2014-2015 Ski Mountaineering Equipment Advice

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The ski season is very nearly here, so it’s time for our annual round up of new ski mountaineering products.  Please note that the advice we give refers to ski touring conditions typical of the European Alps and it’s mainly aimed at British ski tourers; ie who generally ski on holiday rather than every weekend – so 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.

SKI RECOMENDATIONS 2014/15

We concentrate here solely on skis that are destined to be pushed uphill for some amount of time, as well as being skied down on.  As always with ski touring and backcountry skis, you have to make a series of compromises between ski weight and performance in different types of snow conditions etc – the good news however, is that skis are getting both lighter and better to ski on each season.

Lightweight Freetouring Skis

With wider touring skis now established as the preferred choice for most British ski tourers, I’ll concentrate on wider lightweight 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 La Sportiva, the popular La Sportiva GT continues unchanged this season – offering 89mm under foot, a stable 22m touring radius and just 2.8kg @ 177cm.  You get a lot of ski for your money here, at 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. The women’s version is the La Sportiva GTS – it’s got the same dimensions, but with a softer flex and comes in shorter lengths.

Dynafit have revamped their touring ski line this season, with modern rocker designs and a lot of new technology  from their top end skis now appearing across the range – the Dynafit Manaslu is the one I’d look at (90mm underfoot, 20m radius, 2.76kg @ 174) for good versatility and strong performance in a range of conditions.

For a ski with excellent performance (but a little more weight), take a look at the Black Crows Orb Freebird (90mm underfoot, 18m radius, 3.15kg @179)  – I skied on these for most of last winter (see review here) and will be doing so again this season.  They’re incredibly reliable, versatile and a lot of fun!

In a similar vein, but more suitable for lighter skiers (ie women and smaller men) is the Black Crows Ova Freebird – this is slightly narrower (85mm underfoot, 17m radius, 2.9kg @170) which doesn’t compromise float if you weigh less and it also has a tip rocker – which creates a nimble, easy turning ski with Black Crows excellent build quality.

If you want to go lighter still in a women’s ski, then the Movement Coax is a very good choice (I know, I’ve finally recommended a Movement ski – but only for lighter skiers!)  These are 84mm underfoot, 18m radius and just 2.4kg at 161.

Finally, for something still light and high performing, but a little wider – my top tip this season is the Atomic Drifter, which comes in at 95mm underfoot, with a 19m radius and 3.1kg @ 173.  See Phil Evans Atomic Drifter Ski Review here for a more detailed description – the executive summary: “it rocks!'”

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 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 still 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 last season (it’s 91mm underfoot and a bit heavier, but not unthinkable for pushing uphill at 3.7kg in a 175). For women’s specific skis, the Scott Luna is another good option, with 85mm underfoot and 3.2kg @ 166.

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 96-108mm underfoot nowadays.  The previously mentioned Atomic Drifter  just about squeezes in here at 95mm and 3.15kg @ 173with the  Dynastar High Mountain 97 (97mm underfoot, 17m, 3.6kg @ 178) also extremely well regarded, as is the Salomon Q98  (96mm, 18m, 3,6 @  172).  All of these skis feature a modern rocker design, combined with a lightweight construction – but they are not too light, so also ski well on a wider variety of snow types than just powder.  These last two also come in women’s specific versions called the Dynastar Cham Woman 97 and the Salomon Q96 Lumen, both of which have a softer flex and come in shorter lengths for lighter skiers.

At the wider end of the spectrum, the Rossignol Soul 7 at 107 underfoot proved very popular last season (3.7kg @ 172) as did the Whitedot Ranger (108mm underfoot, 24.5m radius, 3.8kg @ 177) and the Dynastar High Mountain 107.    Again, a women’s specific versions is available in the Rossignol Savory 7 and finally – if money is no object – then check out the Whitedot Ranger Carbonlites which are just 3.1kg @ 171 for a 108mm ski!

NEW TOURING BINDINGS 2014/15

The development of new pin bindings with improved release capabilities is the main theme this season – a number of which are aimed at all round backcountry freeride use (ie not just for lightweight ski touring).

First up, some good news on the Fritschi Vipec 12 which launched last season as the first pin binding with full lateral toe release.  These are light at 1.2kg and were generally well received (I skied on a pair most of last winter) but some of the functions were definitely fiddly to use. Fritschi have been listening though and for this season have produced an updated toepiece which addresses most of the issues (see details here and my first impressions here).  The really good news however, is that the updates are also available as a retrofit to existing Mk1 vipec bindings.

Sensing the competition, Dynafit have launched two new models with an improved toepiece design – this has the pin unit mounted onto a rotating pivot system, in order to improve the binding release capabilities and avoid unwanted pre release.  The touring model is the Dynafit Radical 2 ST (1.2kg, DIN 4-10) and the freeride model is the Dynafit Beast 14 (1.6kg, DIN 5-14 – this is a hybrid model, sporting a Radical 2 toepiece mated to a Dynafit Beast heel piece).  NB Although this new design claims to improve release safety, it still doesn’t allow lateral toe release or any release tension adjustment at the toe, like the Fritschi Vipec does.

Finally, Marker pulled out a big surprise this autumn by announcing their own hybrid pin binding system, called the Marker Kingpin.  This is a great looking binding, that’s claimed to be strong enough for freeride use and it weighs in at just 1460g incl brakes (ie considerably lighter than the nearest competition, the Dynafit Beast).  Finish quality looks excellent and they’ve used a lot of technology from their alpine bindings to ensure good release safety – to the extent that it’s the first pin binding to gain TUV safety certification, which is a real plus that should help with sales if it proves reliable.  If you already want to buy some, then the main stumbling block is that only 500 pairs are being made this season, so they’re going to be pretty hard to get hold of until 2015/16…

If they prove safe and reliable, these new stronger pin binding systems are beginning to look like an attractive lightweight alternative to current popular freeride bindings such as the Fritschi Freeride Pro and Guardian/Tracker, both of which are nearly a kilo heavier.  These are all new products however – so the jury is still out on reliability and safety – but the future certainly looks interesting.

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.  A good one to look at this season is the Lange XT 120 for men, or the Lange RX 90 W for women.

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.  Last season, the Scarpa Freedom SL was the most popular boot in this sector and sensibly, it remains unchanged this season.  Another good boot to look at if you’ve got higher volume feet, is the updated Black Diamond Factor.  For mid market offerings, the Salomom Quest Pro and Technica Cochise are both well regarded  options.  Good womens’ freeride boots to look at include the Scarpa Freedom SL Wms and Black Diamond Shiva MX models.

3-4 Buckle Ski Mountaineering Boots – we’ll concentrate here on supportive 3-4 buckle boots, which are most appropriate for the majority of British Ski Tourers.  Many 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 II is the same shape as last year, with a few improvements to the walk mode, pin mounts and buckles.  The La Sportiva Spectre has a modified shape this year, with more space over the top of the foot, so it’s now a similar volume to the Cosmos.

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

Superlight Ski Mountaineering Boots – race derived superlight touring boots are now beginning to enter the mainstream to cater for keen tourers wanting to save as much weight as possible.  In general you only get 2 buckles instead of 4, so they aren’t quite as supportive – but if you are a good skier then they can perform extremely well and save you considerable effort on the climbs.  Other useful features gained from their race heritage are extremely good walk modes and very quick lockdown systems for changing over from walk to ski mode and vica versa.

The La Sportiva Spitfire is a good option for use with Dynafit bindings  – weighing in at 2.4kg, these have a great single lever changeover mode and an excellent progressive flex.  NB the rocker on Spitfires is very pronounced, so they are great to walk in, but this does lead to some compatibility issues if you want to use them with Fritschi Vipec bindings.  They are however, fully compatible with Dynafit and Plum pin bindings, so still plenty of choices.

The most innovative boot of the season without doubt though, is the Scarpa F1 EVO with it’s new Tronic hands free ski/walk mode.  Important Note: these boots only work with tech bindings that have a 2 pin lockdown at the heel (ie they are not compatible with any bar or rail design touring bindings).  With the hands free system, you simply kick in at the back and the boot locks into downhill mode, then step out again and it goes into walk mode (see Scarpa F1 EVO review here).  Weighing in at just 2.2kg, they are very light too, the lower buckle having been replaced with a Boa tensioning system to give a more even pressure across the foot.  I’ll be skiing on these this season, so look forward to a more detailed review in due course.

AVALANCHE AIRBAG SYSTEMS

Alpride  have a good new lightweight airbag system out this season, that gets around flight issues by using the same gas canisters that are used in aircraft lifejackets (ie there’s already one under every seat on the plane…)

The other new design is the Black Diamond Jetforce range of airbag packs – these use a battery powered system, which offers a number of advantages over gas canisters, so they may become popular if they prove reliable

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: last years 4.0 firmware update offered a number of significant improvements (you can upgrade existing models with the new firmware for ~30 Euro). The Mammut Element is also a good, easy to use unit for the less experienced.  The other reliable, easy to use 3 antenna receiver to look at is the Ortovox Zoom + – these are extremely good value, especially if bought as a set, along with a shovel and probe.

SKINS

Colltex have a new ski range of skins out with an acrylic based adhesive technology – called Whizzz Skins, they are a lot easier to pull apart so you don’t need faff about with cheat sheets, they stick to your bases but not to everything else in sight and they are much easier to re glue (anyone who’s re glued a pair of conventional skins will rejoice at that one!)  It sounds like these are Colltex’s answer to Gecko skins, so if they work just as well, then they’ll be well worth getting – oh, and they’re bright green!