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Apr

15

David Just Kneecapped Goliath

With no marketing budget, HR directors, MBAs, or glamorous corporate offices, Cast Touring—three full-time employees—is quietly revolutionizing the alpine touring market.

photographs by Jay Dash 

The ski industry has a secret. Those tech style alpine touring bindings that make for hyperefficient backcountry travel thanks to the fluid anatomical walking motion of the ball-in-socket toe pieces? They don’t release laterally at the toe, but rather at the heel. This opens up users to a greater risk of lower leg fractures. But the low-tech binding’s weaknesses don’t end there. Pre-releases in ski mode are common, which is why so many skiers will opt to ski with the toe piece fully locked out. In an avalanche, being attached to a ski that won’t release is bad news. The low-tech heel piece also has issues. Because the back of the boot is elevated on two wee pins that stab into the lug, there’s no downward pressure on the boot, which means it will roll as you weight the edges. This sets up perhaps the worst possible performance outcome. The toe holds the front of the boot rigidly with little to no shock absorption, so the front half of your turn is secure if a bit nervous. And then the heel of the boot—with most of your power driving it—rolls on those pins robbing energy transfer and control. The effect is that the forebody of the ski hooks up, and then the tail washes. To make matters still worse for a hard-charging skier, when you deeply flex a ski with a tech binding in a trough, say as you enter a no-fall couloir, the energy that you put into the ski must get released somehow. If you’re not carefully weighting the ski it will snap back from decambered to hyper-cambered, pulling those pins from the heel of the boot and sending the ski flying. 

The low-tech binding wasn’t first and foremost designed for safety or downhill performance. It was designed for backcountry travel for mountaineers—and for those purposes it’s still unparalleled. You agree to all this when you buy a low-tech system. Just as with everything in the sport, you assume the risk. And seasoned skiers understand that. Most (but not all) will back off the gas pedal when they’re skiing tech bindings. Everybody should know these things. But then you see resort skiers skittering around on tech bindings and realize that knowledge isn’t widespread. It’s dutifully in the fine print, but the ski industry doesn’t like to talk about the pros and cons of tech bindings because a big chunk of the industry is now in the business of selling low-tech bindings. 

Now flash back to 2011 on the “Drictor” (Driggs and Victor) side of Teton Pass. The brothers Lars and Silas Chickering-Ayers and their buddy Ryan Hawks are Freeskiing World Tour competitors who ski in the backcountry a lot. But because they charge, they don’t want to ski on low-tech bindings. Like all performance skiers, they favor big spring alpine bindings; the kind of bindings that were originally designed for safety and performance—but not touring. Hawks is an engineer in training. The brothers build timber frame homes and fish in Alaska in summer. Hawks sketches out some designs that involve a machined metal plate not dissimilar to a splitboard binding’s base that allows for an alpine toe piece to be swapped out for a tech toe for the uptrack, and swapped back for the descent.

Tragically, Hawks dies in a fall at a freeskiing event in California that same season. Unwilling to let the idea pass with him, Lars and Silas go into business. The first year they make 40 sets of plates and hand most out to friends for feedback. In 2012, they name the business Cast Touring. A cast is a grouping of hawks. 

Through trial and error, the brothers keep at it. (They don’t quit their day jobs.) Handing out systems for nothing to pro skiers and outfitting others with deals. Word-of-mouth advertising is all they have. But they’re committed to the business. When the original plates prove too cumbersome, Lars goes back to an actual drawing board and sketches out a system that works on posts, allowing for faster transfers, less weight, and more snow feel. Around the same time they design and build their own tech toes designed only for uphilling so they don’t have to buy those. In 2019, after three years of prototyping, Cast introduces the Cast Freetour. 

It’s brilliantly simple. A quick release on the toe pieces lets you move from touring to skiing mode (or back) in about 30 seconds longer than it takes to transition in a tech binding. A modified base plate beneath the heel accommodates a two position riser. You strap the brakes up for touring. To climb you store the alpine toe pieces in your hip pockets and step into the pins. To ski, you reverse the process. To further simplify things, the system only works with Look’s famed Pivot alpine bindings, which are now available in a 15 din with the same full metal jacket as the 18. Early glitches were resolved. This winter, after nine years in the business, Cast is on a pace to sell 2,000 units at $345 each (minus the binding which you buy separately.) For perspective, by Lar’s estimation that’s 10 to 15 percent of the Duke PT/Shift business. It represents the third straight year of 100 percent growth. Next year Cast is forecasting that they sell 3,500 to 4,000 units. 

Some folks in the industry originally called the Freetour a “one percenter” binding, and it’s still favored by elite level skiers. But that estimation is being proven wrong even now, with Salomon seeing huge success in its Shift, and Marker gaining traction with its new Duke PT. The original concept was that skiers deserved top-of-the-line safety, performance, and touring capabilities in a binding system. And the market has responded. Cast has paid off all its loans. Now, fueled by the Covid touring boom and the demands of hard-charging skiers, it’s growing its customer base. “It took a long time to get here,” says Lars, “but the last two years have really been a proof of concept. The industry won’t say it, but we’re not afraid to. Alpine bindings are better than tech bindings.”

Skier’s already get it. Or they’re starting to. The La Grave guide Erin Smart had already ordered herself a set of Freetours a few years back. They were en route to France when she entered a couloir at speed while out freeskiing without clients—and kicked a ski in a no fall zone. After breaking a rib, she was able to self arrest and eventually retrieve her ski. The tech binding hadn’t just pre-released, but broken—on its fourth day of use. Of course any binding can break, but Smart isn’t a burly 250 pound dude. She’s a light skier and she skis light. She’s also always taken meticulous care of her gear, being especially careful to replace her tech bindings each season and avoid letting them bang around in a roof box. Now, whenever she’s skiing from the telepherique, she’s in her Cast rig—choosing to limit her exposure to tech bindings unless she’s touring from the valley floor and needs the weight savings. Since she brought the Freetour into her rotation, Smart has converted other European guides. She wrote an essay about her experience. Some folks took it the wrong way. Feelings run deep among backcountry skiers.   

“My big takeaway wasn’t that Cast’s system was better in all situations. It isn’t. I was just trying to get the message out that people should be thoughtful with their equipment. Our ropes, our harnesses, our protection, they all come with safety ratings. But bindings don’t really work that way. The message I wanted to get across was to examine your gear throughout the year. And be mindful of your gear choices. And that includes your bindings.”

The skiing off the telepherique would seem to be the perfect scenario for the Freetour. Falling there can often mean death, and when you access that terrain from the lift, you tend to only climb for short bouts. Ditto with much of the sled and resort based skiing that Lars and Silas favor in Wyoming and Idaho. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put in long tours. Like a modern enduro mountain bike, it’s the weight, not the efficiency of the mechanism that’s the drawback on the uptrack. Last winter I skied with Scott athlete Jérémie Heitz on Mont Blanc on a press trip. He’s a madly strong uphill/downhill skier like his U.S. teammate Sam Cohen. On Mont Blanc, Heitz climbed faster than anyone with his Freetours over the course of a day that saw 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Lars and Silas have skied Rainier from top-to-bottom on Freetours—that’s 9,000 feet of climbing. “As long as your stride is smooth and feels natural it’s easy to keep walking,” says Silas. “Yes there are people that rip on tech bindings like Eric Hjorleifson. But Hoji is a freak of nature. Just because Alex Honnold can climb without ropes doesn’t mean anyone else should.”  

It comes back to that notion of mindfulness: Some Cast athletes move back and forth from Freetours to tech bindings depending on the day’s terrain. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When he’s traveling throughout Europe competing on the Freeride World Tour, Drew Tabke brings two sets of skis equipped with Freetours so he can compete inbounds one day and tour the next. Back home in the States he’ll ski lower angle terrain with big approaches on a superlight tech binding and a 179 centimeters ski. It’s horses for courses. “When people ask me about the Freetour I’m careful not to pigeonhole it,” says Tabke. “It came from expert roots. And Lars and Silas are gnarly, hard-charging skiers. But the Freetour isn’t just for experts. Anyone that wants the safety and security of an alpine binding with the ability to tour can use it.”       

Which gets us to why the Freetour (and the Shift and Duke PT) is so much more than a one-percenter binding. It was in the pursuit of safety that bindings were mechanized in the first place. Two-plus meters of hickory strapped to the foot with leather was snapping ankles like kindling back in the early days of the sport. Prior to the dawn of “safety bindings,” skis were still utilitarian modes of transportation. It was only through a few accidents of history—chair lifts, and altruistic binding designers—that skis became specialized for downhill travel only. 

Now, say the brothers, with ski areas overrun and the cost of lift tickets beyond so many people, the sport is pivoting again to what it once was. A more self-reliant affair with fewer crowds and more nature—except now the gear lets you rip.    

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