Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Avalanche information centers in the U.S. provide a huge service to backcountry skiers. They operate on a shoestring budget and deliver way more than they take from our wallets.
If you need convincing, watch the following video. Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) filmed the speakers at their recent snow avalanche workshop (NSAW). The presentation by Jeff Campbell, about binding retention/release in regards to ski touring and avalanche safety, is a perfect example of the thought provoking talks at these seminars.
Jeff’s studies indicate several main points I can expound on. My thoughts, inspired by Jeff:
– The main and most important function of a ski binding is retention. It is a good idea to use the term “retention values” for the numbers on the binding, rather than “release values, or settings.” But that’s a quibble on my part, and we do tend to use terms such as “release settings” throughout the 4,000+ blog posts on WildSnow.com. More importantly, we shy away from the terms “DIN settings” or “DIN numbers” because the term “DIN” only really applies to certified bindings, while only a subset of touring bindings are certified. Notice how Jeff doesn’t use the term “DIN.”
– If you ski downhill with your tech binding toes locked, you could be in for a world of hurt.
– If your locked bindings do release laterally, your boots will probably be damaged, resulting in significantly reduced binding retention-release “settings.”
– Know that being caught in a moderate to large sized avalanche is equivalent to taking dozens if not hundreds of ski falls. If your binding safety performance is such that your chance of breaking a leg or blowing a knee in a fall is one in ten, it’s possible you are 100% likely to incur a severe leg injury in an avalanche.
– If you ski downhill without locking your toes and desire to use “normal” binding release settings, pick a binding with the best energy absorption and damping. This is a challenge. To date, there is in our opinion no tech binding (defined as a binding that works with Dynafit certified boot fittings) that has enhanced elasticity in both upward-vertical and side-lateral release. Examples, Marker Kingpin clearly has excellent vertical elasticity, but we’re not convinced it has any significant enhancement of lateral elasticity. Conversely, Fritschi Vipec has wonderful lateral toe travel and elasticity, while having no more vertical elasticity at the heel than any other classic tech binding. G3 ION in real-world testing has some of the best ability to clamp your toe during touring, without locking. But in my view it has no more vertical or lateral travel than any other classic tech binding.
– Jeff only alludes to this, but I want to state strongly that any ski binding, but especially tech bindings, needs to be bench tested for release function. You can do part of this process at home on a workbench, as well as getting a pretty good read by also doing a “carpet” test involving standing in the binding and forcing a release. Jeff also talks about how the ski shop release setting machines don’t catch everything. My belief is that combining bench testing with carpet testing can actually result in bindings settings as good as you’d get with a testing machine. But you need a modicum of experience to achieve this result.
– Above all, DO NOT assume that the “retention setting” numbers printed on a ski touring binding are anything more than a rough guide. Setting your bindings on 7, for example, could mean you actually have a setting of 6, or 8, or even farther out of range. Adding to the confusion, from what I’ve observed this can be the case for either vertical or lateral (they’re adjusted independently), but sometimes not both!
– Gorilla in the room: classic tech bindings depend on the clamping force of the toe jaws to defend against an unusual and subtle form of pre-release. There is no industry standard that evaluates this. We try to point it out, and we feel some bindings defend against this better than others. Industry folks with different companies have different takes. For example, G3 says their toe has better geometry and stronger springs. Dynafit, on the other hand, provides a rotating toe with ostensibly stronger springs that’s intended to prevent accidental opening of the toe wings.
– If you choose to use rubber soled ski touring boots in an alpine binding, assume you have no safety release. Likewise, your release in a frame style tech binding might be less functional than you assume.
– Jeff speaks at least once about the lack of standards for tech bindings, as well as “political” issues resulting in what in my opinion might be standards that are simply archaic and non applicable to modern skiing. There is currently no DIN/ISO standard for tech binding boot fittings, while there is indeed the existing but aged DIN/ISO 13992 standard for touring bindings. See our explanation of these standards.
Fall is a time of fundraising, especially for avi centers that are ramping up for the season. On November 17th, we’ll be partying at the CAIC benefit in Carbondale, CO, always a fun gathering of our backcountry community, and hosted by Lisa’s favorite Thai restaurant to boot. If that’s sold out when you read this, there’s another bash December 3rd in Breckenridge.
Check (or send check to) your local AIC. And, if you know about events in your area, spread the word here. Comments on! Thanks for supporting these worthy non profits.