30 Years of Dynafit – Lou’s Story


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

(Condensed version of this is published in English version of the book “30 Years Dynafit Tech Bindings.” This is part two of yesterday’s book review.)

Yours truly around 1998 with early Dynafit bindings on a Colorado hut trip.

Yours truly around 1998 with early Dynafit bindings on a Colorado hut trip.

The first Dynafit bindings we saw here in cowboy country Colorado had the pink and purple little heel units that inspired as much confidence as using women’s underwear as a horse bridle. And I’m not talking about full coverage panties — but rather the most minimal string you can imagine.

In 1993 the first few pairs of bindings for possible retail sales were imported to the U.S. by California shop owner Lock Miller. No surprise I ended up with a set. In those days telemark skiing was the rage for ski touring in North America. Among the “televangelists” I was known as the bad boy who preached the apostate gospel of “AT.” So Lock sent some of his first Dynafit bindings out to Colorado for me and fellow AT skier, Michael Kennedy, to test and perhaps do some writing about.

The 'Purple' Dynafit began sales during winter of 1992-1993. It was one of the first of the Barthel tech bindings made and retailed under the Dynafit brand.

Our first tester, this is the same binding we received in 1993 for evaluation. The 'Purple' Dynafit began sales during winter of 1992-1993. It was one of the first of the Barthel tech bindings made and retailed under the Dynafit brand. Note the swappable spring marked with release value 7.

Having grown up messing around with mechanical things, I was immediately in love. The “Tour Lite Tech” reminded me of a finely made Swiss timepiece for the skier’s feet, tick-tocking as you walked, behaving like so many perfectly fitted tiny cogs and wheels.

On the uphill ski tour, we were stunned at how much energy the tech system saved over anything else we’d tried beyond lightweight Nordic race gear. Not only was the actual physical binding much lighter weight than others of the era, but “frame” type bindings required you to raise most of their weight twice: once when lifting your heel and binding frame during the stride, and again as you moved your ski uphill. This extra lifting of the frame used a lot of energy, and saving this “hidden” weight was an unexpected trick — along with obvious static weight savings — that the frameless Dynafits provided to those of us who adopted the binding.

Me at Darling Pass, Trooper Traverse historical recreation, 2001. Dynafit bindings made it wonderful.

Me at Darling Pass, Trooper Traverse historical re-creation, Colorado 2001. This was the first time I'd used the bindings for a multi-day trip with a heavy pack. I was confident they'd pull through, and they did.

But it wasn’t all roses. The early bindings did not have readily adjustable upwards (vertical at heel) safety release. To tune release value, you had to take the binding apart and swap in a different U-shaped spring. This was not a user friendly process. In fact, if the binding was like a Swiss watch, you had to be like a Swiss watch maker to work on it. Moreover, the upward release springs were only available in release values of 6,7,8,9 with the hardest spring still being inadequate for strong skiing in situations such as moguls.

Acquiring these different binding parts in North America was not easy. In fact, it was nearly impossible, so we made do. With a number 6 spring your heel would come up and out occasionally, but the result was only a pretty telemark, which since it was stylish at the time was a benefit — that is until the subsequent face plant when your toe came out as well. All worth it, as saving weight was everything. Looking back from what I know now, I’m surprised we didn’t start learning Italian and wearing tight Lycra skin pants. Those things would come later to various degrees (yes, I did wear some tights), but I adopted the binding immediately and enjoyed the unfair advantage it gave me over friends who were lugging around gigantic frame bindings such as the Petzl.

Myself (left) and Dynafit PR guy Tim Kelley at Jackson Hole resort, 2006.

Myself (left) and Dynafit PR guy Tim Kelley at Jackson Hole resort, 2006.

Fast forward to 2007. I’m 55 years old, have spent my life as an alpinist, and I’ve never been to Europe. No Chamonix, no Alps, nothing. Why? So much to do in North America, budgets, and yes we love our wild west Colorado with vast terrain that’s virtually untouched. (Not to mention such proletarian pursuits as shooting guns and driving large automobiles, along with Alaska and South America for travel destinations.)

At any rate, Salewa decided around 2005 to ramp up their Dynafit branding and make a go of operating a “ski touring” company with their flagship product being the Dynafit binding. Public relations man Tim Kelley knew of me and my long time love affair with the binding. I’d been writing about it for years, beginning in (now gone) Couloir Magazine, and publishing on the internet with WildSnow.com starting 13 years ago.

Reiner Gerstner during his visit to Jackson Hole in March of 2006, when we first met and he proposed that I ramp up my blog coverage of Dynafit by beginning a regular series of visits to Europe to experience the ski touring culture.

Reiner Gerstner during his visit to Jackson Hole in March of 2006, when we first met and he proposed that I ramp up my blog coverage of Dynafit by beginning a regular series of visits to Europe to experience the ski touring culture.

So Tim wrangled me an invite up to Jackson hole to meet Reiner Gerstner, who was working for Salewa & Dynafit to build the new Dynafit brand practically from scratch. Reiner knew of me from all my writings about tech bindings on WildSnow. He like to joke that I was the only guy on the planet who “knew more about Dynafit bindings than Fritz Barthel.” Reiner is an excellent networker, and “promised” that he’d have me over to Europe for the second annual “Dynafit Press Event.” With more than 30 years around publishing and outdoor industry glad handers I didn’t put much stock in what Reiner said that winter, but lo and behold, in January of 2007 I got a call from Tim Kelley, “pack for Europe.” The second press event was held in January of 2007 at the pink refugio accessed by the Solden (Soelden) ski resort cables in Austria.

Dynafit Press Event 2007 was held at this old hut in the midst of what's now the Solden ski pistes, but plenty of ski touring nearby.

Dynafit Press Event 2007 was held at this old hut in the midst of what's now the Solden ski pistes, but plenty of ski touring nearby.

Tim and Dynafit went big with my trip, and let me attend their sales meeting as well as the press event. At the sales meet I got an insider view that few journalists are privileged to, seeing the business both from the employees’ point of view, capped with three days of journalist hype. For me, a high point of the event was the debut of the Zzero Green Machine — still one of the cleanest, most honestly engineered ski touring boots ever made.

But really, the highlight of that first trip to Europe was the human side. A few memories:

Reiner Gerstner, working hard on branding at the time. His amusingly exaggerated story about Dynafit’s Paulownia wood cores involved a Himalayan wedding and the “heart” of the ski. To make his point, Reiner would stand the ski up next to his red glowing face as if he was getting ready to kiss it. Staring out at the audience with eyes beaming out of his head like two Mercedes headlamps, he’d enunciate “bum-bump bu-bump ba-bump” with his hand patting the ski like a lover. “The hearbeat of the ski,” he’d say, “You can hear it if you… listen!” Despite the hyperbole what he said actually made sense — as Dynafit has continued to this day to make some pretty fine skis.

Benni looks on as Schorsch explains their new packs introduced during 2007 Press Event.

Benni looks on as Schorsch explains their new packs introduced during 2007 Press Event.

Schorsch Nickaes. He would work all day presenting product. Come dark, on went the aircraft bright headlamp. I’d never seen anything like these guys’ devotion to cardio skiing. I’d watch the headlamp beam sweeping the glacier above the hut. Later, it would flash in the window of the hut with the rhythm of the turns Schorsch made as he skied down after his workout.

Benedikt Boehm. He was at that 2007 press event. I’d brought over a few copies of my North American ski history book, “Wild Snow,” and gave Benni a copy after I discovered how much he enjoyed talking about future ski mountaineering goals. This was before Benni would become Dyanfit CEO as well as skiing several 8,000 meter peaks.

And then, Fritz Barthel. Dynafit would not exist as we know it without Fritz. He invented the binding.

Fritz in 2007. We still laugh about his white outfits and how careful he had to be to prevent blueberry stains from the prevalent vegetation.

Fritz in 2007. We still laugh about his white outfits and how careful he had to be to prevent blueberry stains from the prevalent vegetation. The main thing is he skis so well and so smoothly he never needed a big binding with high release values. That fact was an important driver to the elegant result demonstrated in his invention.

Fritz is a tall man with a muscular build. In the U.S., it has been made abundantly clear to any skier that most Austrians skied out of the womb. This has to be true of Fritz, who skis in a playful style, blending techniques and vintages. Glue the feet together here. Wide stance there. Wriggle a few turns and bounce over a bump. Lay those boards over and make a squiggly carve down the piste. He is one of the best skiers I’ve ever skied with.

Mainly, when you see Fritz and his family ski, you know why those original bindings did not require “World Cup” racing strength or anything beyond release value 9. Smooth and fluid gliding over the snow asks little of a binding. (That said, it is amazing how strong nearly all tech binding models have proved to be over the years.)

Not only can Fritz go downhill, but he’s strong on the up as well. Mountain DNA was inherited from his father Manfred, who ski toured from youth into his 80s, and was doing 100+ days a season until just a few years ago.

Fritz and his family embody the spirit of ski touring in ways that prior to meeting them I’d imagined, but never experienced.

Along with the Press Event 2007, it was arranged for me to meet Fritz Barthel. I’d been tearing apart Dynafit bindings and publishing all sorts of details. The joke was that Fritz was wondering if perhaps over in the United States we had somehow created a surveillance system to acquire details from his Bad Haering workshop.

My first Austrian summit.  Fritz is taking the photo, that's Manfred Barthel to the right, family friend Rici to the left.

My first Austrian summit. Fritz is taking the photo, that's Manfred Barthel to the right, family friend Riki Leitner to the left.

So on a fine (actually cloudy, cold and quite disconcertingly dark) day in January I landed in Munich to be greeted by none other than the man himself. We immediately got along fabulously. Love of the mountains and all that, and love of small complex mechanical parts helped as well. We also shared a sense of humor that allowed constant riffing on everything from religion, to the differences between Germans and Austrians — and Americans of course!

I’d not had much experience with jet lag, and mentioned to Fritz that I wasn’t feeling up to par. He suggested a ski tour the next day as “the cure.” Wanting to hold my own with the legendary Tyroleans, I figured I’d just suffer through it, even though lying around the Barthel house drinking espresso seemed much more attractive.

The tour wasn’t long. Perhaps 900 meters of climbing. But we were “in the egg” the whole time — with as much visibility as if we were wearing stylish St. Anton headbands pulled over our eyes. My fitness was good so I was able to hold my place on the climb despite being wasted from traveling.

After the traditional sitting, chilling our bones and sipping schnapps around the summit cross (I was waiting for the Barthels to change to lederhosen for the descent, but apparently that’s reserved for later in the bar), down we dropped. This is it, I thought. If I can’t ski they’ll send me back to the United States wrapped in an Austrian flag with a sign hanging from my neck that said “Tried to hang with Tyroleans — could not do it.”

Naturally, three turns off the summit my jet lagged brain checked out due to goggle failure and I did a full face body slam into a vertical cornice face. I must have looked like a wienerschnitzel hitting the deep fat fryer kettle. The Tyroleans were not impressed. Yes, the bindings worked. I also still have the Austrian flag hanging on my wall at home, as a memory of that fine day.

I’ve since redeemed myself with the Tyroleans (in my own mind, at least), and hung with a few of them on fairly big days. But when I need a little humble pie, all I have to do is think of my first day in the Alps.

Lou with his planks on the summit tip. Louie did the same thing but the camera malfed for his hero shot. Shucks. But the memory will live. The snow off the summit and down to 17,000 feet was incredibly variable, everything from powder to super hard white-ice. Difficult in our wasted state, but doable --  and a lot faster than walking.

Me skiing off the Denali summit with my Dynafits, 2010. Snow off the summit and down to 17,000 feet was incredibly variable, everything from powder to super hard white-ice.

My only regret with my history with Dynafit bindings is that I never used them during the initial success of my “Ski the Fourteeners” project. I skied the last peak of the 54 Colorado 14ers in spring of 1991 on Silvetta 404s. Those were actually pretty good ski mountaineering bindings if you knew their limitations and work-arounds. The Dynafit tech binding was available in Europe at that time, but not yet proven for extreme skiing. Just a few years later I’d become a convert to Dynafit, drop literally pounds from my ski setup, and enjoy many more “bonus” fourteener descents on the “gear of the future” — as well as what might be my personal culmination of the tech binding, a Denali ski descent in Alaska with my son and his friends in 2010.

Me and Fritz having an espresso in Bolzano, Italy, 2007. Fritz took me under his wing and showed me how to be a European, or at least try to be. The red jacket was a fail in an Italian city, but I tried.

Fritz Barthel and I having an espresso in Bolzano, Italy, 2007. Fritz took me under his wing and showed me how to be a European, or at least tried. I failed by wearing a red jacket in an Italian city, but I tried to blend in with the hair style.

Comments

27 Responses to “30 Years of Dynafit – Lou’s Story”

  1. Jason Gregg February 13th, 2014 2:35 pm

    Wonderful!

    I remember reading your first Euro Press tour reports thinking, “This guy (and his wife) are liven’ large!” They’ve only gotten better over the years, and your insights on the tech and touring world are something I really value, so thank you.

  2. Lukas February 13th, 2014 4:09 pm

    Great article, Lou!

    Your adventures in Europe are always a nice read for me as a Tyrolean. Moreover there is neither a magazine nor a website in Europe, where you can get such interesting information and perfect research about “our own” products, companys.

    Thanks!

  3. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2014 4:16 pm

    Thanks Lukas, 15% or more of our readership is you guys in the Alps! We actually have some days with more readers from Switzerland than North America, and those are still very big number days so that’s been a surprise! We’re global!

    Thus, I’m doing what a writer is supposed to do and think of readers, but how does one do that when some guy in Innsbruck is reading along with a guy from New York City?

    Interesting dilemma. Life is always something new, adventure in writing!

  4. Lynne Wolfe February 13th, 2014 5:21 pm

    So I have been drinking the Dynafit koolaid for almost 15 years now, am an avid reader and even try to contribute from time to time, but now I have an important question for you, Lou. We are going to Italy in late March, are pretty much kitted out for huts and touring, but my favorite jacket is RED. Can you expound on the fashion advice you hinted at earlier, or perhaps Lisa could step in with advice from the feminine perspective? Will this red jacket make me the laughing-stock of the Alps? Should I care?

    thanks again for all you do for our community
    Lynne

  5. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2014 5:32 pm

    He he. You need two jackets. Red is best for photos up while you’re skiing. When you get into any Italian town (or for that matter nearly anywhere not up in the mountains), you want black or at least earth tones. I usually bring two jackets, one black and one red. Forgot to do that this time and regretted it. If you can only carry one jacket and plan on visiting Italian towns and cities, I’d bring something black or earthy. For example, a black puffy and red shell, leaving the red shell at lodging while doing the town.

    And yes, you should care! Serously, in downtown Bolsano our turquoise and red jackets made us stand out like a sore thumb. Good way to get mugged if it’s night (grin).

    Lou

    ‘best, Lou

  6. kyle tyler February 13th, 2014 6:47 pm

    yea we got a blower out here–FINALLY –ski the trees tight !—been cold too——— — 10 F to minus 10 F every morning many days in a row from mid Jan – early Feb, basel facets all aspects, LOADED !!!- East Coast powder skier— ” Know Snow ” boots on at 0700 boots off 1645

  7. wyomingowen February 13th, 2014 7:28 pm

    Good article
    the fast forward part skipped Croakies International aka Life Link taking on the risk of distribution before Salewa decided they were interested in the market. They always kept the door open to any locals whom needed to check out product first hand.

  8. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2014 9:12 pm

    Wyoming, it wasn’t that simple, and Life Link was just a distributor, only in North America which then was probably about 1/20 of the market if even that. They were not an owner of Dynafit. Not sure what you mean by trying to compare Life Link to Salewa. Apples to oranges.

    It was wonderful Life Link did do the distribution and had their excellent staff based in Jackson, otherwise we would have been stuck with getting bindings by smuggling them from Canada or something (grin). I’d indeed gotten to know Tim Kelley when he was with Life Link in Jackson, and worked with him as the transition was made to Dynafit N.A. and he eventually left.

    Main thing, this sort of writing is not B-to-B and it would take up too much space to mention all the business minutia.

    Since were on the subject, I should mention that my first trip to Europe to visit Dynafit was also conceived by Reiner Gerstner, who was in charge of building the brand and working with Tim on that sort of stuff. I met with Reiner and Tim in Jackson, actually, some time before my first trip.

    Lou

  9. Rod February 13th, 2014 10:02 pm

    Hi Lou,
    I’m of your age. One thing I’ve learned is that any body of knowledge in the hands of someone who gets it can be written on the palm of your hand. Given your body of knowledge, as you see it, what would you write on your hand. The context? Weave real life, into the mountains, tech and tools, and the body and what you want your kids to carry forward.

  10. Jim February 14th, 2014 5:58 am

    Awesome!

    Great article Lou!

  11. Lou Dawson February 14th, 2014 6:58 am

    Rod, I get what you’re saying, some sort of mission statement of a person’s life. Not sure I have something I could fit on the palm of my hand, I’ll think about. Cool idea. Lou

  12. wyomingowen February 14th, 2014 7:21 am

    Thanks Lou,
    I’m in agreement as I wrote distribution and N. America was 5% of market at best.
    Life Link nurtured slow growth which I know was a loss leader vs neoprene sun glass retainers.
    IMHO it’s noteworthy of how the history went from the dedicated hard corp, like yourself, to pin techs available in a majority of western ski shops.

    Your writing has my 100% support. I guess I’m sensitive to the fast forward living the Hole.

  13. Lou Dawson February 14th, 2014 7:42 am

    Wyoming, indeed, if it happened in Jackson Hole it has to be significant (grin). But seriously, I’d agree that the phase when Life Link distributed the binding in NA is indeed an important part of Dynafit history, since the gradual introduction of the binding to North America resulted in North America in turn having quite an influence on binding design because we tend to be less forgiving of gear quirks.

    But what I’m trying to do with these sorts of articles is stay away from “business reporting,” which is a trap lots of journalists get into in our industry since it’s easy fodder. Example is the panting articles and blog posts you see when a backcountry gear company buys or is sold to another company, and that sort of thing (a trap I get caught in myself). In many cases, if you’re a consumer, who cares?

    What’s more important is the people involved, and if it’s gear, the details of how the gear was developed or invented, and how it is used or performs.

    In the case of the Dynafit book, they do a terrific job of keep the “business biography” part of it quite minimal. Most of the book is first-hand accounts from people using or otherwise experiencing the binding over a 30 year span.

  14. Shawn February 14th, 2014 11:34 am

    Lynne,

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Dolomiti, and I felt that my wool stocking cap always marked me as American. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else wear one in town. You may want to put something more stylish on your head. Fortunately, Italy is not a bad place to shop.

  15. brian h February 14th, 2014 11:40 am

    Since this post has become a ‘catch-all’: Lou is this the first appearance of a panty analogy in a Wildsnow post?

  16. Lou Dawson February 14th, 2014 11:51 am

    Not sure. Google will tell the tale (grin). Backstory on that is I was trying to write something that might translate and still be humorous in German, by using a simple analogy that involved livestock and women’s clothing. Actually thought about it for a while. Not sure if it worked, am waiting for German edition then I’ll ask.

  17. Lou Dawson February 14th, 2014 11:53 am

    I’d say buying an item of clothing in Italy should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s on ours. We didn’t have time to really go for it this last trip, but good to always have future goals. Mine are to buy a neck scarf as well as get an Italian haircut and beard trim. Blog fodder! Lou

  18. brian h February 14th, 2014 11:57 am

    So kinda like Americans laughing at fart jokes? Shoot, anytime you got livestock and lingerie you got the makings of a funny…something.

  19. Lou Dawson February 14th, 2014 12:26 pm

    No, it’s not bathroom humor but rather a descriptive and perhaps humorous analogy.Quite different. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t do much bathroom humor here, but by the same token will sometimes throw PC rules to the wind. Lou

  20. Erik Erikson February 14th, 2014 11:28 pm

    Still remember when I saw the tourlite-tech binding first, must have been 1987 or 88 here in Austria.. I myself was on a “Ramer guide” at this time (guess you have several of those in your “binding museum”, Lou).
    We were staying on a hut for one week and at first I did not believe that this tiny little tech binding would survive even that week of use. But in the end, my ramer had a malfunction and the tech worked amazingly well…

  21. Silas Wild February 14th, 2014 11:41 pm

    When tele gear began to get heavier, and AT lighter (Ramer binding, Fischer Extreme ski) in the early 90s, I made the switch. Then when I saw my first LowTech bindings in 1993 near Mt Baker, I wondered if they really worked. The young Austrian owner told me he breaks a pair of skis each year, but never broke a TLT binding, and I was convinced. My twenty year old pair with release spring 7s still works fine!

    When Salewa bought Dynafit they really put innovation in motion for other gear to match the bindings. The Manaslu still is my favorite one ski does all, and the TLT5 boot added years to my uphill skiing life. It now is copied as much as the TLT binding. Bravo Fritz, Bene, Schorsch, Mario and the rest of the Dynafit team. Thank you.

  22. Lou Dawson February 15th, 2014 6:17 am

    Nice memories you guys.

    All! Got any memories of your first tech bindings?

  23. CDR February 15th, 2014 9:46 pm

    Great memories. Makes me want to buy new bindings for my gear. hehe

  24. bob February 18th, 2014 5:09 am

    what an inspiration,

  25. Jon B February 19th, 2014 1:07 pm

    My biggest memory of Dynafit bindings was not of my first TLT Speed in 2000, but my early adoption of the Tri-Step. I bought a pair in October 2002 from Martin Volken and soon thereafter did a tour in in Mt. Rainier National Park. With just about every kick turn I would blow out of the toe piece. As you can imagine I became extremely frustrated. I took them back to Martin the next day and demonstrated the fault in the design. I exchanged them for another pair of TLT Speeds and have been happily using the two pair on different skis since then. I finally bought a Dynafit other than the Speed this year for my fat skis, Radical STs. I learned from my Tri-Step experience to never be an early adopter of ski touring bindings. As the ongoing saga of the new alternatives to Dynafit is showing, this is not a bad bit of learning.

  26. Lou Dawson February 19th, 2014 5:18 pm

    All I can say is ditto. Or perhaps more, and say that the Tristep debacle was ridiculous and Dynafit did learn a lesson from it, as did folks like yourself (grin)!

  27. Erik Erikson February 19th, 2014 9:28 pm

    Though I got to know the Dynafit binding quite early (around 1987, I guess) it was 10 years before I had my own first pair of it (due to never having money before this time and always buying the cheapest and used gear I could find which usually was a silvretta 400).
    It was mounted on my first “carving ski” also, so I felt having a real “space age setup”. It was a “Atomic tour carve”, with a 67 waist I guess and a tip under 100 mm – would look like a cross country ski nowadays. Funny, people at those time still often thought such a ski would not work on the uphill – you could not do traverses and so on…
    The ski was sorted out many years ago, but I still have one of the 1998 tech bindings (I wonder, where I misplaced the other part of the pair). It still works great, paired with a newer version, so on one of my skies I have a blue and red Dynafit binding on one and a silver version on the other ski.. looks quite unique..

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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