Light is right on uphill but how about downhill abilities? Can you rip that steep bowl and drop those cliffs on your touring equipment? How to choose the ultimate freetouring setup?
Quite surely you have been looking out the lists of gear thinking about lightness and skiability. I ran into this problem few years ago when I realized that I'm giving too much handicap for my ski touring friends by having heavy boots and bindings. So I started to look for the options that would help me especially on those big days in Lyngen alps in Norway where you have a lot of vertical to climb and challenging skiing from the top to bottom.
Now the market was full of light boots and bindings but it was hard to get to try them and you couldn't tell if the boot was skiable and the binding reliable just by looking it from picture and listening some marketing talk. So I made a lot of tries and finally I am in a situation where I can honestly tell that I've found the almost perfect set up.
BOOTS FOR EFFICIENT UPHILL AND AGGRESSIVE DOWNHILL
Earning your turns and enjoying it. Light is right in this case. This set is ready to rock both uphill and downhill.
Finding the right boot turned out to be a pain in the arse. These plastic buckets transfer the power from your body to the skis so it's like choosing a gearbox into your bike or car. Besides, everyone knows how difficult it is to find a ski boot that really fits. In touring you're stuck in your boots day in day out hiking and skiing so the right fit is extremely important when choosing your boot.
In free touring the ideal boot would be light (near 1 kg or less), provide seamless cuff rotation for efficient climbing, burly enough to drive big powder skis, fit like a premium leather glove and all in all ski well downhill on high speed. Impossible? Read on.
NO LUCK WITH THE SPECTRE
I started with La Sportiva Spectre 2016, a reasonably light (1445 grams on 27.5) tech boot that looked like it would be burly enough for my 185 cm BD Helio Carbon 116 and 105. Boots last is 103 mm which provided enough wide platform for my feet. I started by molding up the inner sole and the boot was good to go.
On skis I immediately noticed somewhat soft feeling forward flex due to the EZ Flex Tongue. First I didn't like it but I got used to it pretty fast and it didn't bother so much. The boot skied uphill fast and light and skiing uphill was totally different story from my BD Factor freeskiing boots.
More of a problem was the liner that left too much room for my toes and instep making the boot feeling inaccurate and too soft. Also, I've broken ankle from my right foot some years ago and I've got a small but somewhat nasty bulge at the top of my malleolus. This thing kept rubbing on the boot no matter what I tried so I decided to change the inner boot hoping it would fix the problem.
FIXING THE INNER BOOT
Next stage was a painstaking introduction into technical details of ski boot liners. As far as I know, there are two boot liner manufacturers in the world that can be taken seriously: Intuition and Palau. Problem with Intuition in Europe is that they're really hard to find which leaves Palau more or less the only option.
I knew that I want as close fit as possible so after a long research I ended up buying one of Palau overlap models. Overlap fills the excessive volume from ankle area and makes precise feeling on downhill mode. Extra fill on the ankle area would be good thinking about the old injury on my right foot as well.
I ordered the liner from Palau webshop. The delivery was fast and I got exactly what I ordered. After arrival I molded the liners according the instructions and was eager to go and try my new setup.
The fit was from whole different level comparing to the original liner in Spectres. All the excessive room was gone and the boot felt way stiffer and precise. I soon found out however that the rubbing was still there and there wasn't anything I could do for it. So there was no other option than to start the boot shopping round again.
ATOMIC BACKLAND CARBON - A HEAT MOLDABLE PLATFORM
I got a chance to try Atomic Backland Carbon live in my local ski shop and after some research it looked like I could a) make it fit to my right ankle and b) build it performing good enough on big skis and big speeds. Boot looked a bit low comparing to La Sportiva Spectre but it seemed like there was chance to tweak it higher.
So once the pair of Backland Carbons on size 27.5 were in my house it was time to get to work. Boot itself felt light as feather from the box but the liner, straps and forward stance was something that obviously needed improvement.
The beauty with Atomic boots is in the moldability. You can heat mold the whole boot making it fit really well on your feet - Atomic calls this feature memory fit which means that you can heat mold the shell, liner and the cuff. I simply took off the original liner, stuffed in the already once molded Palau liners into the boot and put the whole boot in the oven. I carefully measured the temperature and time and after some time both boots were fitted. And the fit? Like sneakers, like anything I had tried before, almost too good to be true.
After fitting I inserted Booster straps (expert/racer model) and an additional rear spoiler plate to add a bit forward lean and make back of the boot higher. The result is a boot that weights 1215 grams, skis uphill like a beast and is totally capable to drive big skis aggressively, handle drops and backcountry jumps and those g-turns on groomers. Voila!
The boots have seen a year of abuse and you can see how it wears in 100+ full days. No buckles have been changed and there haven't been any problems with the boot. If there is something left desired that would be the cuff that could be slightly higher and you need to remember that these boots don't fit any other than tech bindings. Let's check them briefly next.
TECH BINDINGS FOR AGGRESSIVE SKIING
Light bindings and steep terrain. Yes, they work well together.
Long gone are the days when you couldn't trust on your at bindings. Many of us remember the times when you had to lock your front pins in a fear of pre-release. If you're still doing it, please stop. The force needed to open the locked pins can be more than 200 kg and if that force gets directed in you it will most probably do something undesirable conditioning to your body parts.
I'm a skier not an engineer so I try to keep this short and not concentrate on technical details too much. I've owned Dynafit TLT Radical FT, Fritchi Vipec 12, Atomic Backland, Marker Kingpin 13 and ATK Freerider 14 and 12 bindings and have fairly good idea how these things work in backcountry settings. There haven't been need for ski crampons for any of these (yeah, you should ski in Northern Scandinavia too) so I'm not commenting on that.
- Dynafit TLT Radical FT (the old model - I don't know about the 2.0) is the most unreliable binding from these and you need to lock the thing to prevent the pre-release. There is some kind of DIN adjustment on back binding but it makes no sense because the front part of the binding is so unreliable. Totally not recommended but those who know get away and ski happy with these. I don't.
- I haven't experienced pre-releases on Fritchi Vipec 12. I've skied for example a long Hjörundfjord roundtrip in Norway (80 km Haute route style ski tour) on Vipecs and there wasn't any major problems with them. However they were (I don't know about the updated models) pain in the ass to put on, plastic construction felt like it would not last too long and the ski brakes were working a bit unreliably.
- Marker Kingpin works like the binding should work - put it on and forget it's there. Now, we're talking about light equipment here and Kingpin 13 weigths 750 grams (with brake). That's not totally unacceptable but you can get away 355 grams lighter per binding and keep on ripping with peace of mind. And that 355 grams per foot is a lot when you drag yourself up 1,5 k vertical. Note: If you want to use Atomic Backland or other light boots on Kingpin you need to attach a special adapter to the heel - ask your local ski shop about these. If they're good they have them.
- Atomic Backland is a tour binding that weight under 300 grams (without ski brake), is simple and stays put when you use right kind of back pins for your style of skiing. I had them on my 185 cm BD Helio 105. There was really nothing else than the lack of ski brake that I could complain about. I have to admit that I locked the front binding when I was skiing in places where losing your skis can have serious consequences. Most of the time I was skiing front bindings open and I never experienced pre-release on these (which was good since I didn't use the leash and neither should you despite the risk of losing your ski. Don't ask why). All in all I liked them and could recommend them.
- I've used ATK Freerider 14 2.0 in my BD Helio 116 and Helio 105 (both 185 cm) over one year now and all I can say is that there is not really anything I can complain about the binding. Yes, you need to take care that there is not ice under your front binding but you need to do this with basically every tech style binding. And yes, you can ski front binding on open position in all conditions and don't need to worry about the pre-release. When you get the DIN's dialed for the back binding you can trust on these while dropping from cliffs or skiing fast on big skis. And yes, the release works as it should work - I've tried this multiple times and every single time the ski popped out before my leg got hurt. ATK Freerider 12 is basically the same binding but less burly. I trust my skiing on ATK's and can safely recommend those for you too.
SKIS TO GET YOU UP THERE AND BACK - FAST AND FURIOUS
From left: BD Helio 116 and ATK Freerider 14, BD Helio 105 and ATK Freerider 14, BD Route 95 and ATK Freerider 12.
A small reminder first: I'm a Black Diamond Equipment ambassador so read this how you want. I honestly can say however that my skis work just the way I want my tools to work. Simple, predictable, as light they can be and you can rip your heart out with them. They're like BMW on cars, precise, fast and reliable.
BD Helio 116 weights 1.65 kg on 185 cm. When I add up my boot (1215 grams) and binding (395 grams) we end up having 3260 grams per feet. Helio 116 is a big ski (145-116-126) capable to ski big powder lines aggressively. I've been smoking down faces and couloirs with these and never felt that my equipment let me down. I use Helio 116 whenever there is powder day or at least 5 cm new snow on list.
BD Helio 105 weights 1550 grams on 185 cm. Being narrower it's quicker and more suitable for compressed snow, tighter turns and steep couloirs.
BD Route 95 weights 1600 grams on 183 cm. I've used it for steep Norwegian couloir missions and overall skiing in my local mountain. The ski feels a bit more damp comparing to Helio series since it has fiberglass lay up instead of carbon. This makes the edge bite feeling a bit more precise on hard snow especially on those steepish sections.
Taking advantage of the lightness. Photo by Miku Merikanto.
So there you have it. 3260 grams is the new future of free skiing. Skin up fast - come down like a hurricane. And dump the helicopter - there's no way you can justify it anyway.
Who am I to talk: I've been a free skier from the beginning of 1990's. I started skiing on telemark skis since they were the best way to hike up the mountains back in the days. I've been competing in telemark freeskiing and won the Scandinavian freeskiing championships in 2003 and have a number of international top rankings in freeskiing competitions in Scandinavia and USA. I've been skiing alpine on side of telemark all the time but 'switched' into alpine skiing when the alpine touring equipment started to progress ahead of telemark equipment in terms of usability for touring. Now the advance of alpine touring equipment is so huge that there is not really a talk of which equipment is performing better both up and downhill. - Antte Lauhamaa.