For many years I three pinned on mountain ranges in China, Europe, North
Africa, and so on. Now they tell me that the term "three pin" really dates
me. Everyone uses plastic, and the bindings for these boots don't require
pins. Well I've recently embraced the new telemark gear, both skis and
boots, synthetic and shortened, even though I cut my teeth on long skis
with grundvalla bases and hickory edges, and leather boots the dogs liked
to chew. I've found out this new stuff is good.
Over choice confronted me at the start of my mission to select my new
backcountry gear. What types of terrain, and snow conditions would I be
skiing? And what was my ability level given age and time for fitness
factor? Rather than limit myself to one set of gear to do it all, I decided
to go for the best set up for me for extremely heavy gear, extremely light
gear, and then put together something that was middle of the road, all
I took three different off piste skiing trips to test the gear in the
terrain and snow conditions each set up was designed for, to let it shine,
and to understand its potential. I made for the ski lifts on Mount
Mansfield in Stowe first. I took heavy, dramatically shaped skis,
107mm-75mm-94mm, tip to tail, and much shorter than I was used to. They
only went up to the top of my head.
Then for the first time I put on plastic boots. Instead of going for the
maximum stiffness and number of buckles, I took a look at myself, realizing
I was never going to race gates, and that warmth and comfort were a bigger
issue with me now at 44, as opposed to when I was 24. I could sacrifice
some bit of high performance for ease of performance. There are some
benefits to maturing, like losing the adage, "No pain no gain", to "I don't
want to be the best, I want to be the oldest!).
I selected a boot with only 2 buckles, allowing for greater flex, and
didn't feel the need to squeeze my feet, for the ultimate alpine control.
The outcome was warm feet, and solid control with some give in the ankle.
The first run had me wondering if this was the same sport I once knew. I
crossed my ski tips, feeling for control. After a couple of turns down the
hill, I got the sense of real compression onto the toe to flex the
accordion like plastic over the toe area of the boot.
The skis were a real treat. Even though my boots weren't the knarliest,
they could guide these shapely missiles where I intended. Wow, I was on gear
that you could think turn, and it happened. I was used to using plenty of
muscle and balance to earn my turns. These turns were sweet, and quick! I
headed for the trees.
The radius of my turns had shortened significantly. The trees were less
threatening with this type of control, which opened up new avenues of
powder to me in tighter trees. This gear was worth its weight for the
powder opportunities offered, as well as the effort efficiency that I
gained. Transitions from turn to turn were faster and easier with this more
upright stance the plastic boots precipitated which made these turns much
less taxing on my abused knees. I liked this, more powder, in tighter
spaces, with less strain.
But I'd only want to ride lifts with this gear, although the boots were
comphy, and they could go the distance, it wasn't what they did best, and
the skis were way too heavy to want to shuffle along with skins on. Pushing
the weight of this set up on a tour wouldn't be prudent. However, this set
up is the ticket for yo-yoing, ski lifts, especially if conditions are
variable. This is where this gear belongs.
My next tour was a ski trip of gradual downhill, with occasional steeps,
and climbing sections on a narrow hiking trail. I decided to take off on
the lightest gear, skis with a waxless base, and no metal edge, weighing
about a pound each. These skis only came up to my forehead, and the shape
less radical than those I used while riding the ski lifts, 65 at the tip,
55 at the waist, and 60 at the tail. My boots were the beefiest of the NNN
models, (New Nordic Norm, your retailer knows), but were still made out of
tough fabric, not plastic, making them much lighter than the softest
plastic backcountry boot. I never forget, "A pound on the foot is worth 5
on the back".
This gear is made for speed through the woods when touring is required,
with quite good downhill control, given favorable conditions. I skied with
glee, heading uphill, until about 30 minutes later when I headed down, on
the Bolton to Stowe trail. This trail is music on skis, with narrow slots,
curling through beautiful hardwoods, and evergreen stands. Run in the
opposite direction, Stowe, to Bolton would be largely a lot of work,
slogging gradually up, but my friends and I seared through the new,
untracked powder, floating down with gravity.
My boots, when on the ski, meshed with the binding for surprising control.
Although the boots were coated fabric, they were stiff in the sole, which
was recessed, housing the binding plate, so that all pressure to the boot
was neatly transferred to the ski. The skis were so light that they easily
responded to the pressure. These conditions were ideal for this gear to
perform well, and it did. If I felt any need for climbing assistance, I
could don skins, and there was no need for any amount of metal edge with
this forgiving snow. I'm sure it's been done, but there would be no need
for the heavy gear I wore riding the lifts on this trail, especially with
these wonderful conditions.
For my third tour off piste, I went with what I considered the gear half
way between the other two sets I took on the first two tours, considering
weight and performance. This tour was off the steep, backside of Mount
Mansfield on the Teardrop, with no lift service, then contouring around,
and climbing back to the front side of the mountain, and down the Bruce
trail, the first trail ever cut on the mountain, that is like a river, just
flowing, with dips, and turns that feel as natural as if the trail had
grown there in the woods by itself. This Bruce trail, like the Teardrop,
is not serviced by lifts, and has never been groomed, and hopefully never
I must admit that I wore leather buckle boots, and used skins, on full
metal edged skis with no dramatic sidecut, on this trip. The tour was
grand, but I'll admit now that from now on I'd go lighter. Through this 3
tour experiment, I determined to eliminate the middle of the road equipment
for myself. By considering, as I mentioned at the outset of this article,
snow conditions, and my skiing ability, (with complete honesty!) I decided
I'd do any of the three tours on the lightest equipment, given perfect snow
conditions. But since I enjoy massive vertical, and being on top of the big
mountain, regardless of conditions, I chose to hang onto the heaviest gear
for these purposes only. Otherwise right is light.
Hey look, I don't feel the need to beat myself up any more so for the rest
of my off piste tours I'll go during good conditions when fabric boots, and
no metal edge is all I need. I'm a firm believer in cross training so I'll
skate, or snowshoe until the powder dumps, or track ski a bit.
However, I have a long skiing traditions behind me, allowing me to feel
comfortable on skis, so I talked with Charlie Yerrick, equipment wizard at
the ski shop of Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe to sort out what someone
without as much time on skis might do to solve the mystery of selecting new
backcountry gear given all the choices available now. He determined the
big choice for most people is whether to go with the softest of the plastic
boots, or the beefiest of the fabic NNN boots in the backcountry. This is
where each individual must level with themselves about their abilities.
Stronger go lighter, less aggressive go with the heavier plastic for
Kurt Hefler of Rossignol shed some light on skis, siting a couple of his
models of partial metal edged skis for doing it all, with the basic choice
being to go with a wider shovel if you're to be doing more downhill, which
aids turns, or go with the narrower shovel for more touring.
You needn't go to such lengths as I did to decide what to ski on, but
can make your own choices, again, by reviewing what conditions of snow you
ski most, and what your ability and conditioning, (or lack of!) allows you
to do. This will tell you to go plastic or fabric with boots, or with
metal edge, or none, on your skis, better than any shop salesman can.
When in doubt, go heavier, and wider with skis, and with more support with
Then when you're out, forget the gear, make what you have work, whether you
side step, or snowplow to get through, and enjoy where on heavenly earth you are!