This article was written by Kip Roberts of Onion River Sports and originally appeared in the printed Catamount Trail Newsletter. Read on for some great information on choosing your next pair of “fat” skis for the backcountry.
Though the swirling flocks of robins ravenously attacking sumac berries along route 2 seem to belie the fact that winter is finally here, head out for a day’s excursion on Section 22 from Bolton Valley to Trapp Family Lodge and you’ll swear spring was at least another two months off. Vermont has received massive amounts of snow in the last two weeks and what had been boney lines through the woods that threatened life and limb of intrepid skiers are now choked with snow and hold the promise for turns late into March and even April. It’s a good time to be a backcountry skier and good things did come to those who waited.
What’s a Catamount Trail skier to do with all this snow? Break out the trusty 205cm Fischer Europa 99s and head for that remote birch glade that’s tempted you all season? There certainly are some folks (particularly in the Northeast Kingdom) who would make quick work of laying down perfectly matching S-turns with this setup, but for the rest of us who don’t necessarily possess “old-school” skills, I’d go fat and never look back.
The designation of “fat” when referring to the width of skis is certainly a subjective term: East-coasters generally tend to have a more modest opinion of what a fat ski is—some of our more generously proportioned Telemark skis at Onion River Sports often get mistaken as snowboards—whereas Western powder-seeking backcountry skiers would scoff at anything less than 115mm underfoot. Does one need to have a ski as wide your head in order to enjoy 8” of fluff? No, fresh snow is fresh snow and for us powder-starved New Englanders, we’ll take anything we can get this year. However, in my final installment of equipment used on and around the Catamount Trail, I’ll make the case for width and power and introduce you to the types of skis, boots and binding that make a powder day that much more fun.
As you may recall from where we left off last time, skis such as the Madshus Annum and Rossignol BC 125 have pushed the boundaries of traditional dimensional norms for waxless backcountry Nordic skis. Paired with lightweight plastic boots such as the Garmont Excursion or Scarpa T4 and a light 3-pin backcountry binding, hours of fun can be had right out your back door. All of us at the shop have enjoyed many an afternoon on these skis and similar models, be it yo-yoing laps on some not-so-secret hills around town or “meadow-skipping” through neighboring, mellow farm fields. Nothing beats these wide, shapely, lightweight setups after 6” of fresh has fallen, when minimal planning and extra equipment isn’t needed or wanted. They are the backyard, back bowls, quick tour-with-turns bushwhackers of choice. When it comes to a real excursion, however, where deep, fresh snow, steeper lines, an extended approach covering multiple miles and hundreds or thousands of feet of vertical are the requisite, we almost always reach for our full-on Telemark or Alpine Touring (AT) —locked heels—setups. And just as waxless skis have recently undergone massive changes, their bigger siblings are a far cry from more humble beginnings.
In the past few years, there have been two revolutions of sorts in the design of alpine and Telemark/AT skis that have changed playing field permanently: increased width without sacrificed performance, and rocker. We’ve already discussed some of the benefits of increased width: better floatation in soft snow and increased stability (think of standing on a 1”x1” strip of wood vs. a 2”x 6” board), but we haven’t talked about the differences in construction techniques (be it from Nordic skis to downhill-oriented boards or older “powder skis” to their more recent iterations). Nordic backcountry skis are generally constructed using more simple and cost-effective techniques. The cores of these skis have a minimal (or no) amount of fiberglass, metal, rubber or carbon—all materials that add heft (crud-busting ability), edge-hold, torsional rigidity and dampness to a ski. Older powder skis utilized some of these materials, but a wide ski with soft flex along the length of the ski (ideal for soft-snow performance) usually had extremely low marks when encountering hard snow where edging was necessary (case in point: the venerable Voile Mountain and Carbon Surf skis—great in the soft snow, but deadly and noodly on the hardpack). Recent ski construction techniques where wood cores are CNC machined and fiberglass and carbon are wrapped and laid-up in ways that allow for maximum edge-hold with reduced weight and longitudinal forgiveness (soft along the length of the ski) have turned fat boards that used to be a quiver ski into an all-the-time, any condition, ripper that’s light enough to go all day.
To make the leap from theoretical to tangible, I welcome you to head down to Onion River Sports and pull a Madshus Annum off the rack and compare its torsional and longitudinal stiffness to that of a Voile Charger Telemark/AT ski with a 112mm waist. If you were to clamp the mid-section of the ski between your knees and attempt to twist the tip like a Twizzler, the Charger would be infinitely tougher to deflect than the relatively noodle-like tip of the Annum. Longitudinally, however, the Charger is going to flex in a much rounder, softer manner. Imagine what this torsional deflection of the Annum means when you hit an icy patch under that hemlock at speed: yep, loss of your edge and loss of control. Not good in the tight trees of New England!
This brings me to the second game-changing innovation of the past decade or so: rocker. First introduced to the skiing world by visionary Shane McConkey in the form of the Volant Spatula, rocker can be thought of as a reversed traditional camber. As a backcountry Nordic skier, I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea that your Nordic ski has camber. This is the arching shape where the tip and the tail (the glide zones) of the ski are in contact with the snow when minimally weighted or completely un-weighted and the center (kick) area of the ski is raised off the snow until pressure is applied to set the kick pocket and provide purchase for forward movement. Now imagining reversing that profile—glide zones off the snow and kick zone constantly flat on the snow—and you’ve got rocker. I know what you’re thinking—no, we won’t be seeing rocker anytime soon in a World Cup classic race as there are zero glide advantages to a reverse-cambered ski. Bring your thought process back to that 8” of fluff on Section 19, however. Wouldn’t a rockered tip that rises easily up out of the snow no matter how much forward pressure you put on the cuffs of your boots be preferable to hooking a traditionally cambered tip under hidden branches in a variable layer of snow during a series of quick turns down a tight shoot? Adding a bit of tail rocker (or “rise”) into the equation makes that ski that much easier to pivot at will.
Rocker comes in many different variations, but the one that seems to work best in almost all conditions (from a “packed powder” groomer at speed to a powder-choked drainage in the sidecountry of Stowe) is often referred to as “all-mountain” rocker or “semi-rockered”. To look at the ski’s profile from the side, you see the tip rising off the ground until a point just in front of the binding, a slight traditional/arched camber or flat camber underfoot (for some amount of edge-hold in firmer conditions where you obviously don’t want your tips and tails flopping uncontrollably and unattached to the snow) and then either a slight rise to the tail or simply an upturned (twinned) tail.
Excellent examples of this category of backcountry Telemark/AT skis are the K2 COOMBAck and SideStash, the Black Diamond Justice, Amp and Element, the Voile Vector and Charger (and their unparalleled waxless “BC” versions) and the G3 Tonic and Zest. (Note: While some companies such at K2 and Black Diamond initially made ski models that were specifically designated as a Telemark or Alpine Touring, pretty much everyone has grouped the two into one, broad “backcountry” or “sidecountry” or “adventure” category. The construction differences of the older Tele and AT skis were close enough and the equipment demands are similar enough where companies have just combined the two.) All of these skis are capable of day-long excursions in the snowy backcountry of our mountains, but they’re also at home on your favorite run at Sugarbush or Mad River Glen in all but the firmest of conditions.
As far as boot and binding needs for Telemark and AT skiers, the backcountry enthusiast certainly isn’t short on options. From relatively active Telemark bindings (where the level of “activity” refers to amount forward power exerted) that are best paired with a stiffer, taller 3 or 4-buckle boot; to a “neutral” binding that relies more on skier input and technique to drive the ski; and even to a “New Telemark Norm,” Telemark equipment has undoubtedly grown closer to its alpine brethren than its Nordic roots. AT equipment, for its part, runs the gamut of lightweight, uphill-specialized equipment that rivals a classic race ski setup in weight to full-on hard-charging, cliff-hucking, groomer-shredding freeride boots and bindings that serve the lifts and the backcountry with equal proficiency. And just as Telemark now has two options for how the boot and binding interface (traditional pins and a heel cable or the New Telemark Norm), ATers have the option of clicking into a binding very similar to a traditional alpine binding that pivots for uphill climbing or a newer “tech” style that shaves a ton of weight. Is your head spinning yet? I could go on for hours explaining the intricate differences between Telemark setups and which AT boot and binding would be best for you, but that’s where demos and talking to a knowledgeable salesperson with the equipment right in front of you become more valuable. Swing on in and we’ll get you set up.
So when those late March storms come rolling in and the CTA trail markers are just barely visible above the drifting snow, leave that traditionally cambered, under-matched Nordic ski in the shed and reach for your new wide, rockered skis with Black Diamond O1 free-pivoting bindings and toast me and the visionaries that made your epic powder day that much better. Enjoy!