Sierra Backcountry Ski (gear) Suggestions


Original Post
kevin graves · · Mammoth Lakes, CA · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 10

Relatively new to backcountry skiing but advanced/expert skier at the resort. I've been using alpine skis with older Fritschi bindings and have used them primarily for winter mountaineering... so looking to upgrade. All of my skiing is in the Sierra. I prefer skiing steeps and couloirs. Have 35% discounts on LaSportiva and Dynafit right now which could help with price. Appreciate any suggestions.

kevin graves · · Mammoth Lakes, CA · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 10

Best Backcountry skis / bindings for the Sierra ?

Rando Calrissian · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 5

YAY backcountry skiing!!!! Dynafit bindings are great! But they can also sucker you into something more burly than you need. I have skied INBOUNDS with Radical ST first gens. I am 6'1" 220. I don't take them through bumps (when I can avoid them) or anything like that, but I can still wail on them. The ST is arguably my favorite binding, if you need the higher DIN then get the FTs. Unless you are intending to skimo race, then don't worry about getting anything lighter. The bindings are plenty robust and light enough for longer days if you don't mind the extra grams over their ultra light stuff. Their beast is a waste of money. Unless you are skiing in the resort a ton or planning some epic heli ski adventures don't get them, they are way over built for a daily driver touring set up. I do not like their skis. Sorry Dynafit. I have found their bases are a little thin and too easy to compress an edge (this was a few years ago and I have heard that their new stuff is a bit more robust, I however found out that I love Kastle skis and stuck with that). Don't know much about the daily driver sportiva skis, a few friends use their Lo5s and love them. I would look into around a 19-24ish m radius if you like couloirs.

Do your current boots support tech bindings?

Please make sure you practice with your beacon probe and shovel regularly!!!

Mike McL · · South Lake Tahoe, CA · Joined Dec 2007 · Points: 1,145

Is this going to be your only touring ski to start? For a quiver-of-one in CA, something around 100 mm underfoot is a nice compromise between soft & firm snow performance. I'd skew towards the lighter end of the spectrum but not rando racing light for your first setup.

There are many, many options. Dynafit Dhaulagiri fits the bill nicely based solely on specs and qualifies for your discount. I've never skied it. Dynastar Mythic, Blizzard Zero G (95 or 108 depending on intended use and hard/soft snow ratio), Volkl BMT 94, Salomon MTN 95, and BD Helio (95 or 105) are a few other options. Sportiva Vapor Nano is very light but I thought it skied like shit on firm snow. YMMV. I've never skied the Vapor Svelte.

Put some tech bindings on it. Don't even think about frame bindings. Brakes are a waste of weight IMO. Leashes work fine. Dynafit Speed Radical or Speed Turn are great options. Radical heel lifters are easier to use. Speed Turn has fewer potential failure points. G3 Ion LT is another excellent option.

Boots - get what fits. There are 2 general classes I'd recommend here. The first is the mid weight all around boots. Dynafit Vulcan, Scarpa Maestrale RS, Sportiva Spectre, Salomon MTN lab, maybe Blizzard Zero G Guide are all in this class. They all ski well and tour just fine. The next class is the lighter weight boots that are more touring oriented (lighter, better range of motion) but will have some minor compromises on the down. Scarpa F1, Dynafit TLT, Fischer Travers, Atomic Backland Carbon, Sportiva Spitfire.

If you get Dynafit skis the pre-cut Pomoca speed skins are really nice.

More importantly than anything, be sure to get some good avy education.

kevin graves · · Mammoth Lakes, CA · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 10

Rand & Mike; thanks for all the good info. I'll check these skis and bindings out. I'm gonna do an avvy course this winter and intend to be very conservative this season. I have Scarpa Spirit boots (entry level boots) which accommodate tech bindings. These will be my only backcountry skis. Can't wait to get out !

Nick Votto · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2008 · Points: 320

I ski on Dynafit Radical FT's and it's by far the best binding I've ever skied on (used to use Fristchis). Incredible for long/difficult tours.

For skis I like to go light, though not all do. I'd go with a medium type ski for the Sierra, since your bound to get a lot of hard pack and have great Spring skiing, something closer to 100-105 underfoot.

First step if you're headed into the backcountry is beacon, shovel, probe and partner!
(and know how to use them of course:)

Justin G88 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2015 · Points: 230

I live in Mt Shasta, not quite the Sierra but Northern California none the less. I have the Dynastar Mythics (97mm under foot), Scarpa Maestrale RS boots, and Dynafit bindings. Probably the perfect all around setup that can still tackle big mountain objectives in the spring. A set of powder skis might be nice, but as Mike McL said anything around 100mm waist (95-105) will function great as a one ski quiver. The Scarpa Maestrale RS's are probably the touring boot that i have used with an alpine like flex.

Scoop · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2014 · Points: 45

^^^^^^^

This a great BC set-up and if you can find the skis, you can't go wrong.

There are a lot of dynafit type binders out there, all pretty good as well. I like the Vipec because of the toe release. It's a few grams heavier than dynamite.

If you don't have a quiver, it's a balance of resort vs backcountry. But if you start to do both, you'll get a quiver.

kenr · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 10,240

I do steep + moderate tours + descents in the southern Eastside Sierra (and France north Alps) on Fritschi Eagle (or is it Explorer?) bindings.

I know the obvious mainstream choice nowadays is Tech bindings. And that my Fritschi bindings are heavier.

And I also own skis with Tech bindings and all my boots are Tech-compatible. But I don't use my Tech skis much any more except for long easy-moderate traverses where speed is key. After my first set of Fritschi bindings wore out, I bought another pair (even though Tech was already the majority mainstream by then).

Release reliability is my reason. I do lots of my backcountry touring solo, so a broken leg could be a death sentence. I normally set my Fritschi bindings for DIN 4 or less -- and they almost never release -- I guess I have a soft skiing style. Except in a steep (non-powder-snow) descent where it might be fall-and-hit-the-rocks, I sometimes set them higher.

I don't know any Tech bindings that allow a release setting less than 5, and almost none with allow DIN lower than 6. And the fundamental structure of the Fritschi is designed primarily for reliable release (based on downhill bindings where weight was not a concern). Whereas Tech bindings were designed (ingeniously) primarily for light weight.

Sometimes skiing breakable crust in moderate or easy terrain at DIN 4 I get a release -- and then I'm glad I'm on my reliable-release Fritschi.

So I'm a little slower than I'd be on Tech bindings, but I'm not any sort of racer, so it seems well worth it. I just start a little earlier in the morning. Still I'm significantly faster going uphill than most backcountry skiers.
... because ...

Pre-season I train climbing up hills and stairs on dry land with ankle-weights that simulate the combined weight on each foot of ski + binding + boot + skin (plus some stuck snow).
So my specific muscles for lifting the weight of my heavier bindings is well-trained for long tours.
Extra hours of training, but to me worth it to reduce the risk of a broken leg out solo in the Sierra backcountry.

Ken

Tapawingo Markey · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2012 · Points: 75

Mostly all good advice. One caveat, don't go vipec for your binders. Other than being DIN certified there is no real advantage, they're more difficult to use, are prone to icing under the heal plate, and are mostly plastic. Go the radical ft or G3 ions, you won't regret it.

Regarding skis, if I were you I'd go more in the ~110 range. It'll give you much better float in pow and will help you stay on top of that Sierra cement when the snow is heavy. Ya you might sacrifice a little bit in regards to weight but honestly, I have just as much fun on my wailer 112's in the spring than I have had with any skinnier ~95-100mm skis on corn.

Rando Calrissian · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 5

I don't know if I would agree with Ken on this one. Frame bindings like the Fritschi Freerides or Solomon Guardians do not allow the ski to flex underfoot plus it puts you further off the ski than techs, two huge disadvantages in my eyes. The release settings are insanely more reliable on frames than techs however reducing the risk of injury which makes them very attractive. I've never had a problem with my ski being held on more than it should and I exclusively switched to techs (with release setting of 8.5). The toes have a set release value (other than on the Fritschi vipec and dynafit 2.0s) and but they do allow your toes to come out. If you have dodgy knees frames or an adjustable toe release might be the way to go.

Try to match your boots to the ski. Mike has some good recs. I ski the Dynafit Mercury (Vulcans little bro) as my everyday boot. The TLT6 is a great boot but too skinny for my foot and doesn't have the stiffness to ski some of my pairs. If you get a standard tour ski the TLT are great choices and balance that light to power ratio. If you got like the Kastle FX series, they won't be strong enough to flex them but they will be more than enough to flex almost any Karuba core. The Spirits have a flex index of 120 (these are all relative numbers, there is no industry standard to my knowledge, but the values are loosely comparable). You should be able to drive most any ski with those.

Dynafit brakes do suck. But if you do any inbounds day you will be happy to ski with them. In a fall with the ski attached to your boot you can get a tip to the face. With brakes it goes away and you have to retrieve it which is a pain in the ass in the backcountry, so thats a six in one hand situation. I ski both, pick one and go with it.

For skis, take an honest assessment of your ski style. Everyone likes something different. Dual radius (I don't like it) wood core type, sheets of metal, sidewall v cap, length, flex, rocker profile. All of these things are something you should consider. I enjoy flatter tails and rocker tip. I am also a hard charger and really like to put the power into my feet, not graceful at all but thats what I do. I flex skis. If its a noodle to begin with, then its not the ski for me. Do you like flat tails or a rockered tail? Rocker tails allow you to have fun sliding around the mountain and is very playful, but if you are "mission" driven then you want more of a flatter tail. I didn't want to make an outside rec because it seems you want to look into dynafit and sportiva with the coupon but my go to every day touring ski is Movement Shift, but I also love the Kastle TX series.

I am happy you are taking an avy course, take it serious and learn everything you can. It doesn't take a big slide to make your day bad.

kenr · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 10,240
Nick Votto wrote:First step if you're headed into the backcountry is beacon, shovel, probe and partner
You mean those in addition to the the latest Airbag system?

If you still nowadays want to rely on the beacon-and-shovel thing, isn't the truly important thing that your partner be well-practiced in using them?

Also, the statistics I remember on digging speed suggest that unless you're with at least two partners with regular and recent practice (not likely unless they're ski patrollers or professional mountain guides), better for yourself to be wearing an Avalung if want to substantially raise the odds of getting dug out before brain damage.

Ken
Nick Votto · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2008 · Points: 320

No, I can't say I'm big on airbag systems, but if your in very unstable conditions and looking to push it I'm sure they're great, albeit heavy.

And of course Ken, practice is obviously a necessary step, as the OP mentioned he was planning on taking classes.....as should anyone he ski's with. I got my Avy level I and II before I really started delving into dicey terrain in the backcountry.
Shout out to Sun Valley Trekking, great teachers.

kenr wrote: You mean those in addition to the the latest Airbag system? If you still nowadays want to rely on the beacon-and-shovel thing, isn't the truly important thing that your partner be well-practiced in using them? Also, the statistics I remember on digging speed suggest that unless you're with at least two partners with regular and recent practice (not likely unless they're ski patrollers or professional mountain guides), better for yourself to be wearing an Avalung if want to substantially raise the odds of getting dug out before brain damage. Ken
Ryan Huetter · · Mammoth Lakes, CA · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 255

Good ski suggestions above- though would skip Sportiva skis since none are really a quiver of one, and not especially adept at the Sierra cement often encountered. I quite like my pair of Dynafit Manaslus, which are fun in most conditions and are light enough for Trans-Sierra tours.

Again, no frame bindings unless you're looking for a side-country rig.

If you're looking for an AIARE level 1 class I would suggest checking out our offerings at Sierra Mountain Center- we've worked with some of your other ROWCC members.

Matt Zia · · Bozeman, MT · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 171
kenr wrote: You mean those in addition to the the latest Airbag system? If you still nowadays want to rely on the beacon-and-shovel thing, isn't the truly important thing that your partner be well-practiced in using them? Ken
Whoa whoa whoa. Perhaps I'm misreading the tone of your post and please correct me if that's the case. It seems to me that you're suggesting that a beacon, shovel, and probe are secondary to an airbag. I gotta disagree with you pretty strongly on that one.

Yeah, an airbag will help keep you on top of a slide. Yeah, statistically you are safer with an airbag than without one. And yet...

Airbags are not a magic bullet. Yes, they offer many additional safety benefits on top of a beacon, shovel, and probe, but there are many scenarios where an airbag is not the best safety tool.

For example, you trigger a slide above a stand of dense trees. If you pull your airbag, you will likely stay on top and go into the trees at full speed. If you do not pull your airbag, you have a chance of digging your skis into the bed surface and self-arresting near the crown of the slide. Obviously very conditions dependant and you're taking a huge gamble whichever way you cut it. Let's say you make the snap decision to pull the airbag. You get drug through the trees and your airbag punctures. Now you're at the bottom of the runout, full burial, and you're completely dependent on your partners to find you with a beacon, determine your burial depth with a probe, and dig you out with a shovel.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid getting caught in a slide is to avoid triggering a slide, and an airbag offers absolutely no way to assess the snowpack. A shovel and probe are critical pieces of equipment for assessing snowpack stability and hopefully making the right decision for terrain management and route finding so that you never end up in the situation of needing to pull your airbag.
Tapawingo Markey · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2012 · Points: 75
kenr wrote: You mean those in addition to the the latest Airbag system? If you still nowadays want to rely on the beacon-and-shovel thing, isn't the truly important thing that your partner be well-practiced in using them? Also, the statistics I remember on digging speed suggest that unless you're with at least two partners with regular and recent practice (not likely unless they're ski patrollers or professional mountain guides), better for yourself to be wearing an Avalung if want to substantially raise the odds of getting dug out before brain damage. Ken
Airbag is truly a luxury item and not a necessity. Beacon, shovel, probe and Avalanche education is far more important. Make decisions to avoid avalanche hazards, have the proper gear to be found/participate in a rescue and airbags are not necessary.

If you do get an airbag go with the PIEPS jet force or Arcteryx system. They stay inflated in the event of a 6in cut in the system (important since many touring in the US is at or just above treeline), you can also blow the bag more than once so if you get into trouble on a multi day tour or hit trip you will be able to pack it and blow it again. Yes they're a little heavier and pricey but having the ability to fly with it, not having to worry about filling a canister, and the ability to use it more than once per charge is worth it.
ChrisN · · Morro Bay, CA · Joined Oct 2014 · Points: 25

I went through this a few years ago, so here's my $0.02:

#1: Get a pair of backcountry ski specific boots that fit your feet. If you have wide feet and don't fit into LaSportiva boots, the discount you get is irrelevant. You don't need the crazy light skimo stuff, but something that has a solid range of motion and is reasonably lightweight. Go to a good ski shop and get them properly fit. The extra hundred dollars or so is worth every penny. The Scarpa Maestrale fit my feet and they are perfect for me. I would pay full price for them. I've spent 8hrs+ in them without significant discomfort. To me, this is the most important thing over anything else. Skip the "sidecountry" boots, there is no such thing as one boot that works well for ski racing/resorts and backcountry skiing.

#2: Skip the frame bindings on heavy resort ski phase (Barons, Dukes etc) and go right to a pair of lighter weight backcountry skis with tech bindings. I started with Marker Barons on K2 Sidestashes and after my first day in the backcountry I started thinking of switching over to a backcountry specific setup. Frame bindings are heavy and inefficient. You lift the entire binding every time you move a ski forward and you're dragging an extra 3-5lbs uphill. If you start with these and get into backcountry skiing, you will sell them before the end of the season. You'll probably sell them after your first 5mi+ skin. If you're booting up steep couloirs, it's even worse.

Every major ski company makes a lighter weight backcountry oriented ski - go with something in the 95-105mm range at a good price. Again, you don't need the super ligtweight skimo stuff, but something that is a solid step up in weight reduction from a resort ski. You'll be spending the majority of the day dragging the things uphill.. you don't need five layers of metal in them. I have the Praxis Backcountry and I love them, but there are plenty of great skis out there. If you really want to focus on springtime ski mountaineering, you'll want something lighter and narrower.

#3: Definitely take an Avy I course and pick up the appropriate safety gear. California is blessed with a relatively stable snowpack (read up on Colorado snowpack) but people still die in avalanches in the Sierra Nevada. Perhaps hold off on the airbag unless you decide you want to ski in deep powder in the winter in California. It wont help you if you get caught in a springtime wet slide or get flushed down a steep chute through rocks. Spend your money on training and a beacon/shovel/probe first, and stay out of the steep terrain until it goes isothermal in the spring or until you get more comfortable in the backcountry. There's plenty to get after out there in California without getting into serious avy terrain in the winter. The most important thing is to avoid getting caught. If you need to use your beacon, probe, shovel, airbag etc. you've f*cked up. Big time.

#4: Once you get into backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering, you'll only go back to the resorts to stay in ski shape. Check out "Backcountry Skiing California's Eastern Sierra Nevada". There's a lifetime's worth of terrain between Bridgeport and Lone Pine. I just moved out here, you can make an argument that the Eastern Sierra Nevada is one of the greatest places in the country to backcountry ski. Also check out Tremper's "Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain" and Volken's "Backountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering".

kevin graves · · Mammoth Lakes, CA · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 10

Hey thanks everyone; fantastic resource and I really appreciate the time and effort invested--pretty cool community!

Kyle vH · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2006 · Points: 18

I like this blog: wildsnow.com/14665/ultimate...

Check out ultralight gear, its getting really good now. Scarpa aliens are 1.5lbs each.

JohnSol · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2015 · Points: 15

Season is on!!!

Echo a few points here. All good info so far.

Get what you like for skis, doesn't matter much. Don't know what you like? Go demo. It is worth the cost IMO.

Boots get what fits!!

Suggest getting tech binders. If your reasonably in shape and since you are an experienced skier, release is not an issue. You know how to fall and not get hurt.

Had early gen dynafit FT. They broke in multiple places and had a nasty prerealease toe issue. Friends have had same and other durability issues.

Moved to G3 ion. Loving the brakeless option on my powder boards. Easy step in and transitions. Brooke the ion with brakes mounted on my Alpine skis on day 10. Hopefully they get the kinks worked out.

Thinking about Plum binders

For everyday, leashes are fine. For big objectives, cutting out platforms, putting on skis with ax in hand, it is really nice to have brakes. Won't stop a runaway, but keeps them there for sketchy transitions

Have fun and get ready to walk way more than you expect

kenr · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 10,240
Tapawingo wrote:Airbag is truly a luxury item and not a necessity.
A mountain guide I know took an avalanche training course (AMGA?) for his guiding last year. He told me he was required to have an airbag with him for the course. So he needed to purchase one.

I'm pretty sure there are helicopter and hut-guiding and off-piste skiing operations that require all clients and guides to wear an Air Bag System.

Seems like professional mountain guides (unlike some MP forum posters) are now taking seriously the problems of
(a) digging speed,
. . . and since they often ski with only their clients,
(b) about the trickiness of assessing their partner's competence and recency of practice.

Myself I've never used an Air Bag System. I agree that it would tempt me to ski riskier terrain+condition situations.
. . (though so does carrying a Beacon).

But also in the southern Eastside Sierra, I often ski without a beacon. Often solo. So there's no temptation to guess that I might survive burial in an avalanche. I just have to be very thoughtful + careful about choosing which day for which descent or tour.

On those minority of days when I do wear a beacon, I also wear an Avalung. Because the odds of a single partner digging me out fast enough are not good. Especially if he has not practiced recently (which I expect is often the case).

Ken
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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