Interesting things are happening in the backcountry skiing boot and binding world. Black Diamond announced today they’ll be designing and producing their own backcountry skiing boot line (see below)! Over on the telemark side, Rottefella recently made the production model debut of their New Telemark Norm (NTN) binding.
Designed to work with a specially shaped boot sole, NTN eliminates the archaic and problem prone cables common to most telemark bindings, instead using an ingenious (some would say Rube Goldberg) system of catches to hold the boot sole in the binding.
What’s interesting to me about NTN is that the boot sole has a standard randonnee (DIN) shaped toe, and may work in randonnee bindings (again, telemark gear gets ever closer to being randonnee gear). More, the specially shaped sole is the first attempt in years by any backcountry binding maker to establish a boot/binding interface, the last being the quickly (and thankfully) abandoned Silvretta SL system that attempted to compete with Dynafit.
It is remotely possible that the catch built into the NTN boot sole could also be made to work with some form of randonnee binding, thus becoming the boot that does it all. On the other hand, NTN is a heavy binding without safety release, and thus continues a sad legacy of telemark gear: that of the binding being the least developed part of the system. NTN does get rid of the duckbill sole I’ve always contended was ridiculous for alpinism, and it eliminates having a left and right binding (another laughable legacy of ancient nordic bindings).
Perhaps having a step-in telemark binding such as NTN will continue the growth of telemark as a lift served sport, as step in convenience is obviously a desirable trait. If NTN helps, fine. But remember our subject here at WildSnow.com is backcountry skiing, not mechanized resort skiing. We’re concerned with gear and technique that makes climbing up and skiing down natural snow easier, more fun and safer.
|Rottefella NTN telemark skiing binding, lift served and backcountry skiing. Amusing to note the groomed snow in the photo — subtle hint of some sort?|
While NTN does make a nod to backcountry skiing by having a free pivot for touring, the binding is heavy, complex, and has no safety release. Telemarkers will make all sorts of gear sacrifices to be able to shuffle their feet between turns, but will they continue to sacrifice safety? The knee protection offered by tele release bindings is an open question. But think beyond that. If you’re locked into a binding as solid as NTN appears to be, and you stick a ski under a log, what exactly is going to happen to your body? Or what if you’re in an avalanche, even a small one? Results of medieval torture come to mind.
I happen to know a guy who stuck his tele skis under a log. His monster cable bindings held him in quite well, as would NTN. His hamstring muscles provided the release mechanism. Repair took more than a year.
Another thing I find interesting about NTN, and tele bindings in general, is the effort that goes in to making the bindings active. Consider alpine bindings. By virtue of its powerful ergonomics the alpine turn asks very little of the binding. If you forget safety release, you could epoxy your boot to your ski and turn just as well without a binding as with. Contrast that with telemark bindings.
In the active tele binding, beefy systems of springs and cables are configured in various ways to give you resistance to heel lift, all adding weight and complexity. Meanwhile, release systems are an afterthought and just this year we’re seeing a selection of bindings that have a free pivot for touring. And now we have New Telemark Norm, with a heavy and complex mechanism that makes it active and allows step-in, but has no safety release. Is this progress? Indeed yes, but so is the movement of a glacier.
Some of you may think I’m bashing telemark. I’m not. Again, our mission here is to cover backcountry skiing, and write opinion about what gear and technique makes backcountry skiing safer and more fun. Telemarking has proved to be part of that equation, and provides many people with substantial grins but telemark bindings are still the weak link, and NTN does not appear to be the answer. I’d love to be proved wrong.
In other boot news:
Black Diamond announced today that they’ll be developing a new line of alpine touring and telemark ski boots. This is a huge step for the company, as designing and marketing a ski boot line from scratch is one of the more complex juggling acts in the outdoor sports industry. Presumably the tele boots they develop will be NTN compatible, but word on the street is that they may be developing their own boot/binding interface. Should be interesting.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.