2XU Ambassador Jordan Jones Takes Us to the Backcountry

2XU Ambassador Jordan Jones Takes Us to the Backcountry

Right now I've got two weeks to go until the big Elk Mountain Traverse ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. The race is a whopping 40 miles through Colorado's backcountry. That's right, there is a zero after that four and that still sounds like a heroic amount of miles to me. I am indeed shaking in my ski boots. We'll be traveling up and over mountains with no roads or towns along the way. Just lions and tigers and bears minus the tigers. Many people have no idea about the world of alpine touring, climbing skins, and covering miles in the backcountry over snow so this will serve as a primer to the uninitiated. Being a ski shop owner at Powder7 and a professional triathlete, ski touring is the ultimate combo of two of my passions so here it goes explaining it.

Since the Elk Mountain Traverse race course is in the backcountry that means that the course isn't groomed and we'll be encountering plenty of climbs and ascents in fresh snow. Some athletes will be using cross country setups that utilize kick wax under the foot for traction while climbing. Another setup athletes could use is telemark where climbing skins are used to climb and the heel is always free on both the uphill and downhill. Some time ago that was the only option for a course like this. A more popular setup that has emerged is an alpine touring setup. Like telemark, this uses climbing skins to go up but the big difference is that once at the top, the heel of the binding is locked down transforming it into something close to a downhill ski setup. And a magical transformation that is leading to many snowy possibilities.

Climbing Skins

What are climbing skins you may ask? They have a loop at the tip to attach to the tip of the ski then a clip at the other end to clip onto the tail of the ski. They are sticky on one side so stick to the base of the ski but pull right off without leaving any glue on the ski wax. The side that contacts the snow is, much like an animals skin, smooth when rubbed in one direction and grabby in the other direction. So in the glide direction, while moving forward, they glide across the snow. Then once the glide is complete they grab the snow allowing you to hold the ground with that leg while gliding with the other leg. Do that a few thousand times and you've covered some miles. So on the climbs you have the climbing skins on, then once at the top you take them off to ski downhill with the wax of the ski exposed. For those that have done it, you know that there are lots of annoyingly tricky in-between scenarios where there is a short downhill where you have to figure out whether to leave the skins on or off but I'll leave that to Climbing Mountains On Skis Level 200. I won't be teaching that course as I always seem to misjudge that skin on or off aspect.

Tech Bindings - The Dynafit Radical

Next up is the binding which of course is what attaches your boot to the ski. For this race everyone with an alpine touring setup will be using what we call a tech binding in the ski industry. The most popular tech bindings are made by Dynafit. These are a radically different design than a typical downhill bindings and are designed with going uphill being the priority. In the toe, they have two points that point towards each other then the boots have two inserts that those points insert into. This serves as the pivot point between the boot and binding so that you can move your heel up and down to go uphill. The heel pivots and has two positions, one for uphill where the boot is free from the heel, and another where the boot locks into the heel to go downhill. Boots with the tech inserts are also designed with going uphill in mind so are lightweight have have a tour mode where the cuff of the movement has a huge range of movement. Some of these boots you can pretty much run in. I'll be making a sub 5 minute mile attempt in mine at the track this Saturday if you want to come watch.

Non-Tech Bindings - The Marker Tour

Another alpine touring binding design is the non-tech setup. This was pioneered by Marker with the Duke binding in 2007. Marker now makes a number of models such as the Baron and Tour and other brands like Tyrolia and Salomon have created their own designs. Skiing downhill is the first priority with these bindings so they usually have the same toe and heel as standard downhill bindings. That means that you have the full safety release features of downhill bindings. So put that standard downhill binding on a plate. That plate has two modes, downhill and uphill. What you gain with this design is the safety aspect in the binding release. So you have a full-on-drop-a-30-foot-cliff downhill binding with the ability to go uphill which is amazing. What you lose, or should I say gain, is the weight aspect. To begin with, they are heavier than tech bindings when weighed on a scale. Plus when lifting the heel of the boot to go uphill you are also lifting the heel and plate of the binding making it even heavier. Additionally, the pivot point on the plate is further forward than the point on the tech binding so you lose some efficiency there. For the non-tech setup you can use a normal downhill boot. Typically though you want a bit more range of movement so you'll get what's effectively a downhill boot with a walk mode that adds some movement. You can also use many tech boots in non-tech bindings. That can be a nice compromise between uphill ease and downhill safety while minimizing the pairs of skis in your garage. That is generally doable but has some hitches in terms of boot/binding interface so consult with your ski shop when going for that option. Whew, that was a lot of info. To sum it up and pull it together, the non-tech binding is the way to go if you're primarily skiing downhill. For someone that skis the resort but wants the option the go uphill here and there then this is the way to go. For someone that's primarily doing alpine touring skiing then the tech setup is generally the way to go. As with all gear, there are heated draw-out-your-musket debates as to which one is better. Right now, I'm amazed that alpine touring isn't more popular. To me, it's one of the most amazing activities out there if you live near big snow covered mountains. You can park at the trailhead or where winter plowing ends and get out into the backcountry for miles and miles. I usually see barely another soul and there's just the big expanse of snow and mountains going off into every direction. It's incredible how efficient touring is and how many miles you can cover with ease. If mountain biking is so popular then why isn't ski touring? As long as you're sticking to safe terrain you can pretty much go anywhere as you're not bound to trails like in the summer. What are obstacles in the summer like lakes, creeks, bushes, and rocks become easy terrain as water freezes and snow covers the earth. Take that creek! Booyah, I just went right over you.

Here I am touring outside of South Fork, CO

Thankfully, two of my sponsors, Smith Optics and 2XU not only make the best triathlon gear but they also make the best gear for alpine touring so I'll be well supplied for the Elk Mountain Traverse. Smith Optics of course makes the sunglasses, goggles, and helmet that I use when touring. 2XU compression clothes are my go to in the backcountry with their compression ski socks which pair perfectly with their 3/4 length compression tights. One last thought is stay safe out there. If you're traveling into avalanche terrain (think big mountains with lots of snow on them), then carry a beacon, probe, and shovel and get training on how to avoid avalanches so that you don't have to use that avy gear.

Touring across Beaver Creek Reservoir, CO with Justin and Mark.

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