The call of the winter wilds beckoning skiers beyond resort boundaries is a top trend in the alpine world.
At areas throughout the West, boundary gates are now kept open as policy all season long, letting skiers and snowboarders ride a lift uphill before ducking out of bounds and off the map to schuss and explore--at their own risk--terrain heretofore vastly inaccessible or remote.
Gear has evolved in the ski industry to cater to this new set of adventurers, with alpine equipment makers adding touches to allow skiers options for easier travel in bounds or out.
Indeed, the classic ski categories of alpine (downhill) and Randone? (also called alpine touring or AT) have melded partially in recent years. New equipment from companies like Fritschi AG, Black Diamond, SCARPA, Marker USA and a dozen others offers hybrid characteristics to allow for solid performance going down the mountain--as well as back up.
At first glance, none of this equipment appears exotic. For example, SCARPA's Spirit 4 boots ($669, www.scarpa.com) have four buckles to cinch tight on the foot and look like downhill gear. But these AT (alpine touring) boots are significantly lighter weight than their downhill cousins. Plus, SCARPA built in a switch to enable a "walk" mode, which unhinges the rigid forward lean so the boots become more supple for cross-country and uphill travel with a free heel.
How do you obtain a free heel with a downhill setup? Look at bindings like Fritschi's Diamir Freeride Plus ($425, www.bdel.com), which clamp the heel in for the descent but can convert at the flick of a switch to enable a free-heel mode. For climbing up-mountain with skins, your boots stay set in the bindings as normal, though the foot is freed to lift off the ski, hinging on the tow piece to allow for striding.
Black Diamond Kilowatt Black Diamond's Kilowatt skis ($539, www.bdel.com) are powerful in deep snow and crud, though they work fine inbounds on groomed trails, too. They have a slight hourglass shape, measuring 127mm (tip) by 95mm (mid) by 112mm (tail). I picked the 185-cm model for length.
On my test run last month in Utah, where I skied the 5,000-vertical-foot "Banana Chute" on Mount Ogden in Utah, this package of equipment performed nearly as good as my traditional downhill setup could.
The Kilowatts felt as stable as anything I've skied for carving on the breakable wind-slab of the steep upper chute. Then down lower, where the powder got deep, the skis bobbed and zigzagged and floated almost effortlessly through the fluff.
The boots--which weigh about 4 pounds apiece--took more getting used to, as they are fairly flexible for anyone raised on downhill equipment. But in the Banana Chute I never felt compromised.
Finally, Fritschi's Freeride bindings were strong and solid in any type of terrain, with a maximum DIN setting of 12. They never budged when locked down.
The Fritschi bindings do put you slightly higher on the ski than some alpine bindings, which takes a few turns to figure out. After that, you'll be comfortable and confident with this setup, free to ski anything you regularly would going down. And free to ascend--chairlift or not--back up the mountain, free-heel pumping, legs striding in motion, tracking again from where you came to retrace the route and do it all over again.
Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; visit www.thegearjunkie.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog and an archive of Regenold's work.