Alpine touring boots and bindings have become more comfortable and reliable, and the industry has taken notice, with new products flooding the shelves at Steamboat Springs ski shops.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Alpine touring boots and bindings have become more comfortable and reliable, and the industry has taken notice, with new products flooding the shelves at Steamboat Springs ski shops.

Backcountry ski equipment hits retail shelves in Steamboat

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Backcountry accessories, such as Backcountry Access collapsable shovels, available at Christy Sports for $49.95, have proven to be strong sellers for local shops.

— It could be the crash of the economy or the rise of technology — or simply the next step in adventurers’ never-ending quests to push onward.

Whatever the reason, backcountry skiing gear has started to go from extreme to mainstream, and that’s driven local ski shops to re-evaluate the way they do business.

New layout

Christy Sports has had a strong presence in Steamboat Springs for years. It’s virtually impossible to make it to a lift at Steamboat Ski Area without walking or driving past at least one of its locations.

It’s always been easy to forget about the out-of-the-way location in Clock Tower Square, however, so before the 2010-11 ski season, the shop made a switch, jumping on to the backcountry bandwagon by dedicating all of its floor space to that niche, which quickly is becoming more than a niche.

“We still do rentals and everything a normal rental shop would do, but we don’t really sell jackets anymore or things like that. We gear toward hard goods like boots and bindings and skis,” said Martin Clay, a manager at the store. “More and more people are starting to get off of the resorts, and so far this has worked out for us. Last year was OK, but so far, this year has been awesome.”

Part of Christy’s transition from a ho-hum gear rental shop was the addition of backcountry or side-country rental equipment. They still stock some regular Alpine skiing supplies to sell or rent, but the vast majority of what they do at this point is Alpine touring, Telemark and cross-country setups.

They carry only a few skis less than 90 millimeters wide underfoot, instead loading up on the fat powder skis that have become ubiquitous on snowy days, even on the relatively tame trails at the ski area.

Christy Sports isn’t alone. Ski Haus also has joined in the surge. It’s long been one of the go-to stops in town for a Telemark setup and backcountry supplies but has been expanding its offerings. It also offers AT and Tele rentals this season.

“We’ve always had a backcountry emphasis, and now we’re doing even more,” Ski Haus’ Andrew Stoller said. “A lot of people see their buddies doing it, or they come up here on vacation and see the mountain crowded and want to try something different. A lot of people are just heading up to Rabbit Ears and trying it out.”

Engineered differently

So what’s with the surge?

It’s a lot of things, according to the experts. Part of it is that backcountry skiing simply may be the “something new” that avid sports enthusiasts have been looking for, having torn through terrain parks and every other development. Also, a great increase in power from snowmobiles in the past decade has helped open up the backcountry.

Still, nothing’s been more decisive than the advancement of the equipment. The game changer may have been the creation of a solid, reliable AT binding.

Like a Telemark binding, an AT binding allows a user’s heel to rise off the ski, making it easier to hike into areas not served by lifts.

Unlike Telemark equipment, an AT binding enables a skier to lock the heel down, allowing a traditional Alpine-skiing style descent. The bindings and the boots that fit them have grown more stable and reliable, and that’s made them a real option for skiers.

“Now they’re making AT boots lighter and more comfortable, and they have that walk function,” Clay said.

Mike Martin, director of Colorado Mountain College’s ski and snowboard business program, pointed directly to one development. He said the Marker Duke binding’s AT variant is one of the major causes of the growth.

“That’s a driving force,” he said. “A lot of those people still ski the resort, but for an extra $100, they will pay for a binding that also tours. In Steamboat, we have had the (Fish Creek) Canyon and gate access for a long time, so our traditional local, who in years past has gravitated toward Tele, is now coming back toward Alpine because of the improvement in AT.”

The power of that improvement can be seen in the sales numbers. The number of snowboards sold dipped 4 percent a year ago, but skis surged, thanks in large part to the growth of the backcountry market, which includes the bindings and wider, lighter skis tailored to float in powder.

AT gear rocketed up 90 percent in terms of sales in the 2010-11 season. Telemark, meanwhile, saw a 16 percent decrease in terms of units sold, according to a Snow Sports Market Intelligence Report developed by Snowsports Industry America.

“Telemark has declined by almost the same percentage that AT gained, so that’s a direct reflection of Telemark skiers migrating to AT setups,” Martin wrote in an email. “Prior to the improvements in AT gear, a typical skier felt that Telemark was the best way to access the backcountry. This advantage has all but disappeared, as the ease and comfort of modern AT equipment provides an equal to, if not better, experience in touring.

“Not only are you able to tour just as fast as a Telemark skier, you can then lock down your binding and rip a run as you would on a traditional resort-based set up. This is also true in split-board snowboard technology, where the technology has really improved and allowed snowboarders to forgo snowshoes for access,” Martin wrote.

That’s not news for those on the front lines, peddling skis to Steamboat’s enthusiasts. There’s been a shift, they said, and backcountry is growing.

“Focusing on backcountry and side-country gear gives people a reason to come here,” said Laura Rotaru, a manager at the Clock Tower Christy Sports store. “We needed to find something to bring people here, and it has.”

— To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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