With all the major brands now designing ski touring kit who are the end users and where will they come from ? Tech Editor, Gavin Baylis, goes on tour to find out.
The GB Ski Industry Test Week, at the end of February, in Kuhtai Austria is where the majority of brands are present with both UK retailers and media able to test next season's (2015/2016) skis. Prior to leaving I did think it would be interesting to try out more piste-orientated skis as I am fortunate to mainly ski off piste. In fact, I have never actually tried a pure carving ski. But then it snowed.
The drive to Kuhtai from Serre Chevalier was nigh on eight hours and forecasts suggested we could well end up having to drive up to resort in fresh snow. Indeed, as we climbed above 1400m to the resort (2,000m), so the rain started to turn to snow.
By the morning there was around 10-15 cm of fresh with snow continuing to come down, mainly light but, obviously, the viz would be an issue for sure.
After a good breakfast it was down to the test centre a couple of minutes walk from our hotel. Once in the compound it was a hive of fast and furious activity akin to a motorsports paddock with various teams preparing kit for an endless stream of drivers. Or, to use another analogy, walking into a tech store with all the latest gadgets and an eager assistant asking what “sir” would like to use?
I spent a good hour or so assessing the kit
Rather than tool up with the nearest 'fat' ski and rush up the hill to score untracked lines, I spent a good hour or so assessing the kit that was available to ride and, indeed, formulating some kind of strategy as to what discipline to concentrate on.
It became apparent that touring kit is no longer the geeky relation. Every brand had an array of touring skis that were mounted with tech (pin) bindings and/or frame mounted touring bindings - and, by far the majority, were in widths well over 90mm.
In fact, out of some 850 skis available to test,85 (10%) were classed as lightweight touring skis.
What I did not expect to see was that a good number of skis were mounted with the new Marker King Pin tech pin binding, which I was eager to try out.
Salomon have not been idly sitting back watching the touring market evolve
Walking past the Salomon stand I saw the ISPO Gold award winning MTN Lab Touring boot. And within 20 minutes of arriving on the stand (had to have the liners molded) I was wearing the lighter version of the MTN Lab boot, the Explorer.
Salomon have not been idly sitting back watching the touring market evolve. They have some very impressive kit, through their MTN Lab range of boots and skis, and have identified, using some natty inspired marketing jargon, two categories of tourer.
Firstly, the 'Adventure Tourer' with their kit designed for someone who wants the gear to work just as well as going up as going down 50% up, 50% down.
I did question when Salomon would be launching a tech binding, but there was no comment. It was only on my return, carrying out some further research, that I did indeed come across the new Salomon tech binding and, surprisingly it’s very much targeted at the Adventurer Tourer, as you can see.
Very much targeted at the Adventure Tourer
Then there’s the second category, 'Freeride Touring'. which is 20% up, 80% down. And this is where I feel the vast majority of these skis in the compound are aimed at.
Skiers considering touring are now more motivated by the prospect of the descent and will soon realise, if not already, that they no longer have to hold back in charging down as they can have complete faith in their gear. Well, for at least 99% of the time.
Couple the Marker King Pin (which is going to retail around £360), with any of these 95mm+ touring skis and the stiffer MTN Lab boot (as well as a host of other brands' Freeride touring boots) and you have a one ski setup that will suit the vast percentage of skiers who ski off piste and who might only skin up (the hill) once in a blue moon.
I had a few minutes with Michael Buckers, lead designer of the King Pin, and we did discuss this category of rider and if this was who the King Pin was aimed at?
For sure, the King Pin will appeal to many
For, remember, Marker introduced the Baron and the Duke to people who preferred a heavy alpine touring binding though many who bought and mounted that binding to their skis failed or simply forgot to buy the necessary skins, let alone crampons!
For sure, the King Pin will appeal to many who are sceptical of the classic Dynafit pin binding and keen pricing will help the decision-making process further, especially for those preferring the added stability and security that the Marker gives. However, there is still no lateral toe release unlike the Diamir Fritschi Vipec 12* which I have been happily using all season, without, I hasten to add, any issues.
A lateral toe release to me was important
*As someone who has torn their ACL while using tech bindings, a lateral toe release to me was important, though I do know recent tests have pointed to a Dynafit binding rear release being less likely to rupture an ACL.
And like skis, nigh on every brand now offers a tech compatible boot in their range, with Atomic also entering the fray with their carbon Backland boot complementing their Backland range of skis. Which brings us nicely back to the skis.
I migrated my way to the Movement stand where I’d seen some skis that looked interesting, as well as being mounted with King Pins.Movement are no longer a microbrew ski brand company - and in 12 years they have become established, especially in the relatively new sector that is Freeride touring.
60% of Movement's skis sold are touring skis
In fact, in Europe, 60% of Movement's skis sold are touring skis, so they must feel a tad aggrieved at all the major brands now jumping into the touring space.
I opted for the more classic Response ski at 185 length and 89mm under foot. That said, it has a fair sized shovel on the front and is very light, almost a hybrid ski (did not want to use that adjective) between the more purist touring ski and a Freeride touring ski.
In the conditions I encountered, 10-15 fresh, tracked and untracked in bad viz, I liked the feel of it, which then had me thinking about snow pack and time of year, but more on that later.
I came back to the paddock and changed up to the larger Shift at 185 and 98mm. This was far better in the conditions and I enjoyed the extended rocker on the nose.
As I left the Movement stand I booked the Shift for the following morning with skins as I wanted to get a handle on the touring capabilities of the King Pin binding, MTN lab boots and the Shift ski as it’s all very well riding this kit downhill but the going up is just as important.
I was now quite focused on what I wanted to try and next out of the pits was the Volkl V-Werks at 186 and 94mm with King Pins. Again another very nice ski and by then I was skiing the same lap knowing what to expect. where I might find a better line and untracked and started going further afield dropping down through the trees ending up by the dam with a 10 to 15 minute walk back to the test centre.
I was taken by a very nice bright pink set of Corvus Freebirds
On the Black Crows stand, I was taken by a very nice bright pink set of Corvus Freebirds at 183 at 109mm mounted with lightweight bindings sans breaks so I had to fit some leashes and had a really great ski on these, putting a smile on my face.
They were followed along a similar theme with some Black Diamond Carbon Converts at 188 and 105mm.
I seem to recall rounding the day off riding the Salomon MTN Lab Explore at 177 and 95mm, more of a purist's touring ski than the fat rockered skis I’d been using and there’s the rub.
The marketing dudes can come up with any number of phrases: Free Touring, Freeride Touring, Adventure Touring, Rando Tour, Freerando and any other variation on that theme to identify / target the potential audience of a ski and who it might be best suited for.
As in all aspects of touring, be it packs, clothing, boots the 'light is right' rule is more prevalent in skis with weight being at the core of all ski manufacturing.
It's now all about the tech profile
Where once it was profile and sidecut, it’s now all about the tech profile of top sheets, core, laminates, stringers, top and side wall construction. With materials ranging from the more usual carbon / kevlar composites through to the more unusual bamboo / balsa woods and even granite!
All the above is more essential when touring skis are becoming wider and longer.
In essence, the shape now of a modern rando Freeride ski is wider, married with a more rockered spatula on the bow of these to handle a myriad of terrain. However, it might all be very well in seeking out fresh lines in powder but how will these light, wide skis manage to handle a more typical spring touring snow pack?
That is, leaving early in the morning, traversing across hard icy faces, often ascending using crampons while waiting for the snow to transform on the descent. And, then, couple that with encountering rotten or heavy spring snow /sludge / concrete?
Trying to stay well clear of any potential avalanche traps
I was up early the next morning touring in an area under a chair navigating my way across to a bowl I could see from the hotel, skinning up through the trees and along spines, trying to stay well clear of any potential avalanche traps. And, while I was in 'slack country', that is, not too far away from lifts and pistes I was still out of bounds and, unlike being in similar terrain in France, in Kuthai I was not too sure of the avalanche risk as that information seemed to be not too readily available.
As for the King Pins there were no issues climbing up and it is easy to adjust the heel. They are a breeze to get in and out at the front, and I'm not too sure how they manage to achieve that compared to say the Vipecs.
And the boots were a dream, with no hot spots or pressure points, and so easy to go back and forth between walk and ski mode with no chance of accidently switching between them, or simply getting confused as to what mode you are in, as can often be the case!
Mission accomplished with a short but tough tour including a fair number of kick turns and some awkward traverses and climbs, but that was more to do with my route selection rather than seeking out a route to test the kit. But I did find some nice terrain that I now knew how to access from the lifts.
I should add that, while climbing, it was snowing moderately to heavy and it was only back in the paddock that I discovered I could have tested the ISPO Gold award winning Julbo Aerospace goggles that are meant to work just as well going up as going down. With the amount of heat I was generating with the condensation of the snow falling, it would have been a very good test for them!
But there again, I tend not to go out touring when it’s snowing…
Back in the paddock I returned to Salomon to try the stiffer MTN Lab boot (the blue one) and then went on to visit Team SCOTT, who had a total of 48 skis of which 19 (nigh on 40%) were within the lightweight ski touring category. So those numbers very much tell a story.
So I went back to the hotel armed with the 110 SCOTT Cascades
I went out back to back on the Superguide 95 and Cascade 95, again very smooth though difficult to determine the subtle differences in design between them. By then conditions were pretty bad with a deteriorating viz, but still snow falling, so I went back to the hotel armed with the 110 SCOTT Cascades along with skins and had swapped back to the MTN Lab Explore boots ready for another early morning Billy-no-mates tour.
I awoke to some cloud but far brighter conditions so I opted for the first chair and then skinned from the top to just below a col. It was a much easier tour than the previous day and ideal for a ski in fresh powder at 110 width with no tricky transitions.
I chose not to go all the way as the snow below the col looked a little loaded. I was a little tempted as I could see a group touring up from where I had started and I did think how cool it would look if I made my way up there. But that's another Heuristic trap, n’est ce pas?
Instead, I opted to ski back down towards the group laying a nice line in the untracked and then joined them on their ascent as another descent down the same pitch was so tempting.
Was it the ski or the snow that made it so sublime? What I do know is that 110 underfoot in good powder will always be fun!
And here's a little tip if you want to get first tracks
And here’s a little tip if you want to get first tracks offer to ski down first in order to take the photos, that always works :)
Back down and the weather was much better so, for the afternoon, I decided to try some piste skis, not a lot I know about.
SCOTT Reverse put a big smile on my face as did the recommended Salomon X-Max with its outrageous short radius turns but I'm not too sure about the noise on a hard piste that goes with this type of skiing.
Unfortunately, I simply could not test all the touring skis that were in a suitable size available as I came back into the paddock.
Fischer have manufactured a ski based on their X-Country ski crown glide base
I think it would also to be remiss of me if I do not mention in dispatches another ISPO Gold award winning product. Fischer have manufactured a skin based on their X-Country ski crown glide base which, according to the marketing blurb, is meant to result in a 20% bigger stride and with considerably less effort
As percentages go 20% as an increase in stride is probably worth more than any lightweight ski or boot, as well as providing maximum grip for ascents in all types of snow pack.
Only issue was there were none to test :(
What is clear is that the touring market place, in a variety of guises, is about to expand tremendously as the kit becomes more mainstream and the fat off piste ski market merges with the Freeride touring space or vice versa ?
As if to confirm that ski touring is becoming more mainstream, the final event of the test week was the inaugural Atomic sponsored ski tour relay race with teams of three.
An all-out sprint 150m up a t-bar lift
I was quite looking forward to this as I thought it was a 150m vertical (about 20 mins) but it was an all-out sprint 150m up a t-bar lift and no surprise that the guys from La Sportiva won.
Now there is a brand that is all about 100% up!!
Postscript: The true touring purists (Dynafit users) might read the above and question the lack of any mention of the Dynafit Radical 2 that was pulled from launch late last year. Versions of the new binding are starting to filter through with a widespread launch for next season. I am an avid user of Dynafit over the last 10 or so years and having met Fritz Barthel, and, indeed, skied with him and his father. So, as I drove to Austria passing the Salewa HQ in Bolzano in Northern Italy, I was sorely tempted to go and see if I could lay my hands on the new bindings as, deep down, I still feel loyal to the brand and appreciate how, if it was not for 30 years of Fritz and Dynafit R&D, we would not be where we are today.
So a toast to Dynafit and hope that a percentage of skiers will indeed consider the new Radical 2 as it does look to tick a lot of the neccessary boxes.