Converting to modern AT (alpine ski touring) gear from a resort skiing setup is like moving from from a bicycle to an MTT Turbine Superbike motorcycle (well, maybe not that radical, but you get the idea.) Alpine touring (AT; randonnee) ski gear is sophisticated. It is designed for expert or advanced intermediate skiers who are not afraid of technical gear, and who demand the most of their equipment. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, ten tips to help your transition:
1. If you’re a good or great skier at the resort, AT (fixed heel ski touring) gear will help you do the same in the backcountry (provided you can handle natural snow). BUT, converting to alpine touring gear will not make you an instant ski god. If you’re an intermediate skier uncomfortable in crud or crust, you’ll be challenged no matter what gear you’re on. As a corollary, don’t expect converting from telemark to AT to make a huge gain in your ability to handle difficult snow. Switching helps most skiers, but only after they spend time mastering fixed heel skiing and learning how to “ride” their planks rather than depending on exaggerated movements to initiate a turn. (Don’t get me wrong, exaggerated movement can be fun, but that’s not today’s subject matter.)
2. Master your ski bindings. All AT bindings are technical and require user savvy, this especially so for tech bindings such as G3 or Dynafit. Practice at home and at a ski area before you hit the wild. If you’re a total newbie, ski the carpet in your living room before you hit the snow. Practice diligently with your ski touring binding heel lifters till changing them is second nature, and you don’t have to bend over to do it. With Dynafit, practice getting in and out of the binding (try with your eyes closed).
3. Learn the subtle tricks of setting release tension for your choice in ski touring bindings. Begin with a moderate setting, then dial up a hair if you get an unintended accidental release while you’re skiing. No AT binding has the safety release of the latest and most protective alpine bindings (though bindings such as Marker and Dynafit Beast models come close). Learn to ski with fewer falls. If you fall frequently, AT gear may not be the correct choice. Frequent fallers should consider using mid-weight telemark gear, which those of us here at WildSnow.com belive does cause fewer lower leg injuries in falls, especially if used with a telemark release binding. Above all, beware of using binding release setting numbers as a macho meter (look at me, I ski at DIN 16!). Sheet time is not macho, while most nurses are middle aged and quite possibly male (especially the one who catheterizes you after they put your leg back together — don’t ask me how I know).
4. Choose compatible skis/boots/bindings. Softer boots go with shorter more forgiving skis. If you’re hurling off cliffs or kissing avalanches, you’ll want the beefiest boots, skis, and bindings — perhaps even an alpine setup with Alpine Trekker plate adapters or Marker Duke bindings.
5. Work with a full service ski shop that provides boot fitting, certified ski technicians, and mechanized ski tuning. All AT systems are high-tech. They usually work well for backcountry skiing, but only when everything is properly installed, tuned, and maintained. Moreover, the system will not work unless you, the user, are educated. For example, mail order boots might be the ticket if you know exactly what you want, otherwise they can be a nightmare when you try to fine-tune the fit yourself in your kitchen.
6. If you’re new to AT type ski touring gear consider a ski mountaineering course or at least a few days with a guide (who uses AT gear). While AT and telemark gear are more similar than different, there are a number of cool techniques (such as the snap kick-turn ) that work best with AT gear and are best learned from a teacher.
7. Carry a repair kit with the proper driver bits to tighten your binding screws and adjust release tension. In our albeit controversial opinion, aggressive skiers should have bindings professionally mounted with epoxy (soften epoxy with soldering iron for screw removal). On remote trips carry binding parts essential for travel (e.g. spare Dynafit toe and heel, or Silvretta plate). For big trips such as ski traverses or Denali expeditions, try to standardize bindings within your party so you can carry fewer spare parts.
8. It’s cruel and politically incorrect, but some plastic booted telemarkers in their camouflaged AT gear delight in out-skiing us latched heel rando kiddies. Unless you’re a ski deity, you’ll have a lot more fun if there is at least one other fixed heel skier in your group so you have someone to relate to (and compete with?). As revenge, remember that lightweight AT randonnee gear is more efficient on the uphills than huge cabled plastic and thus more fun, so get fit and work your tele-mates on the climbs.
9. When using lightweight AT ski touring bindings and boots, pick skis based on downhill performance rather than weight (within reason). Don’t compromise ski performance to save a few ounces — you’re probably there to make turns, not cut ten seconds an hour of your ascent by using skis that are light but don’t ski downhill well. That said, nearly any plank marketed as a backcountry ski is going to offer a good compromise between weight and performance, so don’t obsess either way. Get a good deal on a ski with a good reputation and you’ll most likely be entirely happy with your choice.
10. Work with an experienced boot fitter and tweak your shoes like you’d baby a Ferrari engine. For cold climes — or the apex in comfort — fit your boots with heat-molded closed cell foam liners such as Intuition brand. Buy a shell with enough length for toe room and mold the liner with a roomy toe box, but go for a glove fit around your mid-foot, ankle, and leg. Above all, don’t be afraid of boot modifications — they’re key to the perfect backcountry skiing experience.
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.