Shh, Amanda is getting a new alpine touring ski setup for Christmas. While I’ll have to pick up the tab, it’s a win for me, too:
- If my wife can now backcountry ski, I’ll get to backcountry ski more.
- Ski shopping is a good excuse to create another spreadsheet — it’s useful to compile and compare key product specs (cost, weight, dimensions, surface area) from myriad retailers.
- She giggles with happiness at the idea of a new setup, and a happy wife is a happy life — I learned that quick!
The search for a new ski setup should start with a simple question: How do you intend to use them? For her, the focus is on touring, and since we live in Colorado she needs to able to climb and descend confidently and safely. That immediately puts her in the “alpine touring” (AT) category: touring is impossible with traditional alpine boots and skis, but she’ll need something more robust than a free-heel skate, cross-country, or 3-pin telemark system. (Sorry telemark crowd, she needs to be able to lock her heel down.)
While ski equipment is categorized, in reality it’s a continuum. Even within AT, there is a subset that use alpine-looking gear that can tour (freeski) and another subset that uses Nordic-looking gear that can go downhill (rando). Each subset makes trade-offs: the freeskiers give up weight for downhill performance, while the rando racers prioritize climbing comfort and agility over screaming descents.
When I purchased my current AT setup in 2008, I assembled a middle-of-the-road kit with 3-buckle boots and mid-width skis, thinking I could have my cake and eat it, too — a lightweight system without downhill compromises. Regrettably, I find myself in the exact opposite situation: my skis don’t tour as well as I want them too, and they don’t descend as well as I’d like them to, either. I don’t think I’ve made that same mistake for Amanda:
We bought Dynafit One boots from Neptune Mountaineering, a high-end specialty retailer in Boulder with superbly knowledgeable staff. The One won’t tour as well as the Dynafit TLT 6, which the sales woman adores — they’re stiffer and heavier by 1.5 pounds; but they’re not as clunky as the middle-of-the-road models that were available like the Scarpa Gea. They also were much less expensive — Neptune had one pair leftover from last year, discounted to $319, versus $750 for the TLT 6 and $600 for the Gea. Damn, that’s almost more than I spent on her aquamarine engagement ring!
Backcountry.com has a very good selection of alpine touring skis from Dynafit, G3, La Sportiva, and Ski Trab. Better yet, many of them are currently discounted due to Black Friday and 2012/13 closeouts.
Based on specs and reviews, I had picked out the Ski Trab Tour Rando XL – they are one notch below race skis, with a small sacrifice in weight in exchange for improved all-mountain performance. But when I presented then to Amanda, they were quickly dismissed on aesthetic grounds — I hadn’t considered that red, yellow, and black skis would clash with her teal boots.
She reacted better to the Ski Trab Stelvio FreeRide Light XL skis, which have sexy wood covers. Functionally speaking, they are about equivalent to her boots; they are not race-ready, but they are still unequivocally a touring ski — at just 5 lbs, they’ll be a joy on the ups but somewhat limited on the downs. The price is right, too — they are marked down to $425 from their original $850.
Bindings, skins, and poles
I’m buying her boots and bindings first — there are lots of options, and high prices. Bindings, skins, and poles can follow.
Ironically, Amanda’s bindings will probably be the most expensive item in her kit — without annual product updates, it’s rare to see closeouts or sales. The Dynafit TLT Radical is the obvious choice — Amanda does not need the additional torsional rigidity of the FT version, and she’d miss the heel-height adjustments lacking on race bindings like the La Sportiva RSR. $500, ouch.
Custom-cut skins are convenient, but I can’t find them for the Stelvio’s, which are no longer in Ski Trab’s line. Instead, I’ll use the trustworthy Black Diamond Ascension Nylon STS Skins, on sale for $112. My first pick would have been the Black Diamond Black Diamond GlideLites, which are lighter and which should have better glide due to the mohair, but a recent change in the glue has not been received well by customers.
Last year I bought Cascade Mountain Tech trekking poles at Costco for Amanda to use. They’ll work for backcountry skiing, too. However, I might replace them with the newer version, which I’ve been told has level-style locks. The twist-style locks are prone to failure, especially in colder temperatures when the plastic expansion nut is harder and more apt to slip. Fixed-length poles are simpler and lighter, but the versatility is missed — touring uphill I may want 145 or even 150 cm poles, but for a steep descend I’d rather not have to choke up 20 cm to have properly sized poles.