Like Editors' Choice winners in other categories we assess, there is no one thing that is all that special about the Kastle TX 98. What is remarkable is how evenly distributed the high performance is, as these are truly excellent all-around backcountry skis. When we divide the evaluation criteria into those that pertain to the downhill and those that relate to uphill, the Kastle performs well in both. On our scoring rubric, ignoring uphill standards, the Kastle is surpassed by only one of ten products. On the other hand, in terms of low weight, the Kastle is exceeded by only three skis. That it skis downhill so well at such a low weight is incredibly impressive. Backcountry skiing demands minimal weight for the uphill and excellent performance downhill (and lighter skis are inherently compromised for downhill travel). These strike an outstanding balance and take home our top award as a result. The price is steep, but we think that you will find them worth it.
These crush our overall scoring rubric, beating all other comers on our weighted and carefully tuned scoring matrix. All our scores are based on first-hand, comparative experience with the products. We have extensive experience in general and make sure to put all contenders through extensive testing.
A wilderness base camp, snow quietly collecting, your skis waiting patiently for first light. When those skis are as excellent as the TX 98, life cannot get any better.
Just a few years ago a pair of skis around six pounds was virtually unheard of. Those that were on the market in this weight range were specialized tools for big missions where the user was ok with significantly compromised skiing performance. With technology and product development that mark has now successfully moved down to sub five pounds. At six pounds for a pair, thanks to the TX 98 and its standard-setting performance, we now demand excellent downhill competence.
Weight is the primary determinant in how the uphill portion of your backcountry day will go. And the uphill part of your backcountry day can be 90% of that time. In short, lighter kit on your feet greatly enhances your day, as long as that lighter kit doesn't fail on the turning back down. Overall performance is a balance, while for uphill travel lighter is always better. There are only a few skis in our review that are lighter than the Editors' Choice, but all of them suffer from much poorer downhill performance. In the other direction, you have to add more than a pound before you get a product that exceeds the downhill performance of the TX 98.
When it comes to weight, two of our Top Pick winners point to the full spectrum. The Atomic Backland UL 78 is a pound and a half lighter than the Kastle, and the Black Crows Corvus Freebird is almost two pounds heavier. The Backland skis more poorly than the Kastle, in almost all ways by a significant amount. In the other direction, though, the ski performance of the Corvus Freebird is noticeably better in one or two ways, about equal in others, and exceeded by the Kastle in some situations. More weight than the Kastle gets you just marginal gains, in the opinion and experience of our test team.
This sort of ski mountaineering isn't actually that common. When you do it, though, lightweight skis on your back facilitates the technical climbing.
Stability at Speed
Of the downhill scoring criteria, stability at speed is the one most associated with weight. All else equal, heavier skis will be more stable than lighter ones. Construction attributes like materials, geometry, and assembly can affect stability, but not as much as weight does. For the weight, the TX 98 is as stable as we have ever tested. Opening it up on giant Chilean Volcano corn snow or Teton powder slopes was confidence inspiring and solid. We chose the 178 cm length for our test team (led by 5'10" 170# lead editor Jed Porter). For the fastest of skiing, we wish we had sized up for even greater stability; these "ski a little short" given the advertised length. Nonetheless, even these short feeling skis tracked true and parallel, adapting to different turn shapes and sizes with aplomb.
The biggest and heaviest skis in our test, the Top Pick Black Crows Corvus Freebird, were predictably the most stable and smooth. Mass and girth make for more stable high-speed action, to a point. If the Kastle is a benchmark, we could ride 120% on the Corvus. The Dynafit Beast 98 is also a heavier smooth operator. Our entire test team preferred the stability of the Beast to that of the Kastle. The next echelon of stability held the Kastle and a few competitors. The relatively heavy Black Diamond Route 95 suffered from a soft feeling tail but made up for it a little bit with mass. The Volkl VTA 98 charged harder than the Kastle in good powder but suffered a little more when it got choppy or firm. All the other skis in our test were in a different, lower league than the Kastle. The even lighter and much less expensive Blizzard Zero G 95 transcends its numbers to approach (but not match) the stability of the Kastle and the Volkl. In great powder snow the tested Black Diamond Helio was a little more stable than the Kastle. In funky snow and firm stuff, the Kastle edges back ahead.
We put in a full season of testing on the TX 98. To really dedicated backcountry skiers, that means skiing some bad and hard snow. If you are a powder snob, you will either burn tens of thousands of dollars in jet fuel chasing storms around the world or ski a season measured in weeks not months. We love to ski. We prefer to not even stop skiing, instead riding whatever the mountains hand us. Our backcountry skis, then, need to work on all sorts of surfaces, including ice. We skied the Grand Teton in bullet-proof, unsoftened corn snow on the TX 98. We snowplowed, sideslipped and railed a couple thousand feet of the Chilean side of Volcan Lanin, on blue ice and in a whiteout. We got some firm snow, to put it mildly. The super damp construction, torsional rigidity, and moderate width combine to make these big mountain, rock hard, scratch-to-win machines. They aren't quite a firm snow specialist, but they grab well enough to "enjoy" those hard turns up high. The edge grip is smooth and even. We had no issues with any part of the ski's length grabbing more than others. This is a tall order.
We find it easiest to compare ski hard snow performance in terms of edge grip and edge grip distribution, as the best hard snow skis grab smoothly and evenly. On rock-hard mid-season drought resort skiing, for instance, we had a terrifying day on the G3 Findr 102. The Findr seems as though only the middle third of the ski is making purchase. Next, the Volkl VTA 98 has a grabby tip when the going gets icy. The Kastle TX 98 doesn't grip with the razor-like tenacity of the narrow Atomic Backland UL 78, but it grabs very smoothly and evenly.
First light, ropes and spikes, with more of a giant, technical mountain above you. You want stable and sure skis underfoot when skiing the Grand Teton. This test session on Wyoming's steep high peak demonstrated excellent firm snow performance.
In deep, soft, consistent, fresh snow we loved the TX 98. As noted above, for faster riding we would have sized up from what we tested (we generally choose skis for our test team closest to 180cm), For short radius, three-dimensional powder turns, the snappy yet damp construction of the TX 98 pops and plunges exactly how you want it. The skis track together in and out of each turn with the tips being nearly impossible to bury with centered technique.
Every ski we tested is enjoyable in powder snow. Yes, even the skinny and short Atomic Backland UL 78 provided us with enjoyable powder turns; this is testament both to the quality of modern skis and to the ease and fun of powder skiing. You can't go wrong in perfect powder snow. Of course, some skis will suit different styles better, and some will just be more fun. The Best Buy Blizzard Zero G 95 is a little narrower and quite a bit stiffer than the Kastle. However, underfoot in powder snow, they perform pretty similarly; both are most at home (at least in the tested shorter lengths) in shorter powder turns. The Volkl VTA 98 is the most versatile powder ski we assessed. It is equally adept at bouncy and tight turns as it is opening up like a ski movie star would. The big gun, Top Pick Black Crows Corvus Freebird is definitely a long-radius powder carver.
Powder snow in the backcountry is pure bliss. Skis that enable this joy are tools of pleasure. Our only wish with the TX 98, as it pertains to powder snow, is that we'd selected the next size up.
Tough snow separates the wheat from the chaff. All skis improve, but some take big leaps ahead. The Kastle nearly tops the heap this year.
For its weight, that it pops up out of breakable crust and charges through "mashed potatoes" as well as it does is impressive. Every skier will be different in these conditions. As compared to other skis, a Kastle user will maintain upright, parallel turns longer into the continuum of poor snow conditions. Eventually, everyone has to revert to survival skiing techniques in tough conditions. The Kastle defers this choice longer than most.
Lead test editor and IFMGA mountain guide (on the far left) tested the TX 98 with an "on the clock" trip up the tallest side of South America's Volcan Lanin. 8500 feet of Southern Hemisphere ski mountaineering will present all the snow types.
The only better tough snow skis we assessed are almost two pounds heavier. We would fully expect the Top Pick Black Crows Corvus Freebird to ride the tough stuff better than the Kastle; that the Kastle comes so close is the impressive part. The Kastle also exceeds the breakable crust performance of the heavier Dynafit Beast 98 and the much heavier Black Diamond Route 95. All the other skis we tested are way off the back on this scoring metric.
Funky snow (here, high altitude Patagonian "rime") demands the most of a ski's design characteristics. We were pleased in all kinds of tough stuff with the Kastle.
We recommend the TX 98 for virtually any backcountry skier; this is a high-end downhill performer at an efficient weight "sweet spot". Only the most fanatic human powered skiers on either end of the spectrum (lightweight or downhill oriented) will be better served by one of our Top Pick winners.
This is the Achilles heel of the TX 98. The high-level performance and low weight come at a price. These are at least a few hundred dollars more expensive than our Best Buy winners; you get better performance, but is it worth it? Only you can answer that question. Both Best Buy winners fill a similar niche (lightweight all-around products for human-powered adventures) and are much less expensive.
On the summit of the Grand Teton with the Editors' Choice TX 98. At times like these, the absolute expense of this award winner seems less important.
These are the best backcountry skis on the market. We are confident of that, having scoured the market and ridden the best. Our test team is strong, confident, and has had more opportunity than virtually anyone else to make unbiased comparisons of the state of the backcountry ski art. Choose confidently.
Lead test editor guiding a ski ascent and descent of Wyoming's Grand Teton on the Editors Choice Kastle TX 98.