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April 21, 2013

Kästle TX97 Tour Montagne: Sleeper Winter Touring Pick?

I've been hearing good things about Kästle skis in general, and about their light touring models in particular, for some time. When a pair of the TX97 Tour Montagne's showed up last week in the "demo" pile, complete with Plum Guide rental bindings, I was stoked to take them out for a try. I'm pretty convinced that ~100mm waists in a light construction are ideal for winter touring in snowy climates, and I'm always looking for my next ski in this category. As a brand, Kästle has until recently been a little under the radar (they were huge when I was a kid). Whether because of perceived price points (they are not cheap, but neither are they out of line with other top brands), a small marketing budget, or simply a desire to concentrate on the European market, we on the west coast of the US haven't seen many pairs of these either in shops or on the feet of skiers in recent years.

The Kästle TX Series skis are built with design input from Kästle's Guide Team, a loose assemblage of well-known mountain guides from both Europe and North America. Norbert Joos, Jimmy Chin, Zahan Billimoria, and Mike Bromberg are some of the names I'm familiar with, and I'm sure the others are badass mofoes as well. The basic concept involves pairing a super soft tip with a wide, slightly tapered shape and slight rocker with normal camber underfoot and a stiff tail. The aim is fairly obvious - a ski that will float well enough to handle any type of 3D snow one might encounter on a tour without sacrificing bomber edgehold for steeps and hard surfaces.

How did they do? Pretty damn well, in my opinion. I skied on the TX97 TM on two separate days, both in very difficult, sticky spring snow. Touring on the TX97 TM with Dynafit TLT5P's was a treat, with the light weight and fairly rear-set mount making uphill progress and kickturns smooth and fast. In 8" of unconsolidated transitional corn with an inch of fresh on top and rain falling, the skis were pretty much a match for my much wider Huascarans, that is to say, I was able to link long awkward turns reasonably well without falling. I definitely give them credit for creating a crud-worth platform that handles mank, and I predict the ski will rock in lighter fresh snow as well.

What's unique about the construction? A light core that emphasizes use of Karuba wood, with fleece under the base and rubber to cushion the edges, helps tune out vibration, as does the Hollowtech (how many other companies are using this term?) tip, which removes mass from the tip of the ski by using a paper-thin translucent layer in place of the full traditional build. Less material to vibrate = less vibration transmitted to the skier, eh? The rest of the construction seems pretty convention - a fiberglass cap covers the core, and a "stealth" rocker (barely visible with the skis unweighted, but distinct once the bases are pressed together) match up with the mild tapered tip and rounded but unrockered tail.

A few days later I spent a quick day in the rain skiing the TX 97 TM on the lifts, again with 4-5" of glop on top of corn bumps and a super sticky layer of fresh trying to trip you up at every turn. For a very light setup (TLT5P's again) they performed admirably in the glop and held quite well on the icy backsides of the bumps. The soft and wide 5-point tip wasn't as precise as some other skis I'm used to, but had an advantage when running up over semi-frozen avalanche debris. It's not a ski for old-school tip pressure-type skiers, but for those who stay centered most of the time and occasionally let their weight get back and hope the ski will hang on, they're perfect. If it gets colder again and there's some better quality snow to try, I may take them out again. I never got a chance to ski anything truly hard and icy, so I can't really say anything about the claimed dampness of the ski, but maybe down the road . . .

Conservative graphics and top-notch construction, 1627 grams per ski (Kästle claims 1600)

The specs. Impressive weight (1627 grams per ski) and performance for this wide a ski. Suggested retail $749.

April 15, 2013

Slide for Hunter Day 2013

My friend Hunter Eng can't ski anymore, so we do it for him.

On the second anniversary of his death by cancer, we rallied the crew - old Sunnyside Sliders, friends, and offspring for an on-snow memorial at his favorite ski area, Crystal Mountain. While there were quite a few regrets (the email thread following the invite was an epic trip down memory lane in itself), we managed a group of around 20 and took to the slopes to "make a few turns for Hunter." A foot-plus of medium density powder didn't hurt things, and the mix of oldsters and young pups rode it hard all day. Multiple leg burners down Sunnyside, railing GS turns in Iceberg Gulch, face shots in Brain Damage . . . it was a very worthy day, punctuated by a sitdown lunch at the Bullwheel and finishing up with beer and pizza at the Snorting Elk. Hunter woulda fuckin' loved it.

Part of our group gathers at the top for an ill-fated sky lantern launch

Lunch at the Bullwheel. Service was so slow we actually had time to rehash old memories

April 14, 2013

K2 Pinnacle 130: For Realz?

Steve and Dan at K2 recently slipped me a pair of K2's much talked-about new crossover alpine/touring boot, the Pinnacle 130, for my evaluation. As the crossover boot wars heat up, many people are mentioning this boot as a top contender for 2014, and I was eager to give it a shot.

Among those who'd seen and worn the boot, I was struck by the number of people who mentioned the K2 boots' similarities with the Lange RX series. After spending a few days with the Pinnacle, I have to admit the rumors are true, which is not necessarily a bad thing. (Disclaimer: I'm a known user of Lange RS 130's as my normal alpine boot).

K2 Pinnacle 130. Note the unique top buckle/power strap configuration with attached buckle

What's the same? To begin with, the 26.5 sample I have has a 306mm boot sole length - exactly the same as my RS 130. The fit is VERY similar, though not exactly the same as, the Lange RX last - the 100mm forefoot (K2 will also offer this boot in a 97mm last) fits me pretty well straight out of the box, and the instep is very slightly lower, but otherwise it's a dead ringer for the "average" width Lange fit. The tongue has the classic Lange vertical ridge that keeps it centered as the boot flexes, and the forward lean looks slightly more forward than the RS130, but feels about the same (spoilers in with both boots). In general, my slightly wider than average foot would be fine long-term in this boot with only a mild punch for the fifth metatarsal head.

Stiffness-wise, the burly flex mavens who feel they need race boot stiffness in their touring boot aren't going to be satisfied. This is no equal for a true 130 flex plug boot (I consider an unmodified RS 130 to be a good benchmark for this), but it's no tennis shoe either. I'd rate the flex at around 110 or so, with the plastic firming up slightly in cold temperatures. K2 has done their homework, and the walk mode mechanism is solidly encased in a "carbon-look" reinforcing structure that's quite solid - this in itself gives the Pinnacle a leg up on the Lange XT130 in terms of rearward solidity.

Conventional ski/walk lever is similar to those used by Salomon and Atomic, among others

So what else is different, and what's an improvement?

The important one for bootfitters is the bootboard (zeppa to boot geeks). It's made of an energy absorbing, dense foam which will probably help those airs-to-icy-flat, but it's also a centimeter or more thick under your instep, depending on your foot. The shell is also relatively deep at the corners. Why is this a big deal? It's great for people with high, bony or sensitive insteps because it gives your bootfitter material to remove and lower your foot relative to the shell.

The OEM Intuition liner is also nice. It's a take-off on Intuition's own ProTour liner, with thinner foam but the same cutout in the Achilles area. It's got a minimalist lace system with loops beginning at the ankle bend with a rear loop around the Achilles, enough to secure the liner and perhaps reduce the chance of blisters.

Little things: There's a pre-formed punch for your navicular, more like a small trench than a point. That's great if your navicular happens to be in that spot (mine would be). The design of the Pinnacle takes from the Tecnica Cochise, with three conventional buckles and a wide power strap at the top that fastens with a buckle. K2's buckle, though, stays attached to the Velcro power strap rather than the boot cuff. Just walking around my yard, the buckle won't stay attached to the cuff when unbuckled (I'm assuming this is the intent), but we'll see if it stays in place with pants over the cuff.

Visuals: The green-on-green motif would complement the Hulk's skin tone, but it stands out and is actually pretty attractive with the charcoal and black accents.

Weight: At 2318 grams in the 26.5 mondo size, K2 is obviously going for the alpine crossover crowd, and not the core touring set.

Deal maker: K2 is first to market with a flat "touring" sole that will work in any AT or alpine binding. You heard right, this will work with a tech binding, frame AT binding, or your existing alpine bindings. The front of the sole is flat like an alpine sole, with a hard contact plate in the area of the binding's AFD. A grippy but mildly lugged rubber sole is fitted to the rear of the boot. K2 is the first boot maker to incorporate tech fittings in a sole of this shape, and I think it'll be a huge selling point come next year.

Finally. A flat soled toe with a bit of rubber for grip and tech fittings.

On snow testing: I spent a day lift skiing the Pinnacle 130 vigorously in a foot or so of medium density fresh snow over a firm base. I used the stock insole provided by K2 rather than my posted custom ones due to limited instep clearance, and the stock ramp felt slightly less positive (flatter) than my Langes. Forward lean appeared to be about 1 degree steeper than my Lange RS boots, but felt pretty much identical on my feet. The flex, as previously noted, was a bit underwhelming but the fore/aft balance of the boot with spoilers in was impeccable and let me ski full speed from the first turn of the day. Flex progression ramped up very smoothly and didn't bottom out under my 165 lb. frame. If you currently ski in a 110 to 120 flex Lange RX or even the XT 130, I'm guessing you'll transition seamlessly to this boot. It will almost certainly give the market leading Tecnica Cochise and Lange XT a run for their money.

Touring: OK, at 2318 grams this boot is HEAVY. There's no escaping the fact that I'm used to touring in far lighter boots designed specifically for touring and that colors my assessment - someone who has only skied alpine boots or heavy AT boots may not think the weight of the Pinnacle is that big a deal. The skier who values alpine-like performance above all or isn't used to fast and light AT gear, and tours only occasionally each season, might find it just right. The Intuition liner was super comfortable and held my heel in place very well, and the top buckle (which was falling out of its catch in carpet testing) stayed in place perfectly with my pant leg covering it. Range of motion in tour mode was decent for this type of boot - I'd say just a bit better than the Cochise in the forward direction and slightly worse in the rearward direction. The boot drove my 177 Huascaran/Plum Guide setup with authority, though snow conditions were horrible (6" of unconsolidated corn mush that had crusted up a bit and been rained on). Having skied heavier alpine skis in the boot a few days before makes me confident in the power of the Pinnacle and pretty sure it will be more than enough boot to drive any ski I'd even remotely consider touring on (I currently draw the line at about 112mm underfoot and ~1,800 grams). If you've got the desire and stamina to tour on significantly bigger skis you'll have to draw your own conclusions, but I'm guessing it should be fine for all but the biggest and baddest skiers.

Conclusion: The K2 Pinnacle 130 is a well thought-out and executed boot that draws on the strengths and weaknesses of several other "crossover" type boots. K2 is a little late to the game, but they've learned their lessions well. It should appeal to those seeking a single boot to do all their skiing in, so long as they don't do a huge amount of actual touring in it. People looking for a boot that duplicates the power of a plug race boot but happens to have a walk hinge will find it a letdown in terms of stiffness, but the majority of sidecountry enthusiasts will find it has plenty of power for their needs. If you have an average width and volume foot and fit well in a Lange RX or Atomic Hawx you will be a good candidate for the fit of the 100mm Pinnacle (it also comes in a 97mm last). The boot is made in Montebelluna, Italy and compares favorably in terms of quality and finish with other top products from the area (which is to say almost all other ski boots). The included Intuition liner is quite nice as well, though it doesn't have the same thickness of heat moldable foam as Intuition's own aftermarket products. As a touring boot, the Pinnacle is very heavy but has a reasonable range of motion and good foot stability for skinning. The flat-bottomed Tech sole is something of a breakthrough (why didn't someone do this years ago?) and will allow you to use any type of alpine or touring binding without resorting to plates, adaptors, or swapping soles - this alone should sell a bunch of these boots.

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"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 link below with news or images that may be of interest . . .

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