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Backcountry ski gear adventures for newbies

by Sara on March 1, 2011

When I wrote my first post last year about my beginning forays onto the ski slopes, I got a few notes indicating that readers would rather I stick to climbing… that there are enough ski blogs out there already.  Well, I say… tough.  I’ve become a skier; and now that I’m finally learning to ski uphill, too, I think I’m justified in including an occasional ski adventure here.  I’m going to make this one big ol’ long ski post, so that for those of you who don’t give a rat’s you know what about skiing, it’s easy to skip.

I’m freshly back from the Arc’teryx / Mountain Gear Coldsmoke Powder Fest up in Nelson, BC.  I worked the fest in 2010, and went to spend time with friends and help out as a volunteer in 2011, and I swear… it’s one of the highlights of my year.  Partly, because of the incredible friends I get to spend time with while I’m there, and partly because I just love Nelson, BC and the Whitewater ski area.  I’m working on getting my skills up so that I’ll be a strong enough skier to participate in a clinic or two in 2012… and I’m already looking forward to my next trip to Nelson.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of dragging kickassgirl Tiffany to another ski event — the Outdoor Research / Mountain Gear Vertfest up at Alpental ski area.  I was there volunteering, and Tiffany took demo and gear review duties for the day.  A huge thank you to Outdoor Research for hosting her, and here’s Tiffany’s story from Vertfest 2011!

After Tiffany’s story, I’ve added a few gear notes myself, since I also recently sprung for my first AT setup after much demo-ing, question-asking, and nail biting.  Enjoy!

And finally, a safety note… these reports involve AT boots, bindings and skis… but we were skiing on area.  If we were headed into the real backcountry, it would be with beacons, shovels, probes, and way more training and education than I have at this point.

It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway.  Mountains are dangerous, a point driven home quite deeply by the grief that was palpable among the community at Vertfest this year as the local ski community mourned the loss of Monika Johnson.

Please, be safe out there.

Now, for Tiffany’s story.


I’ve been a skier on and off for several years now. I have a downhill setup, hit the resorts a few times a year and usually remember the basic techniques when I’m flying down the hill on two sticks.

However, I have friends who backcountry ski. I never got into it, thinking the terrain would be too steep, I’m not strong enough and I’d never be able to keep up.

Then a few girlfriends started making noise about jumping into the sport. I found Karhu’s 156cm Betty skis on sale, followed by G3 skins on sale. I started sniffing around for a pair of boots that actually fit and started to research bindings.

Enter: Outdoor Research’s VertFest at Alpental, the demo booths and a very big day of Firsts.

It was my first time:

  1. Experimenting with demo gear.
  2. Putting backcountry gear to use on snow.
  3. Spending a full day out with another girl (no boys!) on the slopes.
  4. Not fearing the hills at Alpental.

It couldn’t have been a better day.

And the guys at the tents who helped me out – Dan at Scarpa, Roger and Eddie with Black Diamond, and Paul with Dynafit– were super nice and were so patient with this newbie who had lots of questions.

When I walked into the demo area, I was afraid I wouldn’t find anything that fit me. I’m small (4’11”) and wear a size 6.5 shoe. I nearly started dancing in the Scarpa tent when I found a size 23 in the Scarpa Gea (pronounced “shjay-ya”). They fit well initially, but over the course of the day, the lining needed tweaking to take care of circulation issues. After a few adjustments, I could have worn them all day long, and that was even without heat-molding which addresses the fine-tuning of fit and comfort. The shell has a great small profile, the boots are super lightweight and — well — awesomely bright green.

For skis, I found 155cm Black Diamond Joules, with a Fritschi Freeride binding.

The bindings were nice because they were instinctual – just like my downhill set up. The skis, however, were a different story. As Sara said when we started our first run with our BD skis, “Wow. This is a lot of ski.”

It was, especially compared to my narrow little 149 cm length Volkls, but they were surprisingly manageable for my first time out after a little getting-used-to. Turning was a wee bit tricky at first, but thankfully, snow conditions on the hill were forgiving (think spring corn snow) and visibility was great, so my mind was at ease and turning became a snap. Next thing you know, I’m flying down the hill, doing sharp turns that I’d typically only do after a few days into the season. This was run #1 of the year for me and it felt great.

After a quick bite to eat – I typically look forward to lounging in the lodge but not today! – I changed out the Scarpa Geas for the Black Diamond Swift boots, even though they only had a 23.5. When I pulled them on, they were immediately comfy and roomy, which I knew meant they were too big. I cranked down the buckles (which, yeah, I paid for in lack of circulation) so the ride wouldn’t be too sloppy. I really liked the dial on the side that controls the cuff around the calf.  The shell has a larger profile than a Gea and while noticeable, that didn’t bother me too much.

In the Dynafit tent, the shortest ski available was a 169cm (!!!) Mustagata with Dynafit Vertical ST bindings. I was so stoked to try these bindings since I’d heard so much about them. After stepping in, hearing “click” of the two pins engaging and pressing my heel down, they immediately felt really solid. I peeled out of there to the lifts, really wishing I could try them with skins.

While the Mustagatas were skinnier and longer than the Joules, they edged nicely and surprisingly, I didn’t have too much trouble turning with them. The bindings felt solid. I was afraid I’d pop out of them easily because it doesn’t seem like there is much binding the boot to the ski, but I was really impressed.

For being as small as I am, I’ve really started to adapt the ultra-light mentality within the past year and am trying to do that with my ski gear. The Geas and Dynafits sold me on it. When I saw my backcountry guru friend Kevin later that night, I made a beeline for him and started to excitedly chatter on about what I did. That’s when I realized, I could definitely get into this.

Tiffany Royal writes about outdoor, cooking and home remodel adventures at everyfrog.wordpress.com.  When she’s not playing outside, she’s usually at the climbing gym, Lowes or cooking on her cherished gas stove while her friends come over to eat and then borrow her tools.


And, a few more thoughts from Sara!

I’d second Tiffany’s raves about the sales reps working those demo tents.  I’ve been skiing demos, with the help of sales reps and ambassadors helping me with gear selection and tuning for the last year.  Having worked ski fests myself, I know it can be cold, hard work — but seriously, having the privilege to demo skis with expert advice from reps gave me so much great knowledge and more confidence when it came time to buy my own setup.  If you’re new to skiing and/or backcountry gear, find an open to the public demo, and don’t be afraid to ask newbie questions.  I’m a gear reviewer and have been involved in the outdoor industry for a couple years now, and ski gear was SUPER intimidating for me!  I really appreciate all the great advice and patient question-answering from the many ski and boot reps I’ve gotten to know along the way.

After demoing more AT rigs than I can count in the last year, I decided on the G3 Jam skis based partly on its geometry — I’d narrowed down the kinds of specs I preferred and the Jam was close on paper, and, I’ll admit it — I’m just super fond of G3.  Their topsheets are my favorite in the industry (yes, I’m a girl sometimes), and I have a special place in my heart for companies based in North Van.  I was thrilled to get to try a demo pair (thanks, Tom and Pinnacle NW!) at Vertfest while mine were on order.

I choose Fritschi Eagle bindings after demoing AT bindings from a variety of manufacturers… while the Dynafit style bindings I tried are SUPER sweet for the uphill, I’m in the enthusiastic “learning” stage of my downhill skiing and it’s a rare day that I don’t have an on-hill ejection (or double ejection).  The traditional AT bindings are easier for me to get back into after an “oops” on the hill; Dynafit-style bindings are a breeze once you get used to them from what I hear, but I’m perfectly happy with my Eagles for now.

The more I ski my G3 Jams the more in love I become.  I’m finding my balance on them… weight forward in groomed conditions, and I finally found “neutral” for powder this weekend… and they turn like I’m skiing racecars.  I’m finding them to be exactly as billed by G3:  light for the uphill; asymmetrically shaped for easy turning; a perfect one-ski-quiver geometry that I’m digging on everything from groomers to slush to my completely hilarious experiments so far in powder…  oh, I’m getting all ski-lusty just thinking about them.

PHEW.  Wow, even for me, this is a long post.

One more topic:  boots.  I have had a terrible time finding any ski boot that I can wear for more than one lift run at a time — I have trouble with numb toes and nearly unbearable pain over my instep and in the arch area in most boots I’ve tried to ski in.  Based on in-store fittings and the advice of friends, I gambled on a pair of Scarpa Geas, the same boot Tiffany demo’d at Vertfest.  It was truly a gamble — I have calcium deposits and bony protrusions thanks to spending the last few years abusing my feet in climbing shoes — so I was trusting all my friends who said that the Intuition liners in the Scarpas were the ticket for someone with feet like mine, even if the Gea shell was a bit narrower than my instincts told me to go for.

My buddies were right.  I wound up in a size 24 shell because the 24.5 was just too big — I measure a 24.  Most of my friends with Geas and Maestrales (the men’s version) have gone a half size up from their measure — but since Scarpa groups the .5 shell with the next full size (different than the rest of the industry, I’m told) it’s good to try both shell sizes that may be a fit for you.

It took two heat moldings (the second by the highly recommended folks at Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, ID) but I am now in love with my Geas.  My first “tour” in them was a dawn patrol at Baldy in Ketchum… four hours of skinning and 40 minutes of skiing and I didn’t have a single complaint about my feet.  Usually, I don’t make it 20 minutes in a pair of boots without being on the verge of tears.  The more I ski in them the more I love them — heat molding made all the difference in fit, and I don’t have numbness or pain in them if I flip the middle two buckles open and pop them into “walk” mode for my time on the lift.  I’m hard to please when it comes to my feet, and I love these boots.  I actually wore them for half-days at a time up at Coldsmoke even when I wasn’t skiing because they kept me warmer than my winter boots I brought, they walk so well, and they’re just plain comfortable.

That’s it.  This year’s ski gear novel is now finished.  A huge thank you to everybody who’s helped me get this far as a skier (especially Teresa, with whom I can’t quite keep up, but she hasn’t yet let me pop my skis off and boot pack even when I’ve been nearly hysterical with fear — you, my friend, are an INCREDIBLE teacher).  And thanks so much to the many, many reps who work cold, long ski gear demos — you really do open the sport to new participants, and I’m an example of that.

And if you’re demo-ing gear — bring it back on time.  The guys and gals in the tents have spouses and kids to get home to (and/or turns of their own to sneak in once the tent’s taken down).

Get out there.  Be safe.  Ask questions.  Have fun!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Caspar March 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Sarah, what helmet do you have in the picture? It looks great!

Reply

Sara March 4, 2011 at 11:23 am

Caspar – it’s a 2009 / 2010 Smith Variant…

http://www.smithoptics.com/products/#/Snow+Helmets/Adult+Helmets/Variant/view/

I love it. I’m way pro helmet… but when you commented on it I realized — I don’t think I’ve EVER skied a run without that helmet on. :)

Reply

Jill March 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Sorry my dear. But you should have gone with Dynafit. The learning curve is steep but worth it. You’ll be in the Dynafit tribe sooooon….I see it….

Reply

Jill March 7, 2011 at 6:59 pm

P.S. Yes. Scarpa. Well done on that part :)

Reply

Randall Tabor June 16, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I gues it is late in the season for me to read this article, but it sounded like you had a great time. Can you refer me (recommend to me) to any ski groups or clubs that have weekly activities in the winter or year round? I moved here from the east coast and am a member of the flying dutchmen ski club (FDSC.org) . Most fun to ski with smeone…

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