So, you've been thinking about joining the backcountry club? Earn your turns, score fresh tracks, taste the freedom? Ready to bow down to the mountains, whisper to the Snow Gods, and pay homage to the pioneers of our sport? (Tell them the new fat boards rip! They'll want to know.)
Throughout ski history, innovation has been a hallmark of the sport. Long before Russell Rainey developed the SuperLoop, Sondre Nordheim fixed a cable to the back of a binding, which made it possible to lay down the first telemark turn. Before that, it was schuss, boom and hang on for dear life on any downhill.
In other words, gear matters. And in 2001-02, the operative phrase for backcountry equipment—both telemark and alpine touring—is that good just got better. While there are no revolutionary products like the plastic boots or shaped skis of years past—unless you count sliding snowshoes—it doesn't mean that the second coming of previous innovations can't also be a good thing.
Starting with sticks, expect them shorter, fatter and better for playing in the park—the greater alpine park that is. No fewer than three manufacturers—Atomic, K2 and Rossi—are making twin-tips (or at least performance models with turned up tails) for this small but growing youth market. (For the rest of us, "phat" still conjures a sadly different meaning.)
Following in the tracks of the alpine world, telemark and alpine touring skis are getting a whole lot wider. While nearly everyone has at least one ski heading in this direction, Rossignol takes the cake with "the fattest tele ski ever," called the Mega Bang ($599), sporting a 90 mm waist.
[250AD CENTER]For AT buffs, both K2 and Tua offer full lines of backcountry skis with built-in binding retention plates capable of accommodating alpine touring mounts. K2 is pushing the new Shuksan ($450), billing it as the "optimal AT ski for nasty, softer snow," yet one that still works well for touring. Tua offers the Cross-Ride 112 ($525), the widest board it has ever produced.
And if you're still looking for the perfect way to tour—or just have some kind of winter-sports personality disorder—the new gliding snowshoes might be the cure. A few nordic equipment producers are hoping it is. "Something new needs to happen to cross-country," says Megan Fitzpatrick, Karhu's marketing director. That "something," she says is Karhu's new "efficient snowshoe." Actually a super-short (120-cm), super-wide (110-mm waist) ski, the hybrid creation comes with mohair strips for "controlled, slow-mo" descents, says Fitzpatrick.
Rossi sees its new Gliding Snowshoe Concept as a way to introduce non-nordic skiers and snowshoers to cross-country. "We think there are a lot of people using snowshoes that want to experience glide," says Rossignol's Hoefler. Rossi's Nordic Venture and the Mountain Venture models are sized up at 97 cm, sport a Posi-Track waxless base for climbing and steel edges for making turns down the backside, and they accept either the universal binding found on snowshoes or an NNN backcountry binding.
In the tele boot department, boot bellows will flex better, and you can now get all the support money can buy. Crispi, for instance, has added a four-buckle, ultra-stiff race boot—the CXU ($595)—to its tried and true CX line. Fortunately, its sister brand—Alpina—still offers the Telelite ($265) for purists who like a leather lower combined with the control of a plastic cuff. This year Garmont puts comfort first—knowing that if your feet hurt you can't perform—with a new moldable gFit liner that comes standard in the top-of-the-line Squadra ($550) and is sold seperately for retrofits of existing boots.
On the AT side of the store, boot makers seem to have discovered that "real girls alpine-tour." Dynafit (TLT All Terrain, $435), Nordica (TR 12 L, $455) and Scarpa (Magic, $429) have all added ladies models.
And coming on the heels of Voile's introduction of the step-in tele binding last year, the big news this season is the rollout of the Hammerhead ($200), Rainey Designs' first new binding since the SuperLoop set the standard for durability. "My new Hammerhead binding is to the SuperLoop what the SuperLoop is to the rest of the binding market," boasts Russell Rainey.
Finally, while you won't find any new safety gizmos—like digital beacons or the AvaLung—to send you rushing to the store, it's not hard to find improvements on previous designs. And when it comes to snow safety equipment, that's always worth perusing and often worth buying.
Here's the skinny on the vast array of alpine touring and telemark gear on the market today. And don't forget: Take the time to learn the rules of the game. Because if those mountains could talk, they'd say, "Ski safe, and live to play another day."
(Editor's Note: Brian Litz and John Dostal contributed to this report.)