Sum Of All Parts by Matt Kinney
Things were getting ridiculously heavy. Like many telemark skiers enjoying unlimited terrain options made possible by burly boots, fat skis and clunker bindings, I kept laying on more “wall to wall” skins. Before long I was hauling nearly twenty pounds on my feet into the wilds. Since 1990, we had nearly doubled the amount of weight on our feet to backcountry telemark. While other “earn your turn” disciplines reacted years ago to the weight issue, we telemark skiers have been losing ground. Under the weight of it all I finally hollered, “Enough is enough!” as I slugged my way back to the trailhead at the end of last season.
I retreated to focus on the benefits of cutting weight, lots of it. Faster, lighter, gear is a foregone conclusion as backcountry skiing grows. People are literally running all over the mountains based on gear combinations suitable for conditions. Dynafit systems prove that simplicity, durability and strength are possible, including an incredible 400g with their latest “tech binding”. There is a need for the same “tech” innovation in telemark bindings. It can be done. Telemark skiers have plenty to be optimistic about in regards to the weight game. New metal alloys and plastic composites present a new generation of offerings that should keep interest in telemark skiing high.
BOOTS: GARMONT KENAI
My “enough” moment resulted in taking a look at boots first. My last boots bought me bigger quads but less vertical. I could ski most conditions fine but not with much finesse. The weight had me trudging as I skinned and strained while skiing downhill. When I was fresh they skied great. When I fatigued they skied poorly. The clunky feeling of multiple boot flaps, four buckles and a strap was just too much during the transition to ski mode with freezing bare fingertips. Craig Dostie’ Review of the Garmont Kenai aroused my attention. Garmont seems to have found the sweet spots with two well-placed buckles on this workhorse telemark boot. So far, the boot has skied like a dream, nicely driving Black Diamond (BD) Drifts with BD O1 bindings. I found a pair of Kenai’s at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking this past October. Their boot-fitter was able to provide a custom fit of the liner that felt like he was performing surgery. The result of the custom fit is a major factor in my positive review of the boot.
My feet have felt great touring. The factory liners fit like silk and my toes are very happy in the snow. Warmth is critical when wading through January’s arctic-like powder in Thompson Pass. I have tested them to 10F and my feet have stayed warm using thin socks. Adding a thicker sock could boost the comfort range -10F. My feet never got cold riding the lift all day.
Good: Stomped through ankle deep water a few times with no leaks.
Bad: The liner laces get tangled in the shell overlap flaps and are difficult to cinch tight
Good: The retention of the upper buckle connection when the latch is not engaged. Dostie highlights this improvement better than I can describe in his earlier review. I can preset my buckles so that as I transition at the top of a slope, I can reach down and throw the latch without pulling up my pant cuffs.
Good: With perfectly placed buckles and a power strap, I had all the stiffness needed to drive the ski through difficult snow. The soft progressive flex engages nicely for wide-open telemark skiing in the meadows and more aggressive quick turns in complex, steep terrain. The boots have broken in nicely. Over-all performance was comparable to a Scarpa T2X, but feels lighter. With everything “locked and loaded”, there is plenty of power for more aggressive skiing
Bad: The Ski/Walk Mode latch area on the back of the boot needs more space tolerance with the heel-throw of the binding. It’s awkward to release with a pole tip and impossible with a gloved thumb.
Good: Touring and Nordic potential. I was able to ski skate easily with long strides and double poles with skins off. Surprisingly smooth actually. Because of this I will embrace long, rolly exits back to the trailhead. Touring comfort is the best I have felt in any of my plastic boots in the past.
Good: You can drive your vehicle to the trailhead with these boots on giving you the head start for first tracks.
SKI: BLACK DIAMOND DRIFT
After twenty days of skiing in conditions ranging from powder to hard wind slab, the Drifts performed better each day. Hesitancy disappeared and my confidence increased recognizing the potential for light telemark gear in big mountain terrain. I weigh 165 pounds and carry and additional 20 pounds on my back. Much like the Havoc from years ago, I was more excited about this ski after testing them in a full range of conditions. My backcountry powder experiences the past month can only be rated as amazing, so I am not going to “essay” about that. The ski was flawless in powder.
The 138cm in the tip is plenty. Anymore would simply amount to carrying P-Tex as training weight. The 100cm under foot is adequate to let lighter boots ski most conditions, and yet still provide the ultimate powder-hunting ski machine. There are many telemark skiers better than I and they will take this ski to amazing places.
One key concern is chatter on hard surfaces and I wanted to retain a one-ski quiver. Finding the ski that is fantastic in powder yet holds an edge on hard pack is not easy. Lack of edge control tempers stoke, and cause thigh fatigue. The risk of losing one’s edge in complex terrain can have serious consequences. I took the Drifts out for a full day lift skiing at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska on ice-spotted groomers with some chunked-up off groomer and experienced no chatter. This is due in large part to the rocker design and a wood core that dampens edge noise. Part of my time at the resort was spent doing alpine turns between sessions of telemark bashing the roughs. The rocker design absorbs and dissipates the resistance of the metal edge on hard snow. I have not doubt that the lack of chatter was a major factor in allowing me more vertical at Alyeska in a day than ever before.
The rocker ski tip rises and falls over surface flaws more softly and quickly. The ski offers a great powder flex along with smooth control in all mountain conditions. In powder was I able to take off at full speeds doing wide GS type turns without hesitation. It nice to fly with light, fat skis while maintaining superior stability.
It is not uncommon on a long ski approach or exit to the trailhead to work terrain without skins on. Traveling over long slippery traverses and side hills can put you in better position to get first tracks. The lighter skis enable one to scamper across these challenges without fatiguing. The rocker enhances all aspect of trail breaking by glancing off impediments under the snow while you are breaking trail. Kick-turns can get exhausting on steep slopes, but the rocker just bends with the snow on impact making it easier to swing your tips around for the next uphill traverse.
Conclusion: Light is good. A spec such as 135-100-125 for a backcountry ski is an excellent starting point. Don’t go beyond 140 in the tips for a one-ski quiver. The lighter AT skis seems to lack enough width in the tips and tails. Of course adding too much more fat adds more excessive weight thus giving you less versatility and more fatigue. It also adds more skin. The Drift looks like it will be my only ski for the next season.
BINDINGS: Black Diamond O1 – Ridiculously Stiff
Black Diamond has always supported my backcountry efforts. I will continue to punish the bombproof O1 and retire them at exactly 121.8 days as the pivot point begins to loosen on schedule and grass begins growing from the pipe tape on the cartridge threads. Black Diamond is due for another telemark binding series beyond the O1 and it is worth waiting for while skiing duckbills or whatever comes next with modifications to the NTN system (v8.2?)
I have looked seriously at the NTN system and saw nothing but an attempt to drag telemark skiing deeper in to weight gain and complexity. The NTN looked like the Marker Duke of telemark bindings. I was rebuilding my set up to lose, not gain weight. The free pivot range of motion (ROM) of the NTN left a lot to be desired in comparison to the O1. This is highlighted in the picture below which shows much better ROM in the BD O1, critical for clearing kick turns in steep terrain. The incremental improvements to gain additional control at this point in my 30-year telemark life did not seem worth the added weight of heavier boots and bindings. I yearned instead for freedom from the heavy lifting and more energy for the ski down. All of the telemark bindings weight more than any of the AT bindings including the Marker Dukes.
I could shave a few more grams by going with the Voile Switchback, but am more comfortable with the cable under foot. To compensate for a possible loss in boot rigidity in a lighter designed boot, I replaced my older Medium Stiff cartridges with the Ridiculous Stiff. This strengthened duckbill/binding interface and gave me smooth telemarking with easier control for alpine turns when desired.
A final observation about telemark bindings: The most innovative change to telemark backcountry skiing over the past twenty years has been the free pivot binding. Its renovation is so simple and logical, that we as collective freeheelers should be chided for our “duh decades” of free pivot blindness. AT skiers were correct in their opinion that we needed to “figure it out”. Thus we must do the same with our binding flaws. We still need a lighter, high performance releasable telemark binding.
Telemark may be closing the weight and efficiency gap with AT. An overviewof the top lightweight set-ups from the three disciplines of backcountry skiing may be eye opening. Below is an outline of manufacturer weights provided from various sources. I have included dimensions of the ski or snowboard so the reader may better assess its versatility. Clearly the pendulum is beginning to swing toward a lighter, stronger and more versatile telemark set-up that will allow us to keep up with other backcountry ski disciplines in the pursuit of clean lines sharing fresh air as our fuel.
These statistics are meant to give a general overview, not a definitivelist of weights. There may be slight errors on my research so for that I apologize
Ski BD Drifts 3310grams 136cm/100cm/122cm = 361
Boots Garmont Kenai 3460g
Bindings BD O1 1678g
8448g / 18.6 pounds
Ski Dynafit Manaslu 3000g 122/095/108 = 325
Boots Dynafit PX TF 3175g
Bindings Dynafit FT 550g
6215g / 13.7pds
Ski BD Crossbows 3175g 115/82/105 = 320
Boots Dyn ZZeros 4CTF 3190g
Binding Diamir Eagle 1720g
8085g / 17.8pds
Ski Voile Charger 3690g 137/112/126 = 375
Boots Scarpa Matrix 3740g
Binding Fritshi Freeride 1006g
8436g / 18.6pds
Splitter Prior Brandywine 3500g 280 /240/280 = 880
Boot Burton Drive X 2440g
Binding Voile Light Rail 1840g
7780 / 17.2
End. Now go ski