Words and Photo by Ian Mackie
Free the heel, free the mind: Telemark skiers have said this for decades but, in truth, this should be the motto for all backcountry skiing. Whether you are on telemark or alpine-touring (AT) gear, unlocking the heel and climbing into the backcountry will, indeed, free the mind. For decades as backcountry skiers have ventured off into uncharted terrain, we ‘pin-heads’ have had to sit back and watch the AT world evolve as their bindings got lighter and nimbler. Now there seems to be new light on the horizon for telemarkers. Old-school telemark skiers may be reluctant to throw down the cash and buy one of the new-school, free-pivot telemark bindings, but the truth is this: Until Black Diamond (BD) and G3 launched their respective versions of free-pivot bindings, telemark skiers weren’t really ‘free’…in the heel that is.
Without getting too technical (and without comparing the minor nuances between all of the telemark bindings out there), up until last season anyone skiing on a pair of G3 Targas, Hammerheads, Rottefella Cobras or BD 02 (to name a few) was probably unaware of how much downward tension was caused by those springs while touring. The Voile 3-pin binding was the closest you could get to pain-free climbing while still dropping a knee on the way down. That is, until Black Diamond (BD 01), G3 (Targa Ascent) and new for the ’08 season, Voile Switchback and 7tm Power Tour Releasable, each introduced their version of a free-pivot telemark binding that has changed who will be breaking trail at the end of the day.
I can only give my opinion of the BD 01, which I purchased mid-way through last season and which have now climbed to the summit Mt Rainier, raced over 12,000 ft at a Whistler randonnee rally and cut through innumerable powder stashes. At first glance, the 01 comes across as a telemark binding that can (and will) take a beating. Weighing 3 pounds, 11 ounces (per pair), It’s not as light as the Ascent. I take that as a positive. Unlike the lightweight aluminum toe piece of the Ascent, the 01 uses a stainless steel one. There are a few plastic pieces, most notably a couple spacers below the toe piece that just recently are beginning to show some play. This was my first telemark binding where the cable routing and cartridges run underfoot; I had no problems getting used to this.
Take note: You have a choice of springs with the 01. Most come stocked with the “mid-stiff’” springs, but you also can purchase the aptly named “ridiculously stiff” or the softer FreeFlex. At just over 6′ and 165 lbs, I ski pretty aggressively so I considered purchasing the “ridiculously stiff” springs until I chatted with a BD representative. He said he has never sold a set of 01’s with the rid-stiff spring. Needless to say, I went with the mid-stiff and can attest that, unless you are a hard-charging fool with super-fat boards, you needn’t bother with the rid-stiff.
Performance-wise the 01 rips. It’s stable and transfers power to the ski with great efficiency. When the hills slope upward, climbing mode is as simple as using the tip of your pole to push a green (plastic) tab at the front of the binding (the Targa Ascent and Voile both require you to slide a lever across the front of the binding) that unlocks a hook underneath the toe plate. Your heel is truly free!!! Climbing becomes fun again.
But all is not necessarily perfect. Snow has this tendency to turn into ice and if any amount of snow balls or ices up underneath the toe-plate, transferring back into ski mode can sometimes be a hassle. Usually a good whack to the ski or boot frees the snow but, occasionally, I’ve had to take off the ski and scrape away the snow before ‘locking’ the heel.
This is not a huge issue but a nuisance, especially if you’re trying to beat your buddies to first tracks. As I mentioned above, there is also a bit of horizontal play beginning to develop at the pivot point directly under the front of the toe piece. This play is somewhat temperamental, coming and going with different temperatures. It’s a tad bit disconcerting, especially if something were to go wrong deep in the backcountry. I’m watching this and, if it worsens, the binding is heading back to Black Diamond HQ as quickly as our Cascade powder turns to cement.
All in all, I am very pleased with the BD 01 telemark bindings. They are not perfect but the difference in climbing ease (compared to other non-free-pivot tele bindings) makes these a no brainier if you are in the hunt for a new binding. Of course, there is also the cost to consider and at $299 (retail) these are not cheap—what is in the ski industry these days? Buy the bindings at the middle or end of the season for 20 percent off and, I promise, you will never look back…or envy your AT companions.
This post was originally published on 1/7/08.