Gear trends: Backcountry ski boots for 2014/15

From the ground up: New ski/walk modes, weight savings and tech bindings expand backcountry offerings of backcountry ski boots for 2014/15.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Thanks to advances in gear, more skiers can now conquer technical, big-mountain terrain considered unskiable in the not-too-distant past. Likewise, boot technology continues to cross weight and performance thresholds that were once hard to imagine.

It’s a natural progression for backcountry gear, said Mike Hattrup, K2’s director of international sales and special operations. Boots and bindings have been the latest components in a chain to make the transition to solid uphill and downhill performance. “People have been using alpine skis for years to tour on, but bindings were the weak link,” he noted. “Now you don’t sacrifice any performance in them.” Following suit, next winter’s crop of alpine touring (AT) boots move even farther along the spectrum of uphill mobility and lightness paired with sturdy downhill support.

For the wow factor alone, check out Scarpa’s F1 Evo (MSRP $729), which ups the ante for lightweight boots with a new and intuitive ski/walk mechanism. It automatically switches between modes depending on whether or not the heel is locked in the binding. A sculpted shell co-molded of carbon and plastic keeps the weight down (2,210 grams per pair), while a carbon-fiber frame underfoot adds stiffness and enhances power transfer. The shell combines a lower Boa closure with a buckle plus power strap up top. Meanwhile, Scarpa’s revamped men’s Maestrale and women’s Gea series (MSRPs $599-$699) get beefed-up ski/walk mechanisms, sturdier power straps and oversized buckles. A new sibling, the touring-oriented Maestrale GT/Gea GT (MSRP $499), offers a lower-priced option, with a PU shell and Pebax tongue.

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Dynafit also addresses the ski/walk transition with a new Motion Lock system that has a spoiler insert for increased downhill support. The system also lets the cuff be locked into one of three positions for skiing and allows 45 degrees of rotation on uphills. Find it in the four-buckle men’s and women’s Radical boot (MSRP $550), geared to recreational ski tourers. On the other end of the spectrum is the RC1 (MSRP $2,150), designed with former skimo racer Pierre Gignoux. Billed as the world’s lightest ski boot, at 1,000 grams per pair, and handcrafted with a carbon shell and carbon cuff with 75 degrees of flex, this boot is built for serious competitors.

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Though not in the same extreme category of lightness, Salomon’s new six-model Quest Pro series gives thoughtful consideration to eliminating heft. “We looked at every component and did what we could to lighten weight without sacrificing downhill skiing performance,” said Erik Anderson, Salomon’s wintersports equipment sales director, of the three-buckle men’s Quest Pro TR 110 (MSRP $750). Aimed at the core backcountry skier, each boot weighs 1,700 grams and has a 47-degree range of motion.

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Also pushing the envelope in lightweight innovation is La Sportiva, which often looks to skimo racing as a lab for emerging technology. “We focus on making versatile products that work in a range of ski-mountaineering situations, from lift-accessed backcountry to technical couloirs to big-mountain faces,” said Colin Lantz, the company’s wintersports hardgoods product manager. Following last year’s successful debut of the feather-light Spector, La Sportiva targets the enthusiast racing and fitness market with the two-buckle Syborg (MSRP $749). The boot has a Grilamid lower shell and carbon-infused Grilamid cuff, 75 degrees of cuff rotation and single-throw top buckle that also switches the boot from hike to ski mode.

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Expert women skiers get their own version of K2’s well-received Pinnacle AT boot with the Minaret 100 (MSRP $750). With a 100 flex and 100mm last, it has K2’s innovative ski/walk mechanism and universal outsole with integrated tech fittings. There’s also a softer-flexing Minaret 80 (MSRP $650), as well as a new men’s Pinnacle 100 (MSRP $650), which slips in behind the Pinnacle 130 and 110.

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Several companies focus on fit for next winter. Fischer brings its popular Vacuum Fit heat-moldable outer shell to its first line of dedicated AT boots, which includes two men’s and two women’s models. “The result is a tour boot with more freedom of movement, better power transfer and a perfect fit,” said brand spokesman Dax Kelm. The Transalp Vacuum TS Lite (MSRP $950) has a semi-overlap construction and the foot position is anatomically optimized — toes point slightly outward, heels slightly inward — for touring efficiency. The cuff has a generous 60 degrees of rotation.

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Black Diamond enhanced the liners and fit for the third generation of its 103-mm-lasted, four-buckle Quadrant (MSRP $670) and three-buckle Prime (MSRP $600) and women’s Swift (MSRP $600) AT boots. And Tecnica updated the lower shell throughout its Cochise line with a new mold that provides a more anatomical fit. New flexes in the line include the Cochise 100 (MSRP $500) and women’s Cochise Pro W (MSRP $700), 95 W (MSRP $600) and 85 W (MSRP $525).

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“This is a segment of the market that we see becoming mainstream, though it’s not quite there yet,” said Jed Duke, director of product and promotion for Tecnica USA/Blizzard Sport.

Customers are even delving deeper into the niche, said Chris Gerston, co-owner of Backcountry Essentials in Bellingham, Wash. “We see more play in the dedicated backcountry boot than in the boot that can go both ways,” he said. “And most of our customers desire a quiver of one.”

--Cindy Hirschfeld

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