A Chat With Lou

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | November 10, 2008      

We’ve gotten some feedback that with all our guest bloggers, folks still want to hear Lou’s voice as frequently as possible. The Dawsons are out stalking elk this week, so we’ll indeed have a series of guest blogs. But in the interest of letting WildSnow’s daddy continue to speak we figured it was time to publish this mini-profile. We cooked this up last year. It was done with a Dynafit emphasis for Salewa to possibly publish on their website. That didn’t happen, so we present it here.

Lou, you seem to live for backcountry skiing. When and where did you start skiing?

I started skiing about four decades ago as a teenager in Aspen, and grew up there as a climber and ski mountaineer. I’ve got many other interests as well, but backcountry skiing has indeed been the focus thread of my life.

Where does this passion come from?

Lou with the Wildsnow binding collection.

Lou Dawson with his ski binding collection, which comprises more than 50 bindings and helps inform his work as a binding expert. (The short skis are his son's first touring skis. As for the snowshoe, who knows...)

The mountains have always fascinated me, both as a place to explore but also a place to receive spiritual insights and life lessons. With snow over everything all that seems so much stronger — that’s what keeps my passion for ski mountaineering alive. Of course I also like the pure fun of climbing up something and enjoying a terrific ski descent.

Do you work in addition to skiing – or do you “just ski?”

About half my work is my website WildSnow.com, which a number of industry folks are graciously helping support because it gets read (thanks Wildsnowers). I also develop websites, am a published writer and consult on “internet marketing,” meaning I help business owners market their endeavors online.

How many days do you ski in a year?

Around 80 or 90, sometimes 100. But instead of counting days I’m more concerned about quality and exploration. Doing a new route on a peak or going somewhere I’ve not been, those things are much more important to me than how many days a year I ski.

What are your three favorite ski tours in Colorado?

Number one, for fun, would be a spring (probably early May) climb and ski descent of our highest 14,000-foot peak, Mount Elbert. This is an easy tour with no glaciers and no technical climbing. Just pure enjoyment. For midwinter touring, I enjoy traversing through the mountains around Aspen. Another favorite is to figure out where the best snow is in the spring, then enjoy a road trip in the wide open American West to reach the goods.

You’re known for your expertise with all brands and models of ski touring bindings. How did you get started with that, and how do you maintain your knowledge?

I began reviewing randonnee bindings for “Climbing Magazine” in 1987, and soon after that did nearly every annual binding review for “Couloir Magazine” up to 2006, when Couloir ceased publication. I maintain my expertise in various ways.

Mainly, I have good relationships with all binding makers, and thus work with a full suite of test bindings every winter.

Though I prefer Dynafit, every season I ski on each maker’s binding in various conditions, and do extensive bench testing as well. I also have a cadre of respected skiers and guest bloggers who give me feedback about bindings, and who use the WildSnow test bindings to add more evaluation.

Beyond all that, I maintain what as far as I know is the most extensive collection of randonnee bindings in North America, which gives me historical perspective that my readers appreciate, as well as allowing me to compare binding models from year-to-year and give accurate appraisal of improvements and changes. I can literally walk ten steps from my desk and have a hands-on look at almost every AT touring binding ever made.

How important is the uphill compared to the downhill for you?

When I’m feeling good the uphill is as fun as the down. But after I’m tired, the uphill feels mostly like work — but it is worth it.

More and more hardcore skiers like for example Stian Hagen and Glen Plake are using the light Dynafit bindings. Are you happy to see that?

Glen Plake!? Photos please. Great skier, industry pioneer and amazing ambassador for the sport, but he must look funny skiing with his hair caught in the Dynafit toe unit.

You began using Dynafit bindings many years ago, including you probably being the first journalist to write about the binding in English (around 1992). What was it like using Dynafit in the United States when few other skiers did?

I was very fit back then, and once I combined my strength with a lighter binding I could climb up incredibly fast. It was fun to be in that position when most other folks had heavier gear. Of course I got older and Dynafit became popular, so now I’m frequently climbing behind the group and trying to keep up. Funny how things change. Young Turks come by here for binding mounts, and I’m thinking ‘do I really want this guy on Dynafits — now I’ll never be able to keep up!’

In the early days, the amount of skepticism about Dynafit was alarming — it concerned me that people couldn’t see past the size of the binding to the stunning engineering inventor Fritz Barthel put into it. This is still sometimes the case, but most serious ski mountaineers realize Dynafit is an option, and many have switched to using it. I think the hardest thing for skiers to realize is that the Dynafit, though diminutive, actually provides as firm a connection between boot and ski as any binding out there. Better than most, and virtually equal to the huge Marker Duke.

What about the dark early days of some bindings, any war stories?

Nearly every binding that comes out seems to have growing pains. Dynafit was pretty solid, at least in what we first saw in the U.S. (which was second generation). Where Dynafit experienced gremlins was with their Tri-Step model, which was subsequently discontinued. The toe unit of that binding was the problem — it tended to let go while in touring mode. Another one I remember is the first Fritschi Diamir that blew up on our workbench when we snapped the heel unit closed. That one nearly caused physical injury — thankfully they fixed the problem immediately. Naxo had a similar problem in their first bindings, which they also fixed quickly.

Positive side of above is it showed how responsive the industry is to consumer problems. It really amazed me how fast the different makers fixed problems.

If you were a ski brand product manager, having a large budget, what would you change or develop for skiers like you in ski mountaineering?

First, I’d develop a boot that had the performance of an alpine boot, but was lighter than anything out there. Impossible? No, perfectly possible with carbon fiber and smart design. The Dynafit Zzero appears to come close to this ideal, but anything can be improved. I guess MSRP is the problem here, but with some AT boots hovering around $800 MSRP, you’d think they could get beyond the same plastics they’ve been using for decades.

After that, I’d like to see an indexing system that positioned the boot toe in the Dynafit binding with no effort, and the binding could be lighter in weight (chuckle).

In general, it would be nice to see a plate/frame step-in binding that was stronger, lighter and had less tendency to slop. The Marker Duke is strong and stiff, but it is way too heavy for core ski mountaineering. The Silvretta Pure is light enough, but it’s not as stiff as I’d like to see.

What’s your next project?

I’d like to re-edition a few of my books, and am working on a new book that I’ll avoid talking off so enough said about that. In terms of skiing, I’d like to come to Europe during a good spring season and ski some of the classic tours I’ve never done. Mostly, I just enjoy keeping my passion as a ski mountaineer integrated with the rest of my life.


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3 Responses to “A Chat With Lou”

  1. Bryan Burke November 10th, 2008 10:23 am

    After many years (50+!) of Alpine and not quite as many cross-country skiing and racing, I’m jumping into backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks. I’ve decided on 10th Mountain XCD skis for backcountry exploring, climbing, downhill runs and generally thrashing through the woods in untracked snow. But I have several questions:
    1. What length? I’m 6ft, 180lb, 63 yrs old, a very strong Alpine Skier, with
    some cross-country touring and racing, but minimal telemark skills.
    2. Has the 10th Mountain for 2008-09, changed from the 2007-08. If so, how would I tell the difference?
    3. I found some size 44.5 Karhu Descent (Women’s) boots that fit great. Would
    they be a good match with the 10th Mountain for backcountry exploring, climbing and downhill?
    Thanks for your help

  2. ScottN November 10th, 2008 2:45 pm

    Good story/bio. Lou helped me with my first Dynafit mount last year (Thanks again Lou!) and let me say, I’m younger than him, but he seemed pretty quick going up, as I followed him up to the top of Conundrum Peak last July, maybe a bit of a sandbagger….(grin).

  3. Lou November 11th, 2008 5:43 pm

    Bryan, we’re not using that ski so we don’t have a solid take. More, we’re really about locking the heels down and not looking back. I’d say you’d get answers at telemarktips.com. Lou

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