For speed touring, binding options are quickly growing in number. Although the "fat and baggie" thing is all the rage here in the U.S., Europeans have been focused on simply covering ground in the mountains forever. In fact, many established ski companies on the other side of the pond don't make any skis that most free skiers would consider fat enough. Ninety five millimeters underfoot is about as big a ski as you can go with many of them. But for touring and racing in the mountains, the Euros have you covered.
It's probably mostly a cultural phenomenon. Elaborate hut systems and small towns tucked throughout the ranges in Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria make touring the obvious discipline over there. With a huge percentage of the population in these regions on skis, there is plenty of demand to drive development. It's no surprise, then, that all of the innovation is coming from Europe.
Once again, going light with this gear comes with some sacrifices that some skiers may not be willing to make. There are some theoretical durability issues with extreme use. If you are into hucking cliffs then these bindings are not for you. But if you like getting lots of air you're probably not reading a post on speed touring anyway.
The other consideration is safety. To make these binders light, some compromises are made in terms of release capability with some models. Several of the choices below have toe pieces that lock out automatically when engaged. For most of us this isn't an issue since we lock our toes out anyway. But other internet blogs are full of comments from skiers more concerned with this feature. Buyer beware.
Dynafit has been the longest player in the light weight touring market over the years. They developed the so-called "tech binding" that all other light binding manufacturers start from. The original in this genre is the Dynafit TLT Speed (aka "Classic") that has stood the test of time. At 335 grams each, it is heavy compared to a 135 gram race binding but it has all the release options that some may prefer.
You can shed some of the weight from the Speed with a pair of B&D Ski Gear top plates that eliminate about 130 grams per pair. 4.5 ounces...that's a couple of Snicker Bars. You'll lose the high position for climbing but with the newer race-style boots, the increase in ankle articulation negates some of this loss. The trick is to not ski with partners with a point to prove when determining skin track angle. You know who you are.
The days of putting on Dynafit Speed bindings on your lightest set-up are not necessarily over but there're a bunch of lighter options available now and it wouldn't surprise me if this binding faded away in the coming years.
Two other Dynafit offerings for next season are the TLT Speed Superlight (185 grams) and TLT Speed Radical(340 grams). These uses a totally re-vamped heel lifter configuration with the Superlight utilizing a 3-bolt mounting pattern for the heel. The Superlight also uses the Low Tech Race Auto toe piece which helps strip the weight significantly. Both should be a competitive addition to a rapidly expanding market.
For going really light any race binding is the next step. Dynafit's Low Tech Lite (197 grams) is the cheapest way to get into this sector. It seems that when Dynafit decided to improve their Low Tech offerings, they cut the price of their previously pricey race binding and many have found their way onto non-race touring skis. The toe piece is not titanium like before but they are still light and affordable.
The real Cadillac of this genre from Dynafit is the Low Tech Race Auto. This binding never really made into the U.S. this season but should see wider release next fall. It's said to be one of the lightest race bindings made at 117 grams and is supposed to be quite durable. No plastic parts to be found. Both the Trab race binding and the Merrelli have had some breakages this season. Not confidence inspiring when you contemplate taking these little suckers onto steep lines in the mountains.
Although there are few other non-Dynafit tech binding options produced in the U.S. that apply in the super light category, the European market is flooded with them. These have been hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic until recently. Several distributors will be bringing them in next season so our options for race-style bindings will increase. However you get them, the race bindings offer severe weight reduction and increased simplicity for light weight fanatics and speed tourers.
Companies known for their race binding offerings are also making light speed touring options. ATK, Plum and LaSportiva all offer attractive bindings with full climbing post selections and release capabilities.
The Italian based ATK makes the RT (175 grams). They're also producing the binding being released by La Sportiva next season. Also called the RT, it looks a little different but assumably has the same guts and 175 gram penalty.
My new favorites in both the race and speed touring categories come from Plum. The renowned, all around crazy-ass free skier, Glen Plake has chosen the Plum Guide binding (335 grams) for his touring needs. That says a lot. This company is small and I doubt they are paying him much to endorse their product. My guess is that Plake simply likes and trusts the equipment.
Plum offers a lighter full-release model, the Guide "S" with one less climbing step for 315 grams.
I have been skiing the Plum Race 145 (145 grams) on my race skis for half the winter and now I have a pair on my mountaineering set-up. I have nothing but positive things to say about this beautiful piece of ski candy.
Plum bindings can be ordered from the distributor in Canada (Escape Route) or directly from the company in France.
Clearly, the speed touring market is taking shape. The goal is to offer something race-like in weight but with better climbing options and full release capability. This seems to be happening. The next couple of seasons will be interesting. Again, Europe will undoubtedly lead the way but products will eventually find their way over here once interest increases enough to make importing them financially viable.
So, unless you like big air or weight 250 pounds before powering down your pre-ski D.O.G. Breakfast Burrito, you really have no excuse to continue to carry around those Fritschi or Marker boat anchors. Lighten up and stop making your friends wait. - Brian