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Did you ever hike up a mountain and enjoy the experience? Of course you did. Now imagine that instead of doing it in the summer, you’re doing it in the winter. And instead of walking back down, you get to ski down. Maybe even in untracked powder. Sound enticing? Congratulations, you’ve just joined the alpine-touring (AT) boom.
In rapidly increasing numbers, skiers are venturing beyond the boundaries of resorts, leaving lifts behind—all or in part—and instead relying on their own two legs to walk up what they intend to ski down.
And yes, it’s that simple. If you can walk and you can ski, then you’re ready for AT adventure in some form. All you need is the gear—climbing skins and touring bindings, at the minimum—and you can turn any mountain into your playground. You can start small, for practice— the hill behind your house, say, or the trails of your local ski area—and decide how far you want to take it from there. Maybe it’s never anything more than a way to get a great workout in the winter—a low-impact, fat-burning aerobic session with nice views and an enjoyable ski run at the end. Or maybe it takes you deep into the high, wintry alpine (armed, of course, with appropriate safety training and an experienced guide).
The point is, what used to be considered the exclusive province of the hardest of hardcore skiers turns out to be eminently accessible adventure for anyone who’s game for a little exertion. And as more skiers are warming to the trend, manufacturers are fueling the fire with hybrid products that blur the lines between traditional categories. Mainstream alpine companies like K2, Salomon and Marker are making skis, boots and bindings built for touring, while backcountry-oriented brands like Dynafit, Black Diamond, Scarpa and Garmont are making stiffer, beefier products that don’t feel so flimsy and foreign to lifelong alpiners.
First, some terminology basics. You know what an “alpine” binding is. It’s beefy—meant for downhill skiing only, with the heel of the boot always fixed firmly to the ski in a way that yields maximum control and leverage over the ski. And you know what nordic and telemark bindings look like—they’re built for touring, with free-hinging heels that promote easy striding and hill-climbing. Attach a climbing skin to the base of a tellymounted ski, and you’re ready to ascend a mountain—or “ski tour”—cruising upward and about on a snow-smoothed surface (as opposed to stumbling and scrambling, as you would in summer on a trail strewn with rocks, roots and deadfall).
In between the two is the hybrid category that all the fuss is about. If you’re French, you call it randonée, but most people these days call it alpine-touring. An AT binding combines the best of both worlds: You can free the heel for the ascent, and when you’re ready to ski, you can lock it back down for an alpine-style descent.
No, an AT binding doesn’t offer quite the power and precision that alpine skiers are used to. Nor does it typically offer the lightness that cross-country, telemark and mountaineering skiers prize. The point is to strike a balance between the two: just light enough for easy ascents; just sturdy enough for fast, aggressive descents.
The same is true in boots, where there’s been an explosion of hybrid models. For “tourability,” they’re lightweight and offer releasable cuffs (i.e., “ski-walk” functions that let you hike comfortably when in walk mode). For skiability, they’ve got the kind of stiffness and support that alpiners are used to (though any ski-walk mechanism always has a deleterious effect on rearward support). No, they’re not ideal for carving high-speed GS turns on firm frontside snow. Nor will you want to lug them deep into the backcountry, where energy conservation is key. But for something in between— moderate touring and moderately aggressive descents—they’re perfect. Hence another name for this whole hybrid category: sidecountry.
And it’s a category with legs, so to speak. Even in the tough economy, the industry group Snowsports IndustriesAmerica has seen significant growth while other segments have struggled. Over the three seasons ending last year, annual sales of AT equipment units rose from 13,596 to 22,426 (source: SIA Retail Trak). The trend is even more evident this year. “It’s booming,” says SIA research director Kelly Davis, who saw a 55 percent year-over-year increase in sales figures from early this season.
So, gear geeks, rejoice. It all amounts to a whole new quiver of equipment to covet, from brands that incorrigible alpiners know and embrace. K2 makes skins precut to fit its freeride skis. Salomon, Tecnica, Atomic, Lange and Dalbello make ATcompatible boots in various blends of power and tourability. Blizzard makes an interchangeable binding system. Everyone’s making packs and probes and shovels.
“Four years ago, we saw the need for a new type of binding to help sidecountry skiers access powder stashes adjacent to the resort,” says Geoff Curtis, head of marketing at Marker Völkl USA. That spawned the Duke, whose popularity surprised everyone.
“With the Tour, we expand that to the all-day tourer who has AT boots and rarely rides lifts. The AT market has grown, and we’ve introduced new products to suit demand.”
Not surprisingly, early unveilings of 2011–12 lines reveal more to come. Manufacturers appear to be betting that if you haven’t already dipped a toe—or freed a heel—in the serene and snowy backcountry, you might be ready to do so.
Ready for AT adventure? Study up on the gear options.