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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Deep Snow Skiing on Modern Equipment by E.C.Greg

photo courtesy of DPS

PNW Deep Snow Skiing on Modern Equipment and Personal Reflections on Skimo Equipment Progression

Guest Blog by E.C. Greg

I had the good fortune to ski in the PNW last weekend at the tail end of this significant storm/snow cycle and try out four excellent skis, all with Dynafit bindings. The skis were: 177 Dynafit Huascaran, 182 Praxis GPO, 174 Dynafit Cho Oyu and 178 La Sportiva Hang 5. The PNW Mountains received 10+ feet of snow in the last week/while we were there. All the skis were lots of fun and appropriate for the conditions.

Before I start, I think it is important to note that Dane has tried many other relatively wide skis.  These are simply some of the ones he has kept for personal use, which represent some of HIS favorites for the conditions we encountered and for HIS style and type of skiing.  I have seen his garage, he has a few 190cm+,  120mm+ skis from DPS and Praxis.

After arriving Wed night from the East Coast, Thursday found me skiing with Dane at Crystal Mt. We found steep, deep (thigh/waist deep if you stepped out of your skis) untracked powder in places and plenty of soft, new but chopped up snow at the edge of the groomed runs as well. We skied the steeps slower and finished the day by ripping groomed runs at high speeds.

Dane and I are similar in size (6'1" and 190s) and we are both using size 29.0 Dynafit boots with the same 317mm BSL (TLT6 and TLT5 Mts respectively) so he was kind enough to share some of his toys. Based on his and other reviews I was keen to try two skis in particular, so we swapped between the 177 Huascaran and 182 Praxis GPO - getting to ski each at least 3 times throughout the day. It was a very efficient way to compare two fantastic skis on the same day, in the same conditions, using the same boots, and mounted with similar Dynafit bindings.

For reference, I am a solid skier and all-around rock/ice/alpine climber at a moderate technical level with a preference for longer and adventurous routes. I also have a history of triathlons, mainly to keep aerobically fit for the alpine and have developed a recent fondness for skimo racing. I have been ski touring and ski mountaineering in such areas: White Mts - Tuckerman's ski & Huntington ice climbing access, ADK's -Mt. Marcy area ski and Avalanche Lake & Gothics NF ice climbing access, Whitney, Shasta, Hood, Adams, St Helens, Rainier, Glacier, Liberty Bell area, Shuksan and Baker. (editor's note: Some how not mentioned on the resume above is being short of the 7 Summits only by Vinson and a wine tour of Argentina.) 

My backcountry ski equipment progression over the last fifteen years has been: mid 170s Volkl Mt Rangers with Silvretta 404 using red Scarpa Denalis since 1999 (23.4 lbs with skins); progressing in 2007 to 167-ish K2 Shuksans with Fritschi Diamirs using Scarpa Tornados (21.5lbs with skins); finally discovering the TLT5 Mt boots, Dynafit bindings and the lighter European skis such as Ski Trab and Dynafit in 2011 (resulting in 14.5 to 15.5 lbs complete package weights with skins). Heading into this winter I was so bitten by the "lightweight bug" that I progressed to using Scarpa Alien 1.0 boots and 167 Dyn Broad Peak skis with Dyn Low Tech bindings for my East Coast ski touring and skimo racing. I look forward to using this 9.6lb set-up + 14oz skins on more remote PNW ski objectives such as Glacier Peak this coming summer. The fattest skis I have used before this trip were 167 Dynafit Baltoros which are 84mm at the waist in the backcountry and I had rented 170s Blizzard 100mm skis at Alta and Snowbird for 3 days last winter used with downhill bindings and Scarpa Tornados.

My boots for the day with Dane were a well-used pair of Dynafit TLT5 Mountains (bought at a discount in the offseason from a rental program) with power strap and tongue. The Dynafit PDG Palau liners I use in the shell (per Dane's right-on suggestion) were expertly heat molded with blue Superfeet foot beds by Brian Delaney at High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid, NY. The thinner liners give me more room in the shell and make the TLT5s very comfortable for my semi-wide feet. I found the heavier and thicker TFX liners that came with the TLT5 boot too tight for my feet and the tightness would become uncomfortable starting about 1- 2 hours into tours. Historically, I have found that Scarpa and Asolo have fit me well out of the box vs most Dynafit and La Sportiva boots I have tried, but this is only a general observation. Certain higher volume boots such as the La Sportiva Spantik fit me well out of the box. Back to the skis.

Baker photos courtesy of E.C. Greg

First off, deep, untracked snow on any of these 110mm+ at the waist and "short" (high 170s to low 180s length) skis that I tried is an entirely different sport than the resort skiing, E.C. backcountry and summer Sierra/PNW ski mountaineering I have done on more traditional skis. It is just incredibly fun and playful and feels "easy" in such deep snow conditions even on steep faces. Finally, having been a sceptic of the concept of lightweight boots and bindings used with wide skis - it absolutely blew me away how well the complete package works!

I used to read the blogs of Brian Harder and the Dorais bros and wonder incredulously how they could ski steep technical lines in the Tetons and Wasatch in race skis and race boots. Having descended steep, icy, bumped out back diamond runs during skimo races in the East, I have a better understanding of what the lightweight gear is capable of. More importantly, having migrated from 20lb+ to 15lb to 10lb set-ups for touring and ski mountaineering, I now really appreciate how helpful lightweight gear is in covering a lot of ground quickly. In fact, I am currently putting together a sub 9lb package for my wife so that no one accuses me of hoarding all the nice gear (-: I also used to read this blog and wonder what Dane was doing mounting all these sub 1lb per pair of bindings on these wide boards and skiing them with boots that are approaching 5lbs per pair. I used to think I would need a Scarpa Maestrale RS or equivalent to ski 110mm+ wide skis, now it is clear that as long as the length of the ski is manageable the TLT line or equivalent is more than up for the job and much lighter. I also thought I would need 2lb+ or even 4lb+ bindings with 12+ RV settings on wide boards. I now know through experience that is not the case. Dane is onto something make that very, very good here by highlighting such wide ski, light bindings, light/medium boot set-ups, especially for those of us interested in touring most of time.

It is clear to me that once the design and execution become so good, the differences become subtle and to some extent we are nitpicking characteristics. You know that two skis are performing at a similarly high level when (as ridiculous as this sounds) you start considering what skin attachment system you prefer when trying to choose between them. This was an actual topic of discussion on the chairlift between runs. Nevertheless, I will offer some observations. 

Back to the skis (again!).  Frankly, it's an impossible call between the Huascaran and the GPO, as in they are both excellent skis and I certainly would be very happy with either. They will be slightly better for different applications given their different designs, but it is remarkable how hard Dane and I had to concentrate to pick up differences in use.  Both ski excelled in the very nice/hero conditions we experienced that day and are both playful and nimble. They both skied the steep and deep easily and worked well on the soft groomers. I skied the Huas all morning and started with the GPO after lunch. After a short first run I thought I was head-over-heels in LOVE with the GPO but quickly realized (confirmed when we swapped back and forth in the afternoon) that it was my rested legs and better technique after lunch that made the difference, not the skis. I did notice that the heavier GPO plowed through some of the chopped up snow easier / and was a bit more stable in those particular conditions, but the Huas held their own there too. Near the end of the day I noticed the heavier GPO on the tired legs - not a surprise, weight does matter. I did appreciate the bit of extra length of the GPO in the deep powder and their absolute lack of speed limit in all conditions we experienced that day. Given their more pronounced tail rocker design, they also surfed in turns easier. That being said, for the type of skiing I prefer I loved the Huascaran with its scoop rocker front and stiffer tail. I was able to get on edge easily when I wanted and the shorter length and lighter weight was a bit easier to swing around in the steeps and trees - especially noticeable at the end of the day. Given the shorter length, I had to be more aware of my weight distribution when skiing through variable snow but they were still a dream in powder. Which brings me to a larger point that has been made on this blog and elsewhere before: all these skis are so much better and more forgiving compared to anything traditional I have skied before. I would guess also so much better than anything that was out there even a few years ago. As Dane points out, these skis make potentially difficult conditions more enjoyable and accessible for people with average skiing skills - I agree.

It's hard to believe that I could write so much about only one day of the trip.

Baker trip photo courtesy of PNW Ken

On Friday my wife, a PNW friend and I met Gregg Cronn,  a great guide and avalanche instructor with American Alpine Institute for a day of super fun backcountry skiing near the Mt. Baker ski area. By very happy coincidence which we only realized mid-tour, Gregg is an old time ice climbing partner of Dane's and Dane thinks very highly of him and his skills, as does our entire group now. Dane wrote me a few days later:

'I actually thought to myself the other day and almost said it, "Gregg is the only guy I would trust to take me into the Baker BC right now." Gregg is a legend for those in the know.'

trip photo courtesy of  PNW Ken

The avalanche conditions were still considerable vs. high of the previous day so we were happy to trust someone with his local knowledge and snow science experience finding us safe turns. We covered about 6 miles and near 4,000 vertical feet for 7 amazingly wonderful runs on untracked fresh powder in wilderness solitude. Certain SW aspects got heavier under the mid-day sun that went in and out of the clouds, yet the NE aspects remained light and fluffy until the end of the day. Mid-day found me skinning up in just a wool T-shirt and Dynafit race pants - it was that nice out. For those at home wondering; Gregg was on 186 Huascarans with Dynafit bindings, using regular (orange) Scarpa Maestrales - he looked effortless on the powder runs. He was also using a BD avalung pack and it goes without saying that we all had beacons, shovels and probes. My wife was on 156cm BD Starlets with Speed Radicals, using regular (green) Scarpa Geas and our friend was on a high 90s waist Volkl telemark set-up. I would like to point out that nobody thought that their gear was limiting their fun in the conditions - it all worked great!

trip photo courtesy of PNW Ken

As Gregg pointed out, I was the heaviest guy on the skinniest ski in the group. I did wish I had access to a wider ski on this day, especially given the relatively modest mileage and vertical of the day, but my brand new set up of 174 Dynafit Cho Oyu worked well enough that I was hooting and hollering with joy all day. I have a hard time imagining skiing deeper powder anywhere so the design of the Chos is clearly versatile for such light and relatively narrow skis. I have read in several places that they handle just fine (if a bit loud) on hard/icy terrain. I am sure it will not be difficult for me to find some icy runs here in the East to personally test that characteristic (-:

Baker photos courtesy of E.C. Greg

The Chos in 174 are 88mm underfoot and sub 1200gms per ski plus approximately 1lb for the pair of Dynafit Speed Superlight bindings the way I am using them. I mounted the bindings with adjustment plates on the back and riser plates on the front to eliminate the binding ramp angle which bother me on some of my other Dynafit bindings. My pair of skis with the bindings weighs 6lb 4oz. The skins are 17oz. I used my TLT5 Mt boots on this day with ltw PDG liner, blue superfeet, strap, and tongue: they worked great - light on the skin track and solid on the down. The ski, binding, boot combo weighs under 12 lbs. With my Alien 1.0 the setup is just sub 10lbs - incredibly light for any backcountry day let alone powder day. Many powder skis weigh that much alone. If you are not hucking cliffs,  ripping high speed turns or outrunning your sluff on 60 degree Alaska faces you may be able to get away with much lighter backcountry gear than you are led to believe by the traditional ski media.

(editor's note:  I have skied some hard steep and deep steep.  Doubt I have skied 60 degree slopes.  Steep enough however.  I don't huck anything.  I disagree with how Greg has characterised the "high speed, out running the sluff and skiing steep"  comment from my own experience on these gear combos.  But wanted to make that point more clearly.  If you can ski the terrain, the gear mentioned here can handle it adroitly imo.  I think needing the heavy boot, ski, binding philosphy is simply wrong.  It is not the extra physical weight of the gear that helps.  It is the better designed gear now available IMO.  The AT gear is clearly catching up, and again IMO, surpassing the Alpine gear in many of the important design features I want.  As always..."for my own use".    Which may not be anything close to what you require. Caveat emptor! )

This is a gear focused blog, but contrary to what all this discussion about the latest and lightest gear, the marketing or the media would lead us to believe; the gear does not need to be super high end, new, expensive or meticulously optimized to have a fun day in the backcountry with friends.  For two guys with strong opinions, who sure do LOVE their gear, Dane and I had a good laugh on the chairlift noting that we have never actually failed on a climb or ski tour due to gear limitation.
As always, YMMV.

PSA  follows:   It is generally difficult to find skimo gear and spare parts if you live far from a good skimo shop.   I highly recommend Jason Borro of Skimo Co. in Utah. He has been helpful and patient over the phone; accessing difficult to find skis and sizes (e.g. 151 Movement Random X); pointing me in the right direction on all sorts of skimo gear and mounting and shipping out my Chos on short notice.

Saturday and Sunday at Mt. Baker ski resort I skied the 178 La Sportiva Hang 5s which are 117mm underfoot mounted with new Dynafit Speed Radical, B&D heel plates instead of lifters and a 6mm shim @ the toe.  Much better for ramp angle than a stock Speed or any thing with a brake.  Saturday I skied them with the TLT5 Mts and Sunday with the Maestrale RS.  Conditions were excellent both days as we woke to a foot of fresh snow down in Glacier on Sunday and on Saturday we lucked into arriving at the top of Chair 6 just as ski patrol opened The Canyons.  The next two runs brought us untracked fresh snow similar to what we experienced all day on Friday in the backcountry - giving an easy comparison between the Hang 5 and Chos.  I almost feel silly stating the obvious, but the Hang 5
clearly outperformed the Chos in such deep snow on the down.  I felt solid with the ski and boot combos both days, but I liked the extra stiffness of the Maestrale RS with the Hang5s when I hit scraped out sections of hard snow.  In soft snow and powder both boots worked well with this ski.  In
addition to the inbounds runs all over the mountain (btw amazing that there were basically no lift lines), we skied several out-of-bounds powder runs each day in the open area skier's left of Chair 8 (bring your beacon, shovel and pole).  The skis were an absolute dream in the deep powder - skiing both the fresh and the chopped up snow with ease.  For pure wide-open powder runs these were my favorite skis of the four I tried on this trip.  The one place where the ltw boot and the wide ski combo didn't excel was in tight, steep, skied out/hard snow trees.  Paired with ltw boots the Hang 5 did not feel quite as nimble as the Huas and GPO - once again not a surprise given the design.  Near the end of 4 days of hard skiing, my legs were tired and the weight of these heavy boards with heavy boots was noticeable.

I took the red-eye home Sunday night, concluding a classic long-weekend PNW ski trip.

Based on my experiences this past weekend I plan to fill the wide-ski hole in my quiver for next season with 177 Huascarans. I plan to mount lightweight (1lb) adjustable tech bindings on them so I can use both my TLT5 Mts and Maestrale RS with them. The Chos are an unbelievable lightweight versatile everyday ski and I can't wait to use them more with both the TLT5 Mts and the Aliens. If I were to sell my 167 Broad Peaks I would replace them with a lighter pair of 167 Random X for use with my Alien 1.0 on those steep/icy or long/remote summer PNW skimo projects and next season's skimo races. For me this would be the ultimate backcountry ski and boot quiver. I would also like to get a modern pair of 98mm to 106mm wide downhill resort skis with downhill bindings at some point, but that is a matter for another time (-:

editor's note:

For the locals wondering what we were skiing at Crystal?  Most of the morning we were on Chair 6 skiing fresh tracks on the gullies just above the Campbell Basin Lodge or the other side on Powder Bowl with  laps back to Forrest Queen and 6.  The afternoon we split between the gondola/area boundry line to base and Northway between Glory Days and Brand X.    Fast groomers were top of Forrest Queen to the base.   A great day on perfect snow!     

Ski weight with Speed Super light bindings, ONE ski, double for the pair:
Huascaran 4# 5oz
Hang5 4# 8oz
GPO carbon version 4# 15oz

Boot weight?  28s except for the TLT6 which is a 29 
Maestrale RS 1590g
TLT6 1354g
Spectre 1480g
ONE 1580g
Vulcan 1730g

TLT5 either version is 1200g +/-
TLT6 and TLT5 weight virtually the same (+/-10g) with comparable inner boots
How they ski is drastically different imo having had and skied them all 
5 is a good climbing boot that skis well enough
6 is a good ski boot you can climb in, as is a Spectre
RS is simply a good ski boot

Any of these boots are a lot more ski boot than a TLT5 P or Mtn.

The Huascaran and GPO would NOT have been my first choice personally in skis for the day Greg and I spent @ Crystal.   I had skied the Protest the previous day.  And would have been on big Praxis or DPS if not for Greg being my guest the 2nd day.   I wasn't expecting much from the snow pack that particular day.  Turns out it snowed hard all day and the results were much better than I had expected.   I was really just trying to give Greg a look at what I thought the best choice of what I had given our limitations of time and boot sole length. Turned out (always to my surprise) that the ski choices were two of the best ski for that day and those snow conditions of what I own.    I couldn't have been more pleased.  Also couldn't have been more surprised they were both so much fun given the varied use we made of them.


Anonymous said...

I did not like the Huascarans mounted at boot center. After moving them forward slightly they are more comfortable for me. Coming from my well loved Coombacks, I had to change my style. Longer radius turns and less lower leg involvement did the trick. Quite a fun and solid ski!

Bruno Schull said...

I agree with this post: Dane's point of view, that it makes sense for many people to ski on tech bindings and lightweight gear, even beginners at resorts, does seem to be a fresh perspective, and an important direction for the market. It would be great if we could move away from old, heavy gear, that makes you move like a robot, and complicates the already difficult process of getting up and down the mountain. I would like to pose two questions/thoughts/ideas. 1) For the majority of beginner and intermediate skiers, it seems that sustaining a knee injury while skiing is a real concern. How do tech binding release angles and mechanisms compare to traditional alpine boots and bindings? I am under the impression that tech bindings do not release in all of the same ways or situations as alpine bindings. If there was a binding on the market that really reduced the chance of tearing an ACL, that would seem like a step forward. And if skiing on tech bindings really does increase the risk of an injury, I would like to know. Perhaps the way forward for a "tech binding for the masses" will be a lightweight tech binding with a wide range of release possibilities. 2) Downhill skiers race on alpine bindings. Sometimes, racing does serve as a proving ground for technology: what does not work fades away, and what works best rises to the top. Of course, downhill racing is a very narrow application, and ski mountaineering is a different story, but if tech bindings were truly just as functional as alpine bindings, I might expect to see them in races. Are tech bindings really best for most people on the piste?

Dane said...

Tech binding are NOT best for most people on piste or in the BC for that matter. Just the most effective and lwt binding.

Huge conversation suggestion. Short version is I use to ski on a DIN of 11. I now ski on a tech setting of 6 and don't prelease any where as long as I keep my pin holes clean. Tha tsaid while skiing the steepest and most difficult terrain, hard and soft as I ever have.

Gregg? I suspect you would like the 177s mounted on the line a lot more :)

Anonymous said...

EC Greg here:

Bruno, I am sure the information is out there. Late in the day on Friday I hit the snow covered bank of the summer road at some speed in the Chos. I was not leaning back on purpose - trying to "trust my tips" in the powder. I came to an immediate stop face first in the snow, unharmed. We all had a good laugh. The front of my bindings were still attached to the boots, but happy to report that the vertical rear release on the Superlight works just fine. Plus when I don't lock my toes, I can twist out of the toe bindings in certain difficult situations. From previous experience I already know they release just fine in normal downhill modes at the toe as well. Regarding the "perceived safety" of downhill bindings: Last season my 3 y.o. son had a spiral tibia fracture while skiing on the bunny slope. His DH bindings were at the appropriate setting for his size and weight. Sure the binding released eventually during the slow speed twisting fall - but still too late for his bone structure. Bad luck as they say, since dozens of other kids his size were falling and getting up unharmed around him on the same slope that day. The good news is that he was only in a cast for 3 weeks and he is back at it this year. Given enough bad luck and specific situations, I know you can easily break a bone or tear an ACL while skiing in any binding at any setting on any terrain.

Bruno Schull said...

Yes, sorry, I do not want to miss represent the ideas here: tech bindings are not for everyone. Gregg said it better; that you can ski wide and modern skis with lighter bindings and boots than many people realize. But imagine how the light weight and comfort and easy walking of modern touring gear would transform the experience for all skiers at the resorts. It would just make it so much easier and more fun. Some intermediate between tech bindings and alpine gear might be the way to go. To EC Greg: thanks for the story about your son. I'm particularly sensitive to the whole knee issue right now because, last year, after spending two weeks in Chamonix climbing with no problems, I returned home and managed to injure my knee going down the slide at the playground with my four-year old daughter. Ironic but frustrating. I'm heading off tomorrow on a one-week ski vacation with my family, and I may lower the DIN setting on my daughters skis just to be safe....