Stepping Up: Black Diamond Freeride Boots
Stepping Up: Black Diamond Freeride Bootsby Daniel Boccia
For the past several years, the wintersports world has witnessed the explosion of backcountry skiing and riding. Remember when Alberto Tomba and Jean Claude Killey ruled the ski world and all the coolest gear was plastered with gimmicky words like “Racing” or “World Cup?” Well, today the untouched powder of the backcountry has captivated the imaginations of freeriders. The exodus into the wild mountains surrounding most resorts has led to a surging demand for backcountry boots, bindings, and skis that perform like their alpine brethren. So far, the ever-entrenched ski industry has been slow to act in addressing that demand, opting more often to simply throw around product titles with hollow buzz words like “Backcountry” or “BC.”
At the same time, the traditional stereotypes of tele-hippies and AT dorks noodling through low-angle powder on flimsy, lightweight gear has been altered by the emergence of a new generation of Redbull- drinking, TGR- watching, cliff-hucking skiers heading into the backcountry in search of the gnar. Nowadays “sidecountry” skiers access the goods via resort boundaries and may spend any given day making park laps, backcountry laps, or both. Hard-charging, deep-country tourers, and slackcountry bandits alike have had to compromise when it comes to bagging BC lines. Much to their dismay, these skiers have had to settle for soft, sloppy, and less aggressively tuned backcountry gear or endure the torture of skinning and hiking in cold, stiff, blister-inducing alpine boots. Until now.
Recognizing this trend and where the future of freeskiing is headed, relative newcomer Black Diamond heeded the call and has released a new line of freeride-specific AT and telemark boots to complement the full line of Black Diamond skis and bindings for this season.
“The AT market was one where we saw a huge void with a big gap between where traditional AT boots end and where alpine boots begin,” said Thomas Laakso, Black Diamond’s resident ski guru and driving force behind the company’s recent expansion into the ever-growing freeride market. “Our motivation was to create a line of AT boots that did not ski like AT boots, to truly create alpine performance and comfort with AT versatility.” Anybody who has spent the better part of day climbing a peak in plug boots or has sketched their way down an ass-puckering line on a awkward randonee rig will understand Laakso’s predicament when he says : “I'd get to the trailhead with some major vert ahead and wish I had some other boots on to get up this thing. Then I'd get to the top and peer down over the lip and wish I had some worthy boots on.”
BD’s entry into the ski boot market represents a rare and bold move within the industry, one that has not been attempted by anyone for several decades. The capital investment and R&D required for such a project is staggering. Laakso is hesitant to quote exact figures, but we can safely assume the project’s up-front costs accounted for a significant portion of the Black Diamond’s net worth, and the company won’t be receiving any Federal bailout packages if the boots don’t sell.
“The boot market definitely has a HUGE barrier of entry. So it's taken a monumental effort to say the least,” said Laakso of the three-plus year process of design, testing and fine-tuning that has seen its share of delays and setbacks.
Just like in its line of climbing and alpinist gear, Black Diamond took a scientific, engineering-heavy approach to boot design, a field that has often been dominated by artisanship. One of the most important elements of the new boot line was fit, a sharp departure from the traditional European obsession with elegant, lightweight gear. Beginning with the acquisition of an $80,000 digital 3D scanner, engineers at BD scanned people’s feet, competitor’s shell casts and range of motion then meticulously studied the results. They custom built 360-degree flex-analysis machines. They watched slow motion films of boot distortion. They did a bunch of crazy stuff we don’t even know about, and the list goes on.
“The results are in, and we've created a paradigm shift in boot performance and fit,” said Laakso.
Of course that all sounds well and good, but before we drank the oh-so-tempting Kool-Aid Black Diamond is pushing, we took a hard look at their flagship AT boot, the Factor, to see what Laakso was on about. And while the snow has yet to fly for real in the Wasatch, some clomping around the office can reveal more about a ski boot than you might expect.
The Factor’s alpine style overlap cuff design (featured on all of BD’s boots) immediately caught our attention with its progressive flex and stiff, beefy feel. Another high point was the nifty interchangeable heel and toe blocks that slide on and off with an audible click, and are secured with two screws each, providing a bomber connection to your binding of choice (ISO DIN or Dynafit). Still, skeptics question the ability of any boot with a ski/walk mode to match the performance of dedicated alpine boots, but BD’s integrated mechanism looks way more solid than traditional designs. That’s good because the last thing anybody wants is to find their boots in walk mode while straight-lining out of a cliff drop. The liner’s ratcheting Boa closure, (which has been used in snowboard boots for years) also presents a concern for some who doubt the system’s durability. Of course only a full season in the mountains can confirm or dispel these doubts, and time will tell.
Just as important as BD’s insanely costly capital investment and laborious research was the fresh ideas they brought to the field of boot design. One of the defining characteristics of the new boots is their overlap cuff design, which goes a long way to marrying the performance traits of downhill and backcountry boots. While the overlap design sacrifices some degree of adjustability provided by tongue construction, it not only replicates the progressive flex of alpine shells but also allows for an unrestricted, natural touring stride.
“The turning point was four years ago when the first AT boot protos with our alpine overlap construction hit the snow and I was like--these feel like my race boots! And without that tongue they tour better than any of my AT boots!” said Laakso of the all-important epiphany.
The last three years have seen many incarnations of various prototypes and plenty of dutiful testing by Black Diamond’s pro team, who acted as anything but a bunch of yes-men throughout the process. In fact, the athletes were the first of many cynics to question the new line.
“We subjected the tele team to some real hair-brain protos through the last two years. The locked heel team was much more enjoyable from the get go,” said Laakso, who admits winning over the athletes was the first step to legitimacy.
“It was really liberating for us, as [the skiers] were huge skeptics of an AT boot actually performing and they took the protos out as more or less a kind gesture from what I can tell. But when our skiers like Billy Poole [RIP], Drew Stoecklein, and Brett Crabtree swapped their every day boots to the Factor, it legitimized what we were thinking,” explains Laakso.
Both the telemark and the AT boot lines offer skiers unprecedented versatility. BD’s flagship tele boot, the Custom, is likely the stiffest on the market and unlike its race-bred competition, it features a mechanically integrated walk-mode that improves touring performance. The AT line features interchangeable sole blocks that are compatible with both ISO DIN and AT binding standards, including the elusive Dynafit system. So you don’t need a closet full of boots anymore. Peace.
Add to that, techy features like the ratcheting Boa closure system on top of the line models like Custom and the Factor (AT) and you have some boots that have created quite a buzz in the snow sports world (and our office), along with a fair amount cynicism and doubt, as well. Some of Black Diamond’s old ski lines had their share of lame ducks. But having garnered a stack of industry awards and high marks from magazine product tests, Black Diamond is feeling confident in their newest product line.
“The industry's reaction was a mixture of wishful but unsubstantiated skepticism and I think it’s a wake-up call to get off their asses and start innovating themselves,” said Laakso.
We’re reserving judgment pending a long (and hopefully deep) season of use and abuse. And while the new boots have yet to prove themselves to core backcountry skiers, nobody can deny that the basic concept underlying Black Diamond’s latest move is a good one. We’ve all been waiting for the do-it-all boot, and this new line holds great potential to fulfill that wish. But we’re also hoping that it pushes the stodgy old ski industry to get with the times and spice up their offerings as well.