145 Altai Hok review

To summarize and build upon my review of the 125 prototypes I skied last year: there is a domain of skiing between alpine backcountry and nordic skiing which is as of yet poorly served by the marketplace, and the Altai Hok might be the best fit yet for many people’s needs in this category.  Controversy concerning the suitability of the Hok and the skis which will come after it has thus far been based more on elitism and fundamental misapprehension of the skiing for which it is intended than on it’s merits, or the lack thereof.  In years to come I look forward to more skis in this category.

145 Hok, Marquette BC, 185 Guide; back before we had snow.

Nordic skis are quite remarkable these days.  I’ve spent a lot more time on them this winter, and overall they’re a quite refined way of moving over gentle, snowy terrain.  The problematic, thus far largely inverse relationship between grip and glide is being worked out, but overall if you need to get somewhere in winter and it’s pretty flat, your needs are served.  The same is increasingly the case for mountainous terrain.  The slowly building tech binding revolution is finally nearing its apex as rando race technology is beginning to trickle back down into gear more suited for varied terrain and skiers of less than commensurate aptitude.  The fact that races like the Grand Traverse are being won on rando gear is more a sign of the until-recent backwardness of alpine gear than the omniscient superiority of contemporary rando race stuff (as well as the continued domination of a certain county in CO, irrespective of binding).  The Grand is an alpine race, even though modern sensibility has a hard time accepting “flat” as part of alpine backcountry skiing.  In a few years, the range of light, truly backcountry (ie not merely race) alpine gear should be pretty breathtaking.

But there’s a third sort of skiing which is ill served by either of the above paradigms: it combines the AtoBness of nordic with some of the technical demands of backcountry alpine.  It takes place quite literally between the two; in the narrow wooded valleys and paths above the frozen lakes, meadows, and rivers of nordic skiing, and below the alpine terrain that gives that genre its name.  Skiing in this zone can be a pain in the ass, and because of the rough terrain, lack of gear suited to it, and utter lack of sexiness this genre is neglected and ignored by many skiers.  Passed through hurriedly (and with skins on for the descent) by alpiners, poked into occasionally and with trepidation by all but the skilled nordic technicians, or simply left to the snowshoers.  The Hok tries to ideally suit this sort of skiing, and depending on your proclivities and locale you either grasp the need or not.

In an era in which the seriousness of skiing in avalanche terrain is beginning to be given full shrift, I think the market for such gear will only increase.

The 145 Hok is 3 pounds 4 oz a ski as pictured above: with Voile Mountaineer, Rottefella heel piece, anti-ice tape, and factory stainless bolts.  This ski is a bit different than the 125 I used last year, and deserves new thoughts.  It seems a bit softer, both lengthwise and torsionally.  The edges came rather on the dull side, and this combination means that as stock they don’t hold an edge on ice as well as they could.  Sharpening the edges helps a lot.  According to some reports the skinsert on the 145 and 125 is the same dimension, curious, but understandable w/r/t economics.  Having used the two so far apart, I can’t honestly say if one climbs better than the other.  I can say that heel lifts are a waste on the Hok, as the short skinsert does limit traction to modest (less than 15-20 degree) angles of ascent (caveat emptor: snow composition makes a massive difference in grip with all scales and skins).  Bases are extruded, and seem middle of the road as far as durability goes.  Thus far skinsert durability is fine.  The metal edges end before the wrap of the tip and tail begins, which necessarily exposes both to rock hits and abrasion from the others skis edge.  This is already quite visible, and will at some point in the future require epoxy as reinforcement.  I’d like to see edges much closer to full wrap.

As can be seen above the inserts put the boot center darn close to cord center (varies depending on shoe size).  I was skeptical at first, but the extra tail provides flotation where it is needed most, especially with a pack on, and does not noticeably affect the ability to cut turns.

Little things are central to how well the Hoks work; specifically the gentle sidecut and subtle tip (below) and tail (above) rocker.  Both photos are taken with the skis under compression (cinched emphatically with a ski strap).

The relatively straight profile helps the Hok track well despite the modest length, and the shortness enhances the great ability to skid and smear, provided by the tip and tail design.  It’s important to emphasize that length is secondary to shape in this regard.  Narrow, treed trails and funky snow demand quick pivots for safety, and the Hoks deliver.

In short, they’re optimized for efficiency in trail breaking, rather than glide on packed snow, and for ease of use, especially in tight places.  They’re short and light enough to carry easily.  Pair them with heavy leather/pleather or light plastic boots, appropriate bindings, some cheap nordic poles, and skin wax and that is all you’ll need for off-track backcountry touring below the avalanche line.  All for significantly less than the cost of alpine backcountry boots.

They’ll suit a large number of people very well, and interest many more not at all.  As it should be.

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28 thoughts on “145 Altai Hok review

  1. The notion of it being possible to stay “below the avalanche line” is a dangerous oversimplification. Both this and your post on the recent avalanche in jackson seem to ignore the very real risk of avalanches on small slopes, and especially in the creek bed and gully terrain traps that are far too common in the areas you describe. Friends have had close calls on snow shoes in wooded areas and there have been several serious small slope/terrain trap accidents this year and last as well as incidents of skiers getting caught by large natural slides from far above while on apparently safe low angle slopes.

  2. If any reads this or anything else I’ve written as advice on avalanche safety they are badly misguided, and I make no attempts to disguise that. It’s a complex topic beyond the reach of any particular source.

    That said, and especially here in NW Montana, the correlation between slide risk and altitude is more robust than most others. Not that it’s relevant, but we turned around today due to risk on a small, low altitude slope.

  3. In addition to the area “between the two; the narrow wooded valleys and paths above the frozen lakes, meadows, and rivers of nordic skiing, and below the alpine terrain” I’d see Hoks being incredibly usefull in densly forested and maybe even ditch-filled flat areas which are common for example in Southern Finland because of the effects of forest industry… Here floatation on soft deep snow is required but the agility of Hoks rules big time. They really are “optimized for efficiency in trail breaking”. And on the mostly flat and gentle areas very light boots or even the X-Trace bindings with appropriate winter footwear will get the job done.

  4. As a kid growing up in Western North Carolina I always imagined I would enjoy cross-country skiing if I ever had the chance to give it a try. When I relocated to the Northeast a couple of years ago I anticipated doing just that, but as most of the public land in the general vicinity is relatively young and thick second growth forest I invested in snowshoes instead so as not to be overly limited in my route selection. Are these guys something that might work for me? I would be very interested in them if they offer a faster means of conveyance than do snowshoes. Do they glide at all on broken trail?

    1. They might indeed. They do glide a bit on a set track (more than the Marquettes certainly), but are quite slow compared to a well waxed XC ski. This is had on the flats, but can be good on skinny downhills, especially for chickens like me.

    2. Mateo: the Altai might not glide efficiently buy unlike the showshoe, you don’t have to lift your foot each step and that reduces fatigue and increases efficiency. I always carry my snowshoes (Denali Evo) for steep climbs and use the skis for everything else. They are easy to carry on your pack when not in use …

        1. Those look really nice. I have a pair of Hoks, and I like them, but they usually sit in the shed. There are a few changes they could make that would make them more popular with me. I’ve written about this niche market for years, and it looks like the trackerskishoes folks have implemented every idea I have (from what I can tell). For example:

          1) Removable skin. This is not a new idea, but this is my biggest problem with the Hoks. If I encounter a flat area, the skins make them too slow.

          2) Waxless base. It isn’t clear whether the bottoms of the other skis are waxless of flat. Either way would be an improvement over the Hoks. Waxless is really nice for striding, flat is great for going downhill.

          3) Built in crampon mode. This part is huge, and one of the things I thought about building myself (for the Hoks). I even started a thread on Backpackinglight about it. I never got around to doing anything though, which is why my Hoks typically stay in the closet. With a really nice crampon system, you don’t have to worry if the terrain is too steep or nasty for the little skis — they work as well as snowshoes.

          4) A nice universal binding system with a hinge (I think I see it in the pictures). The hinge is critical. Otherwise a universal binding system doesn’t have enough flex. The best universal binding I know of is this one: http://tinyurl.com/459zdbs. This other universal binding shares the key element — a hinge.

          Generally speaking, this is a niche market. Good skiers will just want to use skis. Other people will be more comfortable just buying snowshoes. However, for a lot of people (myself included) this addresses the shortcomings of previous offerings. For example, consider the reasons I don’t carry the Hoks:

          1) I would rather just carry my skis, since it is flat for much of the way and those skis are just too slow. — With a waxless or flat bottom, these skis will be reasonably fast.
          2) The terrain gets really nasty in parts, I need the control that snowshoes gives me. — With the crampons, you have that control.
          3) Universal bindings are not very good, they don’t flex like cross country bindings. I would rather just carry my ski boots, or hike in them. — These might have enough flex to solve that problem.

          All and all, these look very promising. I very much look forward to your review, Matthew. It would be nice if Hoks adopted the same changes as well (since as skis, I think they are very good).

          1. If things shake out as hoped and I end up getting to put some miles on a pair this winter I will fill you in for sure, Ross. The crampon option does look nice for the Northeast. The terrain doesn’t get very high around here, but it can get pretty steep.

  5. I currently have a pair of Voile Vector BC 170 skis on test for BPL which weigh in at 3 lb – 0.6 oz without bindings. The 160 cm version would (obviously) be even lighter. I am finding them to be a very interesting ski for all kinds of terrain and uses. More downhilly than my Rossignol backcoutry skis (i.e. single camber, rockered tip and tail), but due to their width, light weight, and pattered base, they are surprisingly useful in a wide variety of situations when used with a light 3-pin setup like you describe above. Not having a skin insert, they aren’t as sticky when going up, but actually fare better than my longer double cambered skis.

    My intent is to test them with a pair of lightweight Dynafit bindings (if we can get a review pair) to see how the system fares for general backcountry travel.

    1. Look forward to hearing more about them! A very intriguing ski with a good reputation thus far. I imagine with light Dynafits and some rando boots they’d be very versatile. Next season Voile will apparently have a Charger BC as well.

  6. Having fallen face first into a ditch with my Eons, I have to agree with Jaakko that the Hoks would be ideal for (not only southern) Finland. The trail I was on this weekend through rolling forest would have been perfect for the Hoks (but something of a pain for the Eons and Snowshoes).

  7. Great report. Can’t decide between sizes. Live in northern VT with little powder. Currently use Fischer 112 s or snowshoes in BC. Looking for something in between.

  8. I own a pair of these and have been interested in this niche for a long time. I bought a pair of Skiboards (which have similar dimensions) and attached my own set of universal bindings. It didn’t work too well (universal bindings are a tricky thing).

    I’m reasonably happy with the Hoks. I see two possible uses. The first is as you describe. They are short and nimble, thus making them handy for a wooded area.

    The second is as a replacement for snowshoes. I see lots of people out there on snowshoes, and I can understand why. Skiing isn’t easy. Perhaps the trickiest part of skiing in the backcountry is matching your gear to the conditions. On flat terrain with good snow, nice cross country gear is great. Anyone can do it. But once things get steeper and icier, things get tough. Add in some tightly spaced trees,and snowshoes sound awfully appealing. In the world of mini-skis, most have looked more like skis than snowshoes. The most common example is the Kahru Karver. But before I saw those, I was interested in the Yupi. These mini-skis make the Hoks look like cross country skis. I never got a chance to buy these, as they didn’t make it easy to buy. I did see them once, and they seemed to do the job. They certainly were geared towards replacing snowshoes, as opposed to replacing any skis you might have.

    As for the Hoks, I think they are just about the right size. If you look at the pictures of the guys using the Yupi, you can see the problem with making them too small. It was obvious that those guys are good skiers, but as they cruised down a hill, they couldn’t keep skiing as they hit the bottom, forcing the guy to break into a jog (similar to someone on roller blades when they go off the pavement). On the one hand, I guess it is nice that you can jog in them. On the other hand, with a little more length I don’t think you would have to. I also ran across that problem with my adapted skiboard. It is only 1 meter long (typical for skiboards) so I often did a face plant while striding. Some of that was a problem with the universal binding. But some of that was the fact that the ski was short and had little camber (it wasn’t designed for striding).

    I am pretty happy with the Hoks, but I could see a few little improvements that would make them more appealing:

    1) Have a little more sidecut. There is a tradeoff here, but to me it is worth it. If the trip contains lots of straight, flat touring, then I probably won’t bring these. More importantly, if I can’t stride that well, it isn’t the end of the world. But it is really important that I be able to turn. I wasn’t happy with my skiboard concoction for overall touring (again, do largely to the bindings) but man, could they turn. I’ve never been able to ski like that. I could turn on a dime. If the Hoks had just a little more sidecut, then I could do the same thing with them.

    2) Switch to a waxless base. I have been pleasantly surprised with the way that the Hoks glide. It isn’t nearly as slow as I thought it was going to be. However, it isn’t nearly as fast as a waxless base. Patterned bases have improved greatly over the years. A well waxed ski is still faster, but not by much (camber and other factors determine the speed difference a lot more). More and more skis are coming out with waxless bases. I skied on Rossignol 125 skis recently, and they toured and turned with ease. They have more sidecut and overall float than just about any ski twenty years ago, but they have a waxless base.

    3) Install hooks so that you can easily attach skins. As you mentioned the built in skins aren’t as good as full coverage skins. They aren’t much better for climbing than a waxless base. But full skins are a bit of a hassle to put on. Having a custom system with hooks or buttons designed to attach skins (that are sold by Altai) would make skins a lot more convenience.

    4) Add ski crampons or ski breaks. No matter how maneuverable a ski is, there will be times when an average skier wished they were snowshoes. Sometimes this occurs going up, but often it occurs going down. The terrain is just too steep, too wooded, or too icy to want to use anything that slides. At that point, the secure nature of a snowshoe is a blessing. Having a crampon or other break would make for the best of both worlds. If the terrain is smooth, go into ski mode. When the going gets tough, switch to snowshoe mode. With this change, I could see these basically replacing snowshoes.

  9. No comment, just want to be notified of followup comments. It seems I need to add a comment to do this.
    Thanks.

  10. I’m about 3 clicks away from procuring these in the 145cm size with 3-pin bindings, to complement my Madshus Voss sintered base (waxable) skis. I live in Interior Alaska (the Bush) where snow-go tracks are about the closest thing you will ever see to a groomed trail. With backcountry-ready classic skis and proper waxing, you can move pretty fast in either the diagonal stride, or skating if the trail is wide enough. However….if your local trappers haven’t ventured out on their lines since the last big snowfall….or if you simply want to go where no snow machine has been….classic skis, especially with a 3-pin binding, are horribly inefficient at breaking trail through deep snow, especially if it’s unconsolidated, which in most cases fits the bill for your average Interior snowpack. In most cases the narrow skis will slide backward and down, forcing you continuously lift your skis out from underneath feet of snow and firmly stamp them into your next step; kicking and gliding are virtually out of the question, and one questions whether snowshoes would be faster.

    Perhaps a different choice of binding would prevent some of the sinkage (i.e. NNN BC or TLT/Dynafit) due to their hinged/free-pivot nature, allowing for more of a stride, but having used Dynafit toe pieces in the past, and seen NNN BC’ers assume the permanent pizza wedge on the descent, I’ve found them to be incredibly unstable in even modest downhill applications. It’s hard enough to turn long & narrow skis in variable/fresh snow as it is, plus I don’t think you can get any more simple and reliable than 3-pin bindings, especially when you’re “way out there” as I am. I don’t want to have to rely on hot water to fix iced up NNN toe bars, as is common for backcountry skiers who encounter overflow.

    As was stated, these skis are essentially a concept setup: designed for touring in areas/snows where full-on Tele/AT gear is overburdening/underutilized, and classic nordic gear, even when beefed up for backcountry application, has all of its weaknesses exposed while the strengths are neutralized. The way I see it, the Altai skis are a lot like having 4×4 on a truck. The intention is not for you to go fast, but to get you from point A to point B with minimal issues.

    At about 6 lbs. with a pair of bindings and metal edges, they easily win me over when compared to the Marquette BC skis, and are only ~1 lb. heavier than the Voss skis with the same bindings….and that’s with skins for a base.

    One question: Have you tried applying glide wax to the tips and tails?

    1. The extruded base doesn’t take it especially well, but it helps a tad.

      The backwards sinking can be helped, to a certain extent, with a forward of balance point mount. Works best on wider skis.

          1. Thanks. Looking forward to trying these out in the Interior crud. I am a bit concerned about the skinsert icing up should they encounter overflow. Can you recommend a top-notch DWR for skins?

            I sourced the original BPL article you wrote a while back, and I’m a bit surprised (or not) by the commentary from the rando race crowd regarding the Altais. To me, the price point alone keeps most people out of this echelon of skiing. When the total package brand new competes with the price of a heavily-used car, you have to take heed. That said, comparing the technology on weight and technical ability alone leaves Altais w/ 3-pin bindings in the proverbial moon dust. But one of the big decisions to make in regards to a rando race setup is not the bindings or boots….but the skis, and ultimately the skins to go with them.

            Either way, I see all that top-notch equipment, in a non-alpine+off-piste scenario, as horrendously underutilized. The best compromise I know of, I’ve already tried, which is Luc Mehl’s Dynafit half bindings (toe piece only) mounted on 205cm Madshus Glittertinds, wearing little more than the stripped-down shell of an old TLT boot. For what that was designed for (Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic, i.e. mostly low-angle alpine touring over multiple days/hundreds of miles) it is hard to beat in terms of weight, reliability, and warmth. That said, there is definitely some degree of performance (not to mention safety) lost when going that far light, especially with no way to lock down your heel & little to no resistance at the toe….but Luc’s won that race 3 or 4 years in a row now, so it’s obviously worked for him.

            A nice upgrade in the 3-pin arena would be a binding, without cables, that has a free-pivot touring mode you can switch in & out of like modern backcountry tele bindings. Undoubtedly would add some weight, but resistance-free touring is a serious element of long-distance winter travel…and quite frankly, I think that option on modern tele bindings is one of the only reasons why people still bother to telemark ski in the backcountry.

            1. I never had serious icing with the skinsert, but we don’t have too much overflow around here. Scrapping off what ice may form, and using skin wax often, should do the trick.

              1. I use the Hoks for the brushy foothills country around where I live (San Juans of SW Colorado). Not enough snow at these elevations to use them for the past few seasons, but when there was I had a fair amount of skin icing in damp or wet snow, despite waxing and scraping. That is my main problem with this setup.

                I moved the mount point back a few inches to improve their skiability. I tested the new mount points with homemade adapter plates, then put in QuiverKiller inserts. The bindings are the Solomon version of NNN BC. No icing problems with the bindings, so far. The top surface of the Hoks tends to ice up, probably due to their color and texture (burlap); however, repainting them with reflective metallic paint did not help noticeably.

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