As someone who REALLY enjoys backcountry skiing, I seek out the best equipment for the craft. In searching I’ve come across the Black Crows Orb Freebird, and find it skis remarkably well. Thus this review.
To preface this post, my opinion is that an expert skier can make elegant turns, and still have tons of fun, on almost ANY pair of skis, particularly when the snow is good. However on the flip side, as a ski guide and passionate skier that rides 130+ days a year in all types of conditions, I think it is good to be particular about your equipment. Especially when there is a desire to continually improve your skill, be safe, and have the most fun in environments that can be very dynamic. Consequentially, we seek out the ‘magic’ boards, or as close as we can find a design that works most optimally.
Furthermore, when considering a ski review, a multitude of biases might come to mind. What are the publication’s or author’s motivations? What kind of terrain are you skiing? What kind of boots you are you using? Etc. To distill information, I look to skiers that I trust and respect, specifically other guides and expert skiers that have used the product in legitimate ways.
So this review is less about the construction details of the ski, and more about subjective performance attributes. Technical and construction info can be found here. In general the Orbs are 91mm underfoot, and come in sizes: 166.4, 172.1, 178.3, and a 183.4. The skis have an 18m turn radius and come in at 1402g per ski in the 172 length.
I sent out an email to a few friends to find out how the Black Crows Orb FB performs for them. Below are their thoughts. Bear in mind: each may have an affiliation with Black Crows (as grassroots ambassadors), so they could be consciously or unconsciously biased about a providing positive feedback. But each of these skiers has a lot of experience, and a discerning preference for what works best (and would ride different skis if they didn’t like the Orb FB).
My feedback first: I am 6’2” and 175lbs, and I ski the Orb FB in a 172. It’s the shortest and lightest ski I’ve skied in the last 15-20 years. I ski it exclusively with the Alien RS boot, and with a Dynafit Superlight 2.0 binding.
I use the Orb’s primarily in the spring and summer for light and fast ski mountaineering missions. They are my go-to ‘special occasion’ rig for when it counts (like for skiing Mt. Rainier or the Grand Teton).
I find the 172 Orb to be nimble and quick edge-to-edge. They are agile like a squirrel and well suited for technical turns. But I also find them surprisingly stable at high speeds when the terrain and snow surfaces allow. A few weeks ago I was skiing excellent corn on Mt. Shasta and was able to open up turns at what felt like 30+ mph, going weightless between arcs for very large sections of terrain at a time.
Where I find the Orb lacking however, is when I want more surface area: specifically in punchy corn or breakable crust; or when I want more edge hold (on super icy terrain). I also find the 172 to be a bit short for when I am wearing a heavy multiday backpack. This shorter length is unbalanced in terms of the weight to surface area to stability ratio (for me at 175lbs).
I’ll occasionally set my friends and guests up with the Orb FB during mid winter, for when we need a bit more spring in our step for bigger tours. And what I’ve found is that people can find the sweet spot on these skis almost immediately, and ski them well straight away. Autopilot is a very good attribute for a ski, and the Orb FB has just that.
Next, some thoughts by Billy Haas, ski guide for Exum and Utah Mountain Adventures:
I love the Orb FB. It’s my go-to expeditionary, ski mountaineering, spring ski. I’ve been riding the 172.1cm length with my Fishers Traverse Carbon boots. It is a perfect boot-to-ski fit. I’m 145lbs, 5’11”.
While the Navis is Black Crow’s “all around” ski, I ski the Orbs anytime weight matters, or I am expecting mostly spring snow. We all know the Black Crows FBs are not the lightest touring skis on the market, and that’s because they try to find the best balance between weight and skis that performs. For me, the Orb is the epitome of that. They have solid edge control, and are masterful in quick edge-to-edge transitions. I feel very confident with the Orbs FB on steep descents where hop turns and short radius turns are mandatory.
With that all said, these skis can be opened up as well when the terrain changes. The Orbs can rip long corn runs, and that’s why they are my go-to spring trip ski. While they definitely prefer the small to medium radius turn, I have certainly gone full DH on them and didn’t feel it was beyond their capacity.
As for powder, the Orbs give an honest showing. This is not their forte, but they ski powder well enough for me. If I’m on a trip and we’ve got 12 inches of fresh and I’ve got my Orbs, I’m still psyched. Crud and breakable crust is the only snow type I feel underpowered on the Orbs FB. That being said, there hasn’t really been a touring ski I’ve skied in my life when I haven’t felt underpowered in crud and breakable crust… and to be honest, that’s the least of my worries.
One of the most important things I look for in a ski is its reliability and durability. I’ve got almost three seasons now on my Orb FBs and I’ve taken them all over the world on numerous expeditions and skied over more rock than I care to admit. Even with my kind of abuse the Orbs FB have held up quite well. Other than the standard nicks and chips, with a tune and grind they are as good as new.
With my height and weight, and with the type of terrain I use the Orb FBs for I feel as if the 172.1 is a perfect length. Typically this would be a little short for me, but because the Black Crow skis are a bit stronger under foot, I’ve been erring on the shorter side of my length spectrum with all my Black Crow skis and have had good results. I’ve skied with a heavy expedition pack as well, and never felt as if I was too short or underpowered.
Next, some thoughts by IFMGA mountain guide Ross Hewitt, based in Chamonix, France:
As a Chamonix steep skier, I use the 178 cm Orb FB mounted with a Plum 170 race binding for skiing steeps above 4000 meters, when I need to travel a long way, or if I guide any hut-to-hut ski touring.
I’m 5’11”, 75kg/165lbs.
Typically I use the Scarpa Maestrale RS but have done a few missions with the Alien RS.
The Orb performs like a traditional ski: camber underfoot for pop and edge-ability, strong tail to power off, tip rocker giving it that forgiving edge and ability to ride powder.
The most memorable route I skied on the Orb was Les Droites South Face (4000m peak) last February in deep snow, from first tram on Aiguille du Midi. The day started off -30C but in the cauldron of the Talefre Basin I was stashing my down jackets and all other gear to cover the ground, eventually starting the descent an hour before dark at 5pm, video below.
Next, thoughts by IFMGA and Exum mountain guide, Dan Corn:
I typically have used my Orb’s for longer tours in the spring when snow conditions are predictable and I am going to be covering a lot of ground. This ski is narrow, light, but big enough to handle most conditions well. They are excellent as long as snow surfaces aren’t too varied, smooth is key as far as I am concerned… Quite nice edge to edge in the steeps.
The Black Crows Orb Freebird is an energetic, versatile, lightweight backcountry ski. It is quick and precise edge to edge, yet stable for it’s size and weight. The ski is particularly nice when paired with a lightweight boot, and we’ve found that it excels in steep and technical terrain, or for ski touring longer distances. Additionally, the Orb FB is playful and fun to ski in midwinter powder. Highly recommended.
Beau Fredlund is a backcountry ski guide and photographer based in Cooke City, Montana. He can be found on Instagram at: @bfredlund, and is the owner and lead guide of Yellowstone Ski Tours, www.yellowstoneskitours.com, a ski guiding service that focuses on leading trips in Yellowstone National Park.