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 . . .
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