What is retarding ‘AT’ Randonee Touring Ski Binding Development?

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

I wrote this blog post back in December of 2004, the first year of WildSnow.com. Sadly, with a bit of editing it becomes an encore presentation…

One would think that since the departure from cable bindings nearly a half century ago, we’d have backcountry skiing bindings engineered like, say, an iPhone. Bindings such as the tech system really are backcountry skiing marvels (about the same size as in iPhone), and most people figure out how to get many excellent days out of their randonnee bindings (especially compared to the breakage history of earlier telemark bindings that were essentially nordic touring bindings asked to perform as alpine bindings.)

Nonetheless, considering the cost of randonnee bindings and the resources that have gone into improving the things, they’ve long been in a state of development that in my opinion could best be termed “retarded.” (Yes, I know it’s not always PC to use that word, but here I use it to mean arrested development of a manufactured product, ok?)

Over the last decades most rando bindings released for retail sale have had either durability or function issues in their first season of retail. Most of those problems are eventually fixed through “in line” changes or release of a new model, but who knows what lurks on the horizon? No company is immune.

I remember when the first Fritschi Diamirs came to me for testing a number of years ago. On the workbench, I snapped in a boot and the heel unit exploded into high velocity shards. An improved heel was quickly designed and released to the public, but not before a number of people had this somewhat shattering experience (lesson: wear eye protection when bench testing bindings).

Then there was the Dynafit Tristep debacle of 2002. Deservedly renowned for the engineering savvy of the original tech bindings, Dynafit released a binding that worked fine in alpine mode but which you’d walk out of in one or two steps while touring. A fix was soon issued, but it never worked 100% and the Tristep was discontinued to be replaced by the Comfort model, Verticals, and current Radicals — all of which have had issues.

And who can forget the Silvretta SL, which would explode into small parts if you took a forward fall while touring? You needed the skills of a Swiss watch maker to put ‘em together again — if you could find the parts.

The nearly comical litany has continued. Exciting new brand-model comes out, heel units shattered. Another brand’s heels self destructed. Plate frame bindings snapped in half or the touring pivots quickly wore out. AFD’s flew apart. Tech binding toe wings and toe pins snapped.

Here at WildSnow, we’ve become very leery of testing pre-production or first-year ski bindings. We still test and review, but with subdued enthusiasm and sometimes downright paranoia.

Your take oh esteemed readers of WildSnow? Is there some kind of endemic problem in ski binding developments that’s leading to the constant sound of snapping aluminum and cracking plastic? Or am I totally off base here? After all, more than five million iPhones were just returned to the manufacturer due to defects. Should we just expect everything to be flawed?

Comments

44 Responses to “What is retarding ‘AT’ Randonee Touring Ski Binding Development?”

  1. Ben May 14th, 2013 9:43 am

    Broke two radical heels this year. Bottom line is that we trust our lives to these products, and when they fail, you’re left to wonder. We do all we can to pad the safety margins when out in the mountains. I think gear selection and maintenance is a huge part of that often overlooked. I consider myself lucky that the Radical failures all occurred in non-critical moments.

  2. Tuck May 14th, 2013 9:45 am

    Unfortunately this is typical of new-product development, which is basically what’s happening in AT bindings.

    Alpine bindings are pretty static, on the other hand: the designs are tried and true and haven’t changed fundamentally for decades. (Yes, I know the manufacturers would have us believe otherwise, but as a practical matter they’re commodities.)

    To take your iPhone example, I was at a breakfast a year ago or so where everyone at the table was telling me how fabulous their iPhones were. I have a Blackberry. Every single iPhone at the table had a cracked screen. My Blackberry, on the other hand, seems to have been inspired by a hockey puck. I’ve never once cracked a screen.

    Of course the company making Blackberries started by making pagers. They know that people don’t like cracked screens, just like people don’t like cracked bindings. Apple is learning it the hard way… Dynafit at least has the excuse that they are trying to design a fundamentally different product. Apple smart phone is a knock-off of smart phones that have existed for years…

  3. Brian May 14th, 2013 9:48 am

    Just like any other product (pharmaceuticals come to mind), there are flaws which are routinely missed by a small group of beta testers, only to be revealed when the public at large puts the device through the motions.

  4. Jack May 14th, 2013 9:52 am

    My opinion is that BC bindings / boots are in a situation that almost begs for companies to introduce untested designs. The field is relatively low volume, has a customer base who are tinkerers, is growing both technically and in total market.
    My guess is that thoroughly shaking out new designs would take a full season which is competitively unacceptable, hence these problems are being debugged in the field. Its a race to be first, regardless.

  5. Stax May 14th, 2013 9:59 am
  6. Mark Donohoe May 14th, 2013 10:11 am

    I have seen this trend a lot. Many companies today think they can release a product that isn’t quite done. The first generation will get lots of feedback and then finally what should have been the first product gets released. I think you can thank folks like google and facebook for this. How many years was google mail in beta!? Just a thought.

  7. Dave Field May 14th, 2013 10:30 am

    I am annoyed that Dynafit appears to have stopped production of their streamlined “speed” binding, essentially the tried and true TLT with its simple climbing post, rotating mode change and crappy brake performance. I don’t use brakes in the BC and enjoy the basic TLT simplicity and durability. The radical heel piece seems like a step sideways regarding durable functionalitywith its flip elevators, one way rotation and also appears to be less robust and pricey as well! The radical toe piece does seem to be improved though it has not been offered with the simple heel. The Beast seems like overkill for touring use and fills a specialized niche. You’d think at this point, they’d leave well enough alone or make simple improvements to the speed package to refine the simple functional durability and capitalize on a mature design by establishing a reliable price point binding. At $400 and up for the new offerings, I’m severely un-motivated to upgrade for less robust and more complicated offerings with little performance benefits.

  8. Robert May 14th, 2013 10:46 am

    There’s little competitive advantage to being an early adopter in ski touring, clearly. It’s just like Windows: don’t upgrade until two subsequent versions are out. So the release of Windows 8 means that Windows 7 is probably somewhat debugged and ready for me to use.

  9. XXX_er May 14th, 2013 11:24 am

    In the last 40 yrs very product you can buy became/has become “bleeding edge technology” cuz the time to market is now so fast , sure we could wait for a more thoroughly tested product but we won’t so IMO the genie is out of the bottle … we are all beta testers

    it doesn’t matter what you make someone will break it in a new and interesting fashion that the product engineers never tested for or thot of, you would have thot the rads would be better in year one but they weren’t looking so good … I saved $ and bought the tried n true verts instead

  10. Dave May 14th, 2013 11:27 am

    Those five million iPhones went back before they hit consumer’s pockets because Apple rejected them, not because there were five million consumers who experienced flawed iPhones. If Salomon had sent the original tech-fitted Quest back to the factory before it got into consumers’ hands (feet), that would be a similar situation. Unfortunately, skiers tend to be mass product testers. (Sometimes with terrible consequences.)

  11. Tom May 14th, 2013 11:48 am

    re “(Yes, I know it’s not always PC to use that word, but here I use it to mean arrested development of a manufactured product, ok?)”.

    Legally, yes, you can use most any words you wish. But why not find an alternate word(s)?

    see:
    http://www.r-word.org/r-word-why-pledge.aspx#.UZJ43LUZzYZ

    “The R-word is the word ‘retard(ed)’. Why does it hurt? The R-word hurts because it is exclusive. It’s offensive. It’s derogatory.

    Our campaign asks people to pledge to stop saying the R-word as a starting point toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people. Language affects attitudes and attitudes affect actions. Pledge today to use respectful, people-first language.”

    Thanks dude.

  12. skier May 14th, 2013 12:17 pm

    Well, I just ordered another Vertical ST binding pair. Last set I could find, and they had to come from France ( Telemark -Pyrenees). Saved money , too.
    The “old ” Vertical ST and FT can easily have the ski brake removed for touring, or brake width changed quickly. A damaged nylon heel assembly, can be easily swapped for another, too.
    New Radicals, you can’t remove the ski brake, or swap brakes without removing the whole heel unit from the ski.

  13. OMR May 14th, 2013 12:31 pm

    Generally speaking, folks that have binding failures are tough on every piece of equipment they own. I have friends who still use their original iPhones, LTL’s and Coombacks (at 30+ hard bc days/yr) and I have friends that can’t make any piece of equipment work for even one season. I’m no Buffet (Jimmy or Warren), so maintenance is critical. The common denominator for failures is the user.

  14. Steve May 14th, 2013 12:44 pm

    A couple years ago I bought 2 pairs of tri steps for $60 at a swap. Best money I’ve ever spent. Yes, I’ve walked out of them a time or two when I forgot to crank up the toe piece, but now I remember that step and I’ve been quite happy with them. But I would happily switch if I found a pair of radicals laying on the ground. Seems like even the most cursory of tests in the real world should’ve caught that flaw. And it probably did but management at some level made the decision to plow ahead rather than lose time going back to the drawing board.

  15. Steven Threndyle (@threndyleski) May 14th, 2013 1:06 pm

    It is sad that the insane demands of the ‘product cycle’ in retail (something that all but a tiny percentage of ‘end users’ really care about) leads to products being brought prematurely to market. Having said that, with the obvious advent of websites, chat rooms, and blogs, we now know that Mark’s TLT blew up over in Crested Butte and that the toe and Billy’s Freerides split in Nelson, etc, etc (maybe bad examples, but still). The new product cycle is adopted even by companies (especially ones which are publicly traded) in AT works against both consumers and the companies, who have to do ‘damage control’ for their reputation by releasing lousy product. Having said that, it would be interesting to know the reach and influence of bloggers in the outdoor biz. And of course, the posters above are right – I can’t imagine the panic of a broken binding, one week into a traverse or whatever…

  16. Rodney May 14th, 2013 2:08 pm

    Not sure about Tlt Verticals either – my brakes popped put after 25 days of use foundthe bits – but problem has continued. Same happened to my guide’s who has switched to leashes. Have to say – we seem to be beta teaters for a long time!

  17. Phil Miller May 14th, 2013 2:25 pm

    My Motorola Razr still works after 7 years. It does the one thing I demand of it: work when anything else would break. That’s because if anything else would break, I’m probably not doing so good and could probably use some help. That’s when I’d need my phone the most. As a phone for help.

    My telemark binding got very little to break. If it’s so steep and gnarly that I can’t do it on my telemark setup, it’s probably not something I ought to be doing in the backcountry anyway. I gotta go looking for trouble to not be able to ski stuff like that anyway.

    Point of all this, risk management is a conservative activity. Bomber products don’t come around every day, and when one does, it still has to be PROVEN to be bomber, and that takes time. And some companies just aren’t capitalized enough to wait around that long. Bishop bindings come to mind.

    BC Skiing is getting more popular. But it isn’t big enough to invest that heavily in. When it does get that big, expect your favorite goods to get tracked out even faster. So take your pick. Bomber gear? Fresher tracks? Deeper access? More safety.

  18. Dale May 14th, 2013 2:36 pm

    I think Keith Bontrager is the one credited with saying: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick Two.” The consequences for designing and producing a ski touring binding have been pretty apparent over the years. Price and weight are easy for the customer to see in the store, and heavy and expensive doesn’t sell.

  19. Lou Dawson May 14th, 2013 2:45 pm

    Tom, I disagree. Retarded is a dictionary word that has all sorts of meanings. If applied to a person, then yes, it is now considered derogatory in general usage. But it’s still a very viable word when applied to inanimate objects, my take, anyhow. There are lots of words like that, for example, “cripple” and “crippled.” What is more, using a dictionary word such as this, for a non person use, does NOT influence one’s thinking. That is a total reach. Yeah, language is important but the language police are not. If a person is prejudiced or mean, they can always find a derogatory term to use. After all, it’s English, where you can invent words right and left if you want to.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retarded

    Better tell Wikipedia to quit using it as well.

    Lou

  20. lithomancer May 14th, 2013 3:15 pm

    To paraphrase the Dude: you’re not wrong, Lou. You’re just an as***.

  21. Phil Miller May 14th, 2013 3:36 pm

    in printed music it’s usually ritardando or plus ritard… so maybe 250 years of musical editing is off the hook and doesn’t have to be whited-out and typed over…

  22. SkiingQuinHat May 14th, 2013 3:36 pm

    To support Lou here, there is no people reference here – so can’t see how people can be offended? I completely agree that the r word for people is now offensive because people have now chosen it to be.

  23. Steven Threndyle (@threndyleski) May 14th, 2013 3:46 pm

    Agree with Tom. Poor choice of words, even with your explanation. Today, the R-word is no more acceptable within that community than the N-word–regardless of its context. Besides, you could say ‘dysfunctional’, or even a phrase like ‘on the wrong track?’ (there: refers to ‘skin track’ or something like that. I would actually change it – it is offensive. My father – who set up the first program in our town to help educate people about mental/developmental disabilities – would really be offended if I’d used that title; regardless of a dictionary ‘definition.’

  24. Lou Dawson May 14th, 2013 4:55 pm

    Hmmmm Steven, definitely thinking about changing it. But I just can’t get past the fact that it is a descriptive adjective used for things like brake retarders and much more (per Wiki etc.). And suddently I’m getting piled on by what feels like the PC police. Do things like retarded engine braking system offend your father as well? Seriously, it would help me to know.

    Also, really, much of this is about context. Even phrases such as “old guy” or “child” can be hateful, or not… It really seems like applying a word to a product rather than a human is significantly different, e.g., “the website’s child theme development was retarded by a number of factors, one of which was the old guy directing the program, and the crippled software didn’t help…”

    Thanks, Lou

  25. Mike Marolt May 14th, 2013 5:07 pm

    For me personally, the only thing, ah, er, delayed in the evolution was FINALLY, just this year, switching to Dynafit. They work incredibly well, and from the first time I put on my pack with skis, I knew just how stupid I have been for the last 5 or so years, carrying Naxo, Frichee, and even before that, Silvretta. At my age, this is the best possible evolution. ha. I am probably a few years older than my actual age due to hucking all that heavy shit all those years, but better late than never….

  26. See May 14th, 2013 6:01 pm

    Certain words are loaded, and clever users of language can sometimes use this as a way to be offensive but maintain some “plausible deniability.” I’ll take your word for it that you weren’t trying to make a little dig at the industry and the PC police, but are you really surprised at the reaction?

    Also, your question regarding design flaws in different fields brings to mind first generation Radical heel lifters and the bolts on the new Bay bridge. Talk about beta testing…

  27. Nate May 14th, 2013 6:37 pm

    I think people have a significant tendency to view the past with rose-color glasses. I don’t think product development today is not all that much different than it has been in the past, at least in terms of outcomes.

    You can argue to that more testing is the answer, but in my experience designing stuff and transferring to manufacturing, there is just no substitute for having something built with the same methods, people and schedule as final production. Something new almost always comes up- especially if your design pushes the margins (and if it doesn’t, why bother with something new?). The option is to ramp things up more slowly, but then we’d be upset about the limited supplies of the hot new toy at Christmas.

    IMO, it’s all about how companies deal with these issues. Are they honest about them? Do they quickly implement recalls if necessary? Will they extend warranties for failure modes that are related to design/production issues? And, most important of all, do they implement improvements to existing products while avoiding major changes that could create other issues?

    Re: word choice. I’d recommend changing it, as it will be a significant distraction from the intended discussion (as evidenced by previous comments). Personally, I’d much rather just talk about skiing.

  28. Tom May 14th, 2013 7:38 pm

    I wish I had addressed the terminology issue in private if at all, and I wish I did not distract from the discussion about ski-bindings. I appreciate Lou’s writing and his work

  29. Lou Dawson May 14th, 2013 9:54 pm

    Well, in the end I have no wish to offend or hurt anyone, but even so I suppose there are hundreds of words in English that could offend someone so just by the very act of speaking or writing it’s possible to offend with no intention of doing so. In this case I’m getting inclined to edit. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that a basic dictionary word, used in another context, is a problem. And this when F-bombs are thrown right and left and people are calling me an ah*** as if two wrongs make a right. I mean, could it get to the point where every word in the English language is offensive to someone? Could happen. That’s the basic fallacy of PC correctness. I ‘ll sleep on it.

  30. byates1 May 14th, 2013 10:11 pm

    another use for retard is the baking world, in regards to sour dough etc, essientally slowing the starter dough in stasis.

    one of the many simple joys is a coworker named sarah, she is our cleaning person, and i would venture a guess as a diagnosis as very slightly downs, she exudes kindness, a good heart, integrity and is a wonderful person.

    in regards to the speed binding, i ski them a bunch each year, and enjoy the simplicity and reliability.

    what a wonderful first world problem to have, a dissatisfaction w a hobby. i guess it beats lying under concrete crushed to death making 40$ a month.

    threshold moment, maybe, maybe not, will see..

  31. See May 15th, 2013 8:33 am

    This reminds me of an exchange I had last year with a somewhat obese (no offense intended) teenager while on a bike ride. I had just arrived at a parking lot at the top of a local mountain (approx 900 ft climb) when this kid (no offense intended) asks incredulously if I had ridden my bike all the way up. I said yes. Then he asked how long it would take for him to be able to do the same thing. I suggested he try walking up to start, then try it on a bike when he feels ready. Then he asked me how long I had been performing such feats, and I told him I’d been riding for close to 50 years, at which point he exclaimed, “Man, you’re one bad-ass old guy.” I guess I could have been offended, but I figured, “Well, at least I’m a bad-ass something.”

  32. Dan Powers May 15th, 2013 8:33 am

    I keep saying it’s an amazing time to be a backcountry skier. TLT5′s, radicals, Voile Chargers are a dream set up that tours well and rips it on the way down. Sure stuff breaks (not in my recent experience though), but let’s have some perspective and appreciate the gear we have.

  33. Shawn May 15th, 2013 9:53 am

    How about a compromise title: “What is retarding AT ski binding development?”

    Somehow the verb form seems less offensive than the adjectival, and we get to keep a useful word. I agree with others that the title is unnecessarily provocative, but the alternative words suggested above don’t mean exactly the same as “to retard.”

  34. Andrew May 15th, 2013 10:29 am

    “I snapped in a boot and the heel unit exploded into high velocity shards”

    Ha! I had the exact same experience. All that was left was a metal stud and zero confidence.

    I think a huge part of the binding issue is that people (mainly US customers) want one binding to do it all, which leads to a binding which does it all, but very poorly. Touring and resort skiing are similar, but also vastly different.

  35. Steven Threndyle (@threndyleski) May 15th, 2013 11:00 am

    Perfect solution, Shawn. No, my grammarian father would approve, for sure. Though, now to answer, here is what’s retarding AT binding development: Expectations upon the engineers, marketers, and end users that such as ‘perfect’ binding exists. The flaw in the development process seems to be in the ‘rush to market’ that comes with producing binding that have not fully been tested/thought out. And, I think (grinning) that ATers here at WildSnow definitely are always on the outlook for ‘latest and greatest.’ Oh, and cheap. Too. Gotta be that.

  36. Ralph May 15th, 2013 11:05 am

    I can’t wait till we get nanotech in our bc gear. I want my skins to retract into the self-healing base of my skis. A boot that flexes under walking, and the material goes rigid like a muscle when I ski.

    With regards to the word retarded. I never misinterpreted it as some did here. As a motorhead, I have often Advanced or Retarded the ignition by turning the distributor.

  37. That Guy May 15th, 2013 8:10 pm

    I recently called Dynafit to get some longer screws. They charged me $10 in shipping and sent me used screws. I was surprised how niggardly they were about screws for their retarded bindings.

  38. XXX_er May 15th, 2013 9:57 pm

    “they’ve long been in a state of development that in my opinion could best be termed “retarded.” (Yes, I know it’s not always PC to use that word, but here I use it to mean arrested development of a manufactured product, ok?) ”

    It not words that are is bad its the meaning one is giving to the words when they use them

    You were clearly talking about the state of development of a mechanical device not the mental abilities of a human being which IMO means this has nothing to do with dissing anybody and If you hadn’t brought it up yourself … I bet nobody else would have either

  39. Lechero May 15th, 2013 11:01 pm

    It’s interesting to see this cavalier attitude here towards unreliable gear.

    There’s no way I would put myself in the position of being a “beta tester” with backcountry ski bindings.

    Wow.

    Especially with the general Wildsnow take on avalanche awareness, which I would call conservative and calculated.

    But, If the binding fails at the wrong time things could get sour real quick. Regardless of your group dynamics and terrain interpretation.

    G3 targa cable bindings all day. Full function. Full rip. Enough weight to get a little blood flow on the way up.

  40. Travis May 15th, 2013 11:55 pm

    Unfortunate that this has devovled into a ridiculous converstion on semantics. Truth is the lack of development in AT bindings as compared to many technologies is simply, poor. That being said, much of this is due more to the small (relative to other technologies) demand/purchasing power of AT skiers. However, and due to the exact same purchasing power problems, the lack of development in beacons is beyond ridiculous. Both of these are very trivial (if sometimes life saving) 1st world problems. But the fact that even the most basic (“free”) cellular phone, is infinitely more technology adavanced than the latest (last decade) developments in beacon technology is patently absurd. While I’m strongly opposed to new technologies in beacons possibly promoting some sort of, “this thing is idiot proof, just ski it mantra”. The community of people recreating in avalanche terrain should demand that the small array of beacon companies up the ante substanially. A fact made even more evident when one considers the prices that we pay for “state of the art beacon technology” as compared to technologly that we all use in everyday “non life-threatening” devices like the $650 I paid for a this computer that has the capability of accessing the entirety of human knowledge and also allows me to rant about my ski gear not being up to my desired expectations.

  41. Steven Threndyle (@threndyleski) May 16th, 2013 12:01 am

    Lou: You are on to something. I think that there should be a trail head check on all USFS lands to save AT skiers from themselves and open the backcountry to telemarkers EXCLUSIVELY. (The Feds will get TSA to handle security since its track record for dependable service is beyond reproach). No more costly rescues fishing out young bucks hucking 30 footers in old Naxos or with torn ACLs using Dynafits in ‘lock down’ mode. I can get on to Obama about this, straight away. Who is with me?

  42. Lou Dawson May 16th, 2013 6:08 am

    Travis, LOL, and yes I’d totally agree that sometimes our ‘high tech’ stuff for skiing looks Pleistocene as compared to common everyday technologies used by the masses. But it’s of course about supply and demand. I doubt Steve Jobs could have produced an avy beacon up to the the standards of the iPhone. Why? Simply because there would have been no return on investment and Apple would have died, and he would have ended up washing dishes up at the Jamtal Hut.

    The biggest problem with beacons in my opinion was the weird industry fad about multiple burial features, when size, durability, battery life, range, ease of use and cost were easily provable as equally or more important.

    Luckily some of the newer price-point beacons are breaking that trend. I’ve recently been testing an Ortovox Zoom which while not very high tech, seems to fit some of the other criteria quite nicely.

    Lou

  43. Skyler Holman June 7th, 2013 4:46 pm

    Agreed!! I think we’re on our way to new things though. I’m always curious about futuristic materials that will have big affects in our daily lives. For instance, Graphene will probably be one of those. Do some net surfin’ on graphene you’ll be impressed with its properties. I read one article that said that this stuff would make carbon fiber look like it came from the stone ages.

  44. Lou Dawson June 7th, 2013 5:20 pm

    Skyler, funny you should mention that… lately I’ve been building client WordPress websites using the Graphen theme. Not as futuristic as the graphene material, but cool name nonetheless. Lou

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