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January/February 2001

Backcountry Breakthroughs

Versatile new snow tools make the off-piste more accessible.

All prices in U.S. dollars.

Smarter Releases
The Buttery Binding

Telemark skiers are often left with the crumbs of technical innovations; the sport's most popular releasable binding, for instance, looks like a throwback to a sixties-era Alpine model. Enter Black Diamond's Skyhoy ($333; +1 801 278 5533; www.
), which offers adjustable release along with the slick convenience of step-in technology, just like its Alpine counterparts.

The Skyhoy gives near-faultless skiing performance: torsional rigidity combined with a buttery and natural flex. On the downside, however, are a thigh-burning heft (four pounds [1.8 kilograms]) and wallet-Hoovering price.

Next year, the Skyhoy may do something revolutionary: allow skiers to make either locked-heel or free-heel turns. This would bridge a division between Alpine and Nordic equipment that's existed for more than 60 years.

Quicker Rescues
The Audio/Visual Transceiver

While transceivers with digital displays are easier to master than analog ones, some pros complained that early units lacked range and were too complex. (Besides, they'd spent years practicing with the audible signals provided by the older technology.)

The easy-to-use Ortovox M2 ($300; +1 603 746 3176; provides both visual and audible information. It has an impressive search range of 80 meters [88 yards], and its computer processor is 50 percent faster than the one used in the two-year-old M1.

An arrow on the LED panel indicates signal strength, while a digital readout shows the distance you must travel to reach a buried victim.

Easier Ascents
The New Split Snowboard

Backcountry snowboarders are used to climbing mountains on snowshoes, hauling their boards. Now they can ski uphill.

Burton Snowboards' Splt 66 (+1 800 881 3138 [U.S. and Canada only]; is based on the company's popular Custom freeride boards, but the new board splits into skis when the rider flicks a lever on the binding interface and unhooks two clamps.

While Voilé and Nitro both introduced split boards in the mid-1990s, Burton has refined the concept. With the Splt 66, there are no loose binding parts to lose in your pack; the binding interface is compatible with virtually all boots and bindings; and the board has infinitely adjustable stance angles and four options for stance width.

Admittedly, this convenience comes at a hefty price, $899, plus $129 for extra-wide climbing skins. But the design is solid; with Burton behind them, touring snowboards could bring more riders into the backcountry.

—David Goodman

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Gear Guide
  True Value
By Nancy Prichard

You don't always get what you pay for. Sometimes, you get more. The equipment on this page costs far less than the competition, while delivering higher performance.

All prices in U.S. dollars.

Hot Deal

VauDe's Markill Spitfire ($33; 800 447 1539; is a compact and lightweight stove (nine ounces [0.26 kilogram]) that attaches to any screw-on butane or propane canister. The pot supports retract; the windscreen is built in.

The price is so low partly because VauDe relies on word of mouth (no advertising) and sells directly to stores (no distributors). Yes, there are lighter stoves, but they're around twice the price. Though they may be worth it for some outings, most are less durable, and many lack the Spitfire's piezoelectric ignition and adjustability from simmer to boil.

For most camping and backpacking trips, the Spitfire offers excellent performance as well as the best price.

Light Pack, Priced Right

Mountaineers know that lightweight, no-frills packs are often the best ones. Lafuma's Extreme 42 Light ($85; +1 303 527 1460; costs half to a third as much as its competition, but it's no compromise.

The Extreme does away with bulky side pockets and weighty compartments. More heft is shed through the use of a lightweight foam suspension system.

The result? A rugged rucksack that weighs only two pounds four ounces [one kilogram] but can haul 2,500 cubic inches [40,967 cubic centimeters] of gear.

Sleep Tight

Even in 2001, goose down outperforms synthetics in warmth-to-weight ratio, compressibility, and durability. Until recently, it also cost more. But smarter manufacturing has lowered prices.

While inexpensive, Marmot's Never Winter Sleeping Bag ($179; +1 707 544 4590; is stuffed with 600-fill-power goose down that will keep you warm in 30°F [-1°C] temperatures. Bulkier, more expensive bags are worthwhile for frigid nights, but if you don't need 'em, don't buy 'em.

The Never Winter weighs a mere 31 ounces [0.9 kilogram]; many comparable bags cost a hundred dollars more and add a pound [half a kilogram] in weight.

Getting Fleece (Without Getting Fleeced)

Fleece is a layering mainstay; excellent value is provided by Patagonia's Expedition Weight Capilene Fleece top (men's, $68; women's, $65; 800 638 6464 [U.S. and Canada only];, which switch-hits as both a base layer and a middle layer.

There's no wind-blocking membrane in this fleece, and that's a good thing. Windproof fleece is versatile—you can use it as outerwear in mild weather—but also more expensive, less breathable, and heavier. In severe conditions, under a waterproof shell, plain fleece works better. For the greatest warmth and least weight, dispense with zippers and pockets, too.

You can buy a fleece jacket at Costco for around $30, but you give up durability. This pullover (the women's is shown) weighs only eight ounces [227 grams] and takes up scant room in your pack.

Headgear of Its Class

The cost of buying separate bike, ski, and skate helmets easily tops several hundred dollars. A ski helmet alone can cost $125. Boeri's Kameleon (distributed by MPH Associates; 800 394 6741 [U.S. and Canada only]; costs only $100, and it's a multisport helmet that's designed for skateboarding, in-line skating, biking, and snow sports.

A cold-weather liner pops out for hot weather. Reducing the plastic over the ears has made for a helmet that's lighter and less claustrophobic than most ski helmets yet tougher than the standard bike helmet. And the Kameleon weighs just 14.5 ounces [411 grams].

Take Your Pick

Unless you're attacking vertical frozen waterfalls, you don't need a technical ice ax. Rather than pay upwards of $200 for a short-shafted, curved-pick model, buy Climb Axe's Kong Raid Axe ($55; +1 503 236 9552;

Lightweight mountaineering axes like this are better suited than heavy technical tools for hiking Colorado's Fourteeners, preparing to ski Tuckerman's Ravine, or climbing Mount Rainier. The 65-centimeter [26-inch] version weighs just over a pound [half a kilogram]; the company's aluminum 65-centimeter Iper Light weighs a mere 6.5 ounces [184 grams], for about $10 more.

While they're not full-blown technical tools, these CE-certified axes are plenty competent at cutting out steps and boot belays.

Photographs by Michele Gastl

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