2013-2014 Ski Mountaineering Equipment Advice

It’s that time of year again – our annual round up of all things new and shiny in ski mountaineering.  Please note that the advice we give refers to ski touring conditions typical of the European Alps  – ie if you are reading this in North America for instance, then the skis and kit you might choose for your own local conditions could be very different. Thanks to Phil and David over at Backcountry UK for helping out with information and ski kit to test.

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NEW SKIS 2014

The rocker revolution continues, to the extent that an increasing number of modern wider touring skis now have a rocker tip.  This helps the ski to float and turn more easily in soft snow.  It’s not entirely a free lunch however, as the ski will have a shorter running edge, so give a bit less grip on ice.  As always, it’s a bag of compromises between weight, performance on different snow types and what kind of skiing you do most of.  On wider skis in particular, suitability of using pin bindings is also an issue – for more information and advice on using light weight pin bindings on wider bodied skis, take a look at last autumn’s 2012-13 ski mountaineering kit roundup, where there is a longer discussion on the matter. NB – Unless marked otherwise, weights quoted are ‘real ski’ weights – ie as measured on a scales by me, not the manufactures’ quoted weights – this makes quite a difference in some instances.

‘Wider’ Lightweight Touring Skis

With the trend toward wider skis, we’ll concentrate on wider touring skis that are suitable for all round touring in the European Alps – ie 85-95mm underfoot.  On spring snow or icy terrain you are better off skiing at the narrower end of the range, whereas in soft snow you’ll get more float on the wider ones.  As always, your weight, ski ability and ski style come into play – so think about what terrain and snow types you need the ski to perform best on (I said ‘need’, rather than ‘want’!) in order to narrow things down.

Starting with Trab, the new Trab Freedom 90 looks a great buy – offering 90mm under foot, an ideal 20m touring radius and just 2.8kg @ 172cm.  You get Trab’s renowned strength, durability and quality for a very competitive price.  With a smooth medium flex, it’s easy to turn at lower speeds in tricky situations, as well as higher speeds in more open terrain.

If you want something a little slimmer with good edge hold, then look at the Atomic Aspect (85mm underfoot, 17m radius, 2.7kg @ 170) – with a full wood core and a nice springy medium flex, this rocker tipped ski has won several ‘best in test’ awards in European ski magazines.

For a ski with ultimate performance (but a little more weight), take a look at the Black Crows Orb Freebird (90mm underfoot, 18m radius, 2.95kg @169)  – this ski won Fall Line Magazines Backcountry Ski of the Year award this year.

A quick note on useage: although these skis are designed for ski touring, we’ve selected models here that have a strong and reliable 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.  There are numerous far lighter touring skis on the market, but they generally don’t ski as well and are definitely ‘touring only’ models – ie they are not strong enough for resort use.

Finally, 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 an very versatile ski that could fit into either category above or below.

Resort/All Mountain Skis to Tour On

For a versatile on/off piste resort all rounder that you can also tour on, the Blizzard Bushwhacker is an excellent choice.  It’s got a lovely smooth flex, is lively to ski on but forgiving of errors and a good ski to improve and progress on – ie great for improving off piste skiers, but also a good ski for higher standard skiers too.  In terms of spec, it’s got a full wood (bamboo) core, tip and tail rocker, 88mm underfoot, 19m radius and weighs 3.4kg @ 173, which is great for an all mountain ski of this width.  The women’s version of the Bushwhacker is the  Blizzard Black Pearl – it’s the same ski, in shorter lengths with different graphics.  Scott’s The Ski is another good option, having won several awards this season (it’s 91mm underfoot and a bit heavier, but not unthinkable for pushing uphill at 3.7kg in a 175).

The other obvious choice in this area is the already mentioned Scott Crusair, which is a premium quality carbon based ski with a light weight wood core – rocker tip, 90mm underfoot, 17m radius and 3kg are all very appealing – I’ve skied on these skis extensively and really rate them.

Backcountry Powder Skis to Day Tour On

For ‘European’ powder orientated backcountry skis that are still fairly light – you are typically looking at around 98-108mm underfoot nowadays (see notes on pin bindings in our 2012-13 roundup).   If you are looking for ultimate weight saving quality, then Trab Volare’s are still a good option.  They are a traditionally shaped ski though, so bearing in mind that many folk are keen to try out a rocker ski nowadays for soft snow conditions, then I’d take a look at the new Salomon Q98.  These are extremely good skis, very versatile, full resort use strength, but still relatively light at 3.4Kg in a 172 – with a full wood core and honeycomb tip and tail (good talk through on youtube here).  NB the Salomon 98 has different widths underfoot depending on length – so the 172cm ski is 96mm underfoot, the 180 is 97mm underfoot and the 188 is 98mm underfoot.  The other backcountry rocker ski I’d look at in this width is the Black Crows Camox Freebird, which is the same width and weight as the Q98, but with a more progressive rocker tip – these are a very good choice for stronger skiers (especially if you buy them at a length up), being stable at speed, but also very agile for quick transitions in the trees.

Finally, the ski that’s got the biggest buzz around it for the pre season (ie possibly the best guerrilla marketing hype!) is the Rossignol Soul 7 – at 107 underfoot, for skiing in Europe it’s definitely a soft snow ski, but still light(ish) for the width at 3.8kg and very agile.  All the hype about the honeycomb tip/tail is, well, hype – it’s Rossi playing catchup, rather than totally revolutionary.  Saving weight at the tip and tail reduces the rotational mass of the ski, making it more agile  – Salomon introduced the same technology into the Q98 last year for instance and personally I’ve been skiing on full carbon/honeycomb structured skis for years made by Trab – so it’s well tested, saves weight and definitely works.  That’s not to say that they aren’t good skis though!

NEW TOURING BINDINGS

Some big things are promised on the touring binding front this season, with three new pin bindings offering full alpine release capabilities.

First up, we have the Fritschi Diamir Vipec 12, which is due for release in January 2014 (it was announced at ISPO as the ‘Zenith’, but the name has now changed due to copyright issues).  The design has a full sideways toe release, allows changing from ski to walk mode without removing the ski, the rear binding allows full ski flex without affecting the boot/bonding interface and it has a ‘high din’ lockout mode at the toe (so the ski stays on whilst skinning, but will still release if  you got caught in an avalanche whilst skinning)  – these are all major advantages over current pin bindings on the market.  Weight is quoted variously at 545-599g per binding, including ski brakes – so similar to a Dynafit Radical.

Obviously the two big unknowns at the moment are it’s usability and reliability – so we await a real working model with interest (you can see a pre production sample on wildsnow here and a useful youtube video of it here).  In terms of price and availability,  Uk RRP with be £420, which is comparable with the Dynafit Radical binding it’s competing against.  If these bindings prove reliable, then they could come to dominate the touring market like the original diamir bindings have done for several years.

Secondly, the long awaited Trab Binding System is finally being launched this winter.  The Trab TR2 is a very well designed, solid piece of kit, made wholly of metal – there’s a youtube video of it in action here.  It weighs in at just 580g a binding including the stopper, which is the same as a Dynafit Radical – but you get a full alpine binding sideways toe release, DIN settings from 7-13 and far better stiffness and control because the binding clamps down fully at the heel, rather than just resting on two prongs like other pin binding systems.  The binding looks easy to use and allows changeover from ski to walk mode without removing the ski – so a long list of positives here.

But – and it’s a big but – you need a new set of boots to go with the bindings – ie they are not compatible with Dynafit style inserts on current boots.  I think this will be an excellent binding – it looks strong, easy to use and elegantly designed – but how quickly and whether it catches on is going to be the big question, as you’ll need to purchase a set of Scarpa Spirit TR2 Boots at the same time as your new bindings in order to buy into the system.  In case you are wondering, the boot is a basically the Scarpa Rush (a 3 buckle version of the Scarpa Maestrale), with TR2 inserts at the heel, as well as Dynafit inserts.

Finally, we have the Dynafit Beast Binding – which at 2kg a pair are definitely not lightweight touring bindings.  These are designed as a full on freeride binding for hucking off cliffs etc with a maximum release of 16.  This is all fairly academic unless you are a pro freerider though, as only a limited number of these are on sale worldwide and they cost around £750 a pair.

Amongst other established touring bindings, the Fritschi Freeride Pro continues to sell well and is still the best bet for 80-90% of British ski tourers, or for majority resort based use.   In freeride bindings, the Scott/Salomom Guardian Bindings (Also called the Atomic Tracker) have been well received and I personally think they are a better system than the Marker Duke and Baron – which can be pain to use, even for day tours.

A word of warning about the Marker Tour TR binding that appeared three 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.

Another new Freeride binding on the market  is the Liberty Adrenaline – being sold variously as the Tyrolia Adrenaline and 4 Front Adrenaline, it’s built in a similar way to the Marker Duke.  I’ve not got hold of a pair of these yet, so can’t  comment on how they behave for touring – but the weight is 2.4kg without ski brakes and DIN range 5-16, so suitable for a broad range of resort based off piste skiers

To complete this section, Plum have brought out a new freeride pin binding called the Yak.  This is a beefed up version of their original Plum Guide binding – the two main differences being that:  1 it’s designed for use on wider skis,  2  it comes with a ski brake.  100mm and 115mm brake versions are available, weighing in at 1200g a pair.

BOOTS

Hike to Ride Boots – the big manufacturers continue to expand into this ‘resort ski boot with a good walk mode’ niche – with plenty of models to choose from.  The main difference between the more and less expensive models on offer are the materials used to make them – ie the ones with pebax shells are a lot better, but cost more. Two good models to look at are the Technica Cochise 110 and Rossignol All Track 120.

Freeride Boots – these have an interchangable sole in addition to a good walk mode.  They tend to be made of better quality materials, by the specialist manufacturers.  This season, everyone is looking at the Scarpa Freedom SL, which manages to be both very stiff (120 flex) and very light (3.58kg) at the same time (nice talk through on youtube here).  Another good boot to look at if you’ve got higher volume feet, is the new Atomic Waymarker Tour – this lies on the boundary between a freeride and ski mountaineering boot. Good womens freeride boots to look at include the Scarpa Domina and Scarpa Freedom models.

Ski Mountaineering Boots – we’ll concentrate here on supportive 3-4 buckle boots, which are most appropriate for the majority of British Ski Tourers.

A number of established boots remain unchanged this season. The Scarpa Maestrale and it’s stiffer sibling, the Maestrale RS continue to do well.  For a wider fit, the Scott Cosmos is another excellent choice that’s even lighter than the Maestrale (last season this boot was called the Garmont Cosmos, but Scott have since taken over Garmont).  Amongst the new models, the 4 buckle La Sportiva Spectre is possibly the most interesting – it’s one of the lightest 4 buckle touring boots on the market at 2.87kg and has a brilliant walk mode (I’ve tried a pair on, so I can vouch for this – it’s as good as on a race boot).  The volume of the Spectre is similar to, or possibly slightly lower than, the Cosmos.  Update – the production Spectre boot has a modified shell shape from the original demo version – having tried on both, the production version has less volume over the top of the mid foot second buckle area (it’s not just my imagination/poor memory – Sportiva have confirmed it!) – so you need to bear this in mind.

In womens touring boots the Scarpa Gea continues to be very popular, as does the Scott Celeste and if you’ve got very small feet, the Dynafit One PX TF Lady goes down to the smallest sizes.

AVALANCHE AIRBAG SYSTEMS

Mammut have launched a new range of avalanche airbag packs, incorporating the Mammut Protection System – this offers full around the head protection, it’s lighter than other systems and it’s interchangeable between different rucsacs in the range.  The upshot of all this is, that you can now buy a lightweight airbag pack that weights just 2.12kg – ie a whole kilo lighter than other packs on the market.  Before you go out and buy one however, you may want to read this article by Lou Dawson at Wildsnow – a look at the prototype Black Diamond Jetforce Airbag – this is a battery powered system and if/when it comes to market (possibly next year?) it could well make gas canister systems redundant quite quickly.

OTHER SKI PACKS

The Black Diamond Covert ski pack is still one of my favourites – buy the longer back length version for multiday tours. The other traditional top entry sac that I like is the Deuter Guide 30+ SL  – it’s light, carries really well and goes up to 38 litres – what more do you need.  For resort skiing and day touring, the 26l Haglofs Skra looks like a really nice sac as well.

TRANSCEIVERS

The Mammut Pulse is still reckoned to be the best top-of-the-range transceiver on the market: the new 4.0 firmware update offers a number of significant improvements (you can upgrade existing models with the new firmware for ~30 Euro) with the Mammut Element being a good, easy to use unit for the less experienced.  Two other good, easy to use 3 antenna receivers to look at are the BCA Tracker 2 and Ortovox Zoom +.

WARNING – ‘PSEUDO TRANSCEIVER’ SMART PHONE APPS

One final very important word of warning – DO NOT use smart phone apps as avalanche transceiversPlease read this article carefully – a number of apps have recently appeared, claiming to turn your smart phone into an avalanche transceiver – however, the Canadian Avalanche Foundation have looked at them and issued a press release advising people not to use them.  Saving yourself £300 by buying an app instead of an avalanche transceiver sounds too good to be true – and it is, because unfortunately they don’t work!

CREVASSE RESCUE DEVICES

I’ve now swapped my Wildcountry Ropeman 2 and Petzl Mini Traxion for a Petzl Micro Traxion, which has proved to be a brilliant piece of kit and lighter even than the Ropeman 2.  I haven’t yet got my hands on a Mammut RescYou lightweight self contained pulley system  though, but the various people I’ve spoken to who have actually used one were all very positive.

HELMETS

Finally, if you are ski touring in steeper terrain in spring snow conditions, then you are far more likely to be die from head injuries sustained during a fall, than from getting yourself avalanched.  So with that in mind, wearing a climbing helmet might be a good idea when touring in this type of terrain (it’s quite common to see local ski tourers wearing helmets in places like the Picos de Europa for instance).  But how much is that gonna weigh? – well, not a lot, now that Petzl have just brought out their new Sirrocco Helmet – which weighs just 150g.  Pity it only comes in one colour – bright orange – though..