Monday, March 24, 2014

Gear Review: Karakoram Split30 Splitboard Bindings

Used: December 2012-March 2014
Rating: Dislike. Unreliable

I have some nice things to say about Karakoram. First off, these guys went out and tried something new. They threw out the Neanderthal puck and pin system, designing a new interface that looked downright inspirational, and promised to put splitboard bindings on the same page of Dynafit ski bindings.
When everything was working well, I loved the speedy transitions and not taking the bindings off of my feet. I also loved their crampon system, and wish that their competitors would come up with something similar.
I admire the Kloster brothers and their crew for trying, and I hope that they don’t give up. Frankly, I admire any entrepreneur or small business owner, but maybe more so when I know they’re a lot like me.
I think the Karakoram system has potential, but the company needs to change their focus and tact, fast. With Spark R&D launching their new Tesla system this year, and ski giant K2 digging their old step-in technology out of the closet, the competition is building.

Sadly, I was overall unhappy with the Karakoram system, almost from day 1.
This review not only reflects my experiences, but the experiences of my touring partners and other Karakoram users I’ve met and talked to first hand in the field. A plethora of similar issues and reviews can be found online in various Internet forums. Some of these reviews are called out as as being people who just want to bash Karakoram for the sake of flaming on some Internet forum.
I would hope that the words above reflect that this is not my intention, and my words below reflect what I have seen after hours of hard touring. I only wish to inform others who may be considering a purchase.

The bottom line takeaway for me is that the Karakorams offer a poor price to performance ratio when compared to the alternatives available on the market.

Here are the issues I encountered, in brief, in my 2 season of use on them:

o   Catastrophic failure of the heel cup
o   Failure of the heel lock-down heel risers
o   Play in the ride interface
o   Floppy latches on the inside of the ankle and toe straps
o   Wear of the tour interface
o   Wear of the tour axel
o   Difficult to clean in melt/freeze conditions
o   Incompatibility with other splitboard systems
o   Design weakness

In general, I felt like Karakoram came up with a great idea, and then got caught up on being lightweight, losing sight of durability and reliability in the process. As the most expensive binding system on the market, this sis imply not acceptable, and they should be far more reliable than they proved to be. In some sports like road bike racing, you pay more for less weight, and lose reliability as a result. Maybe there’s a burgoening scene that demands lightweight above all else for splitboard components elsewhere, but I doubt that’s actually where Karakoram wants to go.
The more time I spent on these bindings, the more I began to dread what would go wrong next. It seemed like there was just too much waiting to break, and too much of the reliability and performance hinged on thin metal parts, plastic, and foam.
I’m happy to admit that I work my equipment hard, not because I chuck and huck, or that I’m even a big person, but simply because I put in a lot of hours.
I expect unexpected failure; I expect unexpected mechanicals; I don’t expect them in the density and unpredictability that I experienced here though.

Catastrophic failure of the heel cup

This was seriously bad news. In late April last season the heel cup broke near the toe piece of my binding as I was touring up a ridge, rendering it useless in tour mode. With the help of a Voile strap, I was able to board out in descent mode with the binding stabilized, but it was an extremely disappointing experience. Karakoram rebuilt the effected binding for free, and cited loose hardware and a shipping mix up as the cause. I refute the first point, as I had tightened the hardware within 2 weeks, and as this point, a full season in, had noticed very little loosening between periodic bolt tightening (I wax my split about every two weeks, and while I wait for the wax to cool I check all the hardware), but I also can’t say I checked the day of the failure or after they broke, so it’s my word against theirs. They also told me that my Split30’s heel cup was different in design from the normal, and that my bindings were a prototype that was supposed to be sent to GNU. How a massive company like REI ended up with a prototype is a mystery to me, but an independent retailer with no affiliation with Karakoram told me he has seen shipping flubs like this before. Indeed, the new heel cup they installed was different, and featured more metal where the other had failed, but that lead me to a new question:
I paid a lot of money for my equipment, and if the heel cups on my bindings were not what I paid for, I wonder why they didn’t replace the other heel cup? I have no doubt that in time it would have failed too.

Failure of the heel lock-down heel risers.

One of Karakoram’s innovations was the ability to lock down your heel in tour mode by latching the central pin into the climbing wire. The idea was great in theory, and I thought I would make use of this extensively on longer approach tours.
I actually never used the feature once, though that’s largely personal preference; I know other riders who have it use it.
While heading into Sprit Walker last March, I flipped up my climbing wire per usual, but unbeknownst to me at the time, that wire had slipped forward as it is designed to do when you wish to lock the heel. When the wire is forward, it can still be flipped up, but if weight is applied, the wire can fold backward and destroy the riser mount.
That’s exactly what happened.
This appears to be an issue that has happened to others. I opted to buy the lock down risers because I thought I would use them. Though they didn’t serve much purpose for me doesn’t mean they’re not valuable to others, but I was disappointed by how easily they could fail.
It goes without saying that skinning in the backcountry is hard, and occurs in a dynamic environment. On long tours I may raise and lower the wires dozens of times: I don’t want to check and make sure I’m not going to fold them each time. I installed Voile risers instead.

Play in the ride interface

To quote one of split touring partners, Nathan: “It’s amazing how comfortable we’ve become with so much play in our bindings.”
The best fit I ever had in descent mode with Karakorams came on days where ice and snow had melted and refroze to the interfaces…and that presented its own challenges. My bindings originally came with small rubber dots affixed to the bases with a weak adhesive. These began to fall off after the first use, and they were all gone within a month. The boys at Karakoram later sent me a foam pad that adhered to the heel-side interface on the board and acted like a shim. This improved the snugness of the fit for a few outings, but eventually stopped adding much benefit. My boards were far more dynamic with Karkorams than they were with a puck and pin, and the wiggle they had was un-inspirational to say the least. I was never necessarily concerned that the bindings would release, but I can also say that with less than 2 minutes of adjustment during set up, I have 0 side-to-side or back-and-forth play with a puck and pin system.

Floppy latches on the inside of the ankle and toe straps

The insides of the ankle and toe straps used two different interfaces to adjust their length. The ankle used a plastic cam-lock, while the toe used a t-nut and screw, except that the screw was covered with a plastic hatch that could be opened and used to spin and tighten or loosen the screw.
On a normal snowboard, this system would be fine, but incidental strikes will occur from shuffling feet and making kick turns while splitboarding.
The plastic cam locks can be opened easily when this happens, and depending on the situation, the consequences can range from nuisance to increased exposure if your binding pops loose. Additionally, because the cam lock is plastic, the more times it is opened or closed, the higher the likelihood of opening it is. Not surprisingly, my cam locks opened more and more frequently as my bindings aged. Interestingly, the actual inside strap eventually snapped clean off as I was unbuckling one day, and I would not be surprised if it was related to being repeatedly pinched by the cam lock.
The toe strap should not won’t open on its own, unless of course the hatch pops open and is knocked around, unscrewing the screw, as it is designed to do. My hatches were easily popped open, and eventually stopped closing. They then began to routinely unscrew themselves. I kept an eye on them afterward to ensure the screw did not fully loosen, so I did not have the same random issues I did with the cam locks, but what a pain.
All this begs the question: why? Why not just use a normal screw and t-nut on both straps? Who needs to adjust their bindings straps that much, that quickly, in the backcountry? I typically release the ratchets on my ankle straps a click or two at the bottom of a run for touring, but we are talking about a minor adjustment that was easily controllable with the ratchet. Additionally, it would have been nice to have some redundancy in terms of hardware.

Wear of the tour interface

The touring interface wore out in two different ways. First, Nathan had his fail open. The mechanism that kept the axel hooks secured wore out and would not stay closed on its own. We secured the actual latch down with a Voile strap for the rest of the day, and he sent in for new interfaces.
The second issue was that other than the actual latch, the rest of the interface was made of plastic. Someone who tours often will wear down the plastic and develop notable play within one season.
I mentioned both these issues to Karakoram and they sent me new interfaces, which was nice, but I didn’t like the idea of having to complain or buy new interfaces each season.

Wear of the tour axel

Karakoram offers an instructional video on their site on how the axel wears and how to replace the bushings. It’s probably a once a year task and not the end of the world at all. Maybe if I weren’t listing any other complaints here, I’d shrug it off. Instead, it’s just another part of this system I don’t like. Comparatively, puck and pin systems will wear out their pins and bushings after a hard season too. They are exponentially easier to repair and replace though, and don’t even require an instructional Youtube video.

Difficult to clean/use in melt/freeze conditions

There are different sounds I associate with different activities that signal the beginning of fun. For example, some people associate the sound of ripping skins as the sound of the beginning of a run. I like that noise, but when I rode a puck and pin system, the sound that always got me, was the kerthunk, as I slid the bindings over the pucks. I used to like to tell my touring partners that story, and then tell them that when I switched to Karakorams, the noise that replaced the kerthunk was instead a bunch of, chipping, banging, and swearing.
Splitboarders will always battle melt/freeze conditions, where warmer conditions at the bottom of a run glop wet snow and water on their board and binding interfaces, only to have it all freeze solid at the top of the ridge making transitions more difficult.
A puck and pin system is pretty easy to clean when heavily encrusted though. The pin tip easily scours out each side of the pucks. One more swipe lengthwise over their tops for good measure may be necessary if they’re really crusty. If there’s any ice or snow packed in the binding’s rails, that can be knocked loose or cleaned with the pin tip too. As long as the bulk of the ice is removed, a good push should be enough to get the bindings over the puck with a solid kerthunk.
When it comes to the Karakorams, one or two ornery droplets of ice in the wrong part of the interface or binding base can make securing the bindings nearly impossible. I spent more time than I care to admit scouring the interfaces and bases of the bindings trying to get them in place.
A frequent issue I encountered along with this was that after finally cleaning off enough ice and snow to close the quick release lever, I would struggle to get it that last 2-3mm closed. There would be just enough blockage, and the tolerance for closing the safety latch over the quick release lever was so tight, that the safety latch would not shut. Riding with the safety latch open is a terrible idea, so it was back to banging, chipping, and swearing.

Incompatibility with other splitboard systems

This is more of an issue if you plan to do more remote trips. Basically, if you plan to head out of country or camp out somewhere, and you’re the only one with Karakorams, you’re on your own. There are virtually no spare parts that can be shared with someone using Voile or Spark bindings. Given what I see to be a lack of reliability with the Karakorams, I’d be very nervous about being the only one with Karakorams.

Design weakness

At this point, I hope that I’ve painted a picture of a binding system that is both light and innovative, and yet simultaneously dependent on cheap and/or unreliable materials and mechanisms.
There are a lot of things that seemed ready to go wrong on the Karakorams. Some actually happened to me, others seemed likely. A great example of the strength and weakness of the Karakoram system is how the three-pin mechanism that held the binding in place in ride mode was kept closed. 
The internal, quick release lever-controlled retractable pins were genius. When it was cold and dry, and I closed that lever effortlessly, I was proud to ride in those bindings – even if the bindings wiggled a bit.
Then, there was a little black piece of plastic you had to spin over the QR lever to keep it closed. If you didn’t, the lever would likely open on the descent, releasing the binding. Twice, I had this happen. Both times were in crusty conditions, and occurred on my front foot. The crust likely pushed the safety latch up, the lever opened, and out came my foot.
I always wondered what would happen if the plastic safety latch broke, maybe from cold, or an impact. It seemed inevitable. Best yet, the latch was not a part that could be replaced in the field as it was riveted on.
In so many words though, that was the Karakoram system. Innovative design, held together by a piece of plastic that was bound to break.

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