Voile Switchback X2 Binding Review

I tend to be a creature of habit.  I’ve had the same boot and binding set up – a series of Scarpa T1s and Cobra R8 bindings – for the past 5 or so years.  I love me an active binding and have found it hard to find one that both tours and skis well. While the Cobra R8 is great for descents, it’s not ideal for touring.  N did modify the bindings to make them a bit more touring friendly, though it’s a far cry from a free-pivot binding.

So when I had an opportunity last spring to try a pair of Voile’s Switchback X2 bindings (Voile was kind enough to send us a prototype pair for evaluation), I was very excited to finally see if this was the binding that combined ski performance with touring performance.  I had definitely sacrificed the latter the past few years with the R8s.  I mounted the X2s on a pair of G3 Zests, a ski I reviewed earlier, and did a mix of backcountry and resort skiing on them during the last half of the season.

backcountry skiing on the switchback x2s

The X2s in action

At 3 pounds 2 ounces (actual weight according to my scale), the X2s qualify as light, but they definitely don’t sacrifice weight for performance. They are far more active than any other binding I’ve been on – noting here that I have not yet tried NTN bindings.  As such, I had to back off the preload quite a bit to get the right feel for me.  But that said, they ski very nicely on a variety of conditions.

The touring mode is clean and simple.  The lever at the top of the binding means it didn’t take much effort to move between the two, and the free pivot gave my foot a range of motion on the skin track that meant skinning was easier and much more efficient.  I found that the pivot was in the right location and the locking mechanism worked well in all the Sierra conditions I encountered, and the touring mode never iced up.

The one issue I did have was an accumulation of snow and ice between the boot sole and the steel part of the toe piece, but that tended to be during those spring days where we started with cold powder and it warmed up quickly.  I’m not sure if it’s because I have a smaller boot size (24.5), but it did require me to stop on a number of occasions to remove the snow.

Despite this, I really like these bindings.  I’ve had a hard time finding a performance telemark binding that’s good for touring.  The X2s embody that versatility, and I suspect they’ll see as much time at the resort as they will in the backcountry this season.

Assuming, of course, that it snows soon…

Related Posts

Switchback X2 review on Earn Your Turns – Craig Dostie provides his thorough take on these bindings. Well worth a read!

Eastern Sierra Antics: Mt. Wood

After such an epic winter in the Sierra, I figured that the spring corn skiing season would be equally as fab.  What little we have had has been fun, but it keeps being interrupted by a return to winter.

We had heard about the possibility of weather moving in yesterday, but decided to go ahead with Operation Eastern Sierra anyway.  Mango margaritas were taunting me loudly, and after a long week I needed to get outta Dodge.    We met our friend Fred at the Whoa Nellie Deli on Friday night to discuss Saturday plans over fish tacos and jambalaya.  Fred really wanted to hit the Cocaine Chute, a steeper line near the Dana Plateau.   I wasn’t into boot-packing up a chute (ski boot issues make that the equivalent of stabbing needles in my eye), and decided to take the dog and head to the less extreme terrain of the lower apron of Mt. Wood.

As luck would have it, a friend of mine pulled in right behind me not moments after I’d parked, so Soleil & I joined him and his friends.  This made route-finding on the initial climb dead easy, since all I had to do was follow.  The climb up is pretty direct (read: up), and once we reached the lower apron of Mt. Wood it was literally a straight line up.  As my friend & his pals continued up the steep, icy bootpack to the summit (whose steep angle my camera couldn’t capture), the dog & I lapped the lower slopes, which were corning up nicely.

Turns out the descent from the near top of Mt. Wood wasn’t as soft as hoped, due primarily to the cold east winds that had been gusting all morning.  That said, it only about 1,000 feet out of their 4,000+ foot descent though, and the winds did ensure that the lower elevation snow didn’t get too sticky, even at 2.30 pm on our final descent.

All of us milked the remaining few thousand feet of silky corn, including the dog, who had a few spectacular wipeouts as she tried to keep us with us.

It was definitely one of her bigger days of the season, and she was pretty happy to get back to the truck.  Truth be told, so was I.  My ‘easy’ day ended up being about 8 hours with over 4,000 feet of vertical.   And a lot more fun than I imagined.


Powder birthday

So the snow did arrive; up to 8 feet fell on the Tahoe region during the week of my birthday. It was a long overdue powder celebration (and then some), for me along with everyone else at Lake Tahoe.

I made the most of it with Nils, skiing Sierra-at-Tahoe on the high wind days when other resorts were shut down, then hitting Heavenly after it had been virtually closed for two days.  With the new Voile Drifters (121 mm underfoot,
baby!) I felt invincible.  There is no speed limit on those skis.  Better than the unlimited speed however were the face shots, of which these skis gave me plenty.

With the resorts slayed by the hordes of powder hungry skiers by Friday, we knew it was time for some backcountry exploration on the weekend.   Cold temps and a low snow levels meant that we could consider a few lower trailheads, one of which we’d never attempted before.    With some Ttips friends as guides, we found some of the most epic backcountry conditions I have ever encountered in the Lake Tahoe basin.  Full stop.   Over 4000 feet of knee + deep snow.

Want proof?  Well, how about these? (all photos courtesy of Sierra Fred)




Not stopping

So worth missing the Eddie Izzard concert in Oakland that night!

The joy of skiing

Ski season has finally started at Lake Tahoe, with the openings of Mt. Rose, Heavenly, Northstar-at-Tahoe and Squaw Valley this week.  N and I actually had plans to head to Mammoth (which has been open since October), but his asymptomatic manflu reared up again, leaving him with no desire to move, much less drive 2+ hours to ski – especially after a snowstorm left the roads a bit messy, and the mountains with upwards of 6 inches of new snow.

I decided to head to Heavenly for opening day on Saturday.  I was cautious in my enthusiasm, knowing that there would only be two runs open. I figured the resort would be mobbed with people by about 10 am, all fighting for the same 20 acres of man-made/natural groomed snow.  Add to that my own skepticism about my still-injured chest, and a strangely irrational fear that I’d forgotten how to make a tele turn, and, well, you might say I had low expectations.
Happily, my expectations were surpassed exponentially.  Not only did my chest not hurt, but I could still link a tele turn, there were very few people around for the first few hours, and the snow conditions were pretty darn good, with soft carveable groomers and some untracked snow on the sides of the run.
Did I mention it was a bluebird day after a snowstorm, which meant the white peaks nicely contrasted with the cerulean blue of Lake Tahoe? I had a huge, stupid grin on my face for the 2+ hours I was out.  I had forgotten how much FUN I have skiing, and it took a groomed blue run to remind me of the exuberance and dumb joy I get from telemark skiing.
And I’m not in this official Heavenly vid, but I think it shows the excitement everyone had about getting back on snow.

Hungry for Winter

October typically marks the beginning of the ski film season, when filmmakers of all winter persuasions (telemark, alpine, snowboard) take their shows on the road, fueling the winter lust of die-hard skiers like me.  This weekend brought a double whammy of telemark films, including the newest film from the Powderwhores, a Utah based collection of rippin’ backcountry telemark skiers.

While non-skiers will probably never fully understand the addiction that is powder skiing, this trailer captures a bit of the energy and joy that I get when dancing through untracked snow.  I’m just hoping Mother Nature pulls through with this El Nino crap, as I’m jonesing for some deep snow after this movie.
For those in South Lake Tahoe on Monday, another tele film, Freeheel Life, will be playing at LTCC at 8pm.


Attempting Freel

View from our summit

I am not a peak bagger, so thus summiting Freel Peak, located in the Carson Range at about 10,880 feet, has never been on my list of 1,000 Things to Do Before My Knees Give Out.  That said, it’s spring here at the lake, which means longer days, and ostensibly the famed Sierra corn snow is getting close to harvest time.  So when a friend let us know he was going to take advantage of Heavenly’s last day of lift operations to attempt skiing (in his case, snowboarding) Freel, N and I were interested, if only for the potential to ski 3,000 feet of corn snow and the chance to see the top of one of the highest peaks in the area.

Corn snow on the first descent

A trip of this caliber is not for the weak.  Clocking in at close to 12 miles of skinning up and skiing down, our route took us from the Heavenly boundary line, followed the Tahoe Rim Trail roughly from Monument Peak to Star Lake, and then veered sharply upward as we skinned to the saddle at 10,000 feet.  While the 6 of us (3 skiers, 3 snowboarders) started out together, it became quickly apparent that we would have to split up, as our ideal routes differed greatly due to our equipment. So we continued contouring our way towards Freel, while our friends figured a more direct path would be easier on snowshoes.

Approaching Freel Saddle

Our friend K had to be at work that night so we decided to not try for the summit when we hit the saddle around 1 pm, which was a good call.  The descent, which was not the corn snow we’d hoped for, included quite a bit of intimacy with shrubs and plant life as we crossed and recrossed creeks and drainages looking for the dirt road to our rescue car.  Seven and a half hours after we left Heavenly we arrived at the truck.  Never has a bottle of water and a seat looked so inviting.

It's all down from here.

Knowing the routefinding now, I’d like to reattempt this when snow levels are a bit lower, as the terrain looks like a lot of fun in powder.  And the views, well – they’re unparalleled, making every minute of the climb up *well* worth it.

Mammoth Fun

Despite sharing Mammoth Mountain with 80 trillion folks from Los Angeles this past weekend, we still managed to avoid crowds and find plenty of that glory wind buff snow that’s unique to the Eastern Sierra.   We planned our trip to coincide with Mammoth Mountaineering’s annual Telebration event, where freeheelers and meadow skippers descend upon the mountain to demo skis, take free lessons, and celebrate their weird ski binding.  Both N and I tested skis, and he got himself onto a new boot/binding system – the Crispi EVO NTN.  He was so enamored by it that he ended up buying a pair that night, which goes to show you that free demos do have their benefits.

I tried out a number of women specific tele skis, primarily to serve as comparison against those that I have and will review for Telemarktips.  I particularly liked the new G3 Luscious, if only because of the cool name and fun polka dot graphics that reminded me of my very first pair of telemark skis, Dynastar’s Fat Mollys.

While the warming temperatures at Lake Tahoe had created spring conditions at lower elevations, Mammoth’s snow was still wintery (hooray for high elevation!), and the winds buffed out a lot of the moguls, giving us a clean slate each morning.  I didn’t let the lingering effects of my cold hinder my ski days, which some thought might not have been a wise choice, but I’d have to be hospital bound before I gave up a day (or 3) skiing at Mammoth.

Overall a great weekend, even with the collective stupidity at level 11.  But what can you expect when you’re sharing the mountain with half of Southern California?

Ski Buddies for Life

Before we left for Bend yesterday I snuck up to Heavenly for a few hours to enjoy the snow before the forecasted warm temperatures turned it manky.  On the way up Sky Chair, I rode with an older couple in their seventies who were utterly adorable.  She spent the lift ride tossing bird seed out of a plastic bag she’s brought, and he sported a grey mustache and a dapper furry hat.  He opened up conversation by asking me about my telemark skis, and what prompted me to start it.  He admitted it was the first turn he ever made – as a 9 year old boy in Estonia – on leather boots with straps, not bindings.

They lived in the Bay Area now, and came up as much as possible, as Heavenly was their home mountain.  He admitted they’d been coming to Heavenly since it opened in 1955. That’s fifty years of skiing together, a milestone I can only dream of reaching with N.

Best. Day. Ever.

Despite nursing a flu-ish bug (a gift kindly given to me by N. before he departed on his whirlwind European business trip) that constricted my throat to 1/4 its normal size, I made the ostensibly sensible decision to ski for a few hours. Sierra was claiming on its website – in big RED letters – that it had received 2+ feet of new snow, and I felt duty called me to confirm that it was engaging in honest snow reporting.

It was. What they neglected to mention on the conditions page was that it was tremendously light and dry snow, which meant face shots and moments in the elusive ‘White Room’ that you hear of in Utah. Giggling while trying to breathe through the mouth in this sort of (waist-deep – in some cases deeper) snow can be dangerous. Choked to death by powder snow….now that would be an interesting epitaph.

Just Me and 100 Close Friends

Yesterday I went up to Sierra-at-Tahoe on my own, since N was sick in bed. I knew it was serious for him to miss a powder day of the 2 feet plus proportions, so I didn’t push him. Unbeknownst to me, the pass to South Lake Tahoe (Echo Summit) was closed for most of the morning, so there were verry few people there, and certainly no lift lines. Combine that with over two feet of snow, well, it was definitely a memorable day. And as word got round on the lifts that we were the lucky ones, the camaraderie and good cheer seemed to increase. Unlike many other powder days, there was no aggressiveness, no macho posturing, just a bunch of people really happy to be ripping it up in powder on a storm day.

If only all powder days were like that.