Of all the Alpine Touring bindings out there, none are more coveted then the ones made by Dynafit. At least that was before dynafit's patent of the "tech" bindings ran out. Tech refers to a type of AT binding where the ski boot is attached to the ski by a sets of pins in the toe, and another set in the heel. This type of binding has many advantages. The primary advantage is weight. Without the boot platform design that most AT bindings have, much weight is saved. Another advantage is pivot point. The location of the toe pins create a very ergonomic pivot placement. And finally tech binding ski well. The toe and heel pins create a firm connection between the boot and the binding with little flex.
It had been rumored for some time that G3 (genuine guide gear) was going to come out with their version of the TECH binding: the Onyx. Last year they finally release the binding, and I got myself a pair . I have toured on the Onyx binding this last ski season, and have enough hours behind it that I can finally give a through report. This year G3 released their Onyx binding with a few improvements in the toe pieces that resulted in easier toe entry and true DIN of 12.
Weighing several ounces heavier than the heaviest Dynafit binding, why would someone choose to use the Onyx. Sure there is brand loyalty and sponsorship, but a product must preform well in order to merit praise. G3 claims that the Onyx can do two things that Dynafits can not. The first is the ability to go from ski mode to tour mode on the fly. Dynafits require the complete disengagement of both heel and toe piece in order to release the heel from ski mode. With the Onxy you simply flip a lever down and you are in tour mode again. This point is not entirely true. Dynafit bindings that are not equipped with ski brakes can be switched back into tour mode with a careful twist of the heel unit with a ski pole. However this technique is not approved by Dynafit and has been known to break the climbing post of the heel unit.
The next short fall of Dynafits that the Onyx attempts to address is the pre-release of the toe unit. The toe of the your ski boot is attached to the binding via two small pins which fit in sockets that are embedded in the boot. The pins are mounted on spring loaded wings which open and close. In tour mode the toe unit is intended to be locked down. However in ski mode the toe is suppose to be in the free position. This allows the DIN releasable heel piece to function properly. Due to weak toe wing springs it is common for the binding to pre-release. In order to combat this shortcoming , users often lock out the toe piece in ski mode. This however prevents any releasabilty of the binding. The Onyx is said to address this flaw, and allows calibrated DIN releases with the toe unit unlocked. The super beefy and polished toe unit of the Onyx rest in the closed position, and is opened when downward pressure is applied to the lever. This is the opposite of Dynafit which click close when pressure from the boot is applied. This variation in toe closer can be fix for the pre-realease issue.
A third component that makes the Onyx unique is the mounting plate. Because of this mounting plate you can adjust the binding to fit various sized boots. The toe piece has three preset mounting locations for major adjustment. The rear heel pieces slides on a track for fine adjustment. One can also mount other skis with extra plates and be able to swap the binding from one ski to another in a relatively short amount of time. Mounting the bindings at home with the plates however adds to some difficultly. Because the holes on the bindings attache to the base plate and not directly to the ski, you can not test fit, and drill the ski based on the holes in the binding; some type of jig or template is required. I did not find that this is too much of an issue since I was able to locate a paper template. However if I was out in a ski hut with new bindings with no Internet or printer; I'd be cursing G3.
Who cares about all this jargon, how do they ski! On their maiden voyage I took them out to the resort for some downhill alpine action. Keep in mind I just got new tech boots to go with the tech bindings. I was not able to afford new boots and bindings so I settled for a pair of first generation Garmont Megarides. A serious 4 buckle Alpine Touring boot by yesterday's standard. However they might as well be slippers when compared to the burly AT boots of today. On the easy stuff, you would not even know you were on back country bindings. They were responsive and did not have any flex issues. On the icy steeps of Granite Chief they did surprisingly well. Again no flex issues like I was use to with my Silvretta 500's. Most of my issues were because of the light weight boot not being able to power the skis like am I use to. There is a bit of built in rake, which helps set up your body for the proper attack position. When skiing downhill, I did not have my toe locked down, and did not experience any pre-release issues.
For my second test I took them out for a "backyard" ski. This is low angle rolling terrain. Within 5 minutes, as I was crossing a ditch, one of my skis popped off. I did not have the toe locked. In touring mode it is instructed that the toe be locked down. Without the heel locked down the toe can experiences quite an extra bit of torque. The toe is designed to disengage when torque is applied as in a downhill fall once the heels have released based on the DIN setting. Locking the toe down lead to no more releasing from the binding during tour mode. The pivot location and the lack of having to lift the binding with every step is the most noticeable and one of the reasons behind owning tech bindings. When compared the Silvretta's I noticed a bit of energy saving. But when compared to the frankenstride of the Fritchis the difference is obvious.
One aspect of rolling terrain that challenges not only dynafits but all AT binding is the constant engagement in and out of touring and ski mode. Dynafits have their above mentioned woe. Other platform based AT binding's heel piece sometimes ice up preventing full lock down engagement. Most of the time when traveling this type of terrain you just leave the skis in touring mode when hitting small downhills. But since I was testing gear out I decided to stitch whenever possible. I found it very simple to go in and out of ski mode when ever I needed. There is two ways to enter ski mode. One is to lift the heel of the boot, engage ski mode and then step down onto the bindings heel pins. The other way is the lift the heel of the boot right at the engagement level of the heel pins and insert the pins directly into the boot. I knelt down and use my hands to operate the lever most of the time. It was possible to use only the ski pole, though it took familiarity that I did not yet have. Sometimes it was easier using the handle part of the pole.
The heel elevators were very solid, however they were not idiot proof. Heel lift is accomplished by using two separate lifters. The first lifter needed to be in place in order for the second one to be engaged and rest on top the first. The second lifter could be flipped forward without the first one in place. This could be destructive if fully weighted as the lifter is not properly supported. Though it was never a problem for me, I could see the potential for destruction if loaned to a rookie AT skiing friend, or if high altitudes, exhaustion and recreational drugs were thrown into the mix. The lifters can also be manipulated with the ski pole, and is easier to deal with than the ski/tour lever since it has less resistance.
"Well shit don't you do any real alpine touring?" Not as much as I would like to. On the occasions that I did climb something steep these binding perform flawlessly. There was nothing really special that was discovered in steep AT conditions that I did not already know. The climbing was smooth and predictable. The scary icy decents were solid. Kickturns were a PITA as always, and had me dreaming of a kick return spring. I was not able to test the G3 Onyx crampon, as they were not available when I got the bindings and opted for a crampon from B&D. The stock leashes were great. They were comprised of a coated coiled cable. This coiling allowed the leash to extend considerably. This allowed you to manipulate the ski unattached to the boots with the leases attached.
One point that annoyed me about the binding was that you need to use the pole tip to open the front jaws. From a standing position you pushed the button with the tip of your pole. Because of this the contact surface gets really chewed up. This is not a functional problem, but you can not avoid it if you like to keep you gear looking new and fresh for resale reasons. You can not kneel down and exert enough force on the toe jaws to open them, and place your boot in the right spot.
Nothing on the Onyx binding ever failed on me, or simple did not work. But for the 10/11 season I opted out of using my Onyx's. The main reason that I am not using these binding is for the weight. If I am to enter the realm of Dynafit bindings, I want dynafit weight. So far this season I do not have a new set up and am simple riding "extra" gear that I have laying around.
Overall the Onyx binding provides very solid performance and is still lighter than many of the staple backcountry bindings out in the field. If you are a heavy aggressive skier that breaks things regularly and require a high DIN, lighter weight, and efficient touring stride, then the Onxy is definitely a binding that you should not over look.