More Than Skin
Two Popular Climbing
Skins Go Toe to Toe
September, 2004-- When Black Diamond Equipment acquired
the small climbing skin maker Ascension a few years ago it's
probably safe to say the Salt Lake City-based gear maker had
no idea how complicated the manufacturing would turn out to be.
A former Ascension employee once described the process to us
as "one part technology combined with two parts voo-doo."
Getting the alchemy just right proved to be a challenge for BD,
the first season found the company plagued with returns of what
had heretofore been known to be, at least before the sale, a
very reliable product. More recently, G3 entered the skin business
only to find itself struggling with issues of inconsistent and
undependable adhesive that would stick tenaciously when that
wasn't desirable (as in to each other when stored), and then
literally fall off of the ski when in use. The makers of the
popular Targa tele binding and other backcountry gear were forced
to issue a recall, and keep their skin program in ice for an
entire season, while working on straightening out the situation.
Both companies are tight-lipped
about the proprietary manufacturing process each of them employ,
but stories of special temperature and humidity controlled assembly
and storage rooms make the rounds, conjuring up NASA-like images
of workers in smocks and hair nets laboring to produce highly
technical products that perform consistently in their intended
use. From what we hear, that is not an inaccurate impression.
A lot of effort goes into making these deceptively simple looking
but critical backcountry skiing tools.
By the beginning of last
season G3 had claimed to have put their problems behind them
and reintroduced their climbing skins. Black Diamond had long
since perfected the production of their Ascensions, and added
a new line of "Glide-Lite" skins as well. We had already
been testing BD's Clip-Fix skins for an entire season when we
received a pair of G3's new skins in November, 2003. The decision
was made to forego a "quick review" and instead put
both of these climbing skin models to thorough, head to head
evaluation. We were assisted in the testing a by Lee Frees, an
International Mountain Guide employed by Sierra Mountaineering
International, of Bishop, California. Lee is out in the bc skinning
all winter long, and his input was extremely valuable in putting
this review together.
The BD Clip-Fix skins use
a coated cable tip loop with an easy to use stainless steel camming
device on the tail to tension the skin, and hold it in place
against the ski base. BD's skins now come with a glue-less strip
down the middle of each skin to make it easier to separate the
skins when they have been stashed away, glue side to glue side.
G3's climbing skins utilize a similar cable tip piece with a
cleverly designed strap and clip tensioning assembly on the tail.
G3's attachment system
makes it easy to move one pair of skins between two different
pairs of skis in different lengths, while BD bills their system
as simple and a good choice for "skiers who are dialed with
their kit." That is a realistic assessment. Adjusting the
length of the Clip-Fix skins is not easy..once you have them
set up correctly you don't want to be messing with them again.
The upside is they go on very easily after that.
Top: Clip-Fix skins. Bottom: G3's offering.
Both designs make it easy
to put the skins on and attach them at the tail and are judged
equal in this regard in our test. The G3 tail strap design has
more to grab onto, making it a little easier for the skier who
wants to take their skins off without removing their skis. But
Lee found that it was a simple matter to add a short loop of
cord onto the Clip-Fix attachment to make it easier to grab the
webbing loop already sewn in.
G3's tip attachment has
a rigid tube installed over the half designed to be located inside
the folded over part of the skin. This did not work at all on
our wide-nosed Karhu Jak BCs that we used extensively last year
in the backcountry. The tip attachment was just not big enough
to fit over the broad tip. But again an easy solution was quickly
found, we just turned them around and used the rigid part on
the outside with the cable under the fold, as shown at right.
This was simple and effective, the tip loop never came off once
while skinning, even resisting the occasional smack.
G3 skins come with "Skin
Savers," BD calls their mesh material "Cheat Sheets."
What's this about? Well, as you probably know, over time, repeatedly
sticking skins together and pulling them apart can affect the
glue, so it's recommended to use the Cheat Sheets or Skin Savers
between the skins' adhesive surfaces before you fold them together
and put them away, especially prior to long-term storage.
BD warns that their mesh
can sink into the skins if they are not stored in a cool, dry
place. Something you should always do anyway. Just leaving any
skins in a hot car with the windows rolled up for a matter of
hours can cut into their lifespan. As for those cheat saver sheet
things, I guess we are old fashioned, but it didn't seem to matter
that we never got around to bothering with them, and we suspect
a lot of you won't either.
The folks from G3 told
us that they worked hard to develop an adhesive for their skins
that would stick really well, even in very cold temperatures,
while still remaining easier to pull apart. We're happy to report
that they appear to have succeeded quite nicely. Not once all
season did it seem like it was going to take two people to pry
the things apart, and yes, that's an improvement over skins we've
used in the past. BD's solution, building in a glue-less strip
down the center of their well proven Ascension adhesive seemed
to work very well too. "We knew we had come up with an adhesive
formula that would meet our goals when the smallest of our women
testers was able to separate her skins without help one cold
winter day," G3's Oliver Steffan told us last fall. Kudos
to both G3 and BD for addressing this issue and coming up with
On snow, these two skin
choices are close in performance. After months of use we came
to the conclusion that the Clip-Fix skins have an edge in glide,
while the G3 model performed slightly better on steep climbs.
This latter point is not an easy one to quantify. Veteran skinners
will confirm, technique plays a big part on the uphill. But we
took our time in evaluating these parameters and feel we have
correctly identified the strength of each.
Black Diamond calls their
skins "hydrophobic," G3 uses the less bombastic term
"water-resistant." Whatever. Don't get your hopes up.
Neither seemed to us to be a significant improvement in the most
important aspect of water repellency, snow sticking to the skins
in certain conditions. They might dry a little quicker than old
style skins, but they are just as prone to getting wet, then
freezing, with the all too familiar snow balling under foot,
as any skins we've tried, going back more years than we frankly
care to consider. In other words, you still need to keep your
Glop Stopper handy, and ready for immediate use as soon as conditions
begin to indicate the need.
Weight and bulkiness are
similar, with perhaps a slight edge going to G3. Durability of
both over a full season was excellent. That being said, it should
be pointed out that BD's Ascension skins remain the standard
by which others are judged, particularly when it comes to longevity.
After a single full season, G3 is still a relative newcomer.
In the apparel world, designers
and others refer to a quality called "hand." This term
speaks to how a fabric feels to the touch, to it's pliability
and to an overall pleasantness to work with. Again we would give
an edge to G3 in this category.
Conclusion: We asked Lee Frees to write down
his impressions at the end of the season, and we did the same.
It was humorous to note that after a full year we both used almost
identical words to describe our conclusion, but for different
reasons and about two different models. Lee wrote, "Black
Diamond's Clip-Fix skins are the best skins I have ever used."
While we wrote words to the effect of, "These new skins
from G3 are easily our all-time favorites." So, while each
have their strengths and advantages, either would be a good choice
for serious backcountry travel or simply yo-yoing in the front
country. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is
that the G3 skins can be easily moved among different skis---while
the Clip-Fix attachment might be a little easier to use. But
it's also worth considering that in this day and age of wall-to-wall
custom trimmed-to-fit skins, moving them from one type of shaped
ski to another could be problematic anyway. You aren't likely
to be disappointed with either brand.
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