Are the lift companies in trouble with all the focus on ski touring? Is the lightest, best performance ski touring kit still the Holy Grail for the ski industry? What's new for ski touring this Winter 16-17 from the SIGB Ski Test Week in Austria
The only way to know if a touring ski and bindings work is to walk the walk and take them both UP and DOWN the hill. Tech Editor, Gavin Baylis, rises to the vertical challenge to report on the latest kit for Winter 16-17.
Lightweight touring kit was the buzz, last year when I visited the SIGB Ski Test Week, at the end of February, in Kuhtai Austria where the majority of brands were present with both UK retailers and media able to test the next season's skis.
Back then walking into the compound it was very much apparent that ski touring was in vogue and 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 95mm.
And it was not just skis, three of the major mainstream brands, SCOTT, Salomon and Atomic had also produced a range of exciting boots designed for the down as well as the up - see report, here.
This year, unlike 12 months ago, there was no dramatic launch of a new mainstream tech binding to the market such as the Marker King Pin. That said the Vipec 12 Black is now in its third generation with more improvements and tweaks and looking like a product that really is here to stay, something that many thought would not be the case when the first version came to market!
With heavy rain to 2,500m the day before we arrived and light snow forecast for our first day, again, I was not too sure what to test.
Walking around the compound assessing the product on show and knowing that the next day conditions would be challenging with limited visibility and at best 10-15cms on a cruddy hardpack base I had an inkling of what to do, and, indeed, the next morning we woke to 5cms or so and flat light. If we'd been at home in Serre Chevalier we probably would have decided not to go up the hill.
In fact, Mark Wood of SCOTT said later on that some testers commented that it was one of their worst days for testing ever.
So with somewhat dire conditions I hatched my plan to test a number of touring skis but not just skiing them down but skinning up on them as well.
My 'lap' involved taking one drag lift, then hiking off that for 10 or so minutes for a quick descent on a very varied and, at times, challenging snow pack before taking a long traverse into the bottom of a bowl, prior to quite a technical steep ascent for 125m with circa 15 kick turns, and then, hopefully. something resembling cold snow for the descent.
My test area.
All the skis I used had a tech binding, which meant there were a few skis I would have liked to try, but they were mounted with frame bindings and I wanted to concentrate on like for like and especially so after the first lap and climb!
First out of the paddock was the Black Crows Navis Freebird 185 and 102 wide mounted with the new Dynafit TLT Radical ST 2.0. a very sweet combination, and one that would be ideal as a one quiver touring ski. The width did not cause any issues on the climb, which was soft snow on a hard icy base. Maybe the 179 would have made kick turns a little easier but is that my technique or the difference a shorter ski would make?
Descent was ok, but was never going to induce the adjective 'awesome' as light was so flat and snow pack variable, it was a case of making the most out of what was on offer!
Next out the starting gate was the Movement Alps Track 94 at 183, using a vacuum bagged glueless construction with a carbon ply resulting in a very light premium ski.
Quoting from Movement, 'At 94mm, it floats much easier over fresh snow and all types of terrain' though, unfortunately, such were the conditions that I could not really achieve the floating characteristic of the ski. But it certainly climbed well!
The skis were mounted with Marker KingPins from last year, and, at times, the air was blue with getting in and out of them, not a problem I had at all last year when using them. It was only back in the paddock that closer examination revealed that one of the pins had extended out by a couple of mm (hammer to the rescue). So like all bindings, not infallable to problems.
After a quick lunch it was the turn of the Scott Superguide 88 at 178 mounted with this year's Vipecs. This ski is very close to my Black Diamond Aspects in size and was great at the up but not too good at the down as temps had risen and snow was getting heavy, or was it my legs?
Last ride of the day was on the Black Diamond Helio 105 at 175 mounted with new Vipecs.
The first few turns and I was amazed at how well they handled the conditions, I thought I'd just happened to find some better snow but right to the bottom they skied the line so much better than I had previously skied three times..
The climb up was great, (maybe the shorter ski) and again the final descent I almost found myself relaxing and letting the ski go, something I had really been unable to do with the others.
Back in the compound I spoke to someone else who was concentrating on touring skis and he was not as enthusiastic as me about the Helio 105. Good to see. though, another review showing someone else was impressed as well!
I did not test the Scott Superguide 105, as they were mounted with frame bindings, however there was quite a buzz about how good that ski is!
But, to finish the day off I took a SCOTT Scrapper 115 at 189 out for a few descents and that too put a smile on my face as it smashed through some of the crud.
That night it started to snow quite heavily but accompanied by a very strong wind, and in the morning we awoke to blue sky and around 10-15cm of fresh.
Next up on the list was some gear that was not officially on test, but was just too great an opportunity to pass by, plus the team from La Sportive were really keen for me to try the whole shooting match, boots, skis and bindings.
The bindings, Trab TR2 AT take tech pin bindings to a whole new level (check this video out from Chris Davenpot ) and matched to the La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 boots it is an awesome (yes can use that adjective for not just skiing) combination.
The binding was so simple to engage and the rear, similar to the King Pin does not utilise a pin mechanism, but a system locking the heel down more securely enabling far more rigidity boot to ski than maybe pins.
Although the boots were not quite the best fit for me, they are a superb piece of engineering - the subsequent descent(s) and ascent in the fresh snow was very sweet indeed.
So enough superlatives, well, at least for now.
Last year, I failed to test Atomic's Backland Range so this time round I married the Atomic Backland 95 ski at 183 to the Backland Boot (though, again, fit was harsh) and did one more final lap. Skis were perfect in the 10-15cms of fresh and no issues at all.
Actually, I think it was that final descent (as it was so good) that had me thinking I'd had my fill of touring over the two days (faff factor very high with new kit, especially skins not quite right and/or glued together) and I could see people shredding elsewhere, - and my touring laps were getting to be hard work and not fun!
So back to the compound and quickly out on the Doug Coombs anniversary skis K2 Coomba 114 complete with 'retro graphics'. And what a great ski, or was it just the better conditions?
The K2 Coomba 114 is classed as a touring ski and does come in a smaller width of 104 which might be the more sensible option if touring longer into the season?
With my appetite now whetted I took the Black Crows Atris 184 at 108 out and what a fun, but capable ski managing the icy hard pack on the piste before dropping off down into the untracked glades between the trees. If I was not so much into touring this could well be the ski for me!
Last run of the day, and, ironically, I was back on my own Scott 110 Cascades as I'd be dropping back to my hotel and which I've been skiing on a fair bit all season. They're still great away from the piste though their light weight is a negative when comparing it to the hardpack handling of the Black Crows Atris.
So a year on and to a certain degree I still find myself asking the same question for the wide fat touring skis, 'Who are the end users and where will they come from?'.
Skiing a few weeks back in La Grave I did see many of these 'end users', Swedish Freerider powder hounds and their various international cousins with 110mm wide skis and tech bindings.
They were taking the lift up and a percentage were then skinning up the glacier to commence various classic descents. And then later in the week I came across a few groups ski touring in the Galibier sector, taking the more classic popular non technical routes (not too many kick turns and shallow gradients), ideal terrain for fat touring skis in soft snow.
And this is probably where and who the wide touring ski market is aimed at, plus there's the fashionskista element of 'cool' in having 110 wide skis and ultralight tech bindings.
However, it must be said that the skiers who have this gear, on the whole, are all very good skiers and have discovered that they can still ski extreme lines without any reservation when using lightweight touring kit, such are the design advances in boots, bindings and skis.
In fact, I had a brief conversation with Jörg Harrer-Spampinato, Black Crows Sales Manager, about the perceived suitability of next season's Nocta, a reversed cambered beast of a ski at 122 wide, after I had read various people extolling the potential virtues of it as a touring ski. He did look rather puzzled at me but did agree in certain conditions (bottomless cold light powder), if you are fortunate enough to go ski touring in Japan, then yes it could be an option.
For those that don't ski tour in Japan and in the depths of a European winter searching out powder, most will be touring in classic spring conditions.
I often tour with my local Club Alpine Francais (Briancon) here in Serre Chevalier, and no one tours on anything wider than 95 and I'd surmise that their skis relative to their height are a fair bit shorter than if using a fatter rockered ski with a big shovel on the front.
In fact, if I now go out with them and know the route to be technical / steep in the forest etc then I now leave my 183 Scott Powdairs 100 at home and opt for an old pair of 176 Black Diamond Aspects at 80mm wide!
And in March / April with spring touring conditions being more prevalent, early morning starts on hard icy snow necessitating the use of ski crampons in advance of the snow transforming, I wonder how many wide / fat touring skis I'll see on the hill?
And a couple of Postscripts:
Last year in the Percentage Game article I gave special mention to Dynafit, who were the pioneers of the tech binding. I have been 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. 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. A month or so back I upgraded to the new TLT Radical ST 2.0, and ,yes, it does tick all the boxes.
And finally, how is it a strong brand like Fischer who last year won an ISPO Gold award for a unique innovative 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 with considerably less effort comes to the SIGB test again without any of these skins to demo even though the British Army have, evidently, bought many pairs?