Pretty much every ski manufacturer in the history of skiing has made skis for skiers. But not MTN Approach. The company, which launched a small beta batch of its unique skis this season, builds skis for snowboarders. The skis are designed to ascend (not descend) the mountain and fold up into a backpack-sized package for the ride down.
Skis equipped with skins are the primary way that skiers explore the backcountry. The skins (named such because seal skins were originally used for the purpose) offer grip in one direction for ascending and smooth glide in the other direction. This allows skiers to climb the mountain and glide over short descents. On the way down, they remove the skins and use the skis as designed.
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As is true with many aspects of skiing, skins don't naturally translate to snowboards. You can't move forward with a snowboard the way you can with skis, so snowboarders either have to use snowshoes, which are considered inferior to skins, or they have to purchase a splitboard, which splits into two skis for ascending and locks back into board form for descending. The splitboard has become a popular option, growing from a single niche manufacturer to many mainstream snowboard brands. But splitboards are expensive, and some riders feel they don't perform as well as regular snowboards for downhill riding.
That, in a nutshell, is why MTN Approach thought a new "approach" was in order. The idea was born in the 1990s, when MTN Approach founder and former pro snowboarder Cory Smith found that existing approach ski options were too short to be effective in powder and too long to tuck away into a backpack for the ride down. Three years ago, Smith and his team got to work on a solution more effective for both climbing and downhill riding.
The MTN Approach solution is a pair of skis with skins pre-attached. Snowboarders can put their board on their backs and use the skis to climb the mountain. When they get to the top, they remove the skis and fold them in thirds by way of locking cam hinges. When folded, the skis are small enough to fit inside MTN Approach's backpack. The backpack is custom-designed to keep the skis close to your back to maintain a low center of gravity.
Unlike splitboards, which require sawing an existing snowboard in half or purchasing a new board altogether, MTN Approach skis allow you to use your regular snowboard in the backcountry. This way, you don't have to buy a splitboard specifically for backcountry use, and you can use the board that you're most comfortable with. Using MTN Approach skis, you also get the climbing power of a splitboard without having to deal with gluing and detaching your skins every run.
While MTN Approach skis have attracted some ire and jokes in the splitboard community, Smith believes that the market for such a solution is actually a lot larger than the market for dedicated splitboards.
"I see the market much larger than what the splitboard market is, " Smith told us. "Splitboards are going after a very small niche of the snowboarding market. We see our system as something that's intended for your average snowboarder that isn't interested in cutting their snowboard in half."
Smith might be right, in stating that the idea of a system that allows snowboarders to access backcountry terrain using their own boards will appeal to many snowboarders. There are a couple issues facing potential buyers, however, namely price and weight.
The MTN Approach system costs US$799, which is about the same that you'd spend on the splitboard that MTN Approach is trying to compete with. The fact that you get a backpack and skins helps make that price a little more attractive, but some feel that if the company really wants to compete with existing options, it will need to lower the price point.
Smith told us that the price could come down in the future, if and when MTN Approach is producing and selling a higher volume. So far, it's off to a solid start. MTN Approach was at the SIA trade show last month and easily sold out of its first-year production run of 1,000 units to retailers.
In terms of weight, the system essentially kills the multifunctional advantage of the splitboard. Since the splitboard is used for the climb up, it's not on your back. With MTN Approach skis, you'll have to carry all that board weight on your back.
MTN Approach argues that the added pack weight is negated by the lightweight skis. It cites a 1986 study that says that "For every 1 lb. on your foot, it's like carrying an extra 6.4 lb. of weight on your back." MTN Approach skis weigh about 8 lbs. (3.6 kg) per pair with the skins attached. By comparison, the Mojo RX, a splitboard from segment innovator Voile, weighs around that same 8 lbs. before adding bindings or skins. The Light Rail bindings that it sells in a package add about 2 lbs. (0.9 kg) per foot and skins add more weight.
It does seem like the extra weight of a snowboard on your back would be plenty noticeable, though, especially when it's windy.
MTN Approach skis do provide an innovative alternative to snowshoes and splitboards. Some riders already swear by them for certain situations, and the rest of the riding community can weigh the pros and cons versus the traditional options and decide if the MTN Approach system is worth the investment.
In addition to the $799 package, MTN Approach will sell a Deep Winter Kit for the 2013 North American season. That kit includes everything from the $799 package along with an avalanche probe, shovel and three-piece, carbon fiber ski poles. Like its skis and backpack, MTN Approach is designing its own poles, probe and shovel rather than just packaging a third party's gear. The Deep Winter Kit will cost $900.
MTN Approach is also considering offering a package without the backpack next season. A ski-only package would help bring the price down and allow riders to use their own backpacks.
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