Tuesday, January 26, 2010


So you're an accomplished resort skier that is thinking of taking your first backcountry ski trip.  What kind of gear do you need to get started?

Meet Rudy.  Like in the movie, Rudy is shorter and lighter than average, but consistently performs beyond expectations.  He can also take repeated beatings and keep on going.  Rudy is my first backcountry setup.

                                      Yeah.. I'm only 172cm tall.  You have a problem with that?

Hopefully my journey in building Rudy will shed a little light on questions you might have about what gear may be right for you.  Or maybe it will just make you realize that I am a gear obsessed freak who likes sentimental sports movies.  Either way, you'll find this informational.

When I began to seriously consider taking winter trips to mountains that didn't have ski lifts, I thought about my ultimate goals: light and warm. These aren't mutually exclusive... but can be a challenge when you're also trying to keep a tight budget.

First and foremost, I wanted warm feet.  Really warm feet.  I could put up with all sorts of shit in the winter, but nothing ruined a good ski day faster than frozen feet.  Given the absence of any place to warm my feet, I was struck with a somewhat rational fear of losing toes to frostbite.

I found a pair of Koflach mountaineering boots on Ebay, and amazingly, when they arrived, they actually fit my feet.  (By the way, this is absolutely the wrong way to buy boots. I must have boot builder feet, or I am extremely lucky, as I've never had to return a pair of boots bought on Ebay)  The Koflach Arctis Expe boot, which is no longer produced, is popular with guided mountaineering groups and outfitters, and can be found at alot of these places today.  Given their popularity, they will probably persist on the secondary markets for some time.  It only took me a matter of days to find my size.  This boot utilizes a plastic shell with a closed cell foam removable liner.  This combination creates stability when walking around on crampons, and is extremely warm.  They are also very fashionable with the hiker/mountaineering crowd.  They look like little school buses for your feet.  Before you go running out to buy a pair, I also found that the low ankle on these boots mean they don't have alot of "push" to control your skis.  In fact, trying to ski in these boots takes alot of finesse. Any kind of glades or other tight spaces can be harrowing.  Ultimately, I had to abandon my dreams of using these boots as an all around utility boot.  Instead, they have become my comfort boots: specializing in long tours on rolling terrain, or short tours to climbing terrain.  The second of these categories is more of a ... "maybe one day I will actually climb mountains and use them that way"... category. 

Play boot roulette on Ebay! Will they fit? Will they take them back?

Next, I found a pair of Silvretta Pure Performance bindings (thanks again Ebay).  Silvrettas are essentially the same type of binding that you would use at a resort, however the heel mechanism can release to allow you to lift the heel away from the ski.  It also locks down so that you can make alpine style turns.   This type of binding is known as an "Alpine Touring" (AT for short) or "Randonee" binding.     It  allows the user to go back and forth between nordic style skiing and alpine skiing.  Marker, Fritschi, Dynafit, and Naxo create other variations of this same type of binding.  I chose the Silvretta because they were light and relatively cheap.

Silvretta Pure Performance Binding with the heel up

The alternative to the AT style binding, Telemark, uses a cable to put pressure on the heel, holding it down. I don't have pictures of these bindings because, generally, they are for people who enjoy chalkboards, homeopathic remedies, buying unsliced bread, and avoiding other advances of the last several centuries.  They also require that you learn a new style of skiing; one that forces you to kneel during every turn.  I'm not that big on kneeling, so I stuck with the AT setup.

Seriously though, the Telemark style is more suited for rolling hills, where snapping the heel in and out of the AT binding can get tedious.  The AT has an advantage on steeper terrain where alpine turns are a must for a steep narrow couloir.   I've found New Englanders to be by and large telemark skiers, with folks from out west and Europeans favoring AT gear.  This is probably because there is no New England term for couloir.  In fact, if you are from New England you are probably looking that word up in a dictionary about now.  The steep peaks of the Alps and Rockies demand AT gear, while the gentler terrain here in New England favors tele skiing.  Given the importance of tele skiing, I've asked my friend Gered, a tele skier, to contribute from time to time and give the tele perspective on my blog.  And NO, Gered, I'm not interested in trying your skis on the next trip.  You only ask me every freakin time.

A classic telemark turn

The last items on the checklist were the skis.  I found a cheap, and very light pair of Dynastar Altirides on Overstock.com.  At just over 3.5 lbs per pair, these are EXTREMELY light, and extremely orange.  They are also relatively short at 172cm.  The short length, however, makes these ideal for stealing powder in tight glades, and combat skiing (i.e. skiing for your life trying to avoid trees and rocks) down hiking trails.  I've even carved turns on corn snow in Tuckerman's on these bad boys.  Boy can they also take a beating!  I've ridden these down the trails around Camel's Hump, Welch-Dickey and other rock covered monstrosities.  With every nerve jarring rock collision I would look down expecting to see a bent edge or core-shot, and to this day they've held strong!


With all my new gear in tow, I proudly walked into the Joe Jones Wilderness House in Boston and asked them to set my bindings, and adjust them for my Koflach boots.  After they stopped laughing, they patiently explained that the Koflach boot wouldn't fit into this Silvretta model, and that I needed to get a whole new binding.  Wha..???!!!  They also hinted about the lack of ankle support, but I kinda blew them off until I discovered for myself that this was true.

[The Silvretta binding that I should have purchased was the "Silvretta 500" or "LSV" model.  The previous version was also known as the Silvretta 404.  These models use a wire bail for the front toe, which can be adjusted for the height of the Koflach boot. More on that later.]

I retreated home, and quickly formulated a "Plan B". Again, I consulted Ebay and found a pair of Scarpa Titan backcountry boots. These boots, also no longer in production, are the bottom of the line Scarpas, which I'm told is like buying a cheap Lexus.  I managed to find a pair under a $100. With three buckles, and a "power strap", they were more than enough boot for the Altirides.

                                                             Remember the Scarpa Titans

Despite my initial fears about frostbite, these boots have kept me comfortable.  However, they weigh alot. (Nearly 8lbs.. Almost as heavy as resort boots)  Some people have been known to ski in resort boots (Brett), but this isn't recommended.   Aside from the weight issue, resort boots are not designed for hiking. If you compare the bottom of a resort boot to the bottom of a backcountry boot this becomes quickly apparent.  This essentially means that you need to carry two pairs of boots.  One for hiking, and another to ski in.  Nine pounds of dead weight: completely unacceptable!  Backcountry boots also include a switch, which allows you to release tension on the shin, allowing you to walk more freely.  With this advance, there's no need to franken-walk up the mountain like a resort skier.

                                                Backcountry boot (left) vs. Resort boot (right)

One more word of advice on boots:  Whatever the type of boot you eventually buy, be it a full four-buckler or a NNN style cross country boot, you should only buy boots with removable liners if you plan on winter camping.  It is absolutely crucial that you be able to remove your liners and place them in your sleeping bag with you when you sleep.  Not only do they protect you from evil winter spirits, but there is nothing worse than trying to get into a frozen boot liner in the morning.  Just ask my friend Brett, who struggled to get into his boots on a winter trip to Camel's Hump.

                                                "Hey Brett its been 3 hours, want a hand with that?"

While the Scarpas served me well, eventually a broken buckle, and a deal I couldn't refuse at the IME Bargain Basement in North Conway, NH, led me to my next pair of boots.  I'm not even sure what these are called, but they are friggin light and friggin orange.  At barely six pounds, these are the lightest ski boots that I've worn.  They are also the orangest piece of equipment I have ever owned.  They were comfortable enough to hike up to Tuckerman's, and stiff enough to control the Altirides on the descent through the Bowl.

                                                         Pumpkin Colored Cowboy Boots

But wait, there's more!  Yeah, that's right.  I have more boots than Imelda Marcos.  If you will only listen to my rationalization, it will all be clear.  Yeah, you'll all see that I'm not crazy. 

That blue pair of Garmonts (MegaRides) that were in the earlier pictures have become my "go-to" boot.  I'm using them now for my resort skiing, cross country, and backcountry glade skiing. They are only only slightly heavier than the orange cowboy boots, but they have alot more stiffness (and thus more control).   The MegaRides also, importantly, have the added benefit of being equipped to handle "tech" style bindings like the G3 Onyx, and the more widely used Dynafit bindings. (more on that later)

 The MegaRides
(More ride, less orange)

My initial reason for investing in the MegaRides was so that I could transition to the Onyx G3 binding.  Although I've been satisfied with the Silvretta Pure Performance, I was intrigued by the "tech" style bindings, and their stability ratings. The more I use the Megarides, however, the more I think the Orange Garmonts are going back to the IME Bargain Basement for another rodeo.

                                           On my way up to Tuckerman's with all my orange gear.

So ultimately, Rudy was born of the following:

1. Garmont MegaRide Boot
2. Dynastar Altiride Skis
3. Silvretta Pure Performance Bindings

Rudy is of limited use on long trips with rolling terrain (see the Carter debacle).  He is also not ideal on very steep and icy terrain, given that light skis have a hard time digging into icy crusts. I skied Cannon Mtn. in NH on an icy day with Rudy, and could feel some chatter below my feet.  I've also heard that the short turning radius is  not ideal for big mountain terrain, but I don't ski particularly fast as I do alot of turning (just think... how would a lawyer ski?), and so I don't think this is much of an issue for me.

I use Rudy for backcountry trips where I know it will be an immediate steep climb up the slope, or where there will be alot of powder, or tight glades. I have skins which can be used to increase traction on the steep uphills, but I am also learning the art of ski waxing (using waxes that stick at different temperatures to get traction in the middle of the ski) to improve Rudy's performance on rolling terrain.  Maybe someday Rudy will prove himself on a distance tour.  I can hear him now , "Put me in coach"

For the time being, he continues to take all the abuse the trails can dish, and keeps on coming.

No comments:

Post a Comment