Free Drop Off to the Bow Valley and Calgary
Can you actually ski hard on tech bindings?
by Kevin Hjertaas
Near the top of their climb, just metres below the cornice, the bootpack steepened, and the snow turned to facets covering rock slabs. It wasn’t a long or technical climb, but with skis A-framed on their backs, there was a moment of balance where Eric Hjorleifson and Harley Hegnauer were happy their packs weren’t heavier.
It only took an hour to climb to the top of these ski lines. They could have dragged up heavier gear, including burlier touring bindings like the Salomon Shift (1.77kg), for example. But as Harley clicked into his Dynafit Superlites (175gr), he comfortably peered over the edge at a steep run with a few crucial turns that he’d have to execute while dealing with his sluff. Not once did he worry about his bindings.
In the meantime, Hjorleifson was sidestepping up to an even more intimidating line while a cinematographer across the valley and a drone both prepared to capture the action. His descent would weave around a few rock outcroppings at high speed while he lined up three increasingly large airs - the last of which being a 30-footer at high speed with a landing that was barely steep enough. Hjorleifson clicked into his trusty Dynafit Speed Radicals (349g) and buckled his boots. Did he wish he had beefier bindings? Would he by the bottom?
3-2-1. “Hoji” dropped in. Starting with a few smooth turns around rock and sluff, he pointed it off the first air. After a brief touch-down, he was in the air a second time. As he landed and accelerated at the final, bigger leap, adrenalin was pumping, and he didn’t notice that his right heel piece had released as his skis compressed upon landing. Now floating in the air and staring at the landing zone, his right ski dangled, attached only by his tiny tech toe piece.
Eric was going faster than most of us will ever ski at that point. So he didn’t have time to think about his binding choice. Freezing the scene here, though, allows us to study just how hard a person can ski tech bindings and when they should perhaps switch to a hybrid alpine/touring binding.
Hjorleifson on the NE Face of Victoria
How did we get here? A Quick History Lesson.
Thirty years ago, “serious” skiers looking to ski hard would haul their heavy alpine skis, boots, and bindings into the backcountry. Of course, they never made it far, and a divide grew between these aggressive downhill skiers on stout gear and ski tourers who had migrated from leather telemark boots and three-pin bindings to the early Dynafit Low Tech bindings. One set optimized for hard-charging descents and the other for efficiently covering terrain. Backcountry skiers had to choose which camp they were in.
Of course, neither setup did anything very well by today’s standards. Almost any ski touring package with tech bindings that you can buy now would ski AND walk better than any options available in the ’90s. But the two approaches, heavy performance vs light and fast, continue to define our backcountry gear attitudes.
The Low Tech pin bindings became the obvious indicator of which group you were in and what your backcountry goals were. In hindsight, it was actually the boots that divided people. Into the early 2000s, the only boots you could buy that had tech inserts, and would work with Low Tech bindings, were soft, had low cuffs, and were not fit for performance. No one could ski hard on tech bindings because there were no ski boots that allowed it.
Some skiers saw the real problem, and a garage industry grew around modifying touring boots with alpine boot parts to make them ski better. As more people built these Franken-boots, that barrier broke down. Boot manufacturers followed suit and started making “Beefy Boots'' that were often just alpine boots with a limited walk mode and tech inserts. These boots could drive any ski in any conditions even with a tech binding providing the interface.
So why do some skiers still think low tech bindings aren’t enough?
-The case for Shifts or plate bindings.
As a Salomon athlete, Chris Rubens had a hand in designing the Shift binding, but even he doesn’t bring it out for “regular” touring days. Instead, he uses the Shifts for filming stunts and insane short descents. As he says, “they are great for when you think you are going to fall and want the added safety.”
Unlike tech bindings, hybrid touring/alpine bindings have DIN certified release. This means that they meet the same basic safety standards as the step-in bindings most people learn to ski on at resorts (there’s a wormhole of different certifications for bindings that we are not going down here). Most recreational backcountry skiers don’t go into the backcountry planning to crash frequently while pushing their physical limits like Rubens, which is likely why most of us refuse to carry the extra weight of these heavy hybrid bindings.
Tour easier, get more pow (Photo: Chris Rubens)
Rubens makes another, perhaps more compelling, argument for the Shifts, “I don’t usually take them to Roger’s Pass; I use the MTN (tech binding) then. But they are ideal for skiing the resort and being able to add in the backcountry.” In other words, you can use the Shift as your resort setup and instantly expand your playground. These crossover bindings ski great inbounds and on-piste and allow skiers to push past the resort boundaries for short walks into the slackcountry.
Traditional tech bindings can be skied on the resorts, too, of course. But most people don’t enjoy the rigidity of the interface. Alpine bindings have heel pieces that float and toe pieces that yield before releasing, allowing the ski to flex and offering a bit of elasticity. It’s subtle, but experts skiing hardpack will notice it.
-But I’m a really good skier!
Before we check back in with Hoji and his precarious, mid-air problem, we need to discuss DIN versus Skill. Many skiers go through a phase where their ambitions overshoot their abilities by a fair margin (some of us never grow out of it). These are the skiers you see wildly flailing their way down moguls on the very edge of control. They often have the heaviest bindings turned up to their highest setting because bindings stronger than limbs are the only thing keeping them upright.
Rubens shredding on pins
As you transition to the backcountry, however, you hope to be skiing powder. And in soft snow, all those forces are diminished. More importantly, as those skiers progress and gain better balance, they will exert less force on their gear. There may have been a phase where Hegnauer, Rubens, and Hjorleifson needed more retention from their bindings, as they were learning new tricks or constantly pushing what they could do on skis, but once they honed those skills, they could switch back to light-weight tech bindings and easily ski at the same level.
-What about Hoji? He’s hanging in the air with a tech binding that didn’t keep him attached!
Fear not. If you watch the Hoji film (much of which stars skiers shredding hard on tech bindings), you’ll see the line we’re talking about. You won’t notice the drama, though. Soaring through the air, Eric managed to maintain form and balance even though his one fat ski was dangling free-heel. As he stomped the landing, he also stomped his boot back into place and accelerated onto the powder apron below. Listen closely and you’ll hear him cackling at his fortune. The minimal tech bindings did not stop him from skiing aggressively that day or any other day. They just allowed him to do more of it each day with less energy wasted. Get an extra run every time you go out, and you’ll soon be a better, happier skier!
Hjorleifson scoping lines to ski on his tech bindings
Unless you are skiing resorts frequently or focusing on freestyle airs in the backcountry, it’s hard to make the argument that low tech pin bindings aren’t for you. Still not convinced? Here’s two minutes of Eric pushing the limits on tech bindings to measure your needs against.
Check out our full line of bindings, from rotational toes with release values up to 12, to the lightest skimo racing setups.