Hybrid ski boots manage to balance downhill performance and uphill capability. Take one glance at your local ski shop's wall, and there will likely be several. In today's market, the hybrid ski boot is par for the course, though they shouldn't be confused with a backcountry boot. Hybrid boots are truly designed for the down, but allow skiers to pivot the cuff in order to climb bootpacks more easily, tour to a nearby stash, or just walk from the truck to the lift. Not to mention the added comfort during après.
The ubiquitous nature of hybrid ski boots in 2018 is a stark contrast to several years ago. Much of that segment is due to Thomas Laakso, a veteran designer and gear tinkerer of the ski industry. In 2002-2003, the Black Diamond Factor began as his pet project—eventually launching for consumers in 2008. At the time, the options were sparse: A skier had the choice of flimsy touring boots or straight-up alpine plugs.
Recently, I chatted with Laakso, the former product manager at Black Diamond, now VP of Product at DPS Skis, to hear the trials and tribulations in shifting the norms of ski boot design.
Every time I went out, I wanted one boot for going up on my feet and another for the down. In 2003-2004, I had my Atomic CS 130 race boots and a pair of Scarpa Denalis. My Denalis were modified with two tongues riveted together along with booster straps. I remember having them buckled so tight so I could ski them that I had to rip them off halfway down Mount Superior (in Little Cottonwood Canyon). I took them to the design team, placed them on the table, and said we have to solve this…
We (Black Diamond) ran Scarpa North America for a while (ultimately separating in 2005). They weren't following the trend at the time and the Denali was all we had, so we said screw it… We're going to build our own.
I remember testing skis at Mount Hood with traditional four-buckle boots and thought they were awesome, and when I got to Europe they all said they suck. I realized after, they were all on Scarpa Spirit 3 boots and couldn’t get the ski to flex… With those touring boots at the time, you couldn't flex a bigger ski.
We pulled the first triple injection-molding machine and sent it to Taiwan. Traditionally, that's an Italian industry and we got blacklisted. In Italy, these small towns have a buckle guy, liner guy, etc. They all said we've been instructed to not do business with you after that… We had to do it the hard way, the whole way: building our own buckles, tech fittings, etc. It was a difficult task.
We mapped all the boots we liked and tested them with a machine we called the Shiva. The Lange 130 was what I wanted on my feet and we mapped the forward and lateral stiffness and made the rear 20 percent stiffer. The rear of a ski boot has so much to do with performance. We were frank with the alpine boot guys, and said we're going to buy your size run of boots then cast mold them. We then digitized everyone's last or fit and came up with our own version. We didn't have 30 years of boot-making experience at the time.
The walk-mode was the Achilles heal. We underestimated on the design, and weren't able to look at what other guys were doing and found there was so much force on it. Landing in the backseat popped those things. I hated that part of it. Eventually we fixed it, and realized being 5 percent close isn't close enough… Though even today, you can't name a single new boot that doesn't have issues the first year.
I wish I wasn't, but I'm so fickle on ski boots. It's a little psychotic. I went and did a circumnavigation of Mount Blanc in Europe and I went through four pairs of boots for a five-day trip.
We tried to do a lot with the Factor the first year, and could have made our life easier. The boot had forward lean options, lateral canting, and a grindable boot board. No one was able to do that at the time, but we tried to do too much.
I still love these things (Black Diamond no longer makes ski boots, but Laakso was recently skiing A-Basin on the final production before they were discontinued). I'm not going to tour in these, but I'll hike up Baldy when I'm skiing Alta—that's what they're for. When we were almost done with the Factor, Garmont began making the Adrenaline. That's when the market started being interested (and the tidal wave began–with every boot company eventually having a hybrid ski boot). It was fun and I still have them on my feet.