The Natural 101 from Icelantic Skis is the ski mountaineer’s quiver killer. Light enough to climb the Grand Teton and tackle multi-peak traverses, but burly enough to dispatch thin couloirs, bushy June exits and rocky October strike missions, this ski can handle quite literally anything.
Lightweight or Durable? Do We Need to Compromise?
In an era of “fast and light” tactics, carbon fiber everything, bars over burritos and aluminum ice axes shorter than your forearms, ski mountaineering brands have produced some exceptionally, almost freakishly light gear. I too subscribe to the concept of “carry less, see more.” I often pack a bag of nuts over a hummus wrap for a huge day, and regularly use customized hybrid crampons with steel toes and aluminum heels to shave a few grams. On huge days, every single ounce counts. However, having snapped and scraped my way through a few pairs of “ultralight” mountaineering skis across several “industry leading” brands, losing significant paycheck chunks to base welds, edge repairs and p-tex, I found my saving grace in the Natural 101. From the Grand Teton to Mount Shasta and countless peaks between, this ski has proved to be the perfect blend of weight, durability and functionality for the most technical and demanding descents of my budding ski career.
My Experience With “The Other Guys”
Before I got connected with Icelantic, I was on a multi-year sabbatical to ski every prominent skyline peak of the Teton Range, adorned most notably by the “Big Seven” – The Grand, Middle and South Tetons, Buck Mountain, Mount Owen, Teewinot and Moran. As I knocked off hundreds of pre-qualifying Teton descents over many years, I destroyed pair after pair of skis. Furthermore, as I began pushing my limits into the likes of the Middle Teton’s East Face and the South Teton’s Amore a Vida Couloir, I began to notice an interesting paradox – for every gram I saved on the way up, I lost a proportional amount of ski-ability on the way down. I didn’t like the way this trend was headed. These “cutting edge” mountaineering skis deflected in refrozen snow, washed out in steep terrain and were easily overpowered by any condition other than blower powder or perfect corn. The peaks remaining on my bucket list, The Grand Teton, Mount Owen, Moran and Teewinot, required absolute perfection. If I couldn’t trust the skis on my feet to any and all variables, on faces as steep as fifty-five degrees, then I was in trouble. Right on cue, the Natural 101 entered my life.
My Initial Thoughts
I got my first pair of Natural 101’s mounted mid February, shortly after launching half a pair of “the other guys” off the west side of the Middle Teton. Amidst a building storm in the Southwest Couloir, I railed into a hidden chunk of avalanche debris, ejecting my flimsy ski for a terminal ride into the whiteout powdery beyond, never to be seen again. So when I unwrapped the Natural I was overjoyed at how sturdy they appeared. One quick hand flex assured these bad boys were up to my style of challenge. I’m no ski construction aficionado, but something about the “feel” of the Natural was reassuring. Sure, they were a few hundred grams heavier (~1600 grams) than the sticks I touted before, but nowhere close to heavy. Frankly, for a full wooden core and a three year, no questions asked “bombproof” warranty, these skis far exceeded my expectations in the weight category. Now it was time to take them to the snow.
Winter Touring – Surprising Powder Performance
For the 100mm width class, I usually expect quality performance in up to 12-16 inches of fresh snow, density dependent. So when I took the Natural on it’s maiden powder voyage up Taylor Mountain in three feet of freshies, I was astonished by the results. Sure, it didn’t float on top, but no ski narrower than 115mm would.What impressed me about the Natural was how intuitively it turned in deep snow. Most likely due to its weight and construction, the Natural was able to drive through thigh deep fluff powerfully and nimbly. Most ultralight skis, even fat ones, croak in these conditions, forcing their rider into a backseat, “tips up” position – no fun at all. Even though I owned wider touring skis, the Natural 101 quickly became my choice powder conquerer. Across the remainder of the mid-winter powder-touring season I rode the Natural in steep couloirs, tight trees and open bowls with tremendous success. Best of all, when I hit that unexpected wind drift or density change, the Natural had enough rigidity and power to bust through, keeping me upright. Even in dreaded zipper crust or rain dampened mank, the Natural saw me to the bottom without a tumble or blown ACL. More than it’s performance in any one aspect, I was extremely impressed with the versatility of this ski. Instead of fearing the unknown I became confident. Where I used to tentatively exit onto aprons, I straight-lined. In mid-winter alpine conditions this ski preformed like a 2,000 gram resort monster without the added gravity tax. Speaking of weight, I noticed no hinderance taking this ski on training days exceeding 10,000 feet of vertical trudgery. Coupled with a lightweight pin binding (Marker Alpinist) and like-minded boot (La Sportiva Sideral 2.1), the Natural felt only marginally heavier than skis of my past. While skinning the stiff camber profile held well, and coupled with the incredible downhill performance, incentivized me take an extra lap when I would have likely otherwise headed home. Intuitive, versatile and stable sums up my mid-winter touring experience on the Natural 101.
Right At Home On the Grand Teton
At the time, the Grand Teton was the pinnacle of my Teton skiing aspirations. 7,000 feet of unrelenting climbing, two pitches of water ice, several rappels, a midnight start and a few thousand feet of majorly-exposed, “ski for your life” turns are simply par for the course. With fully strapped packs we made our way through the first six hours of trudging before reaching the bottom of the Stettner Couloir. We soloed a small pitch of ice to keep healthy pace before roping up in the Chevy Couloir. Two pitches of rambling ice saw us to the Ford Couloir, where 1,500 feet of steep snow climbing granted access to the summit. The prominence of the Grand is so far beyond that of any other Teton Peak. As far as I was concerned, it was the top of the world. A short round of pictures brought me back to my skis, and suddenly the whole world jolted into focus. After nine hours of constant plugging my legs felt like jello, my pack weighed a staggering forty pounds, my mind was warped with sleep exhaustion and breathing felt like sipping air through a cocktail straw. I narrowed my focus. It was time to ski.
I had tested the Natural on a few mountaineering objectives earlier that spring. The Devil’s Bedstead and Mount Borah, two of Idaho’s finest big mountain descents, provided excellent new-ski steep snow orientation. I also dragged them along for a few monster traverses where they once again proved their competency, this time handling vertical gains in excess of 12,000 feet and linear travel up to twenty-five miles. I took them along for a few bike-ski-bike missions in the Gros Ventre Range – sloppy May powder? Check. Admittedly, I was in a bit of a love affair with this ski, but now, making my first turns on the fifty-five degree headwall of the Grand Teton’s Ford Couloir, I would see what the Naturals’ were truly made of. To cut a long story short, we found eight inches of powder on the East Face, bulletproof ice in the upper couloir, crunchy breakable corn in the belly and perfect, edge-able corn in the even steeper, nearing sixty degree, Chevy Couloir. Lower we found faceted chalky powder and on the exit, a mixture of slabby wet slush and iso-thermal rot. In one single descent, I managed to ski virtually every snow condition known to man. The Natural proved competent in every modality, surfing the powder but providing plenty of stability for railing icy steeps. The stiffer tails held very well, especially considering how heavy my pack was. In perfect corn… well… they were perfect. The Natural has exceptionally great edge-to-edge mobility. I felt like a ninja whipping jump turns on sixty degree snow. The Chevy blurs the lines of what’s considered skiable, but the Natural had me smiling the whole way. True to their three year “bombproof” guarantee, I slipped through several rocky chokes, grinding tips and tails to granite and filing my bases over water ice and re-frozen pebbles without a single fret. Sure enough, the next day, there wasn’t even the slightest sign of abuse. Fourteen hours later we hit the car – no falls, no close calls, no worries… just a darn good time – due largely in part to the Natural 101.
In my pursuit of Teton nirvana I have abused the Natural far beyond the point of reason. After skiing the Grand Teton mid-May, I took these skis to the Pacifc Northwest for a 30,000 vertical foot week of volcano shredding across California, Oregon and Washington. I cheese-grated the top sheets through chossy chimneys, side-stepped rocky chokes, railed the bases into talus piles and still demanded the epitome of precision on some the most iconic lines of North America. To put it simply, this ski can do it all. Some hardcore mountaineers might scoff at a 1,600 gram ski, especially with some niche companies cracking the 1,000 gram barrier, but when my life is in the hands of my very next turn I’ll take every advantage I can get, even if I have to get a pinch stronger to do so.
For the skier not pushing the limits of the vertical, the Natural still provides a versatile ski worthy all touring conditions. Coupled with a more aggressive boot and binding, this ski would make a great candidate for hard charging powder laps, maybe even some light duty pillow lines. One of my friends rides the Natural 101 with a pair of Solomon Shift bindings and four buckle Atomic boots, and seems to be very happy with their high speed performance.
I never believed in the one-ski-quiver mentality, but if I was chained to one ski for the rest of my days, you best believe it would be the Natural 101.