Uphill Performance (With Caveats Galore)
We had 13 skis to test over the course of 15 days. Because of that, we initially decided not to take these or any AT bindings down with us. One of the downsides of writing detailed, long-form reviews is that, not only do they take a lot of time to write, they require a lot more time on snow than you’d need if you were just writing some vague, 50-word review-blurbs….
But as I said earlier, we knew that we could at least weigh in on the downhill feel and performance of these bindings, and we’d address the uphill performance back in the States, and as soon as possible.
So if you’re going to get bent out of shape by our preliminary findings, then I’d stop reading now, and just come back when we update; that’d be a totally legit thing to do. While we played a good bit with locking and unlocking the heel, pulling up and pushing down the climbing aid / riser bar, we only ended up touring one day on these things, and that is not enough to come to definitive conclusions (regardless of what other sites or magazines might do.)
Furthermore, most AT equipment requires some time to figure out and adjust to the system, and the Guardian and Tracker are no exception. And so, with all that said, here’s what we found:
Jason Hutchins, Ryan Caspar, and I skinned and boot packed up to Cerro Torrecillas one day—Ryan on the Guardians, me on the Trackers, same skin track.
Again, this is a binding that aims to offer outstanding downhill performance and inspire confidence. And it does.
What it doesn’t do is somehow magically accomplish the former while touring just as well as a tiny little tech binding. So if that’s a deal breaker for you, then this is not your binding. (And yes, I’d like to imagine that all of this goes without saying, but just in case.)
I have toured the past two seasons on Dynafit Vertical FT 12s, but I wasn’t bothered at all by the action or stride of the Tracker. It felt natural enough to me, and that was while touring in a pair of Atomic Redster Pro 130 alpine boots, not some AT slippers.
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet skied the new Marker Duke, though I’d like to (and we obviously need to). And I’ve barely skied the old Marker Duke, mostly because I knew too many people who had developed the dreaded toe slop, so I shied away from that binding. (It’s precisely for this reason that I’m curious to check out the latest iteration of the Duke.)
So if you’re super finicky about the stride quality and characteristics of your very burly, 16-DIN AT binding, well, mostly I hope your spouse is good at dealing with your over-the-top expectations. In any case, I’ve really got nothing noteworthy or negative to report, and that is clearly positive.
Hike & Ride Switch
While a lot of people are excited about the fact that the Guardian and Tracker don’t require you to step out of the binding to switch from hike mode to ski mode (unlike the Marker Dukes), this has caused some to worry about the possibility of accidentally hitting the grey tray behind the heel piece and freeing your heel at a very inopportune time.
But that simply isn’t going to happen. Or maybe I’d better just say that I lack the creative capacities to imagine this happening to anyone, ever.
The Good News & The Bad News… Or, Good News + Bad News That May Actually Just Be More Good News
The good news is, you aren’t hitting and sliding that tray back accidentally and releasing your heel. But I’m confident about that because, so far, it’s proven to take a fairly significant effort to move that tray even when we were trying to. So that’s either the bad news (the release tray is a little finicky) or just further good news (you aren’t accidentally triggering a heel release and dying).
This could definitely be one of those things where further familiarization with the product will make this procedure as natural and easy as turning on your avi beacon. But in our experience so far, this action isn’t as dumb easy as pushing the button on a seat belt to get it to release.
Part of the issue is that to slide the tray back with a ski pole requires getting that pole fairly close to the ground and pushing the tray back from a fairly low angle. And if you have powder baskets on those poles, those baskets aren’t conducive to getting low and pressing straight back. Furthermore, the tray is relatively close to the heel piece and that heel piece can get in the way a bit.
It’s definitely not the end of the world; it maybe further good news that you needn’t worry about unintentional releases, and it’s possible that further familiarization = conquering the learning curve. But we’re providing a heads up here.
Climbing Aid / Riser Bar
So you’ve freed your heel and it’s time to climb. Now all you’ve got to do is flip the climbing bar all the way forward so that it sits on the tracks and prevents the heel piece from locking back into alpine mode.
This move also proved to hold a bit of a learning curve, with the primary issue being that our powder baskets would get in the way and prevent us from slipping the tip of our ski pole under the notch in the black rubber piece on the climbing bar.
However, if your ski poles have a notch at the top of the handle, then you can use the handle to very easily flip up the riser bar. That little indentation on the black piece of the riser bar is a last resort, and it’s a bit of a pain. So get yourself some ski poles with a handle like this:
…and you’re good to go.
Climbing Bar, Part II
I did experience one thing that might point to more than a lack of time spent with this binding. Twice, when we were skinning on some steeper sections and I had the climbing bar up in its vertical position, the climbing bar slipped and fell back to its “ski mode” position, flat against the ski and behind the heel release tray. So all of a sudden, I found my heel locked down. This happened twice over a span of about thirty minutes.
I’m not sure what to make of this, other than it isn’t awesome to be in the middle of a steep-ish skin track and find that one of your heels is suddenly locked down. And it’s not as if it’s possible to lift that climbing bar up into an “almost” correct position: there are channels / grooves that mean that the bar is either in place or it isn’t; there is no almost.
I can’t say with 100% certainty, but apparently, when I would step down onto the climbing bar, there was enough force coming down on the bar from the heel piece that it would bow enough to slip out of the grooves. Again, this is speculation, but I haven’t figured out what else might have caused this.
It’s also important to note that Ryan Caspar was ahead of me on the exact same skin track, and he had no such issues. It may or may not be relevant that Ryan is also 40 pounds lighter than I am.
Of course, if and when you get good at sliding that heel-release tray back and flipping up the climbing bar, this might not be a big deal even if it were to happen occasionally. But I can think of some steep skin tracks angling up Mt. Superior in the Wasatch where this is something that I would not want to be dealing with.
Again, I suppose it’s possible that this, too, is attributable to user error or a lack of familiarity, but I think it’s worth mentioning if only as a heads up, should anyone else experience this.
Preliminary Bottom Line:
I’m going to say it for the seventy-third time: we need and want more time on these bindings. But we also want to provide some honest feedback about our initial experience. The backcountry is no joke, so we have erred here on the side of pointing out anything we found that you might possibly experience yourself.
Salomon and Atomic set out to create a burly AT binding that “maximizes skiing performance.” We believe they have.
They have also created a ground-breaking, 16-DIN binding that allows you to free up or lock down your heel without removing your skis. Nice.
What we can’t say—or at least, can’t say yet—is that the Guardian and Tracker maximize climbing performance.
The old Marker Duke had some finicky tendencies, and we don’t yet know whether the new ones do, too. The Guardian and Tracker also exhibit a couple of quirks, but those quirks may be a small price to pay for an exceptionally good downhill binding.
That’s what we know so far. And so for now, we’ll leave it to you to decide.
See Marshal Olson’s Follow Up on the Atomic Tracker 16 / Salomon Guardian 16 AT binding.
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