Manfred’s $100,000 Ski Binding — High Tao of Low Tec

Post by blogger | January 21, 2015      
Manfred's Low-Tec binding. Note the wide travel and powerful springs. Also note the pins locked on with threaded nuts.

Manfred’s Low-Tec binding circa 1988. Note the wide travel and powerful springs. Also note the pins locked on with threaded nuts.

In 1987, tech binding inventor Fritz Barthel’s innovations had reached the point where Italian ski shop owners were stopping by his family home in Austria, loading up the trunks of their Fiats like arms dealers, and sneaking back across the Brenner using ancient smuggling routes to avoid taxation or worse.

The penalty for smuggling ski bindings was severe in those days, which is one of the reasons the European Union eventually wrote the “free binding travel” clause (FBT) into their constitution.

The popularity of the tech (then known as Low-Tec) binding exceeded expectations. It should have been obvious that millions would be sold, but it was not. The binding’s success initially surprised everyone. Perhaps Fritz was still too young to truly feel the “burn” and know for certain that making uphill skiing easier would foment a revolution in ski touring gear. Sure, he’s said that his own exhaustion burn on Mont Blanc is what birthed the concept. But one wonders how tired he really was (rumor is he has the same DNA as Franz Klammer), and we are led to the logical conclusion: the wine at the Mulets Hut was to blame.

Irony is that around this time Manfred and Fritz had approached Atomic about licensing and making the binding, but they were not interested.

Irony is that around this time Manfred and Fritz had approached Atomic about licensing and making the binding, but Atomic was not interested in making a touring binding — though they did make good touring skis at the time.

In any case, once the Italian binding dealers attacked en mass (yes, even back in those seminal days they moved quickly, dressed in Lycra and driving nimble Fiats), it was obvious that large quantities of boots and bindings would have to be produced. Fritz met with companies such as Silvretta. “Not interested,” they said, and went ahead and built their own frameless binding which subsequently broke, and then broke their company.

Without any takers, it was up to the Barthels to finance their own manufacturing. Herr Barthel signed over his home to the bank and financed a thousand or so boots, along with binding production, to the tune of about $100,000.

Manfred got his money back. But more importantly, he got a nice Austrian garage manufactured pair of early tech bindings, assembled by himself and his son. His bindings were used for hundreds of ski tours, and three decades later you could still ski them in any tech compatible ski boot. Question being, are you man enough to rock a 60 mm Atomic plank made for Austrians such as Manfred and Fritz?

Toe unit detail.

Toe unit detail.

Heel unit had the non-adjustable forward (vertical) release spring, but the lateral adjustment was exactly the same as 30 years later.

Heel unit had the non-adjustable forward (vertical) release spring, but the lateral adjustment was exactly the same as 30 years later. We like the heel lifter tower best, Was this the original anal intruder?

Looking rearward at the heel unit.

Looking rearward at the heel unit.

Early Low-Tec bindings locked by rotating this cam so it jammed against the white plastic screwed to the ski.

Manfred’s Early Low-Tec (pre Dynafit) bindings locked by rotating this cam so it jammed against the white plastic screwed to the ski. This is probably a 1988 binding, while the first production was in 1987.

We can't get enough of the toe unit.

We can’t get enough of the toe unit.

For more incredible historical trivia, see our binding museum.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


17 Responses to “Manfred’s $100,000 Ski Binding — High Tao of Low Tec”

  1. Ian January 21st, 2015 10:32 am

    fitting after the kingpin thread

  2. Lou Dawson 2 January 21st, 2015 10:46 am

    Ian, a bit of levity, celebrating the founders. Too much serious gear stuff going on around here at the moment, and it shows no sign of stopping! Thanks for reading. Lou

  3. Brian January 21st, 2015 11:01 am

    ah yes, a lock nut on the back of the pin. PLEASE FORWARD THIS TO MARKER!!!

  4. powbanger January 21st, 2015 11:38 am

    Is that your set up Lou?

  5. Bryan January 21st, 2015 11:58 am

    Lou – touring gear IS serious business!

    $1000 boots

    $1000 skis

    $1000 bindings

    $1000 airbag pack

    $500 beacon

    $200 shovel / probe

    $100 poles

    $100 skins

    $500 jacket

    $500 pants

    $100 base layer

    $300 helmet

    $200 googles

    $6500 later you’re ready to go backcountry skiing!

  6. Hojo January 21st, 2015 11:59 am

    So, I didn’t quite gather if these guys pioneered the design or if they were just the first ones to really make it effective and popular.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 January 21st, 2015 2:03 pm

    Hojo, they invented the binding. I’ve detailed that in many places.

  8. Lou Dawson 2 January 21st, 2015 2:04 pm

    Powbanger, I’m thinking I should ski on that stuff at least once! Lou

  9. Lou Dawson 2 January 21st, 2015 2:04 pm

    Bryan, about the same as a good mountain bike?

  10. Frame January 22nd, 2015 6:50 am

    Lou (said with a slight shaking of the head), after this many posts and articles over your career, how come you haven’t stated a verified weight on this binding?? ;o)

    Great story.

  11. Peter January 22nd, 2015 7:10 am

    this is a beautiful illustration of the steps to maturity of a design. The cheap stamped metal parts speak to the kinds of manufacturing they had available, not so much to the goal of the design…..that has come out as years and lots of $ has poured in.
    It can be really hard for us to see the possibilities in new designs. This design gave birth to both the RC 1 and the Beast 16, amazing

  12. Lou Dawson 2 January 22nd, 2015 7:37 am

    Peter, I was just speaking with Manfred about making the binding, the metal work was actually pretty sophisticated. Interestingly, even back then they had trouble with the pins, the threaded ones broke, final solution was pressing the pins steel in steel. He said they’d even freeze the pins first so they’d shrink, then they’d press them in. He said once they started doing it that way they had no more problems. This was definitely evolutionary and contributory design process.

  13. Lou Dawson 2 January 22nd, 2015 7:39 am

    BTW, I took poetic license with the skis, they’re actually Huberta’s, Manfred’s wife. Manfred has another pair with same bindings. Of course, she’s the real boss. We should give her some credit for Low-Tec, not only was Huberta a tester, but without her cooking the whole thing would have never happened. Lou

  14. Hojo January 22nd, 2015 8:21 am

    The bit about Atomic declining the binding is interesting. Tally it up with so many other products that were initially refused that then turned out to be big winners.

  15. See January 22nd, 2015 8:31 am

    The low-tec was completely different from preceding designs (please correct me if I’m wrong about this). I wish the current tech binding explosion had a fraction of that originality.

  16. Connorez January 24th, 2015 3:51 pm

    Damn, I love this site and stories like this.

  17. Lou Dawson 2 January 25th, 2015 12:03 am

    Thanks Connor!

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