While generally I love fall, I have often said that the best fall season is when it’s warm warm warm….and then the switch is flipped and it starts snowing, and thus it is winter. This keeps the trails and mountains still accessible for hikes and runs pretty late and then builds up a decent snowpack quickly that hopefully will enable some snowpack stability. But the truth is that my ideal scenario rarely happens; more often than not it’s a pretty nice fall until the rogue September or October storm rumbles through and drops a foot of snow that is just deep enough to somewhat inhibit mountain rambles and just late enough that it’s going to stick around and decompose into sugar snow and create an unstable base for when the snow starts to come in earnest.
This seems to have been happening enough lately that I’ve kinda resigned myself to no “real” skiing until December at the earliest, and even then it tends to be hiding out on low angle slopes, in the protection of trees, and up at the highest elevations that have the most base. And of course, everyone else is doing the same.
But not this year! We got ourselves The Switch. It’s been high (pressure) and dry all fall until last weekend, and by Monday the storm had foiled the prognosticators and it dropped almost three feet in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The arrival of winter always is the time for everyone to re-engage with their gear and try to remember what combos of skis/boots/clothes/eyewear etc worked best and how to be conscientious with it so you don’t leave vital shit at home (I’ve forgotten every critical piece of gear at least once: pack, boots, poles, skins, gloves, food, water… even skis!). And thus as I’m dragging out my stuff I am thinking about it, and thought I’d do a quick review of a few new-ish pieces of gear that are worthy.
Atomic Backland Carbon Boot
About nine or ten years ago there was the beginnings of a tectonic shift in ski boots. At that time AT boots had been mostly big and clunky: the Scarpa Magic:
and Garmont Megaride had been kinda the standards and were fine boots for skiing, but were heavy and had limited range of motion for hiking. Then Black Diamond introduced the Factor, which was even bigger/burlier/heavier with even less range of motion.
Skimo was a burgeoning activity that was even more niche than it is now, and the only real boot that anyone used was the original Scarpa F1:
That was light and had good range of motion but….it was a race boot; you couldn’t actually go skiing in that thing with real skis, especially after drilling out tons of plastic to make it look like a block of Swiss cheese (and save grams) the way the Euro racer geeks – and the SLC Samurai – were doing it:
Then one day I went out with Utah mountain bike legend Bart Gillespie and somehow he had gotten his hands on an early pair of Dynafit TLT 5’s:
I was stunned. I helped design/develop the liners for the BD boots and was clunking around in those along with everyone else, and suddenly here was one of the fittest guys around charging uphill in boots that seemed more running shoe than ski boot. The weight of those boots was almost half that of the Factors, yet Bart (and shortly thereafter the SLC Samurai) were skiing them just fine. The fit wasn’t very good; the bottom of the last was sort of a V, and Dynafit quickly changed the last for the next iteration, and the liners were thin and cold, but that boot was the progenitor of an entire genre of light but eminently-skiable boots.
There are now a ton of boots in the category that is loosely defined as 1000-1300 gram (2-3 pound; in a size 270) boots with good range of motion that provide perfectly-fine skiability: the Scarpa F1 series (way updated from the original, and there are now several versions that are less race and more general), Dynafit’s TLT series, and La Sportiva lead the charge. Those three also lead in the category that is a step up in terms of weight and burliness, for those former/current resort crossover folks who apparently are entrenched in the concept of a Big Burly Boot and/or don’t have the skills/confidence to ski something smaller on their 33 degree powder runs and prefer to creep up skin tracks (don’t even get me started on “Freeride” boots; as if I knew what “Freeriding” meant, tho it does seem to me that it’s code for “stay close to trailheads and do very little vert!”). But a coupla years ago Atomic took their resort-boot prowess and innovative moldable plastic and became one of the few of the mainstream boot companies to do a “real” touring boot (Fischer and Dalbello are two others).
As expected, there were a few issues with the original boots (having been part of a team that introduced a line of ski boots I know only too well the many ways that ski boots can go awry) but they have refined the boots to the point where they are quite dialed. It’s actually a bit challenging for me to give these a very critical review: they fit well (I have a pretty narrow foot and can accommodate most boots), the liner is the right combo of thick enough to provide padding and warmth, they walk really well (with the Wasatch’s steep skin tracks, the range of motion of the cuffs is pretty important, and if you live in a place with longer flat approaches, the range of motion becomes even more important), they are an adequately-light weight, and they ski…..great! I’ve skied these at warp speed on medium-sized skis, danced down hard coolies in the spring on smaller/lighter (but non-race) skis, and used them a lot with my split board, and they work great for all. Though they do indeed look narrow, the Atomic plastic is billed as unusually good at being able to“punch out” the plastic to account for your 5th metarsal up near your little toe or the back end of that bone that protrudes on the outside of your foot.
One interesting aspect of them is that in lieu of the plastic shell coming up over the front of the foot/shin there’s cordura-like fabric, which seems a bit weak in theory, but the truth is that the cuff provides all the stiffness that you need and the fabric is quite effective at keeping the snow out of the boot and doesn’t seem to get wet.
The walk mechanism is big and is never under much tension, so it’s pretty easy to engage/disengage without snapping your finger between it and the shell ,nor does it ice up alas some walk mechs. It does have a little unnecessary cord on it that I never use that sometimes falls into the slot and keeps it from engaging with the shell; I gotta take those off (the lever has enough of a flare at the end that it’s easy to grab with a gloved finger).
During my time at Black Diamond working on the Factor and the related tele boots I did a lot of work with Boa, and I must say I am a bit biased against Boa for that reason; they tried hard and provided good customer service, but their system is expensive and complicated, and I’ve always struggled to get shells cranked down onto my low instep, which feels to me where a lot of my skiing “center” happens. And buckles are so simple! (the ski boot equivalent of laces…) But I’ve padded these out enough – as I always do – that I can get enough oomph out of the Boa tightening and it is indeed nice to pop the dial when I need more blood flow to my toes to warm them up. So the Boa may or may not be a good use of technology but it works. I have to admit that the super-clean/sleek profile of the forefoot of these boots – without the forefoot buckle – is appealing to me.
Skimo.co calls the Backlands “serious” in their description; I try not to take much of anything – even skiing, and especially boots – very seriously, but the black color does make them look a bit….serious, which is probably my biggest gripe about them; I wish they were as fun-looking as they are to ski!
As noted above, there are a buncha boots in this category and the truth is that there isn’t much difference in their specs or performance, so it kinda comes down to the last that the manufacturer settled on and then what either you or a boot fitter can do to modify the fit to get a good’n for you. Of course, that assumes you have access to a good bootfitter and want to sit there for an hour while he grunts his COVID breath all over you working the boot in and out of the oven and on/off your foot. The Atomic may enable you to avoid that.
For clever and honest descriptions of this boot and all the many others, skimo.co is an extraordinary resource of both beta and inventory.