Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '07 Trends: Backcountry bindings, boots and skis

Outdoor Retailer Winter Market was chockfull of the latest news and gear for the backcountry ski scene. Check out the full report from our team of editors.
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We continue with our Outdoor Retailer Winter Market trends wraps so we can bring you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories that will run until we pass out -- or you get bored. No, each report does not name every company with new product and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. So if you're not mentioned, our brains were either too fogged out from the smog to think straight or we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on noteworthy trends and new products for backcountryskis, boots and bindings:

Backcountry binding revolution
Without question, the talk of this Outdoor Retailer Winter Market was the long-awaited debut of the Rottefella NTN binding. Yes, it took almost a decade, but it appears to have been worth the wait -- and weight. At $350 retail (with brake), the binding is competitive with current high-end bindings and it offers everything most telemark skiers need except backward compatibility.

Though not a true step-in, the convenience of entry is far greater than nearly all other telemark bindings. The ski brake is such a nice touch that it shouldn't even be optional. Touring mode is adequate for a downhill-oriented binding and appears superior to all but the most recent free pivot bindings. The availability of sub-plates that allow the binding to be easily swapped between multiple pairs of skis will ease some of the price sting.

True backcountry skiers will appreciate the release function should they be caught in an avalanche -- a critical feature missing on most other bindings. Though it currently lacks DIN certification, this is not a big deal except for marketing. And the NTN is the only releasable telemark binding that doesn't leave a metal plate attached to the boot. True ski mountaineers will appreciate the symmetric boot toes that are far superior to duckbilled boots for kicking steps in snow, climbing on rock and accepting crampons.

Without doubt, it will require a significant commitment for retailers to carry NTN this first season, since there are only two compatible boots and they retail for $650. Furthermore, stores will have to pay careful attention to setting their customers up with the proper springs because they greatly affect the feel of the binding.

Some stores will take the wait-and-see approach rather than tie up money on a new system with no user base (and many are waiting for Black Diamond to deliver, we were told). However, there is also a risk of losing out on the early buzz, since many skiers will be seeking out stores that carry the latest gear. And there is no doubt in our minds that NTN is here for the long term.

The NTN system will not mean the immediate demise of duckbill 75 mm boots, of course, but the SNEWS® team has little doubt they will eventually fade away from all but the lighter backcountry touring market. In the meantime, Rottefella is still offering six models of 75 mm bindings, including the new Cobra Free (MSRP $250) and the Free Adaptor Kit (MSRP $80).

Black Diamond speculation continues
Further discussion, rumor and speculation circulated during Winter Market about the pending Black Diamond binding and how it will affect NTN prospects. This new system was invented by a skier in Nelson, Canada, who shopped it around to several companies, including K2 (which ultimately turned the concept down partly for fear that the patent wasn't defendable, we were told). With Black Diamond developing a new line of quad-injected plastic telemark and AT boots in China, and already having pulled out of the NTN project, the company was in need of an innovative binding system that would keep Black Diamond from being a me-too line.

SNEWS® spoke with a number of individuals who skied the early prototypes and each told us the binding has a lot of potential. The Black Diamond system will offer true step-in convenience, adjustable release, free pivot touring mode, and should be lighter than NTN. One of the original design elements not being pursued by Black Diamond, however, is heel lockdown. This would have given skiers the option to telemark when legs are fresh and switch to alpine as strength or snow conditions deteriorate. A missed opportunity for broadening the market, we believe, but we have no doubt Black Diamond has its reasons, be they financial or performance.

Since the climbing market appears to be flattening out, Black Diamond is likely banking on backcountry and tele skiing to be one of its major growth engines in the future. So we are confident that the company will ultimately release a very impressive product line. Whether that actually happens at next winter's SIA trade show and/or Outdoor Retailer Winter Market as promised, seems optimistic…but we hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Norm ain't dead yet
As evidence that the current 75 mm Norm still has life, the folks at 22 Designs are introducing a lighter version of the TeleBulldog (price TBD). At just 26 ounces, it will be 13 ounces lighter than the current TeleBulldog. This new step-in, three-pin binding will be arguably the best choice for lighter backcountry touring skis (such as Fischer S-Bounds, Karhu XCDs and Rossignol BCs) due to the convenience, control and durability that it offers. A smaller version of the popular HammerHead telemark binding, called the Bombshell (MSRP $210), with a softer spring will be a popular option for women who desire a resort-orientated telemark binding.

Voile too has gotten into the free pivot game with the new Switchback ($260), which is its first offering with a stainless-steel toe. Though it lacks a release function (only 7TM and Rottefella NTN offer that), and is not compatible with the Voile release, the Switchback is significantly lighter and cheaper than any of the other telemark touring bindings.

Marker entry
While it didn't make a big splash at Winter Market, the new Marker Duke AT binding was certainly a big deal at SIA. For those who are new to the backcountry world, Marker made a beefy touring binding from 1982 to 1985, so the brand does have a history with backcountry.

The new Duke fills a void that hasn't been addressed by Fritschi or Naxo -- a burly binding with DIN 16 for freeskiers who only are hitting the sidecountry. At $430, it's in the same price range, and the weight is only supposed to be 14 ounces heavier per pair than a Naxo N21. Since the Duke is modeled off Marker's new terrain park binding, it appears to be built to take serious abuse. The touring mode requires stepping off and sliding the binding back a bit, which really isn't a problem for quick trips out of bounds.

We predict that this binding will be a real hit with the younger crowd, which is skiing the fattest skis. But it may also be popular with older alpine skiers who want to occasionally tour without giving up performance or release functions at the resort. And we wouldn't be surprised to see some skiers on Dukes who also have Dynafits in their quiver.

The Duke is in line with where the market has been heading in the past few years, even if hardcore purists consider it blasphemy. As an example, when Garmont introduced the Adrenalin AT boot, the naysayers said it was too heavy/stiff/expensive. Now there are numerous boots that go even further on all those levels…and the Duke is made for that market.

Dynafit/Silvretta shuffle
When the press release went out last fall that Dynafit was no longer going to be distributed by Life-Link, many people shook their heads in wonder. This was followed by the news that Garmont USA was dropping Silvretta, which is owned by the same parent company, Salewa.

Months later, shortly before the trade shows, we were told at last that Tim Kelley, Life-Link's former sales manager, would be handling the lines for Salewa USA. Chris Sword, who previously worked for Russell Corp., was appointed president of the new division. However, even as late as Winter Market, it was undecided whether the new distributor would move to Colorado or Utah.

The poor communication and lack of planning from Salewa does not bode well for its new U.S. venture. It seems likely that, once again, the company will attempt to sell Salewa gear on this side of pond. Salewa has made numerous attempts over the past decades to enter the United States directly. Perhaps this time around, with some U.S. advice and a bit of history from others who've gone successfully, and not so successfully before, Salewa will figure out that the United States is a vastly different and far more diverse market than Germany.

On the bright side, Dynafit has a solid line of unsurpassed touring bindings, a good line-up of wood-core skis, and has completely revamped its line of boots. And the company has Lou Dawson as a one-man PR firm to sing its praises on WildSnow.com.

All of the new Zzero boots feature the exclusive Dynafit toe fittings that allow stepping into its bindings. Other boot suppliers can just use the old style toe fittings that require more futzing. In particular, the Zzero C-TF (MSRP $730) will garner high praise from the well-funded cognoscenti.

Boot are getting burlier
With telemark on the cusp of a major shakeup over the next few seasons, it's no surprise that existing 75 mm boot molds aren't about to change for next season. The biggest news is that Scarpa is switching to Intuition thermo-moldable liners for its entire line of telemark boots. These should be more resistant to packing out than the current liners and can be remolded as often as needed.

On the NTN front, the Scarpa Terminator X is essentially a modified three-buckle T2X. But the addition of Dynafit binding fittings does perhaps expand its potential market to those who'd like greater versatility. The Crispi Evo, a four-buckle version of the CXR, still is undergoing tweaking to the second heel and may also show up in stores with Dynafit fittings.

Evidence of the trend toward burlier AT boots exists in the Scarpa line with the new Hurricane, which is even stiffer than the existing Tornado Pro, and the Spirit 4, which beefs up the current Spirit 3 with an extra buckle and stiffer plastic. At the light end, the F3 is likely to be far more popular than the race-oriented F1 for backcountry skiers.

Garmont too is going even further into the heavy freeride market with the new Shaman AT boot; with a flex index of 120, this is stiffer than most alpine boots. The Shaman has a close-fitting profile intended for maximum performance and lacks a hinge for walking. Both the Shaman and the Hurricane are ideal for the Marker Duke binding, so expect progressive alpine shops to be stocking these.

Boots to grow with
Parents of young skiers are sure to be intrigued by the new Roces Idea Growing Ski Boot. As the name implies, this alpine boot easily adjusts in size, both in length and in height. It starts off in an expanded state and bellows down to smaller sizes so optimal fit is achieved. The Idea Boot comes in three sizes that fit about 4-7, 13 Jr-3, and 9 Jr-12 Jr, each of which retails for about $100. It should also be a boon for rental programs.

For the future of telemark, Garmont is replacing the Teledactyl and Telesaurus with the G-Rex. The single model goes from size 19 (21 was the lower limit before) up to 26.5, but the price increases by $75 to $275.

Big boards, fat boards
The one-upmanship in who can make the fattest skis is still rampant. Whether they're truly needed is a matter of debate, but it gets a brand noticed so we expect the trend to continue. Next season, the Karhu Team 130 wins the fatty prize (155-130-146). But close behind are the Black Diamond Zealot (136-110-126), G3 El Hombre (135-108-124), Movement Goliath (135-108-124), and a still-unnamed Rossignol (110 underfoot).

While fat is impressive, the bulk of the ski market is still in the 80+/-5 mm range underfoot that gives skiers the most versatility. For the most part, 70 mm skis are now considered backcountry light touring skis or Randonnée race skis and have disappeared from lift-served skiing.

The entirely new line from Black Diamond, formerly produced by Atomic, features wood cores instead of foam and a refreshing improvement to the graphics. Meanwhile, Atomic is rolling out two higher-end models, the RT 80 and RT 86, which feature a new construction for telemark skiers who like to rip.

K2 largely left its skis the same except for new graphics and tweaks to the Anti Piste (rocker design) and Mt. Baker (new sidecut). The Baker Superlight (88 mm underfoot) replaces the two skinny (70 mm) AT skis, Chogori and Sahale, while the skinny SuperStinx tele ski also goes away.

Karhu is touting its switch to a new "greener" wood core made from Paulownia trees. However, Dynafit is also using the same trees for six models next season (currently in three models) and is instead talking about the performance characteristics of the wood.

Backcountry for Betties
In the arena of women's backcountry gear, there continues to be an increasing selection of high-end gear for women. It's also nice to see some companies offer more than just flowery patterns on skis, along with a variety of interesting, even technical, names. In boots, Scarpa introduced the requisite offering of new women's versions of men's boots that have gone before them in the form of the new T1 Lady telemark boot, the Diva AT boot (women's Spirit 4), and the Star Lite AT boot (women's Magic). Garmont introduced a new AT boot, the Astral (women's Shaman), a high-performance lift access boot, which is "more about the down."

Skis for women still come in a variety of shapes and forms with everyone having their own version of what lighter and easier to flex means. Karhu (which swears it'll bring the original Jill back next year) introduced the Betty and the Bertha, an easy to maneuver but fat ski. Atomic's new Balanze Tour is a super lightweight and skinny ski meant for smaller, lighter women who are good skiers but have a hard time working with some of the boards on the market today. Black Diamond introduced two new women's models, the Velvet and the Joule. K2 offered new graphics on its tele skis, and focused on introducing two new models, the Miss Baker (after the men's Mt. Baker) and the Shuks Anne (based on the men's Shuksan), which are the first AT skis targeted at women. G3, which just hired on Nahide Henderson as the company's athlete team coordinator and to help develop its women's line, is moving forward but slowly with its women's skis, to make sure it "gets it right." The newcomer to the scene, Movement, arrived on the scene with three women's offerings.

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