Cautiously upbeat would describe the atmosphere of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2009 from the back side of the skiing world. Many attendees carried with them a somewhat jaded view of the economic future as they entered the show, but you'd never know it from the products offered. While there was nothing earth shattering, there was certainly plenty of solid progress in the backcountry skiing world.
Skis were not the subject of much conversation, perhaps influenced by many fat skis' undeniable failure to perform as several skiers struggled to hold an edge on firm, chalky conditions at the Backcountry Base Camp -- the one-day on-snow demo at Snow Basin on Jan. 21. In the spotlight, though, were various updates in the boots and bindings world.
22 Designs -- A crude prototype of Hammerhead's heir, Axl, was available to see, confirming to SNEWS® that yes indeed, the young guns from 22 Designs can create a free-pivoting telemark binding with Hammerhead performance. Company representatives told us they'll have 200 pairs of beta bindings available by the end of February 2009, retailing for $310.
Garmont -- Three new boots from Garmont were available for testing, all featuring overlap construction and a redesigned asymmetric bellows with a progressive flex. According to Paul Parker, Garmont's ski boot product manager, the bellows are designed to compress at the rear first, then the front. Our on-snow tester's focus was on Garmont's NTN offering, the Prophet (MSRP $760), which yielded a smooth but firm flex while using NTN blue springs. If the 75 mm versions yield similar flexes, Garmont fans will be stoked with the new designs.
G3 -- Speculation about G3's Onyx alpine touring binding was laid to rest. SNEWS expected a Dynafit-style toe and was not disappointed. The heel unit also keeps the Tech-style rods of spring steel. What changes are the movements of the toe and heel units. Instead of rotating, the heel retracts with a pole-activated lever at the back of the binding. A pair of U-shaped levers nest inside the mode switch lever and can be easily flipped forward to provide two levels of climbing risers. Some folks expressed concern that these plastic pieces would break under load. Perhaps. What isn't evident, though, on first glance is that they rest on the spring bars, which implies more than adequate durability.
The toe piece has the same basic geometry as a Dynafit, but instead of locking open, Onyx jaws are normally closed. To open them, users depress a lever in front with their ski pole. Unfortunately, it doesn't lock open, so they must actively press down with a fair amount of force until the boot is in place. The geometry of the toe jaws does make this maneuver easier than with Dynafit bindings; however, unless your ski is held in place firmly, you could end up pushing it away before your boot is in position (it's rather depressing to watch your ski start the run well before you are locked in and ready to go). The lack of ski brakes didn't help any with this move, and while it might cure the problem on some slopes, having to actively hold the jaws open is a suspect method, especially at the top of a steep couloir.
Despite these critiques, it appears G3's Onyx (MSRP $399) will be a worthy alternative to Dynafit. It skis like one and tours like one, although, aside from the jaws, it doesn't look like one. This may be its key advantage. We've found new converts to the backcountry consistently lack faith in the durability and performance of Tech bindings, largely because they can't wrap their head around such a small package being sufficiently durable. The Onyx is much bulkier looking, but it weighs in at 3 pounds, making it nearly 2 pounds lighter than Fritschi's Freeride and half the weight of Marker's Duke. Although it may not be lighter than Dynafit's bindings, it will be less expensive than most.
Black Diamond Equipment/Fritschi -- Black Diamond Equipment had a surprise waiting at its booth: the Eagle, Fritschi's replacement for the Explore binding. The Eagle (MSRP $420) is slightly lighter than the popular FreeRide, with an improved toe piece and plate that fans out in a Y-shaped pattern at the front. In addition, to provide greater retention, the binding mounting pattern was expanded at the toe.
K2 -- Some things need to be seen to be appreciated, like K2's new ski poles. Its new poles use a double-hinged clamp with camming action called LockJaw that is easier to open and locks tighter than Black Diamond's popular FlickLock clamp. The handle is well thought out, with a rounded top and ergonomic grip. On the upper shaft, numbers are printed to help with measuring slope angles by triangulating the two poles together, or using it as a quick snow-depth probe. Two styles are available, either in all aluminum (MSRP $75) or with a lightweight carbon-fiber lower shaft (MSRP $140).
Fischer USA -- While the heavy metal crowd gets the lion's share of attention, backcountry's rugged touring crowd has been quietly gathering steam. Fischer added fuel to that fire with the introduction of its BCX 875 boot (MSRP $249). This is a 75 mm norm boot, constructed with a Sorel-style upper that is given rigidity through two ratcheting buckles linked to a fiberglass skeleton above the ankle. It looks like a smooth flexing boot that can harness the power of your lower legs without excess weight, and drive skis as wide as 85 mm, according to Peter Ashley, Fischer USA's general manager. The idea of a mid-fat ski with metal edges and Fischer's trademark crown pattern sometime in the near future is intriguing to say the least.
Backcountry Access (BCA) -- The company remained mum on the Tracker 2. There were units in view, but no one was touting them. According to BCA President Bruce "Bruno" McGowan, "All the revisions to the casing are done, and the hardware is finalized, but we're just not ready to say the software is done yet." He added that the latest version of code hadn't been thoroughly tested, but initial results indicated it was working well, especially in the pinpoint zone.
Noticeably, folks at BCA didn't seem concerned about the continued delay of the Tracker 2 (MSRP $335). According to Bruce Edgerly, BCA's vice president of sales and marketing, sales of the Tracker DTS are at their highest point in history. The main reason for the apparent lack of concern, however, is the company's hope that another product will gain even greater acceptance: an inflating airbag pack. Known for its clear track record of saving lives, it's ready for prime time. Housing a cartridge of compressed air, the pack uses a balloon that inflates within five seconds to help skiers caught in avalanches remain on or near the surface. The Float 30 will have a projected retail price of $499 -- half the cost of most European-made airbag packs. Legendary extreme skier Andrew McLean said, "It's nice to see something made by American skiers, instead of European businessmen."
BCA's McGowan added, "We'd rather be known as the company with the product that keeps you from being buried, as opposed to an insurance company if you are."
And… -- A few folks scaled back or are scrambling with mid-season modes. Rossignol dropped its potentially revolutionary Dual Camber ski concept and stuck to the basics while also returning to wood core construction. Comments from the Backcountry Base Camp indicate the skis kept the trademark Rossi flex, while adding a natural liveliness. K2 changed the tip and tail attachments for its climbing skins at the last minute. But the most ominous news came out of Scarpa where this year's Terminator-X Pro boots are cracking wide open at the toe box. Customers can expect replacement lower shells by the end of this season, but having problems two seasons in a row is making retailers reluctant to carry the NTN system, and that's too bad.