Innovation in binding technology has largely focused on solving one question: How do you make a pin binding, which is great for touring uphill, better and safer for skiing?
Pin bindings, while efficient, do not clamp down or release a ski boot like an alpine binding, so they don't ski as well and they are not as safe. There are a few answers on the market, like a heel piece that resembles an alpine binding or elasticity added to the toe piece. And yet, most people who tour with pin bindings still choose to forego safety label recommendations and lock the toe piece before skiing their chosen line.
Salomon spent the last seven years thinking about this quandary and invested in research and development to find an answer: A binding that has as much power on the descent as an alpine binding, tours efficiently like a pin binding, releases safely, and is cost effective and light weight. At a media event at Alta, Utah, this week, the French company finally unveiled what they have been working on: The S/Lab Shift. Atomic, Salomon’s sibling owned by the same parent company Amer Sports, also features the binding.
The Shift is a multi-norm compatible, DIN-certified alpine binding. It is also a tech binding with pins. It weighs 865 grams per binding, and will have a suggested retail price of $650, hitting stores next fall.
Like a Dynafit or Kingpin, the Shift uses pins for touring uphill. But on the downhill, a flip (or a shift) of a lever transforms the toe piece into an alpine binding. You click in to the Shift like you'd click in to any other binding in the resort. You can also ski in the Shift with any boot that meets industry norms, including race boots that don't have tech fittings.
"It's a pin binding that skis like an alpine binding," says Cody Townsend, a professional skier who has worked for Salomon for 17 years.
The idea for this binding first came up in conversation at a Salomon retreat in Lake Powell in 2010, just before Salomon released the Guardian, their frame touring binding.
"The discussion was, 'OK, we got the Guardian. Where are we going next?'" says Chris Rubens, who also skis for Salomon.
Their approach started with the STH2, the downhill binding that has a cult-like following and used by both Townsend and Rubens. They essentially wanted the STH2, but with the ability to tour uphill like a Dynafit. "The STH2 is the best binding. We love it. It's all I've skied on for 20 years," says Townsend.
Their request was a tall ask of Salomon's R&D department. "Salomon has always a lot of crazy people, a lot of ideas," says Benoit Sublet, a Frenchman and the engineer who designed the Shift. Throughout the development process, Sublet built 50 new molds for the binding and 20 different prototypes, which Townsend and Rubens experimented on. Sublet also had to develop 10 new lab tests to guarantee the durability and safety of his new invention.
"All the other things we had were too complex, to the point where things were breaking," says Townsend. "This [version] was the one that had the most simple solution with the pin for the up and the normal binding for the down. But when we first had it, it didn't ski well at all."
Sublet took the athletes’ feedback and continued to refine.
"They kept working with the springs, they kept working with the materials, they kept working with the molds," says Townsend. "The carbon was the game changer and we were like, 'Whoa, this skis like a normal binding.'"
A key component of the Shift is the plastic, which is infused with carbon for reinforced strength, without added weight. Salomon says the plastic is 25 percent carbon. "We switched to carbon-infused plastic to win on weight and win on performance," says Sublet.
When I saw the S/Lab Shift at Alta, my first thought was that it was actually missing a lot of plastic. There are wings, like an STH2. Metal pins attached to the inside of the wings face inward. A blue lever hinges at the center of the toe.
Skinning uphill on the Shift felt just like the pivot of a tech binding. I did not notice any drawback of extra weight or mechanics on our two-hour long tour. The settings for climbing aids are 2 and 10 degrees, without another third higher option--skiers who use this binding should believe in kick turns. (The two-degree setting is unnoticeable and glides flat.)
When I clicked in to the Shift for the downhill, I found the binding's drive to come entirely from the carbon-reinforced plastic wings and the MNC sliding toe pedal--just like the STH2. The heel also snaps up and clamps down like an alpine binding.
The Shift’s low weight, including the brake and the screws, is the same as Salomon's L7 junior binding. The MTN Tour weighs 495 grams, without a brake. "There's no real sacrifice to using this binding," says Chris McKearin, the U.S. alpine commercial manager for Salomon. "You're actually saving weight of an alpine binding, but you have 6 to 13 [DIN] and all the elasticity."
For Townsend and Rubens, the biggest breakthrough of the Shift is the safety for its performance.
"If I'm going to be in a pin binding, I'm going to deal with my toe piece being unlocked or locked, and that's always the crux," says Townsend. "That safety comes from the toe, because that's where you're going to be releasing if you're tomahawking, releasing if you're chattering."
As skiers move seamlessly between chairlifts and skin tracks, skis have evolved and so have boots. The Shift’s answer is to retract the pins for the descent. Townsend hopes this binding will help educate skiers about the mechanics of a binding and what makes them safe. "To me, it's hoping that people understand what they're on and understand why bindings do what they do," says Townsend. "Now there is a solution to touring efficiently, but you can still come out of your skis when you want to come out."
I saw the Shift as a solution for touring. But Rubens said the Shift actually replaces his inbounds setup. Rarely does he ski at a resort without touring beyond the boundary line.
"To me, it just gets rid of an alpine binding. It skis as good or better than an alpine binding," says Rubens, who still prefers a lighter tech binding, like Salomon's MTN, for long missions in the backcountry when releasability is not an issue. "I've shown [the Shift] to a bunch of ski patrollers and they're like, 'This is the binding that I want.'"