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Gearing up to duck under

Back to basics of boots, boards, and bindings

By G.D. Maxwell

There are only two kinds of skiers on the mountain who don’t want new equipment: those who have it – and I wouldn’t entirely rule them out – and those who are about to give the sport up. Everyone else, if they’re truthful with themselves for just a moment, wants new skis.

It’s not a matter of greed or insatiable want. It’s the nature of the beast. New skis, new boots, just look better, especially when so many people lined up around you are in ’em or on ’em. And getting closer to the heart of the matter, new skis and new boots certainly have the power to make you a better skier. It’s a fact. Isn’t it?

But with the dizzying array of skis and boots out there – I dare you to wade through any of the popular ski magazines’ gear guide and not get confused and bewildered – and the vast and varied terrain of our local ski hills, which skis? Which boots? Which bindings?

Now is the time to think outside the box, my friend. Well, if not outside the box, at least outside the inside. Look beyond the ropes to the great out-of-bounds.

The minute you begin to look at the near backcountry around Whistler and Blackcomb, as soon as you venture out into, and especially beyond, Flute backcountrylite land, one thing becomes abundantly clear. What you're wearing – unless you’re wearing touring gear – is meant to go in one direction only: downhill.

Problem is, most of what’s on the other side of the rope runs uphill before you get to the lesser-tracked downhill.

Until recently, that meant you either didn’t go, you were a freeheeler or hardcore tourer, or you stuffed some Alpine Trekkers into your downhill bindings on your downhill skis and schlepped uphill in the whole outfit wearing your downhill boots. Been there, done that.

Frankly, if that last setup describes your relationship with the backcountry, you know it sucks. Works? You bet. Works well, see previous comment. Compared to any gear even remotely touring in nature, that setup means you’re lifting six or seven pounds more than you need to each and every step you take, giving a whole new, masochistic meaning to the phrase "earn your turns."

But who wants to invest the bucks in touring gear you can only use touring?

Good question. Wrong question but good question. Here’s why. The newest generations of skis, boots and bindings designed for touring are equally at home yo-yoing in-bounds. Unless you’re a diehard gate crasher, unless you think any boot other than a Doberman is for wimps, unless what’s on the other side of the ropes holds zero interest for you, chances are you can ski 100 per cent of the time on modern touring gear – in-bounds or out, uphill or down.

At least that’s what I’d been led to believe. And, I’m happy to report, that’s exactly what I found out.

My own fascination with the backcountry around Whistler was spawned, like it so often is, gazing hypnotically at the always tempting, endless fields of powder visible from inside the ropes. Forays to Flute, Oboe, Cowboy Ridge and down Singing Pass, the roller-coaster trail back to the village, were easily, albeit inefficiently traversed with the weighty Trekker/downhill setup.

But on a snowy, opaque January day, somewhere near the top of a second uphill climb through 50 centimetres of new snow, a couple of thousand feet above the lodge at Callaghan Country, I paused long enough to shove a lung I’d coughed up back down into my chest and remarked to Bob Barnett, "If we keep doing this, we’ve gotta get some proper gear."

Five or six or seven pounds doesn’t sound like much… until you lift it each and every uphill step for a couple of thousand steps; then it sounds like several tons and it doesn’t take long for that to add up to exhaustion and a seriously diminished capacity to enjoy the downhill powder run you sweated so hard to earn. But living in Whistler generally means living in a small space and Max’s Rule is we don’t get into things that require yet another pair of specialized footwear. So the search was on: Could touring gear work as everyday ski gear?

The parameters of this search were simple. First and foremost, all the gear had to be skiable, and I use that word in the downhill sense. It had to be able to do everything I wanted to do: bumps, steeps, powder, crud, groomers, fast turns, big turns, everything except gates and terrain parks, places Max does not often go. It had to be gear in-bounds skiers would be comfortable with. That meant as nice as Dynafit bindings are, they’re too far along the touring end of the spectrum to be included. Finally, what got tested depended entirely on what I could talk manufacturers and distributors into sending me... and I thank them most graciously.

These boots are made for….

Boots are to skiers what rack-and-pinion is to steering – precision and control. The more your boots make you one with the ski, the better chance you have of making the ski do what you want it to… when you want it to.

To do what they’re supposed to do, boots have to fit snugly enough to connect your feet to your skis but loosely enough to let the myriad combinations of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and nerves flex, extend, flow and fire. They have to be stiff enough to referee the complex geometry of your body’s spatial relationship to your skis and your skis, in turn, to the hill without wasting a lot of energy in shock absorbing flex. But they have to be flexible enough to transmit the nuances of your input without enforcing their own will over yours.

This dance of opposites makes hitting a major league curveball seem not so daunting.

And if you overlay all that downhill nonsense with the need for touring boots to unlock and allow your ankles to articulate through uphill steps, be perhaps the only thing on your feet for days during an extended trip and do all of the above while still being as light as possible, you begin to understand why the key to making this compromise gear work in two worlds is, at the end of the day, a pretty amazing feet, er, feat.

Two boots on the market meet all the criteria: Scarpa’s Denali TT and Garmont’s Adrenaline.

The Denali has been around, in more or less the same form, for long enough to generate a mythology all its own. Its legion of admirers – ski patrol foremost among them – boast about great fit, warmth, durability and skiability. As an added bonus, it has to be the easiest ski boot I’ve ever gotten my feet into. No pulling, no tugging, no bear-wrestling hard plastic; just slip your foot into its Intuition-like, wrap-around liner and buckle up.

Walk mode – a real walk mode, not those pitiful excuse for walk modes some downhill boot makers tried to kid us about in the past – and very recognizable Vibram soles make the Denali a wear-all-day, dance-all-night kind of boot. But once you click into ski mode, this boot’s all business.

It has all the adjustments ski boots are supposed to have: forward lean, cuff cant and an almost infinite range of buckle adjustment. The two lower buckles are typical bail-and-hook affairs with screw-in, screw-out micro adjustments. As is the norm with touring boots these buckles are inverted, that is, mounted to hook on the outside of the foot and buckle on the inside, just the opposite of downhill boots. Once you get used to it, you’ll wonder why all boots don’t work this way whether you hike in them or not.

The top two buckles take some getting used to as well. They’re toothed affairs with locking levers that engage the buckle’s toothed strap. The benefit is a much easier, quicker and broader range of adjustment than regular buckles. A useful power strap snugs the cuff to suit your taste.

Reminiscent of Raichle’s famed Flexon, the Denali strikes a balance good skiers love and racers love less. It invites your foot to find neutral, comfortable purchase. It flexes easily to allow complex manoeuvres in difficult terrain then stiffens up in time to transmit all the messages you’re trying to deliver to your skis. And it’s thermo-moulded liner does it all while keeping your toes warm on the coldest days. No wonder people who stand around in snow a lot love these boots.

The other boot, Garmont’s Adrenaline, was new to the market last year and caused a substantial stir. The stir was centred around its aggressive stiffness and the way-cool interchangeable sole plates.

Positioned as a free-ride boot, the Adrenaline accommodates a more spirited, all-mountain riding style while still being true to its touring, mountaineering pedigree. A handful of Phillips-head screws lets you change sole plates, giving you a choice between a slightly rockered, touring sole and a flat ISO sole. If nothing else, this suggests Garmont views the Adrenaline as a boot capable of spending its whole life clamped into downhill bindings.

The boot has enough features to do just that. A thermo-fit, traditional – separate tongue – liner eases first-day pains and keeps your toes toasty. Four beefy, micro-adjust buckles snug your foot into the Adrenaline’s ergonomic, asymmetrical shell. A cantable cuff, variable position top buckles, a removable spoiler and a good power strap let you fine-tune the boot to your anatomy. Forward lean is fixed at either 20° or 25° when you lock the boot into ski mode. And in uphill mode, the top two buckles have extendable touring clips that let you expand the cuff and ease the pressure on your shins.

Of course, the big question is, how do the boots ski? The short answer is, like good ski boots should. Both boots offer a good compromise between torsional rigidity and progressive flex and provide positive feedback when you roll your skis up on edge. Forward flex feels softer in the Scarpa but never enough so to compromise control. If you’re a heavier or extremely aggressive skier, the Garmont is probably the boot you’d prefer. Perhaps sensing that, Scarpa has introduced a new boot this year, the Tornado, targeting that market and offering interchangeable sole plates as well.

As with all boots, fit’s more important than features. The Scarpa offers more volume through the toebox and instep than the Garmont in the same shell size. If your feet are like my feet, that’s a very good thing. The Garmont has lots of toe room but is built for a less pronounced instep. The difference meant my footbeds and feet slipped into the Scarpa but I had to leave the footbeds home skiing the Garmonts. Both boots had wonderfully snug heel pockets. Fit being highly personal, both the other testers preferred the Adrenaline. Either way, these are the only two ski boots I’ve ever been able to wear right out of the box.

Ties that bind

Touring boots that can be skied aggressively are a bonus. But you can do some light touring in downhill boots if you don’t mind lugging the extra weight and banging your shins with every step.

With touring bindings though, the uphill portion of any trip is much more pleasant, much lighter and your boots are working through a more secure, natural arc than they are if you’ve clicked Trekkers into fixed bindings. There’s simply no comparison. And touring bindings that work downhill as well as uphill are the huge bonus that’s given rise to the possibility of a single ski setup to tame both in-bounds and backcountry.

Three bindings were tested: Fritschi’s Freeride, Naxo’s nx01 and Silvretta’s Pure. Each is a step-in binding with familiar brakes, each tours effortlessly, each will keep your skis on your feet in-bounds. While all three had different carriage construction, the effect of their construction is you sit high on your skis, much as you would if you had substantial riser plates under your downhill bindings. Other than those similarities, the three are totally different and offer interesting choices.

Fritschi’s got the beef, got the rep, and got the following. They’ve been the go-to binding for big mountain tourers who don’t even want to think about binding failure in the backcountry. With its big toepiece, the Freeride is the Frankenbinding of AT bindings. Wearing a pair is like joining a club whose members exchange nods of understanding instead of secret handshakes.

Big bindings attract big skiers and the Freeride maximum DIN setting of 12 keeps skier and ski in solid contact with each other in all kinds of terrain.

The heel release mechanism on the Freeride is a joy to use. A pole tip is all it takes to pop the release, free your heel and set the lift in any of four positions to suit the slope ahead. The binding’s pivot point is pretty far forward – directly under the leading edge of your boot – but the action felt natural and long uphill slogs didn’t result in any discomfort one doesn’t normally associate with trudging uphill.

The Naxo binding makes downhill skiers very, very comfortable. It looks like a downhill binding with its V-shaped, pivoting toepiece and very visible fore and aft DIN adjustment knobs. If it weren’t for the seriously Meccano-like articulating arms on either side of the toepiece, you’d be hard pressed to identify the Naxo as an AT binding.

DIN adjustments on the Naxo also range up to 12 but a couple of unexpected lateral releases in the bumps led me to conclude I needed to set them about two notches higher than I usually ride my downhill bindings. Once adjusted upwards, the bindings never released when they shouldn’t have but did come off the one time I needed them to.

The Meccano arms provide the Naxo with something the company calls a Virtual Rotation System. In practice what happens is during the initial part of an uphill stride, the pivot point just aft of your boot toe articulates. As you continue your stride and the binding lifts higher off the ski deck, the forward pivot point kicks in. It offers a more natural glide to your step – noticeable going from one setup to another – but I’m not certain it really made all that much difference on a long uphill push.

The heel release offers three height settings but I found it marginally more difficult to engage and disengage with the end of my ski pole than the other bindings. Offsetting that was the ease with which the Naxo could be resized to fit different boots. A lever, a slide and voila, you’re adjusted. Probably not important if you only have one pair of boots but way more user-friendly than fiddling with screwdrivers if you’re adjusting them for different boots.

The surprise of the test was Silvretta’s Pure binding. Surprise because it was sent to me unexpectedly by the distributor and surprise because it performed so well given the fact it looks so insubstantial. With its almost non-existent toepiece and undercarriage of two thin, carbon-fibre rods, the Pure weighs in at about half the weight of the Freeride and Naxo. I was so uncertain of how well it did its job I kept my skis firmly planted on the chairlift bar my first ride up.

As it turns out, looks are deceiving. The Pure was pure joy. I probably put them through more hell than the other bindings simply because I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t either break or slip off my boots like loafers. With a maximum DIN of 10, these may not be the bindings you want if you’re big and ride hard but they smashed their way through everything from icy bumps to deep powder feeling solid and responsive.

And when turned around and pointed uphill their weight advantage was immediately noticeable. The Pure’s pivot point is right under the ball of the foot. The undercarriage and the toepiece both pivot there – the latter only when climbing extreme inclines – and the whole effect gives a bit of a roll to your gait. The three position heel lift is easy to engage and adjust with your ski pole.

Overall testers’ impressions were the harder you ride and/or the heavier you are, the more you want to be on the Freeride team. Everyone liked the feeling and look of the Naxo though having to crank up the DIN was a bit unsettling. The company’s come out with a beefier binding this year, the nx21, that may overcome those concerns. And it’s still hard to believe the Pure works… but it does, very well, and with a marked weight advantage.

Skis, Skis, Skis

In keeping with the single-arrow-in-the-quiver nature of this quest, boots and bindings were tested with two touring skis and one great all-mountain ski, just the kind of thing you might have lurking behind a door at your house.

Robin McLeish answered the call when I ended up with an extra pair of bindings and needed an extra pair of skis. He answered the call with a pair of last season’s Fischer Big Stix 8.6. They were short – 170cm – fat at 120-86-107 and built for fun in deep snow.

Mounted with the Naxos, the Fischers were a gas when winter finally rolled around near the end of March. Fischer’s carbon fibre chassis gave the Big Stix a stiff ride but their deep sidecut made them surprisingly quick side-to-side. They excelled on groomers but really found their home in deep snow and irregular terrain – think Chunky’s after a big dump.

Their dimensions meant they floated in powder but they were downhill skis. What they gave downhill they took back uphill. They didn’t seem heavy until you stepped onto one of the other pair. They were a perfect setup for occasional forays into the beyond.

Atomic recast their line of touring skis this season and named them after well-known mountain peaks. The Konger replaces the wildly-popular TM-X and is the line’s all-mountain vehicle. A mid-fat, 115-84-107 at 177cm long, the Konger employs Atomic’s Beta technology, boasts a magnesium cap and densolite core… whatever that is.

What all this means is the Konger skis like, well, like an Atomic. It wants to be skied hard, it’s snappy and responsive and it gives back what you put into it. Mounted with the Freeride, the Konger was a favourite with most of the testers, the only negative comments reflected the overall lightness of the ski which left the tips chattering when turned aggressively on hardpacked – okay, actually icy – conditions. Otherwise, this ski tore up the entire mountain and floated uphill. And its groovy, organic graphics were real attention-getters.

Rossignol’s gone retro in its touring lineup for this season. The ‘T’ series, a lighter version of the ‘B’ series most downhillers are familiar with, has been replaced by the Bird series. And the bird is back! Yes, the Rossi chicken – okay, actually a nightingale – is back. It adorns the tip of the ski and blows your mind on the base with not one but two appearances.

Graphics aside, the Powderbird we tested is an all-mountain, mid-fat ski with a shapely 120-83-110 figure in the 176cm length. The ski has, according to Rossi, shark-nose technology that increases torsional rigidity at the tip and dual-density sidewalls, called shockwalls.

Like the Atomic, what all this technobabble means is the Powderbird skis like a Rossi. The ride feels soft and flexy until the snow gets hard and the hardcore get going, then these skis respond like they have power steering and gas shocks.

Powderbirds float through snow, power through crud and are tailor-made for big mountain days. Mounted with the Silvrettas, these skis quickly became my uphill favourites.

So back to the original question. Can a skier who wants to spend most of his or her time in-bounds but venture out into the backcountry to escape the maddening crowd find true happiness with a single pair of skis, boots and bindings?

No. Anyone who skis more than a few weeks a year will never be happy with one setup. There’s a "more skis, please" twist in our DNA.

But if you’re living the Real Whistler Experience – not enough money, not enough storage, too many toys – you can ski all year on one of these rides. You’ll be frustrated racing gates and you’ll bust things up if you go bustin’ moves in the park very often, but if you just want to ride big mountains, ski big lines and hump uphill to the horizon, any of these are your ticket to ride.

Of course, once you have them, the backcountry will scream at you when it may only have whispered before. So budget for a transceiver and self-rescue gear. Hey, that sounds like a good subject for a test.