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interview by R.E. & Ben Dolenc

Tele ain't easy. The garage is our soul, but business is business. Armond works hard for tele progression. This is the story of the UTB binding.

Descender: Armond, in the PNW, we've seen the UTB around. Most core tele skiers are aware of your work. But damn! It's been in dev for years. Obviously, your ideas have influenced binding progression. Last spring, "news" hinted at litigation between you and major binding manufacturers Voile and Rottefella. In your own words, what is the real story?

Armond: HMMMM…. Where to start?

Descender: The beginning. Let it roll brother!

AD: It has been very much a progression. It probably all began in the days of living in my 1984 Subaru station wagon. I had been a true fun hog, trying hard to work less than 4 months out of the year, and playing the rest! AHHH life is good that way. I would sometimes daydream about what I would do for work when my early retirement was over. I knew I wanted to be involved in the ski industry in one way or another, I just didn't know how. I had very much fallen in love with teleskiing shortly after making my first good tele turn, and went through the same progression that a lot of teleskiers probably went through.

Once I scrounged up enough money to buy some boots and bindings, I couldn't resist tearing my alpine bindings off of my favorite skis (K2 TNC 210cm), and mounting some Riva classics in their place. I was stoked on the idea of possibly being able to ski all the same terrain on teles that I was able to ski alpine style. It didn't take long to start going through the dilemma of destroying bindings on a regular basis, and for a few years I just joked to friends about making a burlier binding. I never really thought about it much until I wrecked my ACL in my left knee in 1995. Sitting on my ass with a broken knee, I thought to myself "I better figure out something to do other than just sitting around being pissed…", so I got a machinist job. While working there, I started to design a new, better, tele binding. I knew I wanted to make something that was SUPER BOMBER first and foremost. After talking to my good friend Scott Wicklund about my plans, he said, "you have to make it a step-in", and I liked the sound of that.

At first, the only thing I was thinking about was how the hell do I make the step-in interface? I thought about the step-in snowboard bindings. They all had mechanisms that latched onto pieces of metal that were bolted onto the boots. I got to thinking of all kinds of variations of similar applications to tele boots, and it just hit me while having a beer with a friend in Bellingham…. Make the parts that latch into the step-in mechanism crampon points!! That way they would be good for something other than just pieces of metal bolted to the boot for the sole purpose stepping in… It just seemed too perfect in my head not to try. So the step-in crampon idea was born out of a bottle of Obsidian Stout!

.It's safe to say that the rest of the UTB binding has evolved around this concept. I made a couple prototype renditions of just the crampon interface alone, with simulated points screwed onto a piece of flat bar to test. I had no idea that I was opening a huge can of worms. After about 6 or 9 design changes, I decided to make a few pair to try out. I made 6 very crude bindings. I decided that to get a true toughness test, I would mount the prototypes on a pair of 213cm Super G skis (Black Smokes), and skied them the entire next season.

I also decided to see about patenting my ideas. I spent several weeks in the fall of 1996 doing a patent search, before finally applying for one. The wait was on. It can take up to a year and a half to hear back from the patent and trademark office. That season, 96-97, I skied like a bug on acid on the 213's, and went through some more design tweaks. I made a better version in the spring of 97, that I mounted on a pair of borrowed skis from my friend Doug Ingersoll. They were a pair of 198cm Wild Widows, and seemed like a more realistic alternative to the 213's for touring. The binding was still in crude form, but was actually functional. That spring I logged several excellent tours in the north and central Cascades, ending with one of the truest tests of the binding yet, climbing and skiing the Edmunds headwall route on Mt. Rainier's Mowich face. On that trip, at the trailhead, I decided to leave my Charlet Mosier crampons in the van to save weight (smart eh??!!).

After that trip I convinced my dad to loan me enough money to make a batch of 45 binding pairs. This proved to be far more work than I was anticipating. I figured that I'd be done in a month or so, but four months was more like it. This was a true "beat down" for a guy that doesn't even like to say the word "work". After spending more money and time than I was intending, I had to choke down a bad batch of toe plates, and make another because of an oversight on my part. By the time December came around I was finally done with my first batch, and did not want to repeat the process any time soon. The finished product came out nice, but my design was too complex and difficult to manufacture. It seamed very appealing to me at that time to try to convince a larger company to take on my idea with a license agreement, collect royalties and go skiing….. PHAT CHANCE!!

My friend Doug Ingersoll has ties with Rossignol and thought they might be interested, so he arranged a meeting. I wanted to see if K2 was interested first, since they are WA local, so I set up a meeting. I met with K2 and didn't get any bites, but did leave with a new pair of skis (thanks Mike). Same story with Rossignol, but they looked at it quite a bit longer before declining. I decided to hit the upcoming outdoor retailer trade show in Salt Lake to approach potential manufacturers.

The UTB. Photo courtesy A.D./UTB

I met with Wally at Voile and got no hint of interest there either. Everyone could see that it was going to be a big job to take on along with their current workload. I went back to my contact at Rossignol and asked if he thought Rottefella might be interested, they said there was a chance and gave me the contact information. I wrote Rottefella a letter asking them if they would be interested in seeing my new binding, and they said they would. After they signed a non- disclosure agreement (NDA, as did all the other companies before seeing it), I sent them a demo pair in Aug of 1998. They had the binding until the following winter OR show, where we met and they said that they were not interested, and gave me my demos back. I then asked if they thought the rigid rod and enclosed compression spring part of my idea would benefit their Chili binding. Reconsidering, they said that could very well be an option, so I let them borrow one of my rod and compression spring heel bail assemblies to further examine. I thought to myself, "right on, at least there is some hope!" To my dismay, I started going the runaround with Rottefella through the rest of that winter until that spring, when I finally requested my parts back. I received them a few weeks later with a letter that says, "Hello, here is the heel clamp I borrowed. We will be back to you if we decide to use a combination of steel rods and compression springs." I had been almost sure they would go for it.

Oh well, same story different day. Shortly after that a friend of mine hooked me up with the kind people of Mountain Safety Research in Seattle. They were actually interested and took a ninety-day look at it. I got a nice tour of their facility, and got to sit down with their engineers and get their input on how to simplify the binding and make it lighter. They are the ones that tuned me onto the idea of the cast titanium toe plate. They definitely have the manufacturing capabilities, but it would be a stretch to bring a telemark binding into their line. After a very considerate look, they decided it would not fit into their agenda. Once again I was deflated and wondering if I might just give up altogether.

The 1999-00 ski season was fast approaching and there would be no bindings this year. I got fairly depressed about the situation and could do nothing but revert back into a powder monger for therapy. I didn't want to think about the binding, I just wanted to ski, so I did. Shortly into that season my friend Doug Ingersoll informed me of his new prototype Cobras that he just received through Rossignol. "Dude…They just knocked off your idea…..You are gonna shit!" he said. Apparently Rottefella didn't get back to me like they said they would! Doug sent a binding to me and sure enough, rigid rods and encased compression springs! Hmmmm, I think I can feel something slowly running me over, It is squeezing me and I'm getting PISSED! I dig the last letter that Rottefella sent me out of my file, the one that said they would get back to me, I can't help but think about kicking the shit out of those assholes. Knowing that wouldn't be the answer, my only option was to find a lawyer. Thanks to another good friend on the Stevens Pass ski patrol, who referred me to a patent attorney, an old friend from high school . I hooked up with my saving grace. A patent attorney that actually tele skis!! We met, I showed him my binding and we went over my situation. He took interest right away. But, It would take a while to research and prepare the case.

The winter outdoor retailer trade show was coming up shortly and we were not quite ready to file the complaints yet. When I showed up at the 2000 winter OR show, I got more interesting news. It appeared that Voile had a rendition of a rigid rod and encased compression spring binding now as well. This I had to see, so I went to the Voile booth and sure enough there it was, the Hardwire. I explained to them that I had a patent pending on that technology and that I'd even showed it to Wally a few years back. Wally was not there at the time and the guys there at the booth were definitely concerned about my issues. They suggested that I get back in touch when Wally got back from Europe to discuss things further.

North Cascades, WA. Photo: Scott Wicklund

Meanwhile, I informed my lawyer of the news: Yet another company producing a rigid rod and compression spring binding. He says this will definitely affect our case with Rottefella. Although it seamed like the runaround was in effect, I was under the impression at the time that I was going to be able to negotiate a deal with Voile without having to litigate, and that was definitely the way I wanted it to work out. Business, however was not my strong point, and I had been learning the hard way, so I decided to follow my lawyer's advise, and sue Voile as well. It is going to take several more weeks to prepare everything. We finally filed the complaints, and because of some Norwegian law, it took about a month and a half longer for Rottefella to receive their complaints. Voile however, got served right away, and they were very interested in getting things settled out of court, as was I. It took a couple weeks of going back and forth with negotiations and we came to what I feel is a fair deal for both parties. This was a very nice boost of energy for me to finally have a royalty agreement. Once Rottefella eventually got served the complaints, they did a bunch of bickering, but finally decided to a one-time payment agreement instead of a running royalty. Another great boost of moral, and no more angst ridden feelings when I see Hardwires or Cobras on the hill.

Seeing yet a second binding with parts of my technology ended up being a huge motivation to follow through 100% with my own UTB binding. Anger can be good motivator if channeled correctly. It was the winter of 2000 and there was still a huge amount of work to do with the final refinements of the UTB. I was in the middle of some titanium toe plate design refinements and testing my newest prototype step-in mechanisms, and heel lifters. The design was very close to being nailed down and outside of testing the toe plate changes; I was ready to start making the form tooling for all the sheet metal parts. The toe plate changes proved to work out and so came the (6 month) project of designing and machining the toe plate molds. The molds for the toe plates are the most complex things I've ever made by far!

All in all, it has been about a six-year project and counting, and I have learned tremendously. I know II still have much more to learn, as well as more ideas brewing. This binding comes to you from the heart and mind of a truly passionate skier, and has been a grass roots project from the beginning. It is my offering in hopes to help further this soulful sport.

Descender: Anything else you want to say about the binding?

A: Just that it has been rigorously tested by me and others, and that it is a real grass roots project from a real telemark skier. I basically married this binding and I hope people like it.

Descender: Tele could use more people like you Armond!

Learn more about the UTB, or order a pair: http://www.ultimatetele.com/



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