Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Marquette Backcountry ski review back story

My XCD ski time line.  Beluga's.  Karhu Jack BC (waxless) Karhu Dorado, Rossi TRS and Marquette Backcountry ski

So last week my new pair of Marquette Backcountry skis arrived.  I am stoked because the Jay Cooke region where I currently reside has some really interesting backcountry terrain but it is usually covered in the bare minimum of base.  I have been trying for years to find the right tool for skiing the area here.  We have low snow conditions, steep short slopes and "pucker" brush all over the place.

Now this quest is not new to me.  I have been looking for the magic front country, meadow skipping ski for a long time.  On top of that I have had a pretty stout stint in the Nordic ski Industry to fuel that search.
So before I review the Marquette Backcountry Ski I think that a bit of back story needs to happen.

Back in the early 90's I spent a lot of time testing gear and interacting with the Garmont design team when we built skis as well as boots.  This time period is well before Garmont was a player in plastic boots.  Virtually our full line was about lower angle backcountry skiing.  Of course back then, almost all skiing was being done with similar gear.  I remember skiing the Bolton Backcountry on one pair of 90-70-80 skis and an ankle high leather boot with one strap on a Monday and heading to ski Tucks on the same set up on a Tuesday.
Hillmans Highway, testing Garmont Gara's.  Still ripping the 90-70-80's.

While at Garmont we came up with a ski called the Beluga.  At the time we thought it was really fat, 107-87-107.  It was light, it was nimble and it was great for mellow, heavily wooded terrain with soft snow.  Its achilles heel however was its soft wood core and its fragility.  As a tester I would go through at least five pair a season.  I would snap them, gash them.  Rip the sidewall right off.  Pull bindings and top sheets off etc.  Of course we were not using them as they were intended.  They were intended as a sliding snowshoe.

Testing Beluga's in the Bolton Backcountry, gotta love the outrigger move

Sten Seeman and myself using the Belugas in New Hampshire.  Sten is looking good in his XC gear, also interesting to note the NNN BC set up.  Sten could rip any ski on any binding (most likely still can!)

Again the Beluga was not a truly new idea as the oldest known ski to be found is basically just that, a wide stable platform with a base of seal skin that you can walk up anything and glide down most things.

However, what the truly fanatical skiers found with the Beluga was a way to take advantage of low snow conditions. It moved easily and quickly with its waxless base so you could scamper up hills you would not even think about taking the time to skin up, it floated high in the snowpack so you could avoid most evil things like rocks, sticks, stumps and ice, and it was relatively cheap, so you could beat them without feeling too much pain.  Belugas were a way to escape the nasty experience of a ski area with low to no snow.

Torry Moore putting a good face on some really shitty skiing.  We hiked up to 3,000 or so feet to ski the snow line.  Well you can see what we were skiing on.  Frozen roots, rocks and ice.  Now that is low snow, and you would be totally surprised at how many folks will take the time to ski this stuff if they have to.  Roto molded poly skis?  Might make sense on a base like this........

So all in all they did the trick but like I said, you also destroyed them easily and often and unless you had a good solid connection in the industry like I did it was a bit more spendy than the average tree ski jocky wanted to ante up.

Years later I ended up working a stint with Karhu.  The Belugas had perished as a model when Garmont went strictly into boots and killed the full ski line.  Until then nobody really went after anything resembling them.  Sure plenty of companies had XCD (Cross Country Downhill) but none of the brands had moved forward on fatter lower angle semi aggressive skis.  The tele market had made the jump to wide skis but XCD had been forgotten.
Enter Karhu with their line of great XCD heritage skis and also the Sweepers series.  The Sweepers were another attempt at the idea of walking snowshoe.  If the Beluga had fallen on the skier side of the sliding snowshoe, the Sweepers fell more on the snowshoe side.  Their kick was killer, you could scale a forty foot White Pine on them, but their glide was non-existent.  So for me at least they were not worth the effort.  The rest of the XCD line however was awesome, albeit to svelt on the width side.  The Dorado was the fattest and it was basically a throw back to the 90-70-80 I had started out on 15 years earlier.  Only difference was it was lighter and had a really solid no-wax base so you could scramble and a 3/4 metal edge.  Bummer was that you could scramble but you were still swinging around traditional length skis in tight brush and you needed a least some distance to get them up to speed to rise up the top and turn.
Eventually Karhu figured it out and created the Guide.  But again, that was still only 78 under foot and cost nearly $400 bucks!  While at Karhu I was lucky enough to experiment with building a pair of BC Jax with a no wax base.  These were a one off and I covet them like I covet my wife, they are literally a full tilt all mountain ski with the ability to ski flat approaches without skins and with more glide.  However, they are priceless and I use them mainly on trips out east or out west where I know they fit the ticket.  They are not skis for banging around in low snow conditions and tight brush here in Minnesota, plus they need a good solid boot to drive them and I dont need to haul that kind of metal around here in the flatlands.
Another pair down.  Belugas biting the dust at Teton Pass

Burning Belugas as an offering to Ullr.  Must have worked as I have had great winters ever since!

So here I am  back in Minnesota and still looking for some way to get speed and make turns on short slopes. The past few seasons I have actually decided to try a totally different tact.  That of length.  Perhaps a really long ski can accelerate faster?  Since the ski industry as a whole has moved away from longer skis I had to hit the thrift stores and the garages of old ski bums to find what I wanted to try.  Rossi TRS's 215s.  Fisher GTS etc.  Certainly the boot side of the equation is better to drive these types of boards.  The theory works for sure, but you need running space for these skis and on top of it wax.  Most of the skis I found were not waxless as in that era, people waxed (or at least they tried) or they used skins.  I am not afraid of wax and do feel that when you hit it right the glide retained is by far the best and fastest ride your going to find.  The problem is hitting the wax right and eventually I just wanted to stick a gun in my mouth and be over it, I will save that for my race gear.  Skins are just not an option here.
Two years ago I was working for IMBA in the UP and I ran into Dave O. and his Marquette Backcountry ski.  Now the UP is an interesting place.  It gets over 300 inches of snow of year, it is on Lake Superior so it has dramatic elevation change and it has a really interesting population of adventure based folks.  Many times I have been hanging out in Copper Harbor and thought about the fact that I needed to get my ass back there and ski that terrain, it reminds me of Bolton Backcountry with way more snow.
Marquette is the same way, only with even more outdoor recreation oriented folks and Dave O is one of them.  I had originally met Dave O in the late 90's while I was back working with Patagonia in the Midwest.  I liked him straight off, something about maniacs with high IQs that I find endearing.  He reminded me of many of the great folks I used to hang out with in VT.  He has a way of looking at his playground and thinking about how he can best exploit it through his gear and then enjoy it.  So when Dave handed me this plastic, roto molded, waxless, tip splayed ski it immediatly resonated with me.  Especially when he told me that they were going to retail for $179 bucks.  So here was ski that had potential to end my quest.  Short, fat, indestructible and cheap.  On top of that it uses inserts so it is something I can easily swap bindings on and off of.  Big questions were these.

How well does it climb and how well does it glide?

I will answer those questions in the next post.


samh said...

I've seen this ski pop up in two blogs I read. In case you're interested:

Dave Chenault's Bedrock and Paradox out of Missoula, MT.

Dave said...

Awesome post. Very interesting to get an insider perspective on things I've become interested in lately.

I've been skiing some Marquette's out in NW Montana for the last month. They're not without faults, but overall I love em.

Sven said...

Hansi- I'm still rocking my very last pair of Beluga's- I think I bought out the remaining inventory from Garmont when I was up at GGTOC and they ended up going down in flames (literally)- so I'm always searching for another pair- either that or find a way to steal those Omni tracked Jac's from you! Hope all is well.