Like many of you reading this website, I do most of my lift served skiing on touring gear. Usually fine. Yet I’m a few minutes drive from, yes, ASPEN, where I occasionally enjoy glissing on a full alpine setup. Situations come up. Such as being invited to ski a day with Oprah, or eat a catered slopeside lunch with a certain Slovenian fashion icon who requested a consult on her new ski touring apparel. To that end, I’ve usually got a set of downhill grabbers I’m messing around with.
(Terminology note: Official name of this brand is KneeBinding, one word. The actual bindings come in different flavors, those reviewed here are the Carbon. As terms of art, I use the words “Knee” and “Binding” as my keyboard seemed to dictate to my fingers.)
As an addition to my quiver, this winter I’m experimenting with a set of Kneebinding ostensibly designed to protect skiers from certain forms of soft tissue knee injury.
I’m no ski binding engineer, so I have to trust the folks at “Knee” to be providing something that perhaps does add protection. Hands on evidence is these bindings do have a third release adjustment they apparently call “Pure Lateral.” Idea being to provide for sideways release of the boot from the rear binding unit, to the inside, blocked to the outside.
My understanding is that bindings releasing sideways at the heel may indeed provide some protection against knee injury. But, if they release both directions, the normal forces of skiing (heel thrust to the side, especially the outside) may release the binding accidentally if it’s set at low enough tension to actually protect you from torque injury.
Naturally, no way to test this in real-life without keeping a surgeon on call. But I did set the KneeBindings to recommended settings and they remained on my feet despite having their “3rd” release mode. Caveat here is I ski at resorts in what could be termed and “advanced” yet “mellow” style. Meaning I simply do not stress my bindings.
Kneebinding heel unit and boot heel cup lock you in with a satisfying “thunk” when you click in. I found the forward pressure (boot length) adjustment to be slightly tricky, in that it seemed more exacting than some of the other alpine bindings I’ve worked with. Not a big deal, just a bit more care on the workbench.
Of more concern regarding the heel unit, the cup is indeed on the smaller side. For a skier of “average” aggression such as myself, not something to concern. But if you’re strong and aggressive, a known problem with alpine ski bindings is the possibility of pushing your boot heel out of the binding to the side. Knee binding heel cup would not appear to resist this in any significant fashion. In fact, the shape of the heel cup may be intended to work with the “Pure Lateral” third release function, and is thus part and parcel to the whole picture of how the Knee Binding is intended to protect against soft tissue injury.
Getting out of the binding is again typical of any alpine grabber. You can push down on a small ski pole target to drop the heel lever, or step on one with a ski tail and the other with your boot so you’ll look more like a pro.
Compared to most of my touring bindings, stack height of KneeBinding is somewhat elevated. Front AFD is 27mm above ski top, while the tech binding and boot combos I have kicking around here appear to average about 15 mm for an imaginary AFD. I’ve never felt that stack height is a huge issue, but changing ergonomics of your gear can require anything from minutes to days for getting used to. I could feel the difference here, but a few runs later I didn’t notice.
I’d be remiss to not mention the Knee Binding ski brakes. These things are massive. Super powerful springs, long thick arms — watch your fingers while testing on the workbench! While the brakes appear to be over-designed, a big pair of alpine boards can pack some weight and momentum, requiring ski brakes with guts. No problem here.
Circling back to the KneeBinding safety claims, I set my “Pure Lateral” special heel lateral release to value 6, and tested on the workbench by forcing the boot heel to the side. Test boot was a Scarpa Freedom with alpine sole kit installed. I found in manual testing (heavily pushing heel to the side) that lateral heel movement required surprisingly high force, with return-to-center behavior that seemed affected by friction of the boot heel on the AFD. When I tested this behavior _without_ a boot, by manually rotating the heel unit, it did demonstrate return-to-center elasticity. I squirted silicon on the AFD and brake retractor pad, things improved. Thoughts on this: Use a boot with sole in good shape, dirt free, and be sure a tech tests the “Pure Lateral” behavior on the workbench.
I should also make a preemptive strike here, as I’m sure someone will question if the Scarpa boots had a sole that conformed to ISO 5355 (adult alpine ski boot sole dimensions). KneeBinding technical manual includes the dimensions for this standard; Scarpa Mountain Piste conforms. Main question was height of the heel block, specified in 5355 at 30 mm plus or minus a millimeter. Scarpa’s is exactly 30 mm, further, the box containing the Mountain Piste soles says they’re indeed ISO Alpine Certified (though I’d like to know who certified them, TUV?).
It took me a while, but going through the process of acquiring, mounting, adjusting and finally skiing on the Knee Binding has been an interesting quest. While the installation process is daunting, they ski solid with the “Pure Lateral” extra release function seeming to not change downhill performance in any perceptible way.
As for additional knee protection? Definitive conclusions on that are of course beyond my purview, but I’m glad to see someone making an effort to reduce the scourge of knee injuries that’s plagued alpine skiing for years now. Indeed, using the term “criminal” would not be too strong to describe the emphasis on marginally effective ski helmets as an essential safety item, while the industry continues selling skiers on bindings that don’t protect against dreadful injuries that for some will never heal 100 percent. KneeBinding attempts to remedy this, A for effort, most certainly.
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.