"There seem to be more and more alpine skiers who want to go backcountry/off-piste/freeride and don't want to learn how to tele," admits Paul Parker, author of the telemark instructional bible, Free-Heel Skiing. Life's short, and the Selkirks beckon: Who's to blame them? Certainly not Parker, who also helps design skis for Tua. Besides, last time we looked there was still plenty of room in the cathedral for converts on alpine touring equipment-or randonee gear, to use the original French terminology.
The vast majority of boards built for telemark (see below) can do double duty for alpine touring. What you'll find in made-for-A.T. gear is super-light construction, full binding retention plates, and plenty of torsional rigidity for touchy traverses.
Latest & Greatest: Black Diamond's new Crossbow ($498) may be the first asymmetrical ski (yep, there's a right and a left!) to hit the market since the Sixties. Hey, people scoffed at early shaped skis. The 'bow' in the Cross is designed to provide torsional stiffness without compromising flex over the length of the ski. Best for high-level rippers, the ski comes alive at speed or on the hard-pack. Also new, and hard to ignore as "the world's lightest fat stick," is Tua's Nitrogen ($499) with 178 cms weighing in at a feathery 1370 grams.
[250AD CENTER]Tried & True: Doug Coombs skis K2; shouldn't you? Well, at least consider it if you can put your hands around a pair of the versatile 8611 Ascent ($359). Souped up this year with a deeper sidecut, the 8611 sports the same profile (102-70-91) as the popular tele-touring Piste Stinx but with increased stiffness to meet the demands of a locked heel and the alpine turn. Not to be forgotten, Atomic's Tour Guide Super Light proved itself worthy last season as a replacement to the popular Tourcap models.
From the Quiver: When Tua revamped its product line a few years back with the introduction of a new array of sticks, the lines between telemark, A.T. and even alpine blurred considerably. Consequently, a baker's dozen of Tua's boards double nicely as AT picks, depending on where you do your touring and riding. The ultra-light Helium ($465) and the wide-body Cross-Ride 112 ($525) serve as two of the best examples.
Ski boot or hiking boot? That is the question. And there is no easy answer. Simply put, alpine-touring boots should be light and comfortable enough so you can put one foot in front of the other at altitude, but beefy enough to give you control and pleasure on the descent. Did we mention warm and crampon-compatible?
Latest & Greatest: The ascension of Garmont as a top-quality boot company should come as no surprise to those familiar with backcountry boots. Italian manufacturing and U.S. management by John Schweizer (one of the partners that built Merrell in its heyday) are a winning combination when it comes to shoeing us backcountry mules. With a pair of new randonee models-including the burly four buckle G-Ride ($425) and the mid-height cuff G-Lite ($365)-Garmont is wading deep into the A.T. waters.
Tried & True: Germany's Lowa boots made a big splash with their Struktura models when they re-entered the A.T. market a few years back. Always well regarded for comfort during ascents, last season Lowa added some downhill heft with the addition of the Struktura EVO ($500). This season Lowa adds lady-lasted liners and sculpted cuffs specially designed to fit women's calves.
From the Quiver: Not to be forgotten, Scarpa offers a full line of A.T. boots-including a women's version of the ever-popular Laser ($385), called the Magic ($385). And, due to some heavy lifting by the R&D folks, Scarpa's four-buckle Denali XT ($375) is now 15% stronger without gaining an ounce. Also in Scarpa's pipeline is an ultra-light two-buckle boot, called the F1, with a bellows borrowed from its T2 tele cousin. Keep your eyes peeled uphill.
The blessing of alpine touring bindings is the ability to free-heel it to a summit and then lock down for an alpine-styled descent. The curse has always been the weight. With better materials, AT bindings are over the hump and lighter than ever. As an added bonus, the DIN-rated bindings are also safer and more durable.
Latest & Greatest: Responding to what today's AT-addicts want from a binding, Fritschi has released the new AT Freeride ($249) which Black Diamond's Dave Mellon calls "basically a super burly Diamar 3." Translation: The binding is perfect for in-bounds or out (think Jackson Hole when the gates are open). The binding DINs up to 12 and sports upgraded plastics strong enough to "take abuse in the bumps."
Tried & True: Last season the Silvretta 555 ($250) became the flagship model for this venerable A.T. binding company. With a step-in, step-out design, the 555 proved its versatility as a binding for those who want to log as many days in-bounds as out. Seeking to keep all points-and peaks-covered, Silvretta continues to provide the lightweight 500 ($235), with its durable carbon-fiber body.
From the Quiver: For sticking your toe into the backcountry-or carrying in your pack when you venture off-piste-there's always the Alpine Trekker ($179) by Backcountry Access. Designed to click into your existing alpine bindings, the Trekker provides free-healing upward mobility where life once was once only going downhill.