Spring Ski Gear Test on Mt. Hood

High on Mount Hood, ultra-light ski boots strapped on my feet, I skidded to a stop and assessed the challenge ahead. The chaos had begun suddenly. The wind-deposited powder we’d been skiing gave way to an icy ridge and a huge field of jutting sastrugi, a tangle of gnarly shapes set on a slope above an abyss.

It was my second day on Hood, a 11,249-foot volcano that towers above Portland in the Oregon sky. The occasion was a test of new alpine-touring gear, including a ridiculously light pair of boots from Garmont USA.

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Backcountry express: Spring tour on Mount Hood

Garmont, formerly of Vermont, this year relocated its headquarters to Portland. I’d come to see the company’s new digs then bust up Hood for some ski touring toward the top of the fat peak in a pair of boots so light the company will market them with a “world’s lightest” tagline when they are released mid-year. (See our coverage from January in the post “Lightest 4-Buckle Ski Boot. . . Ever.”)

Our group began its ascent at Timberline Lodge, a classic alpine structure with wood beams and a towering three-story chimney. (The building long ago got its fame as a setting for the horror film “The Shining.”) From the lodge we jumped on a Snowcat for a lift to another structure, the Silcox Hut, at 7,000 feet.

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Light! Garmont Cosmos boots weigh about 3 pounds each

Silcox was home for two nights, and from that perch our group was set to explore Hood’s upper reaches. Spring conditions (read: crap snow) made the summit off limits. Instead, we skinned up and sliced backcountry turns as well as ducking into a neighboring ski area, Timberline Resort, for some relief from the ice and sastrugi on groomed snow.

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View from the lodge

My gear setup for the trip included the aforementioned Garmont boots, the Cosmos model, as well as Volkl Nanuq skis and Marker’s mutable F12 bindings.

In the world of touring boots, light weight is king. However, being light means nothing if a boot cannot climb and ski with power, comfort, control, and ease. On Hood, I would get the chance to see both sides of the Garmont boot first hand.

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Volkl Nanuk skis

Trudging over wind-crusted snow near Hood’s summit rocks dotted the snow. Very quickly I had decided that the boot, which debuts for next season at $699, had nailed the climbing portion of the equation. The Cosmos boots weigh an incredible 3.1 pounds apiece, which is indeed a “world’s lightest” stat for this kind of four-buckle boot.

With a bit of forward lean in its free-walk mode, the boots were comfortable and fast on the ascent. We ate up altitude to a high point then stomped flat pads in the snow with our skis on, stripping off climbing skins before the descent. With the flip of a lever I transitioned the boot from walk to ski mode, its cuff stiffening in preparation for the turns below.

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Switching modes, from ascent to descent setting, high on Hood

The transition from climbing to descent took a couple minutes and was simple even on the steep grade high on Hood. Our guide, from Timberline Mountain Guides, dropped out of sight and I followed his line from our saddle roost above the mountain’s Illumination Rock.

I am an advanced skier, but this was my first time on ultra-light AT gear. After a few admittedly ugly turns I felt a rhythm return. Soon I was snaking comfortably over soft but shallow powder snow.

Not for long. Soon, the powder gave way to an icy ridge. After a few more turns we hit sastrugi and ice. My weight rocked back and I struggled to keep upright — the lightweight gear did its job, biting into the ice well enough for me to keep an edge as I bled off speed and trucked right to an open field.

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Skier’s eye view from Hood

After jump-turning through a few hundred yards of windblown pack, I skidded onto the relative safety of bullet-proof ice. The group stopped there to discuss options.

By unanimous decision we made tracks for some groomed snow at Timberline Resort, a reprieve from the spring chaos. I soon found myself loving the playful feeling of the Cosmos boots as I let the Nanuq skis fly on some smooth corduroy.

I took the face with speed and felt complete comfort on a ski and boot combo that had helped me climb about 2,000 feet with ease earlier in the day. I was impressed with the responsiveness of the boot which, while fairly supple in walk mode, provided good support when locked in for the descent.

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Assessing the not so great spring conditions

The day ended again at the Silcox Hut where we decided to take a long downhill tour about six miles to a road where our guide had thought to leave a truck. The tour turned largely into a slog as we plowed over soupy powder on flat terrain.

With the boots in walk mode the journey was basically a pleasant stroll on a warm afternoon. A couple short descents in sloppy conditions confirmed my feeling that the gear was up to task on a broad range of alpine terrain. If I only could have tested them in deep spring powder my trip would have been complete. A guy can dream, right?

—Contributor Sean McCoy is based in Denver.

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Small victory after surviving treacherous sastrugi slope

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