend long hours hanging out in the house where he ran a small retail business, Baker's Bikes. Under Jerry's tutelage we learned the fine points of breaking down derailleurs, bottom brackets, hubs and headsets, as well as the art of wheelbuilding and gluing tubular tires.
Later, when Jerry ran a bike clothing company called Baleno and I was attending college and exploring new career avenues, he invariably called me to work his booth at the industry trade shows in New York City and Long Beach, California.
Over the years, Jerry's influence expanded to nearly every aspect of cycling in the Seattle area. Instrumental in the creation of the Cascade Bicycle Club, the Marymoor Velodrome, and the Seattle cyclocross scene, he was mentor, teacher and inspiration to hundreds of cyclists of all persuasions, but especially racers.
Famous locally for participating in every marathon Seattle-to-Portland ride since its inception in 1979 (he finished first in that one), Jerry confided to me three days before the 2015 edition that, "You know, this doesn't get any easier. I can foresee a time when I might not want to do it any longer. I figure another three years would make it an even 40, and that might be a good time to quit."
He didn't quite make it to "40," but at the ripe age of 73 he did finish this year's 202 miles in a single day. The leukemia that overtook Jerry today was a little tougher adversary, but somewhere I know he's still training for the next big event. Ride on in peace, Jerry Baker, and thanks for everything.
August 8, 2015
It wasn't pretty, and plenty of people in the local Turns-All-Year community are pulling the plug on monthly skiing streaks, but I managed to haul myself up to just above the Nisqually Chutes entrance to make a few turns today. That makes 11 years in the books, but I'm a little worried about September . . .
July 18, 2015
Most people think the life of a bootfitter is gravy. Making bank like a Seatac parking valet minus the tips, touching sweaty feet and listening to people tell you how they know their boots are the wrong size because their toenails are turning black during the winter, then kicking it at the beach all summer sipping Mojitos and getting towed around behind $90,000 boats, right?
Not so fast, bro.
Sure, the lifestyle's awesome, but we also work hard all season long perfecting our craft. Case in point was this week's SIDAS bootfitting clinic in scenic Oregon, where the combined staff of the Seattle and Portland evo stores convened for a bit of intensive informational exchange on the topics of footbeds, alignment and shell choice. US tech rep for SIDAS Pete Iverson flew out from Salt Lake City and our Atomic and SIDAS rep for the Northwest Barry saw to the instructional duties and supplied footbed blanks for the crew, letting each attendee mold a colleague's feet and then switching places. We did the same for shell fits and then alignment, building on what we'd already seen and done.
It wasn't all work. When you spend a couple days in the hipster brewpub and coffeehouse capitol of the country you can't ever be far from a decent craft beer or espresso. Some gastronomic highlights were the People's Pig for smoke-smoke-smokey BBQ and cocktails (yes even the drinks were smoked), Hop Works Bike Bar where the beer was excellent and commuter bikes outnumbered cars on the street, and Rontoms just down the street on Burnside for apres ski drinks and happy hour eats.
Day two was an on-snow day at Timberline to put the classroom session into perspective and test what we've been trying to achieve through the bootfitting and footbed process, as well as testing various combinations of tongue and cuff shims and medial and lateral shims to alter knee mass alignment. With only the upper half of the Palmer snowfield actually covered by snow and only a single "freeride" lane open, this took some time, as Pete was shooting video of each of us using each setup.
June 20, 2015
This was the year the Pacific Northwest snowpack hit bottom, the worst I can remember in my lifetime. I can't say we didn't expect this.
Yesterday's outing to Mt. Rainier started out in a light drizzle with 200 foot visibility, and while the rain stopped the cloud cover continued until we reached Camp Muir. The snow levels are typical of what we normally find in mid August; no really skinnable snow until above Pebble Creek and what snow there is is covered with a layer of volcanic grit. What we didn't expect was the extent of suncupping on the upper Muir Snowfield. Depressions were 12 to 18 inches deep, and a combination of solar activity and wind had formed "Penitente-like" mounds of snow from about 9,500 feet and up, making skinning an arduous and slow process. Climbers and guides pointed and laughed. After an abnormally slow ascent, we had some snacks and descended, never reaching speeds of more than about 8 mph. From about 9,000 ft. down, the surface evened out enough to make a few linked turns, but if you go I'd advise choosing somewhere other than Muir for the time being.
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China: Wandering in the Middle Kingdom
"Incoming" covers developments that have personal interest to me (ie. gear I might consider acquiring, or events I feel may impact the sport of skiing) - it is by no means meant to be a comprehensive enumeration of gear or events in the ski world at large. Feel free to contact me via the randosaigai.com link below with news or images that may be of interest . . .
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