2012-2013 Ski Mountaineering Equipment Advice

UPDATE 6/11/13  – this post refers to 2012-13 season gear – for the latest info on 2013-14 Ski Mountaineering Equipment Advice, check out our latest blog post.

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CURRENT TRENDS IN EUROPE

Wider bodied  skis are firmly established for both off piste and touring use nowadays, but for touring in particular – where in Europe, all types of snow and terrain are likely to be encountered – you need to be particularly careful with selecting suitable bindings on the very widest skis.

Up to around 90mm underfoot, lightweight pin bindings are fine for all round touring in the European Alps  – but I wouldn’t recommend using them on skis any wider than this, expecting to get that mythical dream – the super light wide bodied ski suitable for all round conditions – because you  won’t end up with that!  Instead you’ll have a ski that’s great for early season deep snow, but hopeless for long hours of skinning on spring multiday hut to hut tours.

My Trab Volares mounted with Dynafits are great for skiing powder in the woods in January and February, but I’d never use this setup on spring snow on a longer tour (I had one person who tried last year and ended up walking up all the hills in crampons due to lack of grip and terrible blisters…)  Mount a pair of Volares with a pair of Fritschi Freeride bindings however and the extra height of the binding turns them into a great wide bodied all rounder – ie good on firmer snow types as well as soft.   What I’m trying to say here is –  don’t believe the Dynafit hype about the Radical FT binding being suitable for 100mm plus skis, if you are planning to use one setup for all types of touring – ie pin bindings on really wide skis are a specialist powder touring setup – which is common in North America, but a pretty specialist setup for British ski tourers who usually just have one set of touring skis.

NEW SKIS 2013

Everything seems to have a rocker on it nowadays – but for the majority of touring skis this simply means that the tip starts to curve up a bit earlier, which helps the ski to float more easily in deep snow.  Skis with a rocker at both ends make it easier to initiate turns, so there are other advantages – but none of the skis we are looking at here are anything more radical than that.

Lightweight Touring Skis

With the trend toward wider skis, we’ll concentrate on wider models that are suitable for all round touring in the European Alps (ie ~88mm underfoot – on spring snow you are better off skiing something narrower, but conversely, wider skis handle deep snow and gloop better – so take your pick..) .  Starting with Trab of course, they’ve got a couple of new models out with a new much stiffer torsion box: the Trab Maestro is a super specialist Spring Snow/Steeps/Expedition ski (75mm underfoot – a successor to the Sint Aero), but of more interest to general british ski tourers is the Trab Ripido – this is the same 123-88-109 dimensions as the Polvere, but lighter and stiffer for high standard skiers. (As for my own skis – my Trab Stelvio Lites continue to hold up fine, now on their 4th season and still skiing perfectly with minimal damage despite tons of abuse, which say it all really – so I’ll be using these again for longer multi day tours this season).

Looking at a lower price point, the two other good wide bodied all round touring skis I can recommend are the Dynafit Mustagh and K2 Wayback – both are 88mm underfoot like the Trab Ripido and Polvere – I’ve had several people out skiing on both these models last winter and everyone really rated them.  A quick note on useage: the Mustagh and Wayback are definitely ‘lightweight touring only’ skis – ie suitable as a 2nd dedicated touring setup, whereas the Trabs – Ripido, Volare, Polvere – have a much stronger construction, so as long as you’re not totally ragging ’em they’re ok for a bit of resort use too – ie fine as a one ski setup with a strong focus on touring.

In a similar vein, a pair of Scott Crusairs makes an excellent one ski setup for British skiers wanting a high performance, light ski for both touring and resort use – these are a very versatile ski that could fit into any category above or below.

Resort Skis to Tour On

For resort focussed all rounders you can also tour on, both the Rossignol Experience 88 and Scott Neo Aversion continue to be excellent choices – whereas for a more deep snow orientated ski, I’d look at the Dynastar Cham 97 or K2 Hardside and for twintips, check out the Salomon Shogun and Atomic Access.

Lightweight ‘Backcountry Powder Touring’ Skis

For ‘European’ powder orientated skis that are still fairly light – you are typically looking at around 98-99mm underfoot nowadays (see notes on pin bindings above).   My Trab Volare’s were great last year, so i’ll be early season powder skiing on these again – but as already mentioned they make a specialist setup with pin bindings, or good wide off piste all rounder on regular bindings.

The standout skis for me in this area are the Trab Volare which is very light at under 3kg, with a traditional camber and relatively long (~24m) turn radius, the new Blizzard Kabookie which has a powder rocker, brilliantly smooth flex (best I’ve seen on any ski this season – the new flip core construction really seems to work), an ideal 20m radius and comes in at 3.6kg – and finally the Atomic Charter which has (slightly) more pronounced rocker, an 18m radius and similar weight to the Kabookie.  ie if you want something light that skis more traditionally then take a look at the Trabs, or for the new wave manouverability of a rocker ski, look at the Kabookie or Charter.

TOURING BINDINGS

A few changes at Fritschi who have the new entry level Scout, plus the Eagle and Freeride Pro which dominate the market.  For 80-90% of British ski tourers the Freeride Pro is probably the best bet – but this season there’s a new Freeride Binding out that may change this, especially for majority resort based use.  On Scott and Salomom skis it’s called the Guardian Binding, whereas Atomic call it the Tracker – it’s a similar concept to the Marker Duke and Baron freeride bindings, but looks a lot better designed and much more practical for touring on.  NB the Din Range on the Guardian is 7-16 so it may be too high as a minimum setting for lighter, older, or less aggressive skiers – they are looking at introducing a model with a lower minimum setting for next year.

A word of warning about the Marker Tour TR binding that appeared a couple of seasons ago – like Naxos before them this is definitely one to avoid, as we’ve seen several breakages of the plastic parts as soon as it hit the snow and the design is also poor and inefficient for touring in our experience.

On a similar front, with Dynafit we’ve seen various problems with the new Radical ST and Radical FT  bindings – there is a weak point in the climbing stand on these bindings which leads to occasional breakages, plus the Dynafit harscheisen don’t engage with the snow properly when mounted on the Radical FT binding – the solution we found was to tape a makeshift 7mm riser onto the harscheisen mid tour ie hardly ideal!

Because the Radical FT is stated as compatible with skis over 100mm under foot, a lot of people mistakenly believe that this means it’s a stronger binding suitable for freeriding.  This is definitely not the case – they are still only a lightweight touring binding – ie if you use them for lots of off piste resort skiing then you risk one of the following: the pinholes in your boots wear out, the pins on the bindings wear out, the rear of the binding snaps off, the binding rips off the ski (yes, it still happens with the Radical FT), or you break your leg  – we’ve seen all of these, including a couple to ourselves – so you’ve been warned!

Plum Bindings are now available in the Uk as an alternative to Dynafit.  Non of the Plum models have a ski brake available (I’m told they are working on one, but that it won’t be compatible with current bindings – ie a new binding design with brakes, rather than ski brakes you can add to the existing bindings).   In terms of their reliability/usability vs Dynafit, the Plums have more CNCd metal parts and less plastic bits, so yes they look more solid.  However, the design is basically an amalgamation of older dynafit designs (ie copies of older unpatented designs, rather than ‘improvements’ as stated in the advertising!) – so basic functions like the climbing stands and pin step in are not as easy to use as the latest Dynafit Radical models.  However, since the climbing stand is a known weak point on the Radical, then less convenience vs more reliability may be no bad thing (there have been some breakages of the rear pins on Plums too, so they do have weak points just like all others).

Pin Binding Summary – the Guides Choice: For a pin binding with brakes, then personally I’m sticking with the older Dynafit Verticals for the time being (this model is now dicontinued unfortunately, so for buying a new pin binding with brakes then it’s the Radical or nothing this season).  For a model without brakes, my Dynafit TLT Speeds are still working fine after nearly 10 years continuous use, or the new Plum Guide – I reckon i’d be happy with either.

Trab Touring Bindings – the Saga continues: the mythical Trab Touring Binding (improved pin binding system with full alpine release capabilities) will now officially be launched next year (I’ll believe that when I see it) – but to use them you’ll need to purchase a new pair of Scarpa boots with the correct inserts, as the new binding system will not be compatible with Dynafit inserts.  Ie if you are looking at buying new boots, and/or a pin binding system in the near future, then it’s worth considering the implications before buying any new kit this season.  Next winter, Scarpa will be producing two versions of their boots – ie Dynafit compatible or Trab compatible  – so if you want to use pin bindings then you’ll need to decide which system to go for.

The principle advantages of the new Trab system are:  1. full alpine realease capability (ie Dynafit doesn’t have a lateral toe release – I had a client break a leg skiing on Dynafit this year in a situation where lateral toe release may have prevented it, so it’s a strong consideration! ) , 2. improved binding stiffness, particularly at the heel (ie more precision, better power transfer).

What isn’t yet known though is the price and the weight, which are going to be equally critical to the new systems’ success – I think we can rest assured that it won’t be cheap and the only thing I’ve heard on the expected weight is ‘about 1.3kg’.  If true, then it’s not a superlight binding – ie more a lightweight alternative to a Fritschi Freeride, or a safer alternative to the Dynafit Radical – so if you are currently debating over these two bindings, then that gives you another headache to consider!

BOOTS

We have a new genre – Hike and Ride Boots: these are basically off piste downhill boots with a good walk mode – ie resort skiing boots designed for a bit of boot tracking and the odd short skin.  The big manufacturers dominate here, with models like the Salomon Quest and Quest Max, Atomic Tracker, Tecnica Cochise and Tecnica Bushwhacker.  Womens Hike and Ride boots to look at include the Salomon Quest and Idol.

Freeride Boots have an interchangable sole in addition to a good walk mode – they tend to be made of better quality materials, by the specialist manufacturers.  Good ones to look at include the Scarpa Hurricane and Scarpa Typhoon, or for a slimmer fit try the Dynafit Titan TF-XGood womens freeride boots include the Scarpa Domina, lightweight Garmont Xena and beefier Garmont Azula.

On the Ski Mountaineering Boot front, there are now several very light two buckle boots around, but for British skiers we’ll concentrate on the more supportive three and four buckle models:

The best selling Scarpa Maestrale now has a big brother with the Maestrale RS. Dynafit have a great new boot in the shape of the Dynafit One PX – it’s based on the TLT 5, but comes with 3 buckles and has a wider last ie it fits normal feet. For a wider fit, the new Garmont Cosmos looks excellent: still with 4 buckles, but it’s even lighter than the Maestrale. As a cheaper option, the three buckle Black Diamond Slant now comes with a better inner than previous BD ones, so should be warm enough and fit well.  In womens touring boots the Scarpa Gea is an established classic, the new Garmont Celeste looks good and the Dynafit One PX TF Lady goes down to smallest sizes if you have particularly tiny feet.

AVALANCHE AIRBAG SYSTEMS

Plenty of new developments here: BCA have launched their new Float airbag backpack system, which comes with a refillable gas cartridge so you can easily take it on a plane and fill up in resort.  Snowpulse have also been bought by Mammut, with their extensive European dealership network. The new Mammut R.A.S. Removable Airbag System can be fitted into compatible rucsacs made by Mammut, but also by other manufacturers – eg the Scott Air 30 RAS day sac looks very well designed and practical to me.  The Mammut system comes with two different cartridge options – a lighter non refillable one (you’ll be able to rent gas cartidges in resort) or a slightly heavier refillable one.  With 3 competing brands in the market now, hopefully both the weight and price of these units will start to fall.

OTHER SKI PACKS

One of my favourites, the Black Diamond Covert ski sac has been updated this season and looks excellent – the shorter back length version is definitely on the small side for multiday tours, but the longer version is fine if you only carry what you need to!  For a more traditional top entry sac that’s good for touring, the ever popular Deuter Guide 35+ is a good choice, or if money is no object then take a look at the Mammut Trion Light 40L – it’s not cheap, but it’s extremely light and comes with a fully waterproof removable liner, removable lid, non snow absorbent straps etc – definitely one of the best lightweight packs I’ve seen in a while.

TRANSCEIVERS

Nothing radically new to report here this season – the Arva Link and Mammut Pulse are now well established as the best top-of-the-range transceivers on the market.  Both use the same internal analogue and digital and W-Link technology, so it’s just a case of getting your hands on each one and deciding which you prefer. The best mid market transceiver is probably the Arva 3 Axes, which is a 3 antenna design running on dual analogue/digital technology and for those on more of a budget, the DTS  Tracker 2 and Mammut Element are easy to use, modern 3 antenna digital designs.

CREVASSE RESCUE DEVICES

A couple of useful new gadgets to help get yourself out of a crevasse – firstly the Petzl Micro Traxion, which is a minaturised version of the popular mini traxion (these are a great device, but finding one to buy may be difficult!) and the Mammut RescYou, which is a lightweight fully self contained pulley system – I’m keen to get my hands on one of these to see if it’s any good.  NB There has recently been a product recall on the Wildcountry Ropeman 3 – if you own one then either return it to your retailer, or direct to Wild Country for refund or replacement with one of the previous Ropeman models.

CLOTHING

Just a few thoughts here, but I could go on all night..  If you want to buy a new waterproof jacket for ski touring, then look  for one made of the new Gore Active Shell Fabric – it’s lightweight, more comfortable than paclite and it’s specifically designed for high output aerobic activities – ie ski touring.  I use a variety of jackets made from active shell for sking, climbing and cycling and I’m very impressed with all of them.

A few updates on various bits ofArc’teryx kit I’ve been using over the last year that are particularly good for skiing and touring:

  • Arcteryx Fision SL Jacket – it’s an insualted goretex shell jacket with pit zips, so works well as a warm layer and a shell in cold conditions, but saving the weight of carrying two seperate garments.  I’ve used it for two full seasons now on every cold weather week and it’s been brilliant.
  • Alpha FL Jacket – super light, minimalist shell jacket – made from the excellent new Gore Active Shell fabric.  Perfect for alpine climbing as well as ski touring.
  • Atom LT Jacket – lightly insulated wind resistant jacket – super light weight, warm-but-not-too-warm and windproof on the way down.  I wear this one more than any other jacket whilst ski touring.
  • Gamma SK Pant – softshell ski touring pant – they fit just great, have pockets in all the right places, good boot draw cord and mine are in a lightish colour that doesn’t show the dirt…
  • Sabre Pant – fully waterproof, lightly insulated ski pant – ideal for bad weather days. I use these whenever it’s cold or snowy: they’ve got  thigh zips for venting and plenty of pockets, so they are ideal for ski touring, as well as having down through the woods in the powder.
  • Atom SV Hoody – synthetic insulated jacket with a hood – makes a great spare layer for when it turns nasty.  I carry one of these all the time (in fact, I wore it this morning taking the kids to school – see!)
  • Alpha SV Glove – ultimate ski touring gloves – just don’t look at the price tag..