Beta testing anything (software or hardware) offers a dilemma. Do we go public with problems that might eventually be fixed, or stay silent about such on the hope that tester feedback will result in re-tooling and keep egg off our faces for slacking on our reporting?
The way I deal with this is by categorizing feedback. Problems found in beta but not inherent to the basic design are better kept private, as usually anything with even a hint of importance will be fixed by the time retail product is pumped from the factory. And positive feedback is of course worth going public with for a variety of reasons: As in being nice, but also reminding possible customers of why said product might be worthy.
Beyond all that, do we go public about fundamental parts of the design that are obviously intended for final production — but could possibly be tweaked? My opinion: Write about such, but in a tempered fashion so as not to give the new product a black eye where none is intended, nor in the end, warranted. So read on.
First, let me go on record as saying the G3 Onyx binding heel unit, presumably with a ski brake that works, is most likely a masterpiece. It is strong. The ability to easily go from alpine to tour mode without exiting the binding is slick (again, assuming this will still work with a ski brake). The heel lifter system is an improvement over more awkward setups I’ve used in the past.
Other positive feedback: Mounting plate system is very very cool. This does add weight. But with the cost of bindings these days, along with the never changing desire of most serious skiers to own more planks than Tiger Woods has golf clubs, being able to swap bindings between skis is a HUGE benefit. Along with that, you can vary your fore/aft foot position very easily with Onyx. Precise experienced skiers should love that, and those setting gear up for novices will also welcome having some options. Ski too squirmy for that newbie? Move their feet back and watch them relax.
Now for feedback on the fundamental design. Entering the Onyx binding requires pressing down with your ski pole on a lever, which in turn holds (but does not cock) the toe wings open so you can line your boot sockets up with the “tech” (meaning Dynafit-like) toe pins. I’ve messed around with this feature quite a bit now, including use on some steeper terrain where I simulated what it would be like getting skis on or off during an extreme descent.
My take on the Onyx pole-press entry system is, first, with my beta test bindings it takes an excessive amount of pressure to open the toe of my beta test bindings. G3 says they’ve had enough feedback about this to inspire changing the production binding so it takes about half that pressure to open it. My guess is that once changed, opening the binding will still be somewhat awkward for smaller folks, but ok for average sized to larger users.
Note that OPENING the Onyx toe is different than HOLDING it open. Once the toe is opened, it only takes a few pounds of downward force to keep it ready for your foot. That’s fine to an extent, but the problem is you don’t-quite-know how much force you really need to keep the binding open, and if you let up just a bit too much the toe lever flips up, the binding jaws close without grabbing your boot, and you’re starting over again. No doubt those backcountry skiers who extensively use the binding will develop muscle memory and technique that makes this easier, but in my view the Onyx needs to provide clear audible or tactile feedback that makes this process crisper — or cock open like any other alpine or randonnee ski binding.
Also, even with less force required, I must conclude that only large/strong/coordinated people will be able to enter the Onyx without using a ski pole. Beyond mere inconvenience, this means you won’t be able to enter the binding easily in situations such as being perched in a steep couloir or any other place without solid footing. (This problem is inherent to all tech binding/boot systems, but is mitigated by the ability to cock bindings such as Dynafit in the open position, then close them by either stepping in or snapping the toe wings closed with your hand, or a combination thereof.)
To be fair, I should point out something really cool about the Onyx toe. One reason why G3 is playing around with using such force to open the binding is because it uses powerful springs to stay closed on your boot toe. What that means is average sized skiers with good uphill technique may be able to tour the Onyx binding in avalanche terrain without locking out the toe release (as is normally required with any tech compatible binding). At about 158 lbs body weight, doing so worked for me. This is a fairly significant safety plus. Thus, I hope that in tuning the force it takes to open the Onyx, G3 doesn’t reduce the force that keeps it closed.
More positive: As the guys at G3 point out, Onyx is designed around DOWNHILL performance. Hence, it has things like a modern (near neutral) ramp angle (4 mm positive, same as Fritschi) and a super solid boot/ski connection that’s obviously in the same class as Dynafit or Marker Duke.
Speaking of ramp angle, I’ve actually been a fan for years of the backcountry skiing binding providing ramp while the boot is as neutral as possible. Reason being that you get the ramp angle while in your skis, but get a better walking boot on dirt or while scrambling. Thus, I’ve been disappointed at bindings that provide little ramp or even go slightly negative (heel lower). That is until recently, when I’ve realized that a refurb of my ski style (necessary every 15 years or so) requires rethinking ramp angle and possibly using less for a more upright and natural stance.
What’s that mean for me in real life? I’d still like more ramp than neutral, somewhere around what a Dynafit TLT gives me, but less than a Dynafit Vertical or Comfort. It’s easier to add ramp to a boot than subtract it (add by placing shim under heel inside boot), thus, starting with a binding that’s neutral can be good. Kudos for Onyx on that. (That said, bear in mind that performance skiers have been changing ramp angle for years by simply installing shims under the toe or heel of the binding.)
Another Onyx issue is weight. We now know Onyx will weigh in per binding at around 6 ounces less than a Fritschi Eagle, and 9 more ounces than a Dynafit ST/FT. (I can’t be more precise because Onyx has no brake yet, and almost everyone uses the above bindings with brakes). Thus, you’ll hear chatter asking why one should hassle with Onyx and tech fittings when you can get a true step-in Fritschi for what some view as a reasonable weight penalty? Or, conversely, shave noticeable weight with Dynafit? (Onyx weight is 25 ounces per binding, no brake.)
While we feel Onyx would be better at a few less ounces, crit should be tempered by the fact that with any “plate” type binding such as Fritschi, you’re doing extra lifting of the heel unit and plate with every step. Over the course of a big day the energy this takes is significant. I can testify to this, as during my uphill Onyx field testing it felt remarkably more efficient than I expected. In other words, combine 6 ounces of weight savings over Fritschi, along with that of not lifting extra weight when you’re foot pivots up, and you’ll notice.
As for carrying more weight than Dynafit, G3 likes to point out that you get a LOT in trade for that 9 ounces: Like the plate mount system, easy mode switching without removing your foot from the binding, and what’s said to be extra beef in both toe and heel unit along with good resistance to icing. I trend to the lighter side, but informed consumers will no doubt swing either direction.
What else? Another obviously interesting Onyx feature is the heel lift system. I found the heel lifters fairly easy to flip up and down with a ski pole, but a bit fiddly nonetheless. Like heel lifts on any other rando binding, time using them would probably make their use second nature, so no big deal. More importantly, it is tempting to flip the smaller lifter forward of the heel unit in a way that provides a small amount of heel lift for moderate terrain. Turns out the lifter is not intended to do this, and if you do so, you’ll break it. Don’t ask me how I know.
Overall, it is worth mentioning how much we appreciate G3 setting up a beta test program for their new product — without a non-disclosure agreement. (Lack of a ski brake for beta takes this down a notch, but only one click.) I won’t name names, but sometimes companies in the outdoor industry beta test a product by unleashing it to retail — with most of their prior testing done by a small group of insiders who are so familiar with the product they can’t view it objectively, or worse, have a vested interest in making it work as-is, and after rationalizing out the flaws, concoct some sort of whacked out PR story once the public finds the problems. Public beta is risky in the short run, as you get folks like myself publishing crit. But G3 had the confidence to do a truly open beta test, so let’s hear a round of applause!
So what’s my overall take on Onyx at this point? Any skier of average size or larger who’s comfortable being an “early adopter” will definitely want to look at the new G3 backcountry skiing binding as an option. Smaller skiers and those seeking extreme terrain should extensively demo the Onyx entry method before committing.