M Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review
by David Chenault
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It took me decades to really care about skiing. Growing up in flat Ohio didn't help, but even on trips further afield the lift-served, in-area alpine skiing never resonated. I usually got bored before my legs gave out or the lifts stopped running. Cross-country skiing was more my style, but I inevitably wanted to venture away from golf courses and groomed trails, where the floppy boots and skinny, plastic edged skis made the steep and narrow woods exciting in a way only enjoyable by those young people yet to realize their own mortality. Hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking always seemed like a better use of my time outdoors. I went to college in Iowa, and after graduation escaped further west to Utah and Arizona. I skied occasionally, at both alpine and cross-country areas, but as before failed to see the possibility inherent in skiing which made so many so fanatical about it.
Three years ago, I moved to western Montana to attend graduate school.
Even before the move I knew I'd need to learn how to actually ski. The most interesting areas for a wilderness traveler - the mountains - are in western Montana under snow for over half the year. A wilderness traveler has three options: stay home or in the lowest and most civilized valleys, get snowshoes, or learn to ski. I wanted to learn to ski, not primarily as a means of exercise or of kinesthetic enjoyment, but as the most efficient way to move around the snowy wilderness. Snowshoes are easy to use, but if driven with a modicum of skill, skis are almost always a faster and more elegant way to travel. Or at least, that was what conventional wisdom had to share with me, the unstudied newbie.
So I bought some short alpine touring skis on closeout and got some telemark boots and bindings. I went skiing, a lot. I got new boots and new skis; Karhu Guides, then the widest metal-edged waxless (fishscaled) ski available. I skied more, flailed a lot, got frustrated, and had a lot of fun. It didn't take me long to realize that not only did none of the existing ski gear fit my needs particularly well, but that virtually all of the momentum in the market was concentrated on two distant ends of a spectrum. I wanted to ski along in the middle of that range, going from one point to another as I did on dirt during the summer, and there wasn't much gear at all suited to doing so.
The ski market as it exists today largely caters to pure alpine skiing or pure Nordic skiing. Alpine skiing is, to steal one company's jingle, all about the down. Folks spend cataclysmic amounts of money to visit places to ride lifts so they can ski back downhill around lots of other people and then do it again and again. The equipment reflects this, being great for difficult, chopped up snow and knee-dislocatingly heavy. Virtually all backcountry skiing gear, be it alpine touring (heel fixed for downhill) or telemark (heel freed) is dedicated to doing what is in essence the same thing. The gear is lighter, increasingly much lighter, in order to make climbing slopes to ski down faster and more enjoyable, but skiing relatively steep terrain is still the raison d'etre. Even ski mountaineering race gear, where the application of technology has facilitated ski/boot/binding pairs which weigh less than a pair of alpine boots, is still circumscribed by the necessity of descending steep slopes quickly.
Cross-country skiing hasn't changed much, in focus or application, since my youthful golf course exploits. Even the heavier boots and wider, metal edged skis meant for "Nordic backcountry" or "rugged touring" look and ski like fat Nordic race gear. This gear can be quite light, and in the right hands and under the right conditions travel through the woods impressively fast, but the not-right conditions slow such gear to a crawl, and these conditions, namely weird snow, breakable crust, ice, and tight trees and brush are all too common if your winter interests involve approximating summer backpacking routes. What was good snow last night will be miserable in the morning, and sometimes you'll get all of the aforementioned in one place, together, a state of affairs which, in reasonable folks, engenders swearing and crying in equal measure. Quite simply, skis may be the best way to backpack in deep snow, but the skis and ski gear yet produced are not designed with such ends in mind, and their application in the arena of winter backpacking reflects this.
- Introduction: My Short History as a Skier
- Fast Shoes Defined
- The Hok Examined
- The Limits of Universal Bindings
- Conclusion and Applicability
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# PHOTOS: 13
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