Thoughts and conclusions about ski shopping for Amanda

My best day of skiing ever? Notice my ski track along the lateral moraine in the foreground.

My best day of skiing ever? Notice my ski track along the lateral moraine in the foreground.

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.)

Skinning towards Atlantic Peak, high above Ten Mile Creek in Colorado.

Skinning towards Atlantic Peak, high above Ten Mile Creek in Colorado.

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:

Boots

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!

Skis

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.

27 Responses to Thoughts and conclusions about ski shopping for Amanda

  1. Mike Clelland! November 28, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    Alas, I am the telemark crowd, and I accept you apology. That said, it is a sad thing to see something so beautiful being ignored.

    :(

    • Andrew Skurka November 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

      Mike – If it’s any consolation, I’ve also assembled a 3-pin setup for her, but I did it on the cheap (less exciting) and it’s more of a Nordic rig than a modern telemark setup, with full-grain leather boots, 3-pin cable bindings, 60 cm width waxless skis with some camber. It should be a fun setup for touring flatter areas.

      • Mitch R. November 29, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

        I have both sweet AT and sweet telemark set ups.

        20 years ago there was a good reason to do telemark, but not now.

        • Zach December 3, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

          No reason to tele now?

          I have taken up telemark as a means to challenge myself and get more out of skiing. It also can be a lot more fun.

    • samh December 2, 2013 at 11:22 am #

      Mike, nobody cares that you tele ; )

  2. Dan Durston November 28, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    Did you give any thought to touring skis with a fishscales (ie. Rossi BC 125, Voile Vector BC)?

    As I get more into longer distance ski touring trips (ie. traverses + few nice descents), not having to use skins for everything gets more appealing. There seems to be very little downside to having them, and they would be appreciated on approaches and undulating terrain.

    • Andrew Skurka November 29, 2013 at 9:18 am #

      On the continuum, the type of skiing you describe is one notch further towards the “extreme touring” end and one notch further away from the “extreme downhill” end. Amanda wanted a setup that will still do well at the resorts (we’ll probably always get some passes for when family/friends are in town and for when backcountry avy risk is too high) and on backcountry descents, and skis with fishscales (or a wax pocket) are not going to get it done.

      Plus, as I mentioned to Mike, I’ve also assembled for her a less robust system with 3-pin leather boots, true backcountry skis (179 long, 75/60/70 width, waxless, metal edges), kicker skins, and cable 3-pin bindings.

  3. Crystal November 28, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Andrew, This is so helpful! I am a Colorado female alpine skier that is thinking about getting into backcountry and touring. I’m curious about how much of an investment it would be to get set-up. Did I get my math right that you spent about $1360 on her set-up? I’m also thinking that I want to take an avalanche class and will need additional gear for that (I already have an avalanche probe). Is there any other gear you would recommend in addition to the touring set-up for backcountry?

    • Crystal November 28, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

      p.s. I already have your book, and have trained for winter camping and have that kind of gear. I’m more interested in what you have to say about extra gear for avalanches.

    • Andrew Skurka November 28, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

      An AT rig can be very, very expensive. It need not be, but expect it to be quite a bit more than a normal alpine setup.

      Our costs:
      Boots – $350
      Skis – $425
      Bindings – $500
      Skins – $120
      = $1,356, or $1,465 including an 8 percent sales tax

      Assume that you will spend more money on tech service and boot fitting. So we’re probably looking at $1500 total. Retail would have been $2,225.

      • Crystal November 29, 2013 at 4:33 am #

        You did get a good bargain on those boots and skis. This article is very helpful to get a sense of the actual costs to start this sport. Thank you so much!

    • Andrew Skurka November 29, 2013 at 9:10 am #

      In regards to avalanches, I have an alternative recommendation than spending more money on avy gear and training: avoid avalanche terrain. At least right now I have no intention of purchasing avy gear for Amanda, and I don’t own any either. Each winter, too many individuals are killed by avalanches, and no individual (beginner, intermediate, avalanche control patrol) or hazard level (low, moderate, high, extreme) is free from the risk. When we want to ski the steeps, we’ll go to the resorts. When in the backcountry, we’ll be happy with moderately steep slopes (less than about 30) and untracked powder.

      • Crystal December 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

        Excellent advice…I think I will start that way, similarly. Have a great winter!

  4. MJ December 3, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Have you checked out this year’s Costco carbon poles yet? The twist-lock ones I picked up there a couple years ago busted on me so I’m curious to see how the new ones work.

    http://www.costco.com/Yukon-Charlie's-Carbon-Trekking-Poles.product.100011323.html

    • Andrew Skurka December 3, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

      I have not seen or used those. I’ll look next time I’m there. In general, I recommend avoiding twist-style locks, as failure is inevitable. The lever-style locks are much more reliable. Of course, there is more to poles than just the locking system (e.g. shaft and grip materials) but this should be a big consideration.

  5. Dave December 5, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    Andrew, curious if you have looked at and considered the Altai skis as a good snow travel option. These were reviewed last year by a few as a good solution for travel on broad spectrum of terrain. Don’t think these would fit into what you are looking for in an AT ski for Amanda but nonetheless interested in your take on them. Not sure I like the permanent skins on them and may not provide as much thrill on the downhill. Since I’m back here now looking to rework my set up so your post here is perfect timing.

    I know first question is, “What do you want to do?” A bit of everything is my answer at this point which may lead me to compromise on too much, so still digging through this one.

    Great post – enjoyed the humor.

    • Andrew Skurka December 5, 2013 at 8:35 am #

      Here’s what you need to know about Altai skis (from their website):

      “Bridging cross-country skis and snowshoes, the Hok combines the maneuverability and ease of use found in snowshoes with the ski’s efficiency of sliding forward rather then lifting and stepping with each stride.”

      These have a purpose, but it’s a different purpose than what I had with Amanda’s AT skis or her Nordic skis (see comments above for info about these). They are extremely functional, but not as fun or as fast as conventional skis, i.e. they don’t track as well, glide as well, turn as well, etc.

      Given what I know about you (live in CO, endurance guy), the optimal setup for you is going to be a near-race AT setup. I’m thinking TLT 6 boots, Radical bindings, and a mid-width ski (~90 underfoot, ~1300 grams). With this, you’ll have the touring comfort and weight you want, with the floatation you need to break trail or ski powder.

  6. Matt December 19, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed it! I am an experienced, agressive downhill skier, but new to the AT scene, and was hoping you might be able to recommend some gear for me? Here’s the situation:

    I am looking for a setup where I will be doing 85-90% skiing on ungroomed cross country trails (I will be the one breaking trail most of the time), but need an AT binding where I can lock the heel for some steep slopes through a forest of trees (so tight, aggressive turns, and variable snow conditions).

    Can you recommend a good boot/binding/ski setup that would suit my needs? And of course, I’m looking to keep the price down!

    Thanks,
    Matt

    • Andrew Skurka December 19, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

      “Keeping the price down” and “AT” shouldn’t be in the same sentence. You should budget about $1500-$2500 for boots, skis, bindings, skins, and poles.

      Given your description of your intentions with these skis, you should be looking at a very touring-oriented setup: lightweight, comfortable and flexible boots, longer skis that will track well, and one of the stripped-down bindings. If you hadn’t mentioned that you needed some downhill ability, I’d actually point you in the direction of a 3-pin backcountry Nordic setup, but leather boots and skinny skis are pretty scary on downhills unless you’re a really good telemark skier.

      Some specifics products to look at:
      Boots: Dynafit TLT 6, La Sportiva Sideral
      Skis: Dynafit Broad Peak, La Sportiva RST
      Bindings: Dynafit TLT Speed Radical
      Poles: Look for collapsible design, carbon shafts, and lever-style locks

      • Matt December 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

        I know that an AT setup doesn’t come cheap, and was trying to keep it around the $1500 range. All of my research so far has been leading to a Dynafit setup, so I think I’m on the right track.

        Will those bindings hold up on fairly aggressive, steep downhill skiing, with tight turns through lots of trees though???

        Thanks again for all your help!

        Matt

        • Andrew Skurka December 19, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

          I believe the bindings will be fine.

          But let me re-emphasize a point: You can’t have it all. You said that 90 percent of all of the skiing you do will be on unbroken XC trails. So you need to get a setup that is optimized for that, and *can* do the other 10 percent, though you have to realize that it can’t also be optimized for this.

  7. Eric Hansen December 21, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    Curious. The leather boot for the 3 pin/cable setup is?

    • Andrew Skurka December 22, 2013 at 8:42 am #

      We found a used pair of Merrell full-grain leather boots for Amanda, and I have a similar pair from Crisiti.

      Hers look almost exactly like these
      Here are mine.

      Very old school. But for rolling terrain lacking steep ups or downs, they’re perfect — way more comfortable and way more efficient than a modern AT rig.

  8. Trinity January 8, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    Andrew, I just upgraded my setup (uff my purse hurts) and also did quite a bit of research/polling. I had the first generation Marker Barons and some old creaky Garmont AT boots that I had been using for about five years that were literally weighing me down. Here’s a little of my decision-making process (this is a book so get your glasses out):

    1. Setting my intention for the setup.
    This was the hardest part because you always want to accommodate that “what if”. What if I go to Canada’s big powder again? What if I want to use them in a resort? I identified that I want to use this new setup for non-resort skiing which will probably result in about 90% touring and 10% skiing. Primarily CO, mostly front range. If I head up to winter’s promised land, Canada, for a long period of time again, I’ll figure out remounting my setup or renting larger powder boards…. cross that bridge later, right??

    2. Boots – the Starlet (35oz/boot)
    I wanted low weight and high comfort (don’t we all?). I tried on the La Sportiva Sparkle at Neptune and really liked how smoothly the boot moved in touring mode (not a ka-chunk-ka-chunk movement like the other ones I tried on) but stiffened up (more so than my current boots) in ski mode. I still wanted to mull it over and do some research before pulling the trigger so I went home and consulted La Sportiva’s website… which is when I found the Starlet! They are a two-buckle boot and weigh in at just 35oz/boot. I feel like I could run a marathon in them they are so light and flexible. And to attest to their stiffness, I even tested them twice (thanks to the Tin Shed in Ned for demoing them and giving me an Eldora pass) at Eldora on groomers and they were much stiffer than my current setup so I was happy with them. I guess I’ve gotten used to skiing in loose boots. They are only tech binding compatible… but that’s okay because I’m not buying them for an alpine binding.

    3. Bindings – Dynafit TLT Speed Radical (12oz/binding)
    I still don’t think there’s an all-around great binding out there yet (well, for a picky lightweighter like me who of course wants it all). Black Diamond, albeit heavy, makes their bindings so you can switch between skiing and touring without dismounting which is super convenient. From what I can tell, Dynafit does not offer this (neither did my Barons). I don’t wax up my skis too much so that I can tour without skins if I am in flat/slight uphill area so I don’t have to be constantly putting on or removing my skins. My BD-sporting friend doesn’t have to dismount whereas I have to get out and readjust my Marker Barons and now, Dynafits. However, BD is wicked heavy and are not silent in touring mode (click clack click clack with each step). I ended up getting the Dynafit TLT Speed Radical. The Speed version has no brakes (comes with leashes). All of the salesmen told me to get the brake and not be stingy on the weight. In the end, I decided that if telemark skiers can handle not having a brake, I can handle not having a brake…. so I opted to save the 6oz. Woot!

    3. Skis – Dynafit Manaslu (2.8 lbs/ski)
    I don’t have anything super deep to say here. My decision was made based on a) they were highly recommended for the what I identified as my goal b) I tested them and they performed stellar both skinning and downhill in powder, muck and hardpack c) they are very light compared to other alpine skis (but heavier than a racer obviously) d) they have a nifty setup with Dynafit’s skins. The skins are custom-fitted to the skis with a notch at the tail and nice cinch at the tip. The first time I took them off, I did so one-handed with my skis on like a pro. (c: Much more user friendly than my BD ascensions.

    Ultimately, I am so happy with my relatively light setup which will handle some aggressive skiing but comfortable touring (6.3 lbs/foot including skins at 8oz)… I feel like I have been freed from a tether. I’m sure I missed things in my research but I am happy with my end product to get more enjoyment out of the hills and that’s what matters, right??

    • Andrew Skurka January 9, 2014 at 6:45 am #

      Very nice setup. If I were go shopping for myself right now, I’d end up with almost exactly what you have. With Amanda, I wanted something with a little bit more downhill performance since this will still be her resort skis, too.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Jim Milstein February 21, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

      Trinity, about your remark concerning ski brakes: most telemark bindings do not release; so, in theory, a brake is not needed. Pintech (Dynafit style) bindings do release when in downhill mode, so a brake is a good idea. Leashes are an alternative to brakes, but then you may get clobbered by a flailing ski.

      I just converted from telemark (~40 years) to AT this season. Got brakes. La Sportiva Sideral, Dynafit Radical ST, Dynafit Manaslu. Lost over four pounds from my feet, and go faster both up and downhill. Woot!

  9. Mira May 20, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    I would like to buy BC skis but I am quite scared of waxing.
    Is there some simple way how to do it well with 2-3 waxes in pocket?
    Should I rather stay with waxless?

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