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December 14, 2015

It's On.

The powder is back, winter is for real this year. Best holiday wishes to you and yours!

Crispin Prahl in his element.   Kevin Curd photo

Merry Christmas!   Kevin Curd photo

November 17, 2015

Road Test: Salomon MTN Lab Boot

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.

Punched for my 103mm wide feet and big bunions - the black plastic turns glossy at the edges before the blue is ready to punch

Buckle and lean lock mechanisms worked well (though the buckle bale falls out of the ladder when loose), this is "tour" mode

Aggressive width punches warp the shell opening in the tongue area, lowering the toebox height - not uncomfortable, but not aesthetically ideal

DIYnafit power strap. I liked the original so much I copied it for the MTN Labs.

October 17, 2015

Going Toe to Toe: Dynafit TLT6P CL and Atomic Backland Carbon

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 . . .

2016 Dynafit TLT6 Performance shell, now of Pebax rather than Grilamid. Weight with liner = 1118 grams

2016 Atomic Backland Carbon shell, carbon-infused Grilamid with Memory Fit heat mold capability. Weight with liner = 1125 grams

New Dynafit Custom Light liner with super thin, smooth and seamless tongue is instep-friendly

Backland Carbon liner has a smoother finish at tongue than my prototype liners, more padding around the maleolus area

Ultra Lock Dynafit power strap is cool, they've added it to most of their lineup this season. Pull the loop to loosen the strap for skinning.

Atomic's Free Lock 2.0 lever works great - it's spring loaded and doesn't slip out under load.

September 10, 2015

Ride in Peace, Jerry Baker

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.

Jerry lines up at the Volunteer Park Crit, May 1972  Gary Louie photo

Jerry, circa 1977, building a wheel in his basement  Ambrose Salmini photo

August 8, 2015

Bleak Conditions for Summer Skiing

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 . . .

It's lonely out there, but there's still some snow left

July 18, 2015

Continuing Ed

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.

We picked on the junior member of the team to demonstrate balance mechanics

Vacuum packed for freshness

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.

Smokin' Barbeque at the People's Pig

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.

Sand. It's kinda like snow but dirtier. Check out my orange 65.5mm waisted GS skis.

Patrick analyzes Barry's alignment

June 20, 2015

Skiing So Bad It's Fun

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.

Elissa is short, but those are knee-deep depressions just below Camp Muir

End of the line for skiing in June, just above Pebble Creek - my battery died and I missed the money shot 3 seconds later

May 13, 2015

Atomic 2017 Boot Validation

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

George Ezra at evo

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.

The refrain goes, "Over you, I'd leave it all" in case you're wondering . . .

March 14, 2015

Adding up the Zeros

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.

A little bit of camber and very subtle rocker at the tip and tail

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.

Beefy sidewall construction in the middle of the ski

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.

My front lawn, very much like some of the approaches we'll be seeing this spring
Mount according to the molded in "bumps," not the decal on the ski (or measure from the tail)

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.

I didn't check the 20 meter radius, but the 1150 gram weight was optimistic - my skis weigh 1207 and 1209 grams per.
Not sure the Austrians understand the American concept of "OG" but that's what I thought of when I first saw the graphics

Very different tip shape than one of the obvious competitors, the 176 Dynafit Denali. Contact length of the two skis is nearly identical. MSRP $699.00 USD

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.

The Zero G's in their natural habitat

February 17 & 18, 2015

WWSRA Demo Days, Bend OR

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.

Tent City in the Bachelor parking lot

On-snow bro-down

Late on Day #2 the beer starts flowing and the techs get a little crazy . . .

January 15, 2015

Baby Got Backcountry

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.

Some tasty hors d'oeuvres - Salomon MTN helmet, Lab boot, and MTN S3 Poles

Salomon MTN skis for 2016 in 88mm, 95mm, and 115mm widths

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.

Atomic Backland boot lineup for 2016 (and a pole)

Atomic Ultimate and Backland skis for 2016

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.

Salomon MTN boot lineup - Lab, Explore, Quest Max BC

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.

Atomic's lightest AT boot, the sub-1000 gram (without tongue) Backland Carbon Light

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."

Salomon Surelock lever detail

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.

Group skin up time . . .

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.

Sweat equity turns rule!

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, 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

Ringing in the New

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.

Happy New Year!




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