The OurdoorGearLab review of the Black Diamond Helio 105 skis mentions that “[the Helio 105s] are made for what many of us want. We all want to ski 100% powder snow on giant, untracked, wide-open human powered mountains…if it is your reality, the Helio is perfect.” They also note that “this isn’t always the reality.”
Despite Hokkaido’s reputation for epic powder snow, OutdoorGearLab’s observation also applies here. Yes, we spend around 3 months gliding through forests and alpine areas on meters of bottomless powder. But those of us who live in Hokkaido year-round know that some of the more adventurous skiing, such as Rishiri Island, Shiretoko Peninsula, and peaks deep in the Daisetsuzan Range, happens in spring: mid-March till May.
So, with this in mind, this ski performs amazingly in Hokkaido during those mid-winter months. It loves the powdery downhill, and the width deals admirably with carrying heavy loads on climbs through very deep powder. In Hokkaido’s spring months of mid-March till May, however, a narrower ski will perform better on rock-hard northern-aspect slopes and long traverses. The extra leverage required to hold an edge on icy traverses can get tiring pretty quick, particularly when carrying a multi-day load on your back.
At 1600g (3 lb 8 oz) per ski (185cm version), the weight of the Helio 105 is not in the lower echelons of super light-weight planks, but given its solid downhill performance, it is nonetheless relatively light weight for a ski of this width. The only other ski of this width that I considered as an alternative was the La Sportiva Vapor Nano. The Vapor Nano, also 105mm underfoot, at 1200g per ski (for the 179cm version), is much lighter. However, the Black Diamond Helio 105 vs. La Sportiva Vapor Nano comments I’d seen online suggested the Vapor Nano was even more of a powder-oriented ski which was even less capable when things got hard and icy underfoot.
Suffice it to say that I decided to make my big weight savings in other areas – i.e., bindings and boots. I paired the skis with Black Diamond 145 bindings (discussed below), and replaced my tried and true Scarpa Maestrale boots with a pair of Dynafit TLT7 CR. This meant an almost 1kg per foot saving over my antique Atomic Sugar Daddy and Dynafit Vertical ST bindings plus Maestrale boot setup, bought second hand for pennies a few years ago.
Compared with that old setup, this new setup felt like I was wearing a nothing at all on my feet. Another excuse to put in just a few more luxuries in the pack for overnight ski-camping trips.
With the bindings and boots I use, the Helio 105’s feel super light on the uphill. The only beef I have with them is the tips can dive more than other skis I’ve been on. When climbing up an otherwise flat section of snow, a pronounced dip can see the tips getting caught. Perhaps just a shade more rise might fix this.
BINDING SETUP – Black Diamond Helio 145
As mentioned above, I had my Helio 105’s mounted with Black Diamond Helio 145 bindings. These are re-branded ATK Trofeo 145 bindings, designed originally for skimo ski racing. I’m very happy with these bindings for what I do – skiing as transport in the winter hills. They’re crazy light, and the simplicity is fantastic.
Officially, the Helio 145s (and Helio 180s) have three riser levels: flat, 37 mm and 45 mm. In reality, there’s so little difference between 37 and 45mm that I only ever use the 45mm rise – slightly lower than the middle riser in most other mainstream tech bindings. I very rarely used the highest riser setting on my old Dynafit bindings anyway though, so I don’t miss having a higher riser on these bindings.
This means that generally when climbing, I have to cut a new skin-track here in Hokkaido – born-and-bred local backcountry skiiers here in Japan tend to prefer a straight-up-the-mountain style of skinning, heel risers set to the MAX. Even if I wanted to follow someone else’s track (I rarely do anyway), these bindings would not get my heel up high enough. Having a high-articulation boot like the Dynafit TLT7 helps a lot in this regard too.
If I was doing it all again, I’d actually go for the Helio 180’s. They’re identical to the Helio 145’s, but have an adjustment plate. I think I could live with the extra 35 grams, and would of course allow me to change boots without having the bindings re-mounted.
Helio 145 binding crampon attachment
The Black Diamond Helio 145 bindings don’t come shipped with a crampon attachment. This has to be bought separately. It is super easy to attach though; it just slots into the toe piece, and is attached with two torx screws. When I got the bindings in late February 2019, Black Diamond was out of stock of the crampon attachments. As of June 2019, the’re still out of stock. However, because these are rebranded ATK Trofeo bindings, the stock ATK crampon hook attachments fit just fine. I bought mine online from SnowInn (here).
I use Dynafit crampons in the crampon hooks, and they fit OK. They aren’t as smooth a fit as perhaps they should be – the pins holding the crampon to the hinge bar protrude about 0.5mm, and catch ever so slightly on the crampon hook. If I took a file to the recessed pins on the crampon hinge they’d go in with less fuss, but they’ll do for now.
Ski crampons are very rarely needed in Hokkaido in December, January and February, particularly if you’re sticking to areas such as Niseko and Furano. From March onward and throughout the season in the far north and far east, however, they’re almost indispensable (unless you’re carrying boot crampons).
Quite right – the Helio 145 bindings don’t have brakes on them. Hence the Dynafit Guide Leashes attached, which attach to my boots. The leashes are designed to break if more than 50kg is applied to them, so in theory, they should release in an avalanche. Still, if I’m crossing anything particularly risky, I’ll unhook them. The lack of brakes also requires a little more care when removing the skis from my feet. I’ll usually place them on the snow upside down, since I need to put them on the snow to get the impossibly sticky skins off anyway (see below).
Unexpected benefit of minimalist bindings
An unexpected benefit of super minimalist bindings was that my Helio 105 skis fit flat on our foam strap-on roof rack. We don’t own a car (for environmental and convenience reasons), so during the winter we hire a cheap rental from Nikoniko Rent-a-Car*, or car-share most weekends. To free up space inside these pokey little cars, we have soft roof racks that we can attach to any car at all. Skis are then Voile-strapped securely to the racks. With usual ski bindings, the skis have to be awkwardly placed on their sides. If not, the heel piece hits the roof of the car. Not so with the Helio 145’s!
Skins for the Helo 105s
This time around, I opted for the Black Diamond Glidelite Mix skins. For Hokkaido conditions, and long distances that we do on hut trips here, I am loving the extra glide they offer. I used to be on some ancient Black Diamond Ascension skins, and these are light-years more glidey. I feel like the glue is excessively sticky though. I used to love getting to the top of a climb and doing a skimo-style quick removal of my skins without taking off my skis. Not any more – maybe the glue will chill out a little over time, but at the moment, I have to put the skis on the snow upside down, stand on them, and pull hard.
Where to buy in Hokkaido
The unfortunate reality is that Black Diamond skis are actually quite hard to find within Japan. Lost Arrow is the distributor of Black Diamond within Japan, but they don’t always have much of a stock on hand. Rhythm Summit in Niseko can offer service in English, but they also warned me that although they can order them in, stock is always very limited.
I picked up my skis and bindings when I happened to be in Portland in the US on a conference trip. The other challenge would be getting the Helio 145 bindings mounted. ATK bindings has a paper template that can be used, but that’s not ideal. When I got the bindings mounted in Portland, arguably one of the US’s main mountaineering and skiing centers, there was only one store (REI) that had the official jig to mount them.
With these skis, I think I was cautiously hoping they’d be a quiver-killer all-round ski perfect for long, serious Hokkaido ski touring in all seasons. They’re not though. They are incredible in soft snow. And that does make up the bulk of the ski touring we do here. But, we also do a solid two months or so of spring skiing each year too. And this spring skiing tends to entail some of the longer distance trips we do, given that the weather is more stable in the spring months. After three days of high alpine spring touring, spending at least 3-4 hours each day on hard-snow traverses, with heavy packs on, these 105mm powder slaying beasts can get tiring pretty quick in spring. Not because of the weight – they’re super light. But the extra leverage required to keep the edge engaged on hard snow is tough work.
So, in hindsight, if I was to do it all again, seeking an awesome all-rounder ski touring ski for Hokkaido in all seasons, I’d be looking in the 90mm-100mm waist range. The Black Diamond Helio 95 is attractive, but then I hear good things about the Kastle TX98 too.
That said, I think the most rational, reasonable, and responsible option, however, is probably just to adhere to the N+1 principle* and seek to procure a spring skiing set.
*The N+1 principle states that the ideal number (n) of skis, bicycles, or other toys one ought to own (x) follows the following formula: x = n+1.
Rob Thomson, Founder of Hokkaido Wilds
Height: 179.5cm (5’11”)
Weight: 77kg (170lbs)
Hokkaido ski touring experience: 5 years, 600km+, more than 250 hours across the island in all seasons.
Skiing ability: When it comes to downhill skiing finesse, I’m probably a solid intermediate skier. When it comes to uphill skiing, I’d say strong and confident; I’m either doing 10hr ski touring routes in 6hrs, or carrying up to 20kg on my back for multi-day ski touring trips.
Focus: Uphill efficiency first, downhill gnar (albeit with little finesse) a close second.
Experience with a range of skis: Limited. I’d never bought a new pair of skis before buying these new fandangled Black Diamond Helio 105’s. Second hand was my staple, but when an opportunity came up to get these Black Diamond skis and bindings at nearly 50% off, I jumped at the chance.