Saturday, December 3, 2011

Light and Fast Ski Mountaineering: Part One

Everyone does it.  Bloggers, or as I prefer, those that keep "online journals", always seem to give unsolicited advice about how to go faster, be more efficient, or do things better.  After a 3 hour aggressive conversation with a couple friends about training methods yesterday, I decided to put down my thoughts in a multi part series on everything from training, gear, clothing, partners, etc.  

Got Speed?
Disclaimer: These posts are my opinions only, based on my limited experience, and are deeply rooted in a "Light and Fast" philosophy.  User discretion advised. 

First up: A gear review for traveling fast and efficiently in the mountains.

Backstory:  Back in the day, when I was (and still am) what Jared lovingly referred to as a "punter", I thought I needed a four buckle boot to be able to ski anything cool.  I managed to make my way up and down some of the Wasatch's most classic lines such as the Y, Superior, and Timp's East Ridge.  Each was a mini expedition, hugely satisfying, but exhausting.  I think many people start out like I did with certain goals but end up with having a sour experience and never see the process through.  Coming from an running background, I was accustomed to aerobic suffering and thought I could hang with most people.  Cue Jared and Bart.  Little brother Sam had invited me along for a trip up Box Elder Peak.  We were tagging along with Jared and Bart, who had plans to link up Box Elder, the Pfeifferhorn, Superior, and on and on.  They showed up on skinny skis and funny boots (F1s and early model Dynafit race boots).  From the gun, I had trouble keeping up - even on the flats.  By the time I landed on Box Elder's panoramic summit, Sam had been waiting for days and the other guys were half way up the Pfeiff.  I was utterly blown. 
A blown punter...
It wasn't making sense.  I'm not the fastest or strongest but I can typically hold my own.  I was moderately untrained given work and school demands but those guys blew my mind.  I couldn't quite put my finger on the allure of their style but I wanted more.  Sam got me in over my head a few more times and I kept getting left behind.  In my defense, Jared was on the US Ski Mountaineering Team and Bart is a professional mountain biker/cyclocross champion, so it's not like I was getting smoked by some Joeys.  

Over the course of a season and a half, the gap closed as I became better trained and more efficient but on a memorable Valentine's Day, Jared gave me the gift of speed.  He was looking for company for a long tour and offered to let me borrow his Dynafit ST7s (similar to the Seven Summits) with speed bindings, mohair skins, and Scarpa F1 boots.  That day, my eyes were opened.  The fitness (relative) was there all along.  I managed 10,000 vertical feet and it felt like five.  The next day, I bought his used gear and haven't looked back.  Here is the evolution...

My first AT boots were clunky NTN compatible boots.  Next, I chose heavy 4 buckle over built monstrosities.  I saw the light with the Scarpa F1s then changed to the Dynafit DyNAs and then added Dynafit TLT Performance and am now considering the future (Dynafit EVO vs La Sportiva Stratos vs Scarpa Alien vs Pierre Gignoux 444)???  Right now, the Dynafit TLT5 Performance is in my opinion, the best all around option on the US market.  That may change once Sportiva releases their boot line, but for now, the TLTs are the best combination of light (1050 gms without superfluous power strap), stiff, and walkable (60 degrees of cuff articulation).  They can climb steep ice and rock, drive any reasonable ski, and have withstood hundreds of days in the mountains. 

I started on Black Diamond Kilowatts before changing to Dynafit ST 7s then to Dynafit Seven Summits to the opening of Pandora's Box...  I now have multiple skis that all serve their purpose.  A few rules I live by when selecting a mountaineering ski are length around 170 cm, weight under 1200 grams, width around 75 mm, and needs to be stiff.  These criteria lead to a maneuverable ski that does well in variable conditions.  It can be easily carried through technical climbing, and is light enough to go both long and fast.  Some of my recent choices are below.

JD skiing off the summit of the GT on Nanga Parbats

1. Trab Aero World Cup - 164 cm, 64 underfoot, and 720 gms.  This is a race ski but is also perfect for long traverses or huge peak enchainments.  I used it for the OTIAD and Jared used it for the Hulk Hogum.  They are squirrelly, but can be skied in any conditions quite effectively.  Jared also skied the Grand Teton on this ski. 
Post GT speed run

2. Dynafit Nanga Parbat - 167 cm, 102/73/89, 1100ish gms.  A perfect steep skiing tool.  It's light, stiff, holds an edge when it counts, and can easily be thrown on one's back while performing technical climbing.  Jason and I have used it for most of our spring skiing last year, including Mt. Whitney, Split Mountain, and the Grand Teton. 

Nanga Parbats on the summit of Mount Whitney
3. Movement X-Logic - 176 cm, 127/88/115, 1100 gms.  This is an anorexic midfat that feels like cheating.  Lighter than the popular Dynafit Manaslu (also a good powder choice), the X-Logic has been my go to ski in soft conditions. 

4. La Sportiva RSR/RST - The RSR is a race ski with similar dimensions to the Trab World Cup.  I've yet to mount mine, but per reports, they are a touch lighter, ski similarly, and are a bit more affordable. The RST is my replacement for the Nanga Parbat.  Mine is 167 cm, 116/77/106, and weighs 1190 gms.  Stiff, beautiful, and more fun to ski than the slightly skinnier NPs.  I plan on using it for most adventures this year and will report back once I have more days on it. 


Plum Race 145
Fortunately, I got sound advice before I made the mistake of wasting money on Fritichi Freerides or other such archaic garbage.  My first touring bindings were the Dynafit TLT Vertical FT 12s.  Completely unnecessary.  I trimmed the excess down and became a fan of the Dynafit Speed binding which worked well for a while.  More cuts have landed me on the Plum Race 145, the Dynafit Low Tech, and the Trab TR race.  All are iterations of the same elegant model and weigh in the 140ish gram range per heel/toe piece combo.  That's less than half the weight of the speed binding and easily less than a third of the heavier Dynafit bindings.  Many people complain about the lack of heel riser but with the articulation of the above mentioned boots, it's unnecessary.  La Sportiva makes the RT binding with an optional riser that comes in around 175 grams for those who can't "compromise".  The only drawback that I can see is these bindings cannot be adjusted to fit different sole lengths and therefore only work with one boot (however, there are plates that can be mounted between the ski and heel piece that allow some adjustment).  Again, for most tackling this style, there is only one boot...


Mohair, Mohair, Mohair.  The end.  Tail clips, toe clips, bungees... for the most part, who cares?  None of that matters as much as good glide, good technique, and efficient transitions (i.e. don't dick around, taking skis off to transition).  Jason has never had anything but toe/tail clips and transitions faster most and has never held up the crowd. 

Pros and Cons:

So take any combination of the above and what do you get?  The answer is speed, endurance, sexy equipment with a touch of carbon, and the newfound ability to talk sh## to your friends.  As Jason likes to joke with us, "Which one of you ******* dares to keep up with me today!?"  Once your whole clan buys into the "light is right" philosophy, the slow tours to the regular spots, morph into long range missions into new terrain, and ultimately, more skiing.  

The down side to all this nonsense is a decrease in skiability...or is there?  As the terrain becomes more and more technical, how many people are going to mach down a 50+ degree icy slope over cliffs on 100mm waisted skis?  How many people can get there on 4-5 pound boots that walk and climb more or less like alpine boots?  There is an adjustment period as one gets accustomed to the need to ski more neutrally and the deflectability of the lighter weight skis.  And, certain conditions make things challenging, but as I've mentioned before, too much powder gets boring.  

Another potential complaint is decreased durability.  Gear breaks.  I've had a couple problems but they all have been warrantied.  Jason, Jared, and I all have hundreds of days on our Dynafit boots.  The skis are indestructible.  The race type bindings are getting more and more durable and I have never pre-released.  I feel especially comfortable on the Plum Race 145s.  The gear is good and we trust our lives with it.  

Lastly, high end lightweight gear is not cheap and it is hard to find used.  What to do?  Spend the student loans (I did), mortgage the house, drive a crappy car, find a way.  Every addict finds a way.  While expensive, I have already done more than I ever thought possible while watching Jared and Bart skin away from me that day, and every dollar was worth it.  I now have a lifetime of memories in the bank and the interest on those is a better return than on any other investment in this crappy economy.  


  1. Where do you find Nanga Parbats or Race 145s? Ive been frustrated with their distribution in the U.S.

  2. Thanks for all the info and perspective! Great stuff!!!

    Am wondering if you'd like to say a little more re. "Mohair, Mohair, Mohair". I've used only nylon skins so far and had heard mohair does not grip so well. Am thinking this must be totally wrong. ?

  3. Hey Patrick, the NPs were on last year. It's a Euro site that carries a bunch of this type of equipment. Typically for cheaper than you can get it in the US depending on the strength of the Euro vs USD. The Plums I got straight from Plum: Good luck!

    Thanks Chris!

    Anonymous, I feel like the mohairs not only have better glide, are lighter, and more compactable, but they also grip just as well as the nylons. However, I think the biggest thing is technique and boot articulation. Again, with the TLT and other boots with great articulation, skinning technique improves and all skins get "grippier".

  4. Great stuff! Enjoyed your "who cares" reference to a rant about toe clips.
    Can't wait for part two.

  5. Love it -- keep it coming!
    Only room for improvement is a higher resolution pic of that amazing collection of DyNA & TLT5 boots.

  6. Great site, and great post on light gear. It's hard to find a lot of info/reviews on light gear, since most people are "are all about the down". I look forward to a more thorough review on the Sportiva RST ski, I have been looking for a replacement for my Sint Aeros that would double as a race ski.