Marquette Backcountry ski review
Are the Marquette’s real skis?
In many ways this is the central question, because the answer dictates the criteria against which they are judged. If we take them at the face value of the marketing schtick (70% ski, 30% snowshoe, 100% fun) success only calls for an idiosyncratic and fun tool for bushwhacking. The performance demands of a real ski, however, are much more acute and multifaceted.
In many ways, I’d rather that they weren’t real skis. All too often, real skiers suck. Backcountry skiing is a kineasethically beautiful, multifaceted, dangerous sport whose long learning curve should be respected. It’s also fraught with elitism, zenophobia (I can’t show you my secret stash!), and very expensive gear. Anything that gets more people affordably out beyond the lifts and groomed tracks, and as a bonus twists the tail of established wisdom, is a very good thing. Unforunately, evidence is accumulating that the Marquette BC ski might be a real ski after all:
My Marquette setup hasn’t changed. I do think that a good two buckle tele boot is the minimum to drive the ski for turning. It’s short, which helps, but 130mm is a lot to get on edge when you aren’t in 8″ of fresh.
The backyard adventure ski
This is the application for which the Marquette’s were originally designed, and is well addressed in the Universal Klister review. The width, short length, rockered nose, and plastic construction (not so big a deal to hit rocks and stratch the bases) make short little slopes and hills with a minimal amount of snow and no base not only skiable, but dead fun. Early this month, before the rain and ice, I had a blast hitting up the area parks before work, getting in a couple thousand vertical before work with a short drive. This niche will get new skiers into the backcountry, and allow established skiers to ski new terrain. No avy danger, minimal gear required, no hassle. As a backyard adventure ski the Marquettes get an A+.
The fast shoe
Snowshoes are slow and inefficient. Their sole virtue, other than packability, is the paucity of skills needed to pilot them. Alter your stride and pay a little more attention going downhill and you’re all set. The Marquettes are in many circumstances better at snowshoeing than snowshoes, but a straight substitute they are not. As grippy as the fishscales are, they are still like all patterned bases limited by snow type (the drier and fluffier the less grip), and require technique to use effectively. The Marquettes slide slow, but they still slide, and thus require turning and stopping skills to use safely. They aren’t a substitude, more of a gateway drug to proper snow travel, and thus a pretty good fast shoe.
The real ski
Are the Marquettes a real ski? Maybe not, but they sure do a good job pretending. The lack of metal edges is a serious downside; besides the annoying but trivial lack of grip on wood when crossing deadfall, they are not an appropriate tool for ice. But I’m hard pressed to think of many ski days (outside full on spring conditions) when full on ice was encountered. For most touring for turns days, thus isn’t a substantive issue.
They do hold well enough on merely firm snow, though because of the width a decent boot and some commited technique is required. Their real strength is of course in float and maneuverability, the ability to stay on top in powder, crud, and other bad snow, their super short stopping distance and turn radius, and their ability to slarve through deep snow and tight places. The length sacrifices stability at speed, but much less than you’d think; and if you’re of the school that mach-schnell might not be the wisest choice in the BC anyway, this ceases to be an issue.
What is often an issue, at least when BC skiing in North America, are trees and singletrack exits. Tough stuff, terrain which reliably turns a mundane, easy tour into something far exceeding a double black run in technicality and consequences. The Marquettes make this stuff much, much easier.
So yeah, they’re real skis.
The wilderness adventure tool
The idea of a short, fat, light ski is a good one for wilderness travel far away from broken trails. For my height and flexibility, 150cm is the dividing line between when skis cease to feel like skis. At 150 and shorter, kick turns are a non-issue in any circumstances, and hearingboning up short pitches easy and efficient. The tracking and gliding abilities of long skis looses relevance in deep snow, and the Marquettes are superlative trail breakers. Add in the aggressive fishscales and maneuverability in difficult conditions, and you have a good wilderness tool in the making.
Unfortunately, the Marquettes are heavy. A bit north of 4.5 lbs a ski, or close to 2 lbs a ski heavier than my 185cm Guides. Durable, light, cheap: pick two. A serious, and for serious miles, deal breaking drawback.
A great concept, well executed, with a far great range of applicability than is at first evident.
It could be improved by:making it lighter (without sacrificing durability), making the shovel and tail flex easier than the middle of the ski.
It’s not for everyone, but I’m pretty sure most will find it very fun and highly useful.
[10/18/12 update: I stand by everything I said above, and should note that the skis proved impressively durable over several seasons of rough use. Recently I passed them on to another user, not because they don't work well or don't have a place, but because they are just too heavy, and my interested drifted further and further into the BC. Still highly recommended if they suit you.]