2021 Recommended Skis
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The objective of on-snow ski testing is to pinpoint the behavioral matrix of any given ski so skiers can match its performance to their needs and expectations. This process requires a skier as well as a ski, and further requires all data to be filtered by a fallible human interpreter. We doubt there are enough qualified skiers in the US to create a sufficiently massive sample size to allow test results to rise to the level of statistical significance; in other words, it’s impossible to assemble a test team large enough to rely on the sheer weight of numbers.
Achieving a meaningful result therefore depends on several qualitative factors:
- The technical and communication skills of the individual tester. Ideally, a tester is proficient to the point he/she can imitate virtually any technique and has the language skills to identify and describe behaviors.
- How skis and/or skier types are categorized. When skis are tested in predetermined groups, as they are at all magazine tests, how any one ski fares depends in part on the coherence of the bundle. If a collection is a hodgepodge going in, the results coming out will be an indecipherable hash.
- The behaviors captured in the data. There should be a mix of criteria the testers are asked to quantify, including behaviors preferred/required by lower skill skiers as well as edge-of-the-envelope behaviors that help identify skis with the highest performance range. Verbal descriptions of the ski’s personality should complement and expound upon the model’s attitude and aptitude as depicted in the data.
- The balance of the test team. In some cases, such as testing race skis or pipe and park skis, it’s desirable to have a preponderance of highly skilled and highly specialized practitioners or else the testers won’t be able to put the ski through its proper paces. In all other categories – i.e., over 90% of the market – the team should reflect the composition of the world of experts, including ex-racers and current jibbers, but also instructors, coaches, former product developers, specialty retailers and a couple of local hotshots who can turn a ski and a phrase.
- The ability to mine the data to create viable comparisons across brands, meaningful behavioral snapshots by model and correlate each ski’s behavioral matrix to specific skier types. If there is a single argument that validates the ski test enterprise, it’s that manufacturers do exactly the same, usually with a smaller test panel, when deciding which of several prototypes to anoint as the next new model to join the line.
At the end of the day, there’s no way to tell how a ski is going to perform without skiing on it. (Most manufacturers also take the opportunity to ski their competitors’ products whenever possible.) All their R&D investment isn’t worth diddley if, when the ski hits the snow, the results are indifferent. It’s not that ski designers can’t predict what will happen when they add or subtract a feature from an existing template, but they can’t be sure, since changing any one thing in a ski can effectively change everything or result in just a minor fluctuation, like adding a hint of cinnamon to sangria.
The reference to wine is not an accidental simile, for the business of testing skis is a close relative to the rituals of wine tasting. Both are very experiential exercises that nonetheless presume to produce a numeric result, i.e., test scores and attendant first place awards. Their credibility rests on their methodology and the authenticated expertise of the test panel.
A mere 15 years ago we would have choked on these words, as skis 100mm underfoot then were niche models positioned as ideal for Alaskan heli-guides. The evolution that has taken place in the interim was triggered by the arrival of the Völkl Mantra in 2006, at first in the slightly more svelte waist width of 94mm. As with most Völkls made for men, then as now, there was no skimping on the quality of the construction: the Mantra was a rich, powerful ski right out of the chute. It performed like a soft GS race ski, but in a width that tracked through powder like the blitzkrieg, taking no prisoners. It quickly found a following due to Völkl’s already swollen ranks of faithful adherents, attracting the attention of every other major brand. (Nothing engenders a wave of imitators quite like creating a new niche with a high price tag.)
Driving the success of this genre is the eternal hope that part of the do-it-all equation will be a generous dose of fresh, deep powder. If you eliminate powder, and its evil twin, crud, from the mix of conditions in which you’ll use the ski, there’s no compelling reason to increase the ski’s flotation. But unless you live at the base of the ski resort, you can’t be sure what you’ll encounter on a big mountain; if a pocket of powder suddenly becomes available, wouldn’t you rather be on a ski that will embrace the situation? This is the mentality that has persuaded an increasingly large percentage of the market to gravitate to this genre.
Most, if not all, print-published ski tests would include under the All-Mountain West heading skis up to 110mm underfoot. Their inclusion is, in part, driven by the manufacturers, who want to increase the number of star products in this critical genre. But we believe bundling models on either side of the 100mm divide ignores a vital distinguishing trait: narrower skis put less strain on the skier in every condition but powder/crud. Sure, young bucks who log countless miles on western slopes use 108’s (and wider) as their everyday ski, God bless them. But we feel that the skis between 101 and 113mm underfoot should be treated as Big Mountain models that transparently sacrifice certain hard snow behaviors to achieve greater flotation – and presumed ease – in unbroken snow.
Within any genre there are skis that are curl-in-your-lap pussycats – our Finesse Favorites – and skis that are relentless fall-line predators, which we collect into our Power Favorites. The key virtue of the former is they improve ease and terrain access for less aggressive, lighter weight or lower skill skiers. The archetypical trait of the Power posse is they are utterly unflappable no matter where you go or how fast you go once you get there.
There isn’t a line of copy in any ski supplier’s brochure that would suggest their All-Mountain West ski possesses a single limitation, but this untempered enthusiasm conveniently overlooks a critical factor, namely the prospective skier’s skill level.
To be brief, anyone who would not classify himself or herself as advanced is looking behind the wrong door. To be less brief, if you don’t regularly tip the ski to a high edge angle, if you don’t ski with your feet extended away from your body, if you don’t have separation between the central angle of your upper body and the median that runs from your hips to your feet, if you don’t ski comfortably at speed, then you should look for a Frontside ski that will help you develop these skills.
The problem is that if a lower-skill skier acquires a model with a 100mm waist too early in his/her development, forward progress will freeze, slow down or even regress as the wider ski proves too cumbersome to tilt. The skier will probably feel better in powder and crud, but that’s about the extent of the benefits.