Black Crows Orb Freebird Ski Review — Nimble Yet Stable


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | July 8, 2019      

On the way to Mount Rainier this June. Photo by B. Fredlund

As someone who REALLY enjoys backcountry skiing, I seek out the best equipment for the craft. In searching I’ve come across the Orb Freebird by Black Crows, and find it skis remarkably well. Thus this review.

To preface this post, my opinion is that an expert skier can make elegant turns, and still have tons of fun, on almost ANY pair of skis, particularly when the snow is good. However on the flip side, as a ski guide and passionate skier that rides 130+ days a year in all types of conditions, I think it is good to be particular about your equipment. Especially when there is a desire to continually improve your skill, be safe, and have the most fun in environments that can be very dynamic. Consequentially, we seek out the ‘magic’ boards, or as close as we can find a design that works most optimally.

Midwinter on the Orbs. Photo by B. Fredlund

Furthermore, when considering a ski review, a multitude of biases might come to mind. What are the publication’s or author’s motivations? What kind of terrain are you skiing? What kind of boots you are you using? Etc. To distill information, I look to skiers that I trust and respect, specifically other guides and expert skiers that have used the product in legitimate ways.

So this review is less about the construction details of the ski, and more about subjective performance attributes. Technical and construction info can be found here. In general the Orbs are 91mm underfoot, and come in sizes: 166.4, 172.1, 178.3, and a 183.4. The skis have an 18m turn radius and come in at 1402g per ski in the 172 length.

Cutting fresh grizzly tracks. Photo by B. Fredlund

I sent out an email to a few friends to find out how the Black Crows Orb FB performs for them. Below are their thoughts. Bear in mind: each may have an affiliation with Black Crows (as grassroots ambassadors), so they could be consciously or unconsciously biased about a providing positive feedback. But each of these skiers has a lot of experience, and a discerning preference for what works best (and would ride different skis if they didn’t like the Orb FB).

My feedback first: I am 6’2” and 175lbs, and I ski the Orb FB in a 172. It’s the shortest and lightest ski I’ve skied in the last 15-20 years. I ski it exclusively with the Alien RS boot, and with a Dynafit Superlight 2.0 binding.

I use the Orb’s primarily in the spring and summer for light and fast ski mountaineering missions. They are my go-to ‘special occasion’ rig for when it counts (like for skiing Mt. Rainier or the Grand Teton).

I find the 172 Orb to be nimble and quick edge-to-edge. They are agile like a squirrel and well suited for technical turns. But I also find them surprisingly stable at high speeds when the terrain and snow surfaces allow. A few weeks ago I was skiing excellent corn on Mt. Shasta, and was able to open up turns at what felt like 30+ mph, going weightless between arcs for very large sections of terrain at a time.

Where I find the Orb lacking however, is when I want more surface area: specifically in punchy corn or breakable crust; or when I want more edge hold (on super icy terrain). I also find the 172 to be a bit short for when I am wearing a heavy multiday backpack. This shorter length is unbalanced in terms of the weight to surface area to stability ratio (for me at 175lbs).

I’ll occasionally set my friends and guests up with the Orb FB during mid winter, for when we need a bit more spring in our step for bigger tours. And what I’ve found is that people can find the sweet spot on these skis almost immediately, and ski them well straight away. Autopilot is a very good attribute for a ski, and the Orb FB has just that.

Billy Haas ski guiding the Grand Teton last winter. Photo by Aaron Diamond.

Next, some thoughts by Billy Haas, ski guide for Exum and Utah Mountain Adventures:

I love the Orb FB. It’s my go-to expeditionary, ski mountaineering, spring ski. I’ve been riding the 172.1cm length with my Fishers Traverse Carbon boots. It is a perfect boot-to-ski fit. I’m 145lbs, 5’11”.

While the Navis is Black Crow’s “all around” ski, I ski the Orbs anytime weight matters, or I am expecting mostly spring snow. We all know the Black Crows FBs are not the lightest touring skis on the market, and that’s because they try to find the best balance between weight and skis that performs. For me, the Orb is the epitome of that. They have solid edge control, and are masterful in quick edge to edge transitions. I feel very confident with the Orbs FB on steep descents where hop turns and short radius turns are mandatory.

With that all said, these skis can be opened up as well when the terrain changes. The Orbs can rip long corn runs, and that’s why they are my go-to spring trip ski. While they definitely prefer the small to medium radius turn, I have certainly gone full DH on them and didn’t feel it was beyond their capacity.

As for powder, the Orbs give an honest showing. This is not their forte, but they ski powder well enough for me. If I’m on a trip and we’ve got 12 inches of fresh and I’ve got my Orbs, I’m still psyched. Crud and breakable crust is the only snow type I feel underpowered on the Orbs FB. That being said, there hasn’t really been a touring ski I’ve skied in my life when I haven’t felt underpowered in crud and breakable crust… and to be honest, that’s the least of my worries.

One of the most important things I look for in a ski is its reliability and durability. I’ve got almost three seasons now on my Orb FBs and I’ve taken them all over the world on numerous expeditions, and skied over more rock than I care to admit. Even with my kind of abuse the Orbs FB have held up quite well. Other than the standard nicks and chips, with a tune and grind they are as good as new.

With my height and weight, and with the type of terrain I use the Orb FBs for I feel as if the 172.1 is a perfect length. Typically this would be a little short for me, but because the Black Crow skis are a bit stronger under foot, I’ve been erring on the shorter side of my length spectrum with all my Black Crow skis and have had good results. I’ve skied with a heavy expedition pack as well, and never felt as if I was too short or underpowered.

Next, some thoughts by IFMGA mountain guide Ross Hewitt, based in Chamonix, France:

As a Chamonix steep skier I use the 178 cm Orb FB mounted with a Plum 170 race binding for skiing steeps above 4000 meters, when I need to travel a long way, or if I guide any hut-to-hut ski touring.

I’m 5’11”, 75kg/165lbs.

Typically I use the Scarpa Maestrale RS but have done a few missions with the Alien RS.

The Orb performs like a traditional ski: camber underfoot for pop and edge-ability, strong tail to power off, tip rocker giving it that forgiving edge and ability to ride powder.

The most memorable route I skied on the Orb was Les Droites South Face (4000m peak) last February in deep snow, from first tram on Aiguille du Midi. The day started off -30C but in the cauldron of the Talefre Basin I was stashing my down jackets and all other gear to cover the ground, eventually starting the descent an hour before dark at 5pm, video below.

Next, thoughts by IFMGA and Exum mountain guide, Dan Corn:

I typically have used my Orb’s for longer tours in the spring when snow conditions are predictable and I am going to be covering a lot of ground. This ski is narrow, light, but big enough to handle most conditions well. They are excellent as long as snow surfaces aren’t too varied, smooth is key as far as I am concerned… Quite nice edge to edge in the steeps.

Skiing the Skillet Glacier route on Mt. Moran. Photo by D. Corn

Summary

The Black Crows Orb Freebird is an energetic, versatile, lightweight backcountry ski. It is quick and precise edge to edge, yet stable for it’s size and weight. The ski is particularly nice when paired with a lightweight boot, and we’ve found that it excels in steep and technical terrain, or for ski touring longer distances. Additionally, the Orb FB is playful and fun to ski in midwinter powder. Highly recommended.

Shop for Black Crows here.



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Comments

8 Responses to “Black Crows Orb Freebird Ski Review — Nimble Yet Stable”

  1. Dano Monticelli July 8th, 2019 10:31 am

    I recently picked up a pair for spring touring. Have been on the BD Justice for the last several seasons, and the Orb has been a revelation. Boots are Scarpa Maestrale RS, bindings are always Dynafit Radicals.

    I’m 6”, 160 lbs and the Orb has been LOADS of fun in all conditions. Much more responsive than the Justice, I feel I am able to crank off turns with little effort. Case in point: late season tours on Uneva and Aetna. On Uneva, overnight 4” snow made the first few laps seems like mid February. I’m used to > 110 underfoot, so was pleased with the float the Orb’s offered, and the ability to pop from one turn to the next was appreciated v.s the cruising I’m used to on the Justice. By 10 AM, snow turned to glop, and the lightness and narrowness was greatly appreciated as we toured out. On Aetna, went from overnight frozen crust to perfect corn right as we topped out. The edging on the crust was MUCH more confidence inspiring than the Justice, and again, the ability to crank off turns in the corn made the descent lightning quick.

    Every tour I’ve done on these I can’t stop telling my buddies how much I love this ski. Light, poppy, energetic ski sums it up!

  2. Lou Dawson 2 July 8th, 2019 12:05 pm

    Thanks Dano, that’s super helpful. The more takes, the better! Lou

  3. Travis July 8th, 2019 2:25 pm

    I have enjoyed the Orb FB immensely. I ski a variety of PNW terrain; resort laps, volcanos, tours around Alpental etc. and these skis have never held me back. Being a relatively newbie to the backcountry, I’ve appreciated their balance of weight and performance–and there adaptability to a variety of terrain. In fact, one of the biggest surprises I had last season was how well these skis float in powder. I’d need more powder laps to confirm, but they were floating better than my 108 in the waist resort skis! I was dumbfounded. I am 5′ 10″, 155 and I ski the 178 with Dynafit TLT Speed Radicals and Salomon S/LAB MTN. However, I just purchased some Scarpa F1s to use with these.

  4. Francesco Bertotti July 9th, 2019 6:24 am

    I am often confused when I see skis made with a brand but in another manufacturer’s factory. In this case Elan Ski in Slovenia and Atomic in Bulgaria. Design, technology, materials are really different? So different that they could justify a big price difference? Black crows appeared as a small independent brand, I’d love to know exactly in what exactly means their “unorthodox partnerships with other brands” (from black crows website).

  5. Natalie July 10th, 2019 12:33 am

    I really like my Camox Freebird in 96, and I wouldn’t want to go any narrower for variable conditions in the backcountry. I did find Navis to be a bit too big and heavy for me. I am 5’3″ and 125 lb

  6. Lou Dawson 2 July 10th, 2019 9:09 am

    Francesco, I’ve been to the ski factories and spoken many times with designers and engineers. Skis can be made in the same factory and be quite different. Within the same brand, or multiple brands. Granted, over the years there have been instances when the exact same ski was sold under several different names, but that’s easy to determine and is not common. Also, perhaps when institutions buy skis for rental or other types of mass use they might be sold under different badges.

    However, branding and marketing are incredibly powerful. So a ski could be similar to another, both made in same factory, and one of them could have a much higher reputation than the other, due to public perception. People of course get paid a lot of money to make that happen.

    So, buyer beware, but don’t get to confused. If a ski has a good reputation, and is the right price, your chances are excellent.

    Lou

  7. Francesco July 10th, 2019 2:25 pm

    Thanks Lou, always the right answer! 😉
    I find that it would be interesting to know the construction details of each ski and the builders do not always make them public. Although in the end there is often something esoteric that makes a ski special! quality of the woods? special attention to construction?
    Then if I look around I often don’t understand how most skiers can really appreciate the quality of a ski. Many who spend crazy amounts on equipment and don’t spend little money on waxing or sharpening the edges…

  8. brian harder July 12th, 2019 1:04 am

    Sidewall or cap?





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