Last year, I was forever changed by the Dynafit TLT 5 Performance boot, the quintessential backcountry ski boot. It is crazy light, walks like a hiking boot, and skis like a beast. Unfortunately, its narrow, low-volume last squeezed my 6th toe like a vise (6th toe is a bump or bunion behind your little toe). I could walk in them in relative comfort for a few hours, but on long tours of 4-6 hours, my feet suffered. And unfortunately, because of the flex toe on the TLT 5, it can’t be punched or stretched significantly in the 6th toe area. As a result, this season I have been through 3 ski boots trying to find one that fits and that walks as well as the TLT 5.
Before I get started, you should know a little about my ski habits. I am 6′ tall and weigh about 160 lbs. I ski about 75-100 days a season and 90% of those days are in the backcountry. I ski in the Teton area, so most of the snow during the winter is some form of powder: light, heavy, windblown, upside down. I rarely ski icy, hard pack, or wet snow. Most of the tours I do are from 2-5 miles and include between 2000′ to 5000′ elevation gain / loss. Also, I don’t ski particularly fast and I don’t jump off shit; for the most part, I try to keep my skis in the snow. And I like to turn a lot. As a result, I’m only interested in equipment that is easy to walk in and has enough power to make the downhill fun.
TLT 6 Performance
The first boot I tried this season was the TLT 6 Performance. The reason I tried it after last year’s painful experience with the TLT 5 is that the TLT 6 was supposed to be wider. Plus, Dynafit removed the flex toe from the boot and thus made it more punchable in the 6th toe area. Unfortunately, the TLT 6 is actually narrower than the TLT 5. What’s more, it seems to have less volume than the TLT 5, probably because the liner is thicker. As a result, I quickly gave up on this boot since it seemed that it did not fit my foot. The only alternative would have been to buy it a size too big.
Aside from the pain, how does it walk and ski? If you haven’t tried a TLT 5 or 6, you won’t believe how easy it is to walk in these boots with the tongue removed. It’s like having on a pair of ankle high hiking boots. With the TLT 5, it’s even better because of the flex toe area. Once you walk in the TLT 5 or 6, there is no going back. All other boots will feel like Frankenstein the Monster boots.
Why is walking so important? I’m a backcountry skier and when I go out skiing, I spend about 95% of my time walking, so a boot that is light and easy to walk in is very important.
For the other 5% of my backcountry time, I also want a boot that skis well, and the TLT 5 or 6 Performance boot is more than adequate to ski any conditions I find in the backcountry. In fact, most of the time, I ski down without the tongue (In all TLT 5 and 6 boots, you can remove the tongue to make the boot easier to walk in and less stiff). I only insert the tongue for long runs in difficult snow or when I ski at the resort. With the tongue in, the TLT 5 or 6 professional is one of the stiffest AT boots I have skied. Previous boots include:
- Dynafit Tourlite All Terrain
- Scarpa Spirit 3
- Garmont Mega Ride
- Dynafit zZero
- Ultra light
- Amazingly easy to hike in
- Exceptional downhill performance
- Ultra-Lock system – the TLT 5 and 6 boots have only two buckles and the top buckle automatically locks the cuff when you buckle it. When you’re doing laps, it’s very convenient to only have one buckle to deal with, especially when your ski buddies will rip your line if they get ready first.
- Too expensive. Come on Dynafit, these boots are great, but they are not gold!
- Narrow last and low volume. If you have a wide or high volume foot, these boots probably are not for you.
- Not very comfortable. I know this is a vague, subjective statement. But the TLT boots are built to be light. They are very minimal in everything: size, volume, shell thickness, and liner thickness. As a result, there is not much room in the boot to accommodate foot irregularities such as bumps, bone spurs, and shape. In a boot with more volume and a thicker liner, you are less likely to have fit and pain issues.
- Not very warm. I don’t usually have cold feet issues, but in Wyoming, we get quite a few days in the 0 degree farenheight range and my feet got cold in the TLT 5 Performance.
- Shitty liners. I wish boot makers would just break down and get Intuition liners and stop selling their boots with shitty liners.
La Sportiva Spectre
The La Sportiva Spectre is a pretty amazing boot that sells for a pretty amazing price but it killed my foot in places I didn’t know existed. Who in the hell are these boots made for? I have had a 6th toe issue with all plastic backcountry boots so I expected I would have to have them punched for that. But these boots crushed both my feet over the instep and also on the inside ankle. After a month of skiing and 5 trips to the boot fitter for punches, stretches, lifts, and padding, I gave up on these boots. I’m not the only one. The boot technician at Teton Mountaineering said he had to adjust several pairs of Spectres over the instep. Also, Lou Dawson at wildsnow.com did some cutting and spreading of the shell for the instep issue.
OK, this Cinderella boot didn’t fit my foot. But, if it did fit your foot, how would it perform? I skied them for 8 days and was very impressed by the walkability, the stiffness, and the downhill performance.
La Sportiva claims that the Spectre has 60 degrees of cuff rotation, the same as the TLT 6, but it doesn’t feel quite a free or flexible. Still, it’s pretty amazing for a stiff four buckle boot. And, you don’t have to remove the tongue to get the ankle flex; when you release the top two buckles and release the cuff lock, the boot is in walk mode and very easy to walk in.
Which brings us to the buckles. I came to hate them. At first, I was wowed by the slick, innovative way this buckle engages. But then I did it with mittens on and the wow turned to WTF?.
Also, I found that the buckle adjustment would go out on the hike up. The Spectre buckles are very easy to micro adjust by turning a screw in or out. But again, not something you can do with mittens. And the buckles would pop off on the walk up and a few times on the ski down. Compared to the TLT or Mercury buckles, I found the Spectre buckles to be a pain in the ass.
The Spectres ski well and are very stiff. Much stiffer than I need for backcountry powder. However, I was able to lessen the stiffness by loosening the top two buckles. If you are a hard-charging, Teton-Gravity sort of DUDE, this might be your boot…if it fits.
- Great Price – you get a lot of boot for your money. Might be the best boot bargain this season.
- Easy to hike in.
- You can adjust cuff cant and forward lean (10, 14, or 18 degrees)
- Exceptional downhill performance.
- Very stiff
- Good liner
- Very light 4-buckle boot. (Lighter than Dynafit Mercury and Vulcan)
- Buckles are require constant adjust and are difficult to work with gloves or mittens.
- Cuff lock requires flipping a hard-to-find lever behind the cuff
- Seems to have a very strange fit and might require a lot of shell adjustment to get a pain-free fit.
Bingo. This is my 3rd AT boot this season, and I’m back where I started: Dynafit. Although the TLT 6 is my perfect boot for backcountry skiing, it’s too damn narrow and low volume for my foot. Enter the Mercury. The Mercury is a TLT 6 on steroids: more volume, an extra buckle, a higher cuff, and a wider last. The wider last is really what I was after.
I will still need to get this boot punched for 6th toe issue, but other than that, the fit is great. Also, the Mercury liner is a much better liner than the liner in the TLT 5, TLT 6, or the Spectre.
Out of the box, the walk of these boots sucks. Dynafit added stops on the cuff that stop the forward lean of the cuff. I assume they added the stops to add stiffness to the cuff and flex of the boot in downhill mode. Unfortunately, the cuff stops severely limit the forward lean of the cuff when you are in walk mode. As a result, it makes walking uphill much more restrictive. As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of a boot’s walkability is the FORWARD LEAN, not the backward lean. I don’t give a shit if the boot can flex backward 45 degrees–I’m not track skiing in my AT boots.
I found a review of the Mercury by Louie Dawson and he mentioned the cuff stops. In the comments, someone mentioned the filing off the cuff stops. I contacted Dynafit and Wildsnow, and both thought it would be OK to file off the cuff stops. I filed them off and viola, the boots now walks like a TLT 6.
I’ve been out on the Mercury about 8 times in the backcountry and once at the resort. These boots are plenty stiff. In the backcountry, I ski them without the tongue or power strap and they are about as stiff as the TLT 6 performance with the tongue. You can adjust the stiffness by the tightness of the top buckle. In heavy powder, the boot has plenty of power to blast through the snow. And in light powder, the boot responds well and has enough feeling and flexibility to respond to the snow.
I skied the Mercury at the resort with the tongues and no power strap, and they were perfect: they were very stiff and could easily drive my K2 CoomBack 181 on the hardpack, but flexible enough to take out the shock of bumps and vibration. If you split your time between backcountry and resort, the Mercury could be your quiver of one boot; it tours beautifully with cuff stops filed off and no tongue and is very powerful on the downhill without the tongue.
- Easy to hike in if you file off cuff stops
- Exceptional downhill performance. With tongue and power strap, you can make these boots as stiff as you want.
- Buckles are the best I’ve used and I love the Ultra-Lock system – the top buckle automatically locks the cuff when you buckle it. Easy to work buckles with mittens.
- Very good liner
- Comfortable. Probably the nice liner helps.
- Narrow last. Even though it’s wider than TLT boots, still a bit narrow.
- VERY difficult to get liners in and out of the boot.
See also, Boot Hell Part I