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OR Snow Show

Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '08: Backcountry ski market

The Backcountry ski market is cranking thanks to banks of deep snow covering the mountains throughout North America.

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The SNEWS® trade show reporting team, which was 15 editors strong thanks to the addition of our Backpacker magazine comrades, scampered around the trade show floor over the course of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market to bring you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories that will run until we pass out or you cry, “Uncle.” No, each report is not complete and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned — we do know you love your company’s product, really. However, we’re only covering product that stood out to us, so if you’re not mentioned we either didn’t think your product stood out sufficiently or we started drinking alcoholic beverages too early in the afternoon to see straight and missed you as a result — you pick one. With that in mind, here’s our take on trends and new products for Backcountry ski market:

It’s easy to be a good farmer when the rains come, the stars align, and the harvest is big. The backcountry community is clearly reaping a much needed bumper crop this season, thanks to banks of deep snow covering the mountains throughout North America. Geoff Curtis, marketing manager for Volkl and Marker, said they had to reorder for the United States three times this season. Our sources indicate that The Duke (MSRP $495) was selling almost like the Targa in its heyday, despite the fact that this is The Duke’s inaugural season and it had a late start. (Our sources wouldn’t say exactly how many sold.)

Fritschi felt the heat from The Duke, but Black Diamond didn’t seem to be crying about it. BD’s team was too busy touting its new line of ski boots, both alpine touring and telemark. These boots aren’t necessarily backcountry-oriented only because “it’s all about the down,” these days. All seven models are solid entries, and with suggested prices consistently below the competition (MSRP $429 to $729), retailers were definitely lining up from all we heard and saw.

When you consider the going rate for molds, a single boot model runs in the million-dollar range, usually more. And since BD is introducing seven models, you know someone in the house wears big pants. While it may sound like a big gamble, global warming took a step back this year, so the timing is probably right. Just as importantly, the boots are compelling too. Strobeled liners promise to fit the wearer better thanks to molded footbeds and pre-lasted, thermomoldable liners, plus these liners should also mate to the shell better, providing better power transfer. The liners will sport the BOA closure, which is a pulley enhanced lacing system that promises to really lock the wearer’s heel in place.

The most interesting thing in boots was the near universal adoption of an overlap cuff in new models, not only from Black Diamond, but also Dynafit, Garmont and Tecnica. Overlap cuffs have long been an integral feature of alpine boots indicative of high performance. Adoption of an overlap cuff should help with the perception that these manufacturers, known for making backcountry-specific boots, are now offering downhill performance without compromise. Besides giving more power to the cuff, the overlap construction can accommodate a larger range of volume, thereby fitting more feet out of the box. It is also much easier to get in and out of. Perhaps less obvious is the ability of the overlap cuff to give a softer flex for touring with the buckles loose, since they can open up and not impede forward movement like a tongued boot can.

The other common feature was the use of swappable Alpine DIN toe and heel blocks. By offering interchangeable heels and toes, users can use the same boot but modify it to have a low-friction alpine style sole, or a lugged sole. With Black Diamond, Garmont and, of course, Dynafit, the backcountry blocks also come with Dynafit tech fittings.

Oliver Steffan, G3’s president, remained mum on G3’s new alpine binding. It will be released when the company is good and ready and not a minute before, we were told. A bit of sleuthing suggests that the toe will latch on to Dynafit fittings, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure there will be some kind of heel ala Fritschi/Marker/Look/Salomon/Naxo on the back, and we predict they’ll be lightweight.

Underlying this news is the realization by most retailers that the backcountry market is dominated by locked heel gear. Whereas Telemark used to account for at least 60 percent of equipment sales by BC retailers, now it is more like 40 percent at best, except for a few shops back east that are predominately Nordic backcountry shops.

From a market share and growth perspective, it looks like tele is in trouble. At the least, there will be a shaking out. NTN (MSRP $350) has not caught fire. The design looks good, but the word online is that the boots were universally too stiff this year. Some folks like ‘em, but there’s enough bad juju to warn folks off. We didn’t have to probe far to find retailers who had returned their NTN stock for lack of interest by consumers.

For the moment, the NTN package is not compelling enough. Perhaps it will be next year when the boots are softer. Scarpa is coming out with two boots, the Terminator X (MSRP $649), and X-Pro (MSRP $689). The Pro is a four-buckle version of the X, with classic bumblebee colors. Both boots will exhibit a softer bellows than this year’s boots, with the X being the softest of the two, but with beefed-up lateral stiffness thanks to triple injection. Same for Crispi. The Evo (MSRP $669) will get a skosh softer, and a new boot, the Shiver (MSRP $499) will be added to the line. All in all, there will be four models to choose from next year. In theory, there will be smaller sizes too, in all models, although we’re predicting the smaller models will arrive late due to lack of sales to fund more molds.

The good news is that the threat of NTN has made the Duckbill norm stronger. And that is part of the problem with NTN. If it had arrived two years ago, before the advent of free pivoting telemark bindings, NTN could’ve cleaned up. But enough folks have added the touring switch and they don’t want for much else yet. NTN may be worth the wait, but for the moment, it’s just not captivating much market interest. On the other hand, the real promise of NTN isn’t aimed so much at existing free heelers, but at attracting new skiers to the sport. It’s going to take more than mechanical ingenuity to attract new converts to telemark. Perhaps some good old-fashioned marketing with a strong hint of sexiness can get the young folks off the couch and away from the tube. Between AT and Tele, tele wins the sensuality award, hands down!

Last year, the Targa, was neck and neck with Black Diamond’s O1 (MSRP $299), and the Hammerhead. This season telemark touring bindings have definitely caught on. The O1 leads sales, followed by the Hammerhead (MSRP $225) or Switchback (MSRP $259), depending on how much the shop favors earn-your-turns types, or slope dopes. Targa (MSRP $170) is doing respectable still, and then, in spots, the 7tm Power Tour (MSRP $400). Cobra (MSRP $180) sales are off, as is the Ascent (MSRP $300). A Cobra Free upgrade kit could have done well in the last days of the Duckbill, that is, assuming these are the last days of the Duckbill, and then again, they might not be.

In the ski department, lots of folks are sporting good fat platforms. G3 drops Baron, and adds the Saint (MSRP $700), a light version of the Reverend (MSRP $630), as the Ace was a light Baron. The Lucsious (MSRP $590), a fat ski for ladies, wowed folks in the pow-pow on demo days. Black Diamond offers something for the rowdy crowd, the MegaWatt (MSRP $800), with turned up tip, and supersize-me girth. Karhu had some sharp sticks, the Spire/Spire BC (MSRP $575/590), and Storm/Storm BC (MSRP $600/625) at either end of the new mid-fat range. The biggest news was K2’s introduction of its Freeride line. Lots of interest in the Coomba (MSRP $800), and not just because of the name, but because of K2’s reputation, and the dimensions. As a side note, based on our observations and conversations, we suspect K2 is re-evaluating the size of the tele ski market and the necessity for items like inserts. Hopefully not, since it appears the problem of telemark bindings staying attached to skis is not fully resolved, and inserts do solve the problems.

Bottom line? If the Duke really is converting alpine skiers to the backcountry, that little backcountry pie may actually be getting bigger in a meaningful way. And that certainly bodes well for all manufacturers.