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.
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.
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 as 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.
May 13, 2015
No pictures, please. That was one of the conditions of taking part in this pre-preview of Atomic boots for the 2016-2017 season. Jake was in town from Salt Lake City and Matt flew in from Altenmarkt, Austria for this "think tank" session and a chance to check out Atomic's latest prototypes in the flesh. A lot of the time was spent explaining the thinking of the Atomic brass behind the changes in the boot line, and previewing options in each category for us to look at up close. Without going into too much detail, the most interesting development was taking what they've learned from building the new Backland Series boots and extending that technology into the alpine arena. I was able to try on a few of the prototypes, which were conveniently all sized in a 26.5 mondo, and what they're on to is impressive. Think super light and super stiff.
As a top US retailer, Atomic was interested in our perceptions of their conceptual thinking (they have also visited us with similar "validation" sessions for alpine skis) and in our opinions re: how the lines would be received. Seriously, being asked for our opinions in the development stage by one of the best companies in the business is one of the most rewarding aspects of working where I do, and shows how serious Atomic is about getting the absolute best products out there.
April 7, 2015
Yesterday we got word that English singing sensation George Ezra would be doing a short set and sound check in the Women's Wear section of the store at 1:00 PM.
Sure enough, I trotted over a bit before 1, and a group of of about 30 people were gathered and milling around. A sound crew and people from 107.7 The End were there, but basically the place was no more busy than on a moderately croweded winter midweek day. George took the stage, and apologizing for a voice that was hoarse and getting hoarser, launched into two of his hits, "Budapest" and "Blame it on Me." Ezra has a magically powerful voice tinged with a hint of smokiness, belying his obvious youth. Acknowledging that he was scheduled to play a show that evening at the Showbox, he decided to cut the session short and pose for some pictures. When I offered to take him skiing around Seattle if he was here in the winter, he politely suggested I talk to his road manager Matt, who was a ski enthusiast, so I did.
So a week after appearing on Saturday Night Live, George Ezra was live at evo playing a venue that seemed more like a living room than a concert hall, and seeming to enjoy it. Just another example of the crazy things that happen around here when you aren't expecting them. As it turns out, we were the lucky few to hear Ezra perform in Seattle this spring, as the sore throat got bad enough that he was forced to cancel the show that night. If you have tickets, they will be honored when he comes to town again in August. Sorry.
March 14, 2015
With lift-served skiing in its death throes in Washington, it's time to start thinking about something to fill that lightweight spring and summer slot in your touring quiver. Light, because there will definitely be some long snowless approaches with skis racked on your pack, and with good edgehold because what's left of the snow will definitely be hard at times, like compacted ice from previous decades or centuries.
Based on a quick demo a month ago in Bend, I figured the Blizzard Zero G 95 would be a great candidate, and our rep Dave was kind enough to bring a 171 by for me to try. I mounted them up with some Dynafit Speed Radicals to fit my super short 288mm BSL Atomic Backland Carbons, trimmed some G3 Alpinists to fit, and adjusted the base edge bevel in the tip to ~ 2 degrees as Dave suggested. I've been skiing the Zero G's on the groomers for the past few weeks, along with other 2016 skis I've been wanting to try.
After a few years of getting their toes wet in the touring market with skis like the Scout and Kabookie - basically stripped down versions of the popular Cochise and Bonafide skis with no Titanal and less fiberglass to save weight - Blizzard's Zero G series is a completely new ultralight line in widths of 108mm, 95mm, and 85mm. With Paulownia wood cores and nearly full length sidewalls, the Zero G skis employ what Blizzard calls "Carbon Drive" technology. Carbon Drive uses a structure of finely woven carbon that's flat and narrow in the center of the ski but incorporates a 3D wrap from edge to edge at the tips and tails starting where the sidewalls end. The idea is to add torsional rigidity at the ends of the ski without adding weight. You can see where the carbon is in the photo below.
As one might expect from Blizzard, one of the few companies in the ski business that steadfastly refuses to "water down" the performance of their skis to broaden their appeal to the less aggressive or skilled, the Zero G 95 is a serious tool for technically solid skiers. The edgehold is incredible, sometimes overpowering the dampness of this 1208 gram ski (this is averaged weight, mine weigh 1207 and 1209 grams respectively). Several testers at the Bend demo sessions commented that the skis felt "chattery" and I felt the same sensation on larger radius turns coming well across the fall line. In a sliding turn, the skis (this applied to the 108 and 85 as well) wanted so badly to carve, but didn't have the mass to stay connected to the snow, that they'd chatter mid turn. Staying in the fall line and railing shorter radius turns stopped the problem, but I'm pretty sure I'll never encounter these same conditions while touring (this was smooth, groomed VERY hard snow which Westcoasters commonly call ice). On the other hand, the Zero G 95 is precisely what I want on my feet on a critical icy volcano. We'll see how these work in wilder conditions as the year progresses, but I'm thinking they'll be perfect for tough spring and summer conditions in this low snow year. Looking for more good news? The retail price on the Zero G 95 is $699, quite a bit cheaper than most other cutting edge light touring skis on the market.
Turn initiation was surprisingly predictable and smooth, which I attribute to minimal camber and the rockered tip and tail, and I predict they'll be fine on higher angle terrain where you can't afford to miss a turn. Straight line stability is outstanding for such a light and short ski; I found them quite confidence-inspiring at 35 mph rolling through Green Valley, not something I'm used to in a ski this light. Again, chances are slim you'll ever use the ski in this manner, but it's nice to know.
Since first skiing the Zero G 95, I've continued to de-tune the base edge bevel at the tip, moving it further back, and changed the side edge bevel on the entire ski from 2 degrees to 1 degree. This seems to calm the ski's edgy personality a bit. A few days after writing this, I tested the Zero G 95 for a few hours at Mt. Rainier. Uphill, as you might expect, they were outstanding. A 1200 gram ski with good torsional stiffness and a "classic" medium range sidecut stomps the uphill. The skiing was great as well, ranging from soft corn over frozen chicken heads in the Nisqually Chute to isothermal glop over a consolidated base. I'm sold on this ski for a mountaineering ski that will handle a wide range of conditions well and is confidence-inspiring on the steep.
February 17 & 18, 2015
There's nothing like the ski industry demo sessions when it comes to getting a feel for next year's gear.
I didn't attend the SIA Copper Mt. demo, but had the opportunity to head to Bend, Oregon this week to attend the WWSRA event. Four of us from the evo Seattle store and 2 from the Portland store headed south and shared a beautifully furnished house just outside of town. Mt. Bachelor had far better coverage than anything in Washington, and we were lucky the event was scheduled there for 2015 - the demo alternates between Mission Ridge and Bachelor each year. Our buying team had given us a list of around 60 skis that needed testing, and I was on the hook for reviews on as many of the touring products as I could fit in.
I hit the snow running both days, and managed to ski 30 skis in all. I did one solid run on each ski, which was all the information I needed given the lack of snow variety. Medium radius carved turns, short radius turns at slow speed, and long radius turns with a bit of straight lining to finish it off, each on the same run. I like to think I'm pretty quick at getting a feel for a ski in a short time, though I would have spent more time on each ski if there had been a stash of softer snow to be found.
I keep a notebook in my jacket and write down each model and size before I ski them, then record my impressions immmediately after I get to the bottom. Some of the highlights of the week in the touring ski category were the new Blizard Zero G Series, especially the 95 and 85, and the Völkl V-Werks BMT skis. The Zero G skis are incredibly precise and have awesome edgehold (I wouldn't expect less from Blizzard, but it's still surprising given the ultra light weights). The Völkls are just great all-round skis that behave like alpine skis minus the extra weight, an admirable achievment. Hopefully I'll get some more time in on both groups of skis soon. Here's my blurbs on the four standout skis for the company website:
11. Blizzard Zero G 95 (171) For a light, all-seasons mountaineering ski that will handle soft snow but excels on the steeps and ice, the Zero G 95 doesn't have much competition. Edgehold and precision are in another class altogether when compared to other skis in this category (there aren't that many sub-1300 gram 95+ mm waisted choices out there); in burly, icy terrain this would be my clear choice. The Zero G 95 is much "edgier" and less pivoty than the other standout in this class, the Dynafit Denali, and I suspect won't quite offer the "no brainer" soft snow performance of the Denali, though I didn't get to try it in any fresh snow. 12. Blizzard Zero G 85 (171) I loved this ski for its grip and precision - it would be a great choice for ski mountaineering objectives and spring/summer volcano trips. The 171 had "1050 grams" written on the topsheet, and I had no reason to doubt the accuracy of that number - it felt super light even with Kingpins mounted. Quick and easy to initiate, the edgehold was phenomenal. A lot of ski for the weight.
32. Völkl V-Werks BMT 109 (176) Superb ski with a perfectly balanced edge grip-to-ease-of-turning ratio. Not super light given the hype and cost, but the BMT 109 really gives up nothing in skiability and is light enough for all but the most rabid ski tourers. Excellent ski overall. 33. Völkl V-Werks BMT 94 (176) The BMT 94 is a fantastic ski that delivers incredible performance for its weight. Excellent edgehold and precision make it reminiscent of the Nanuq, but without the extra bulk. Cool looking carbon and red graphic scheme, flat tail, inserts for Völkl skins.
January 15, 2015
I've said for a long time that we'll know when ski touring gets hot when the major alpine ski companies begin jumping into the fray.
Well, it's happening.
Amer Sports is one of the bigger players in the winter sports game, with companies like Atomic, Salomon, Arc'teryx and Suunto under their wide wings. With backcountry skiing one of the few growth areas in the snowsport market, it was only a question of time before the old-school companies began targeting the fast-and-light market as well as the "crossover" walk-mode-and-Duke crowd. The real question was whether they would screw it up or not.
Devoted touring companies like Dynafit have a big head start, and developing a comprehensive new line of touring-specific gear requires a huge commitment both in terms of money and engineering resources - it's not a project for the faint of heart or short hitters. Atomic and Salomon are the first (probably of many) of the major players to jump in without (much) reservation, and I was privileged to be invited to a pre-OR and SIA unveiling of the new gear. While the two lines were developed independently and have a different focus, Amer lumped the companies together for the purpose of this small industry introduction, starting with a delicious dinner at Wild Ginger in Seattle and finishing with an on-snow demo day at Stevens Pass.
I arrived at the dinner armed with a camera and digital scale. Jake and Chris, the national sales managers for Atomic and Salomon, requested that we not blog about the gear until January 15th, but let me spend the cocktail hour weighing and photographing every ski and boot in the house. The sales team ran through their PowerPoint presentations like pros and followed up with a delicious dinner of Kung Pao Chicken, BBQ Prawns, Hand-cut Noodles and the like - not to mention the rounds of Sex On the Beach shots that Jenny from Marketing kept sending our way. This crew knows how to party, believe me, and hats off to our Salomon rep Joel for the choice of venue.
The gist of the conversation revolved around Amer identifying three distinct groups of ski tourists - "endurance," "adventure," and "freeride" - and trying to build authentic, dialed-in gear specifically for each group. For the time being, Atomic is concentrating on the first two categories and Salomon on the second two. The skis and boots are fully actualized, while the tech binding was only vaguely alluded to - there are none for sale or demo yet, but a few may appear in Europe later in the spring. There are a few glimpses in print and on video that show a wider-than-Dynafit-footprint "race" type binding with a simple flip-down lifter, but there are apparently other versions in the works.
Day two came pretty early, but with Alex at the wheel we made it up to Stevens Pass before the gear did. The snowpack at the ski area was on life support, with only a couple inches of hard frozen coverage in many places - not ideal for testing skinny 1,200 gram skis at speed, but we take what the winter gives us, right?
Barry and Joel showed up right on time with armfuls of brand-new skis and boots, super thankful that the new touring gear weighs about half of what their normal alpine demo stuff weighs. They even had a Custom Fit oven on the premises, and I wasted no time in throwing a pair of Backland Carbon boots in it to accommodate my 103mm wide feet. The Backland Carbon weighs in at 1,122 grams in a 26.5 and will go head-to-head with the Dynafit TLT6P next season. It's one millimeter longer than the TLT6 (288mm boot sole length vs. 287mm @ 26.5) but you'll want to try them on before pulling the trigger - I found that I can comfortably drop down a size from my usual 27.5 Dynafits. Atomic claims a last of 98mm, but don't take this too seriously if your foot is a bit wider. The fit is quite relaxed, and the instep significantly higher than the TLT6 - plus there's a Memory Fit heat mold option. There is an even lighter version, called the Backland Carbon Light, with a softer split tongue and more minimalist liner, and a heavier non-carbon version called simply "Backland" to flesh out the lineup.
The Memory Fit process is a little different with the Backland Carbon than an alpine boot - you leave the liners in the boots and go for 15 minutes (I usually cook for 6 minutes @235 F. with a Hawx 2 shell). The process worked well; after cool down the shell was a very decent fit on my wide forefoot and medial midfoot (I later punched for my first and fifth metatarsal head bunions manually, and the carbon infused Grilamid held the punches well with very little heat). The Memory Fit process alone should be adequate for most feet up to about 102mm wide.
With the Backland Carbons at a reasonable comfort level, I took icy groomer laps on as many of the Atomic skis as I could (there were no Ultimate 65's and the Ultimate 78 bindings wouldn't go small enough for my 288mm BSL). The Ultimate line is clearly influenced by Kilian Jornet's stint as the Atomic Endurance Guy and are super light, with slotted race style tips. The skins were sourced from Colltex and had simple bungie tips and no tail clips, though Jake assured me they would be included in the production skins. The 1228 gram 176 Ultimate 85 was a little chattery on rock-hard Skyline, but showed excellent edgehold and was predictable at speed. I wouldn't hesitate to use this as a spring and summer volcano ski. The slightly heavier Backland collection, in widths of 78, 85, and 95 millimeters, uses the same Karuba wood cores but more laminate material (the 176 Backland 85 weighed 1382 grams). I tried the 85 (176 cm) and 95 (182 cm). The skis were precise and lively underfoot, but transmitted a lot of chatter and would have been better in a pure BC environment (i.e. ungroomed). The Backland 95 skied strongly enough to use as a resort ski and would make a decent quiver-of-one selection for the 50/50 lift/tour type of skier.
With everyone cooking boots and adjusting brand new Dynafit rental bindings, time was of the essence and Joel arranged to have pizza and Vitamin Water brought in. Most of us switched brands for the afternoon, and I decided to go to the opposite end of the spectrum and try Salomon's most freeride-oriented boot, the MTN Lab.
The new Salomon boots, the MTN Lab and the MTN Explore, share most of the same technologies - heat moldable liners with new Alveo closed cell foam, Surelock walk mode mechanisms that move horizontally rather than vertically, and Sensifit lower shell construction using thin, lightweight walls with strategically placed reinforcing where it's needed for stiffness. Both lower shells are Grilamid (not Custom Shell, but easily punchable) while the cuffs are Pebax on the Lab and Polyolefin on the Explore. Salomon quotes 47 degrees of cuff movement on the Lab and 60 degrees on the Explore. The boots use ISO 9523 soles with full-time tech inserts, you'll need to use a Warden or Lord binding if you decide to mount "alpine."
I was a little skeptical of the nominal 98mm last at first, but it felt pretty damn comfortable right out of the box and after cooking the liner I was good to go for the afternoon - a couple punches for my met heads and left malleolus and I'd be good for the season. The boot is listed as a 120 flex, and is in the same general range as my K2 Pinnacle 130's and the Tecnica Cochise 120, two boots I'm sure Salomon is targeting with the MTN Lab. The MTN Lab, at 1550 grams in a 26.5, is considerably lighter than either of the other two (K2 = 2307 grams, Tecnica = 2008 grams, both 26.5), and skis extremely well. Lateral power transfer is fantastic, and Salomon does a superb job of evenly dispersing pressure over the entire shin with a new tongue design. When Greg Hill, who was there to answer technical questions as well as bro down, said this was his everyday boot for almost all of his lift and self-powered skiing lately, it all added up - this was a badass quiver-of-one shoe.
Salomon is debuting three MTN series skis next year, with widths of 88, 95 and 115 millimeters. The 115 is the same profile as this year's Lab BC, which I skied and enjoyed at last season's WWSRA demo, while the 88 and 95 versions are new and use lightweight Karuba wood cores (the MTN Lab uses Poplar). All of the designs share a new Carbon/Flax dampening technology, dubbed CFX Superfiber. This is a visible woven strip of 60 percent carbon fiber and 40 percent flax laid in a strip down the middle of the ski (the 115 CFX layer is wall-to-wall). I normally take a "wait and see" attitude with regard to performance claims for new space-age materials, but the CFX skis flat out killed it on chattery hard groomers - call me a believer. The Explore 88 weighs in at 1202 grams in the 169 and the Explore 95 is 1414 grams in a 177, so these are not heavyweights by any means.
Later in the afternoon we headed out as a group to do a short skinning session and get a chance to test the new Pomoca glueless skins that Salomon will offer as pre-cut or trim-to-fit options with the MTN skis. It's interesting that Pomoca is offering this new technology to Salomon first, as they are now owned by Dynafit - though maybe the deal was struck before the Salewa acquisition. At any rate, the skins are quite a bit more sticky than early glueless skins, release without much effort when stuck together, and seem to stay on fine as long as you wipe the ski base clean with your glove before attaching the skins. To be fair, this was in perfect 25 degree dry conditions with no fresh snow - I'd want to try these in very cold and very wet weather before I gave them a carte blanche approval. The Atomic OEM skins will be sourced from Colltex and feature a more conventional hybrid glue - I didn't get a chance to try them but they pack down very small and feature a smooth gliding surface on the rockered part of the tip.
Salomon has also developed a new carbon adjustable pole with an adjustable release strap - you can set it for the desired level of retention, or take it off completely. The pole has a nice feel to it and continuous foam under the grip for "choking down" on sidehills. The basket pivots on a ball to match steep contours. They showed a new lightweight helmet (388 grams in a medium) that's certified for both skiing and alpine climbing, and swagged us out with both products. You gotta hand it to these guys, they know how to do a proper product launch.
Major props are in order to our local reps Barry and Joel, who handled the logistics for the Seattle event, as well as Jake, Chris and Jenny at the corporate end who made the trip out to the PNW before the long show season even started. I feel confident that the products will stand on their own merits, and wish the Amer crew tons of success next winter - hopefully they'll be back in the future and we'll be able to show them some of our famous 50% water content powder stashes.
Note: Here's the weights I recorded with my Soehnle digital gram scale (not the same scale I use at the store, but they are usually within a gram or two of each other). At some point these will be added to the collection at http://www.evo.com/size-and-buying-guides.aspx, but it's 2016 product so it may take a while.
Atomic Ultimate 65, 163 cm, 716 g. / Atomic Ultimate 78, 170 cm, 1094 g. / Atomic Ultimate 85, 176 cm, 1228 g. / Atomic Backland 78, 170 cm, 1210 g. / Atomic Backland 85, 176 cm, 1382 g. / Atomic Backland 95, 182 cm, 1734 g.
Salomon MTN Explore 88, 169 cm, 1202 g. /Salomon MTN Explore 95, 177 cm, 1414 g. / Salomon MTN Lab 115, 184 cm, 1840 g.
(Projected MSRP: Salomon MTN Explore 88, $649, Salomon MTN Explore 95, $699, Salomon MTN Lab 115, $799)
Atomic Backland Carbon Light (no tongue), 25.5, 942 g. / Atomic Backland Carbon 26.5, 1122 g. / Atomic Backland Carbon 27.5, 1166 g. / Atomic Backland 26.5, 1110 g.
(Projected MSRP: Atomic Backland Carbon Light, $849, Atomic Backland Carbon $749, Atomic Backland $649)
Salomon MTN Lab 26.5, 1550 g. / Salomon MTN Explore 26.5, 1426 g.
January 1, 2015
Seth, Holly, Kevin and I jump started the New Year's Eve celebration by taking a few laps in the Alpental backcountry, which was ripe for the picking with 8 to 10 inches of dense, wind-affected pow, steady temperatures in the teens, and a firm frozen base underneath. The scores of people who've been working the area on touring gear had cooperated by all skiing International, which looked about as tracked up as it does on a midweek day when the lifts are running. We had the place to ourselves and took about five laps, each better than the last, then took advantage of the groomed lower slopes of Sessel to make our way home. Seth's altimeter said 5,000 vertical feet just before the last skin out, which seemed optimistic, but when he's breaking trail all day for you the climbs go easy!
Kevin and I rolled to Dru Bru, the new brew pub at the Pass Life, and caught Commonwealth Coffee's first day of operation, sampling some excellent beverages at both - the Snoqualmie locals are stoked to finally have some quality options at the pass for food, drink and "night life." Operations are still a bit limited, and food is being brought in from the Aardvark truck across the street, but the kitchen at Commonwealth will be cranking soon. We took a look at the menu and I have high hopes for the Chicken Pot Pie. They also wisely brought in a "ringer" barista from Seattle to head the coffee operation, and I can vouch for the first rate double short latte I had, a huge upgrade from the competition across the road.
Previous Incoming Pages:
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 . . .
© 2017 Gregory C. Louie