Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Telemark Ski Bindings - Trials and Tribulations with NTN

Last year was a mess for me, gear wise. My alpine boots packed out, I ripped the bases off of one pair of skis, tore up the sidewalls of another (more on that in a later post), and I had problem after problem after problem with my telemark setups. I've been posting some of the issues on various forums, but I thought I'd tell the whole story here, just to give some information to people thinking about Telemark, NTN, and Alpine Touring options.

I sold 4 pairs of skis at the beginning of last year to fund the switch to NTN - a 78mm waisted Tele setup, a 80mm waisted park ski, a 70mm waisted tuned down race ski, and a 78mm waisted midfat that was broken and battered. Most of this was due to my love of the Liberty Morphic alpine skis that I got the previous year. I realized that 94mm at the waist is perfectly fine, and there's really no need to go under 85mm, except for rock hard ice days, and I have a pair of slalom skis for that.

Skis sold to make room in my basement and wallet
I bought Scarpa TX Pro boots. This seemed like an obvious choice - more power, plus the ability to ski AT with tech inserts. And I have to say, this was the one part of my setup that I loved and continue to love to this day. Super comfortable (the most comfortable ski boot I've ever worn), awesome power transfer, and excellent walkability. It's amazing how you become used to clomping around the lodge in your alpine boots, or doing the tele shuffle with huge rockered duckbills, but then when you put on a bellowed NTN boot, you feel so much better just walking through the lunch line. The only downside with these boots is that they don't perform very well for AT uses. I haven't skied them with Dynafits, but they fit into my alpine bindings, and the few times I skied them weren't phenomenal. They basically ski like a 60 or 70 flex alpine boot, which means that you can't get too aggressive with them out over the front, they're not too precise on ice, and they're not really great for manky conditions. They work if you stay really centered and don't try to get too crazy with them, but I probably wouldn't want to use them on anything that scared me (again). When you ski them the way they were designed to be skied, however, they really work well:

Scarpa TX Pro boots in action in Silverton, CO
To go with the boots, I chose Atomic Charter skis. With a 100mm waist, my thinking was that by going for a more "touring" oriented ski, I could use them at the resort on powder days, I could use them for BC around the ADKs and I could take them out west for trips. They were okay, I just found them to be a little . . . weak. They weren't "flimsy" per se, but there just wasn't much "there" there. The profile was really thin, and they just didn't charge like the skis that I'm used to skiing. Not enough to disqualify them from consideration for pure touring purposes, but enough to make me look elsewhere when I buy my next set of boards (I already sold the Charters). I'll go lightweight with my next pair, but I also need more "oomph", and I'll sacrifice a few grams for a stronger stick.

Atomic Charters in the air in Durango. You can sort of see the low profile for weight savings.
And now to the most annoying part of the story: the bindings. I started off with the Burnt Mountain Spike NT. I had read some positive reviews of this binding and its predecessor, the TeleBulldog. But I never really felt comfortable with the binding. The step in capability was okay, but took a little doing to set up, the touring mode was fantastic (this was my first free pivot binding, and I wondered why I hadn't made the switch years ago), but the brakes were kind of wimpy. I thought that the traditional latch point behind the boot would be more familiar to me, but even after a bunch of fiddling, I never could get the springs dialed in the way I wanted. That wasn't the biggest issue, though. My main problem was that I felt really tippy-toed when I was skiing. I could never get in a super bomber tele stance, and I definitely didn't feel like I was solid on my planks. I was very tentative, and it came across in the way I skied. What used to be smooth before the switch was now herky jerky and stunted. Not good. I was still getting used to the setup and deciding whether I wanted to go a different direction when the decision was made for me:

That piece of metal is supposed to be attached to that other piece of metal. And when I looked on the other binding, the same thing was about to happen there:

Look at that crack forming
Burnt Mountain (which is really just one guy) was great about the warranty. I sent the bindings back and he gave a full refund. I think if you don't go crazy on your skis like I tend to do, these bindings would be fine. In fact, talking to the guy from Burnt Mountain, he said that I'd probably break the Rottefella bindings too, which turned out to be exactly correct.

First, though, let me back up. Since I was in the middle of teaching when these bindings broke, I rushed into town to see if the shop in town had any solutions for me. They just happened to have last years version of the same binding, so they swapped the bindings out really quick and sent me back to the mountain (I later realized that while making the switch, he drilled through the bases when he didn't account for the couple millimeter difference in the binding depth. Doh!). Undeterred, I ordered the Rottefella Freedom bindings the next day.

When I finally got the bindings in (and after a few false starts with not having the correct brakes), Jeff put them on the skis and sent me on my way. The difference was amazing. Power, control, precision - I was able to get everything that I was missing with the Burnt Mountain offering. I guess I should have assumed this would be the case. The NTN system was designed to attach at the second heel (the "duckbutt" in forum talk). And doing that, using the "powerbox", the binding transfers energy to the ski, and gives you a predictable flex through the whole turn. Also, the breaks are burly, and I can put my skis together like Alpine skis, which is awesome. No more messing around with ski straps. Technically, I feel awesome - strong and accurate. Other people have reported a difficulty with the slow drag - the gradual lead change that you need to make smooth long turns, but I haven't really noticed. I got back from Colorado, feeling awesome about the setup, and I was just starting to get used to the bindings when this happened:

Those cracks aren't supposed to be there
That's not supposed to be like that
So the guy from Burnt Mountain was right. I broke the Rottefellas. I haven't given up on these bindings, though. I like the power and control too much. I have a hunch that they failed because of the skis they were on (and maybe because of a faulty mount). There was a layer of metal in the Charters, and I feel like the skis might not have been tapped in the right way before the bindings were screwed in, possibly due to the thin profile, possibly due to a certain shop messing up again (a shop that is now out of business). After getting a warranty replacement, the Freedoms are going on a brand new set of skis.

What skis? Well, the Liberty Morphics that I mentioned in the very beginning of this post failed me. I somehow managed to rip off the base material which was a weird plastic material and not P-Tex like a normal ski. I sent them back to the company and they sent me a nice pair of bluish purple ones with a P-Tex base. The boots and bindings are in the shop now getting mounted up. This is the last chance. If this combo doesn't work for me (a ski I like for Alpine, a binding I loved before it broke, and the most comfortable boots I've ever owned), then I'm done with the NTN experiment. I'm pretty hopeful, though. I'm looking forward to a full season with one pair of Tele skis that I know I'll be able to rip on. Let's just hope they don't explode.


  1. Any further thoughts? What did you end up with? Thanks.

  2. I have had three pairs of NTN Freedom's fail like this now. three pairs in eight total ski days. I think it is a design flaw. I am going with the 22 Designs!

  3. Hi!
    I have also problem.
    During off 14 days, three bindings are KO. Crack bases aluminium always. Once palstic part is rewind and deformed. Construction defect or driving carefully.