Last week’s post Ski Touring: choosing your first setup. received a solid feedback.
You’ve been asking to go deeper in the world of reinforced tech bindings for free touring, so here we go.
A tradition of step-in bindings
Until recently, the trend for free touring focused on descents has been to look down on tech bindings and go for step-in models, this trend has been especially strong in the US and Canada, but as well for several european riders. Step-in bindings have offered over the years the most reliable downhill performance. They have transferred energy stronger and hold back and side pressure on a more solid way. Until recently it was the only option for frontal release DIN certified, which is a key element to safety and injury prevention.
The drawbacks: it becomes painful on uphills. At every step we have to drag the weight of the binding plate and the heel box. Moreover, the front part does not pivot on the toes but on the front of the binding creating an awkward walking experience. Most models go over 2500g for the pair, limiting any activity that goes beyond a short approach.
Nowadays tech bindings dominate the scene.
Since the last two seasons we can safely claim that reinforced tech bindings have overtaken step-in bindings in the free touring and the backcountry reign. This has been possible mainly due to the introduction on the market of powerful models that master the art of bringing together the lightness of tech bindings and the strength required for spicy descents.
Let’s go through the models that have reach the olympus of this category and look closely at their competitive advantages.:
Dynafit TLT Radical 2.0 – RRP 500€
Before getting on detail on the TLT Radical 2.0 let’s take a quick look to the past:
Dynafit has been at the top of the wave since 1983, when they introduced the revolutionary Tourlite Tech (TLT) system that redrawn the rules of the game by achieving the lightest ski-boot-binding system in the world.
For 2013 Dynafit was already the reference in the industry and had mastered two tech binding models for free touring: the TLT Radical and the Beast.
The TLT Radical was positioned as the do all free tourer. 531g, climbs light, skis powerful and hold technical descents.
In 2015 Dynafit introduced the improved version, the TLT Radical 2.0. Slightly heavier with 599g, presents a stronger heel and a smart rotating toe part. When the front lever is open, the toe piece pivots sideways absorbing a big deal of side pressure. This comes out as a smart solution for reinforcing the whole system without needing to add extra beef on the heel or on the toe part.
Moreover the rotation is a mid step towards front release, making the Radical 2, suitable for DIN standards and making it a whole safer in case of a fall.
From my experience of two seasons, I have felt strongly the lateral torsion a few times. It has always been while riding powder at speed, when on the middle of a wide turn I’ve found a crust of harder snow. On those situations the outer ski tends to rail out of trajectory, but thanks to the pivoting toe piece, it felt that those few times the ski came back to the original trajectory with ease.
Well, don’t expect this feature to be your magic wand that is going to save your ass in every sketchy situations, but it’s true that every now and then you will get a comforting feeling.
The radical binding family comes always in two versions ST and FT for wider skis.
The TLT radical 2, achieves to be such a significant upgrade from the previous version that marginalises the Beast as an extreme binding for extreme descents.
Dynafit Beast 14 – RRP 550€
The beast was originally conceived straight against step-in bindings for the gnarliest descents. Considering that there is a version with a 135mm break and that we need to reinforce the heel of our boots with an insert, it really says a lot about the kind of ski that it is focused to.
Yes; It is still a tech bindings but with a lot of beef, 830g of black angus to be exact. It weights around a third less than a free rider step-in binding but close to a third more than several reinforced tech bindings with brakes that we will go through in this article.
There is a Beast 16 version. iT weighs 950g and looks like a spaceship. If you are not going to drop cliffs like on the K2 movies of the 2000s, don’t even consider it.
If we go for the beast, it would not make any sense to not go as well for the top gnarly ski and boots; hence, the overall kit won’t be too practical for uphill touring, not even if you are as well a beast. However you will be able to do lighter and longer approaches than with a step-in setup.
The Beast 14 has lost strength on the market, mainly due to the Radical 2 and the marker Kingpin. It is actually possible to find the Beast 14 on discount, something extremely rare in tech bindings. If price is a dealbreaker for you, check up for offers.
Dynafit is been the reference manufacturer of this market since the early 80’s and still for most users it is the benchmark to compare to. However that does not mean that we don’t find proposals from other manufacturers that are at the top of their niche market.
Marker Kingpin 13 – RRP 490€
The Marker kingpin achieves what the Beast does not: with the strength of a step-in, a weekend warrior could take a long-ish day on the backcountry. We are not just talking about aproach, but full touring functionality.
The first thing that catches our eye is that we have somehow an hybrid between a tech binding and a step-in but at the reduced weight of 768g.
On the one hand we have a reinforced toe part with three rows of springs opposed to the benchmark of two. On the other hand we have a step-in heel that embraces the back of the boot on a more holistic way than the classic double pin system achieving better resistance to sideways torsion.
Moreover the classic look-alike heel part makes it easier to understand and gives us extra confidence.
Drawbacks: For most users, on most of the situations, it’s more than likely than any other of the reinforced tech bindings in this article will do the job with solid results at much lighter weight.
Sometimes we want to carry uphill all the best downhill gear and adding all this extra weight gathered from pieces and bits can be the difference of reaching the top on weak Elvis legs that won’t really do the job of the powerful descent that we had in mind. Going heavier means as well going slower, sometimes this will mean summiting too late, with snow already transformed, making impossible the planned descent on safe conditions.
Sometimes less is more, but balance is key.
Second drawback, WHY DID IT HAD TO BE GOLDEN! Even though I am the first to admire it’s virtues, I just can’t take that golden colour, it somehow feels cheap and slightly Donald Trump-ish. But anyway, i’m not really someone that is ahead on the fashion game.
G3 ION 12 – RRP 480€
The G3 Ion 12 has won several editorial awards and in fact presents some smart features. With its 580g and 480€, it has a price and a weight slightly below the Dynafit TLT Radical 2.
The toe part is the most user friendly in this category. It is the easiest to step in and lock, which on sketchy steep entrances becomes a solid advantage. The setup of the springs also makes it very simple to clean the ice under the springs and prevent failure by not fully engaging on the pins. In fact I know from first hand a few nasty accidents that were caused this way, so this is something to consider seriously.
The heel part transitions easy and effortless and can be rotated both ways which is not the case with the Dynafit TLT Radical 2. Depending on the angle of the slope, and if we are left handed, this can come pretty handy. The heel raisers are pretty user friendly and comfortable to maneuver with the poles.
Regarding downhill performance, the ION 12 is solid on deep powder and steep terrain, at a similar level than the Radical 2, and a step under the Kingpin.
There is a light version, the ION LT 12, with 456g that takes away the brake and the under heel plastic support piece. We cannot really fit it in the same category that the rest of the bindings of the article, but it can be an interesting option to consider if we want to go on the ultra light spectre of the reinforced tech binding free touring world.
Plum YAK M Stopper – RRP 560€
The Plum YAK M Stopper, with 550g is the lightest reinforced heel tech binding in the market, and that is its main presentation card. However there is more to it.
You get a really good “surfy” feeling when mounted in wide planks on mellower terrain and deep powder. In fact if you prefer the forests over the cliffs, the Yak M Stopper is a very smart choice allowing you to balance out the extra weight of wider planks.
The heel box is comfortable and user friendly on transitions. You can block the brakes with ease with one hand and you can spin the heel box to adjust the height of the levers with the tip of your pole. Just as with the G3 Ion, there is a light version, the YAK M without brake with 450g.
As well, just like the G3 ION at high speed on hard snow you can feel the vibrations, but it will do the job as well. If you are considering this binding for your surfy backcountry rides and you are worried about your air time, don’t worry, the YAK M will hold your drops and tricks on powder.
Diamir VIPEC 12 RRP 410€
Diamir has been one of the most relevant step-in binding manufacturers, but has traditionally kept aside from tech bindings, due to not been able to offer DIN standards and as solid feelings on downhill than with step-ins.
Finally in 2014/2015 they released the first version of the Vipec that ambitioned to mix both worlds of tech and step-in bindings. After correcting some mistakes, especially involving icing, they released a year later the new VIPEC 12. The Vipec 12 is not a very popular binding. It seems that for frontal pivoting, the reference is the Radical 2; for compromise between step-inn and tech binding, the reference is the kingpin and for user friendliness the Ion.,However, the Viper 2 has very real arguments to fight separately any of those three skills.
Moreover, it is very well positioned in price and weight with 410€ and 610g.
I got some mixed feelings on my first sight impressions. On the one side they felt too plastique-ish but on the other side they have the most achieved front part for downhill performance that any tech binding has thanks to its spring release mechanism DIN certified. The pins are constructed on a rail that slides when pressure is applied sideways, allowing our ski to be more harmonious and controllable. However when the pressure is too strong, the pin will will release, making the Vipec 12 the first binding to have 100% front DIN standards comparable to a freeride binding. Front release is a mayor improvement and it helps prevent very nasty injuries due to not disengaging from the binding in case of a fall.
However, when skinning on steep icy slabs, the Vipec 12 can play against us. The front release works the same way downhill than uphill. When aplying too much side pressure, like skinning up on icy conditions, the system is weaker and can create involuntary releases. I am quite brute on such conditions and unfortunatly I have not tested this binding on extreme uphill slabs, so I cannot tell first hand how it does feel.
Contrary to the Vipec 12, the Radical 2, on skinning mode blocks front rotation eliminating risks of involuntary front release. However on downhill performance, the Vipec 12 achieves safer front release. Diamir defends release in hiking mode with the fact that in case of avalanche the probabilities of survival are higher. That may be true, but been caught in an avalanche while skinning up or flat will always be a nasty business.
The heel box offers a very solid ski. In my opinion somewhere mid way between the Radical 2 and the kingpin or the Beast. It has three heel risers and it is easy to do the transitions between hiking and ski mode.
I hope this article helped you get a clearer idea of what you should put in between your planks and boots for those deep and rough days on the backcountry.
Now we just have to hope for a long season of powder despite these rising temperatures!