Ski gear for backcountry traverses, revisited
My original post on this subject, written over 3 years ago, has proven to be enduringly popular. I take this as a testimony to the scant material available on the subject, ever increased interest in winter backpacking via ski, and the continued intransigence of many of the issues I discussed back in October of 2010. Said post was meant, more than anything, to explain the relevant problems and tradeoffs to myself. Coming as I have late to skiing, the learning process has been a continual source of humility. I’m certainly a better skier now, but the number of things I don’t know has if anything grown larger. As I’ve mentioned recently, backcountry skiing in all its forms is probably the most complex, demanding, and overall most refined form of human powered backcountry travel. I disagree with a number of things I said years ago, and several years from now will probably do the same with some I’m about to write. In any case, that old post was due for an update. The following is best read in concert with the original.
Bindings for backcountry traverses remain largely unchanged, and I still think 3 pins and tech are the two serious options. A number of folks do fine with NNN-BC, but I’ve seen too many iceing issues, and heard of too many breakages, to consider them myself. A full set of tech race toe and heel pieces are actually lighter mounted up than Voile Mountaineers, and failure rates for both seem to be similarly slight.
Boot choice will likely continue to drive binding selection, and here quite a bit of growth has occurred recently. Scarpa F1s are archaic technology, with race and near race AT boots being lighter than F1s and with better range of motion in the ankle. Boots like the Scarpa Alien and Dynafit PDG are significantly lighter than any backcountry worthy 3 pin boot, a remarkable achievement. As I wrote before, the added warmth and weatherproofing of plastic double boots, especially with thermo liners which absorb relatively little water, is a huge bonus for multiday trips, especially in adverse conditions. Unfortunately, there has been no progress on light plastic tele boots, with the Garmont (now Scott) Excursion still the only option. Using an AT race boot and tech toe for nordic touring does have disadvantages. I’m not a fan of hiking in rigid boots, though the short and heavily rockered soles of all worthy boots improve this enormously over conventional ski boots. The complete lack of fore-aft resistance in tech toes makes skating and manipulating skis in brush a bit more clumsy, something which might be addressed by a mount slightly forward of balance point. I’ve also found a tech toe and rigid boot to be less efficient at transmitting grip during diagonal striding, significantly so under most conditions. On the other hand, the efficiency of tech bindings while skinning and breaking trail in deep so is unsurpassed.
Several noteworthy developments have taken place on the ski front. First, skimo race skis have, like boots and bindings, become much easier to purchase in North America. You might even find some in a retail shop. The weight of these skis makes for a compelling argument, with 24-28 ounces each being typical. Just as with some of the skimo race boots, the backcountry appropriate durability of race skis remains an open question, and one worthy of further research. These skis are also, typically, quite stiff fore-aft, which makes me wonder how good they’d be for a rolling tour in mostly softer snow. The second development is Voile’s introduction of the Vector and Charger BC, which brought fishscales to 90+ mm waists and (arguably) alpine flex skis generally.
These two developments come to the same old question, to fishscale or not to fishscale, from different directions. Fishscales are undeniably handy in many circumstances, and by most accounts essential in spring conditions. They are also, all things being equal, slower. But all other things are almost never equal. For cold and dry conditions, like the Wilderness Ski Classic, waxing has and will continue to be the favored option. The non wall-to-wall, fast gliding mohair skins favored in skimo racing provide a third option. These skins can be impressively fast, while providing considerably more grip than scales and all but the most aggressive kick wax jobs. In some circumstances fast skins may be superior because they allow all energy to be put into forward progress, rather than into the exacting technique necessary to wring ideal traction from the wax pocket.
Conditions will drive ski choice, both in terms of flex and dimensions and in terms of the device used to gain traction. On one end of the spectrum, long, skinny, and waxable skis like the Madshus Voss and Glittertind will remain favored by Wilderness Ski Classic racers, with binding and boot systems being determined by personal preference. Tech race bindings, the more weatherproof and durable of the near race boots (i.e. not the Aliens or anything full carbon), and the growing category of light, yet practically dimensioned backcountry alpine skis (80-90mm waist, 1000-1200 grams a ski) will no doubt continue to rule the roost in ski mountaineering speed traverses. As was the case three years ago, it is in the intermediate realm where gear selection will remain ambiguous. The account linked to above of an 8 day ski of the JMT is a good example. The author used Karhu Guides, conventional tech bindings, and older (heavier) AT boots. Race bindings and near race boots would obviously have suited him better, but the ski question is more complicated. He reported that fishscales were obligatory for the rolling terrain and many gentle ascents, yet the only really light fishscales skis currently available are firmly in the nordic category. Might something like the Fischer SBound 98, sized short, do the trick in this department? Do such skis have enough reinforcement in the heel for an AT mount? These are the relevant questions which need answering in years to come.
Thankfully, the only way to do so is to get out and ski.