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Go Light, Stay Fresh, Ski More

Posted on March 13 2018

We've done it backcountry skiers! From the hippy pow meadow skippers to the aggressive ski mountaineers, shredders worldwide are becoming believers in the power and reliability of efficient and lightweight ski touring gear. This in turn has lead to a massive influx of R&D money into this segment of the ski industry which is compounding the availability and rising quality of the gear. If you've been by the Vail Cripple Creek Backcountry store and chat with me about a light weight touring setup, or your first touring setup, you probably heard this- "Go as light as you can and still have the fun you were looking for." My time working for CCBC and testing gear has helped me to really dial in just where I like to save weight, and where I want a little extra beef. Distances, skiing style, snow conditions and terrain all play a factor in the decision of how light to go. Here is a bit of background on my own transition to lighter gear, and how I've based those decisions.

For a bit of my skiing background, I learned to ski in the steeps of Taos, NM, and enjoy skiing fast and aggressively with good but not perfect technique. I wound up Ski Patrolling at Vail prior to an injury and became hooked on large skis. I'm 6' 150 lbs and in good but nowhere near elite cardiovascular shape. I get my ass kicked by guys 20 years my senior in rando races. Like many, my first touring rig was Alpine Trekkers plugged in to an alpine setup. This "progessed" to Marker Dukes but I will focus on the setup I was on when I began working at Cripple Creek. My main setup and traveling weapon of choice was a pair of 186cm Volkl BMT 122s with Marker Kingpins. These were driven with Black Diamond Quadrant 4 buckle boots with Intuition Pro Tour liners and propelled uphill by Pomoca Pro S-Glide skins. This setup ripped. I was used to fat skis and skiing like a bat out of hell, and found what I was looking for at the time. I also had a pair of 177cm Fischer Hannibal 94s with a Speed Radical that I wasn't crazy about, but used for mountaineering missions.

skin track refugio frey skiing

The old setup was fun, but I could typically be found slogging at the back of the skin track like so.

Then came a fateful day in Gnarble, Utah on my first outing with the CCBC crew. The day before, CCBC owner Doug Stenclik, suggested I bring my powder skis. I replied that I didn't think that I could keep up in the BMTs and his response was, "No, the Fischers." I grabbed a pair of our Scarpa F1 demo boots and went for it. The next day we would shred over 5,000 vertical feet of some of the deepest low density blower I've ever skied, all before noon. I then understood what Doug meant by "powder skis". Days like that are rare- this was 2 feet of less than 5% water equivalent snow. You can ski that in nearly any gear. This day however gave me a great understanding of the power of shedding weight and gaining efficiency. I soon mounted up a pair of 185cm DPS Wailer 106s in the lightweight Tour1 construction with 175 gram Dynafit Speed Superlite bindings and got my own pair of Scarpa F1 two buckle boots. A little more surface area in the ski for a wider variety of powder, and keeping the rest to a minimum. This shed almost 3 pounds per foot compared to the BMT setup, and a new way of looking at ski touring began to come to me. The argument against light weight gear is generally, "well, I'm in this for the downhill." We all are! Hop on board the weight watcher wagon and get more downhill or be more fresh for your coveted descent.

Colorado Backcountry powder

Trenching on said day, the 94 waisted powder skis, 2 buckle boots and pin bindings were perfect

Let's get in to the details. The first and best place to shed weight is the binding. Go tech, and go light tech. The Dynafit style tech bindings are remarkable in their weight to retention powers. Really consider just what you need in a binding. Do I need brakes- or can I learn to take my skin off with skis on? Do I need boot sole adjustability- or will I only ski one boot with this ski anyway? Do I need 3 levels of climbing aides- or is my new touring boot efficient enough with one or 2 positions? You can quickly shed up to a pound by going minimal with the binding. If you still aren't a believer in the pins, come try some out and put the myth to bed, these things rip.

Next is the boot. Weight is important here because this is the part of your setup that you actually lift every step. The boot was definitely the worst and most cumbersome part of my old setup, and what I have experimented with and changed the most. The old adage of a pound on your feet is equivalent to 7 on your back may not quite be scientifically verified, but it's gist is very true. The catch here is that unlike the light bindings, you do have a slightly different skiing experience the lighter you go with boots. The lighter weight boots are plenty capable in great conditions. The main difference you have is the size of the sweet spot. A more alpine style boot allows you to play more with position, get back and load the tail, crank forward in the apex of the turn, and handle leaving the ground (or the whole coming back down part) better. So again, what is fun to you? For milking many simple powder laps or ski mountaineering objectives, I'm loving my Scarpa Alien RS stiff rando race boot. For hauling ass on steep open faces or jumping off of things in resort accessed backcountry, I've been digging the new Dynafit Hoji Boot. The Scarpa F1 still remains my suggestion for the do it all touring ripper. I must also give a nod to the importance of range of motion. After being able to spend some time in rando race boots, I am starting to view range cuff articulation equally as important as weight. Greater range of motion means less resistance and allows for using a lighter binding with less climbing aides. Find a boot that A. fits well and B. is as light as you can feel comfortable in and have fun- trust me you'll get the hang of skiing it. I have found that I have become a better skier since running touring boots exclusively.

Skiing fast in lightweight gear in Patagonia

Skiing fast in the Scarpa F1 on variable, steep Patagonian alpine snow
 
Skis. It always comes down to the ski right? The ski is the funny part of the setup in which anything reasonable will work, yet we tweak out on the stats of the ski far more than the other parts. Length, width, rocker, sidecut, mount position, and of course weight. The ski is where I have gone light, and then trended back to a touch more weight depending on it's purpose. My aforementioned powder lapping Aliens are currently driving shorter than before (178cm) DPS Wailer 106 Tour 1's with 110 gram Hagan Ultra rando race bindings. You really don't need more for powder laps. And if one lap was great, why not have the gear that allows for 4 more? I took this incredible skiing lightweight DPS offering in the 185cm length to Patagonia last summer and was left wanting a touch more stability while maching down steeps in the Alaskan-style maritime powder. And I most definitely wanted some more dampening while surviving heinous conditions on the giant Chilean volcanoes we tackled. For these scenarios, a ski built with denser woods and incorporating a sidewall isn't necessary, but generally appreciated on the down. My takeaway currently is this- a heavier touring specific ski (non alpine) is perfect for versatility. The amateur ski-physicist in me will say that the heavier the ski, the less it deflects, period. Deflection and vibration are the main culprits in poor ski feel. Balance this with the snow conditions and style of skiing you do and you'll come up with a winning combo. I'm currently digging the Black Crow's Freebird and Dyanfit Beast categories for a beefier yet still light touring ski. Similar to the weight vs range of motion question in boots, consider weight vs width in a ski. A fatter ski requires a bigger (heavier) skin that creates more drag friction on the snow uphill, and will soak up more water in spring time. Wider skis will also require a heavier boot to drive them. Powder lapping continental snow? Make strong effort to reduce weight and ski more powder! Freeriding variable snow or ski mountaineering? Stay light on the binding, potentially boot as well, and carry a ski that is a little more dense and purpose built for the down.

Variable snow Lanin Volcano

When your idea of a vacation day is climbing and skiing 8500' of mostly bad snow, as it was for Doug and I, a denser ski is nice. Volcan Lanin, Agrentina/Chile border.

Briefly on skins. This year I went with a pure mohair Pomoca Race 2.0 plush for the winter. These skins are lighter, noticeably faster (less drag), and pack down quite small. I think they are perfect for powder skiing during the winter months when things aren't as slick. I did notice a touch less grip on a well traveled skin track. Outside of that, a 70/30 Mohair/Nylon blend is still the gold standard, and what I will be running during the spring. Pomoca's Climb 2.0 is a way to get near the weight and packability of the Race model, while still have that 30% nylon for added grip.

The lightweight gear revolution is here folks! Tech bindings will clamp the biggest and most aggressive skiers to their boards, lightweight boots do not ski anything like a Sorrel would, and the skis vary from great skiing 1000 gram offerings, to full on alpine style rippers in the 1600 gram range. Take in to consideration the distances you want to travel, the snow you will encounter, and the way in which you will ski it- and put together the lightest setup possible to have fun on. Once you do this, those distance will start to feel shorter and you'll get more skiing in less time, start tackling further objectives, or simply be less tired and stronger on the downhill.

Colorado powder laps

Lapping distant alpine Colorado powder: Scarpa Alien RS race boot, DPS Wailer 106 Tour1 ski, Hagan Ultra race binding
-Gary Smith, Cripple Creek Backcountry Vail

2 comments

  • Laird Davis: March 18, 2018

    Great article!
    My background is eriely similar including pro patroller.
    My equipment has followed a similar evolution.
    Heavy telemark skis to medium heavy Coombacks and Marstrales to today’s setup – 2 buckle boots ~ 5 pounds and 102 skis in the 6 pound range.
    The climbs are way easier and I don’t notice much difference in the downhill performance.
    Big difference I do notice is i’m Probably 20 % faster going uphill and the reduced weight results in fewer blisters.

  • Scott: March 15, 2018

    Great article Gary. I appreciate the level of detail in suggesting gear choices. I will definitely be sending it to some of my hesitant friends who are still on heavyweight gear so they can hear the lightweight gospel. I must say the Wailer 106/Alien RS is a phenomenal combo. I’m running that setup (albeit with the heavier, more fully-featured Plum Guide) and absolutely love it for powder and mank lapping. Never thought a rando race boot could drive a 100+ powder board so effectively. I haven’t quite gone Tom Goth/Paul Hamilton level yet with the Vapor Nanos, but that might be next season’s upgrade. Cheers!

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