2021 Women’s Big Mountain Skis
It wouldn’t be unfair to lump all skis over 100mm at the waist into a giant bucket labeled, “Powder,” and leave it at that. Obviously, the fatter the ski the better the flotation, so pick a ski based on how high you want to ride on new snow and you’re good to go. We decided to divide the powder pie in two because there are big behavioral differences between the Big Mountain bundle of skis (101mm-113mm) and the cluster over 120mm.
The very fact that most manufacturers make (at least) one model in each genre verifies that there are reasons to make two distinct models to serve the Big Mountain and Powder categories. The best of the Big Mountain brotherhood are everyday skis for strong riders on – you guessed it – big mountains. But there are also easy riders in the Big Mountain corral; skis that will help the less talented whip their powder skills into shape.
The split personality of the Big Mountain genre is a result of the evolution of the fat ski phenomenon as a whole. Twenty years ago, when the concept of powder skis was still in its infancy, fat boys were conceived as learning aids for the uninitiated. Experts initially avoided the budding category as if they were badges of ineptitude – until they tried them. When Shane McConkey straight-lined a legendary couloir on a pair of 90mm Volant Chubbs, the collective attitude of the elite was tweaked. Suddenly a new mini-market emerged for high-octane athletes seeking first descents on previously unskiable pitches. Movies from Matchstick Productions and Teton Gravity Research showcased a new frontier in adrenaline sports, and the race was on to see who could make the best tool for these new school, big mountain athletes.
Flashing forward to today, both communities – those who want to maintain their speed in new snow and those who want to maintain their dignity – are being over-served by a brilliant buffet of options. Whether you tear into powder or tiptoe in, the right Big Mountain ski will make slicing knee-deep fresh snow nearly effortless.
People in the market for a powder ski tend to think bigger is better, that if a little flotation is good, massive flotation is better. It’s true that there’s no substitute for surface area, but flotation isn’t the only quality required for off-trail conditions. Some aptitude for moving quickly edge to edge is useful in moguls, which inevitably develop where sno-cats fear to tread. Edging accuracy comes in handy on steep traverses, and short-radius turns are de rigeur in pucker-tight couloirs. Point being, the slightly narrower chassis of a Big Mountain ski is probably a better powder ski for most skiers than the super-wide models that qualify for the Powder club by being next to useless anywhere else.
Every Big Mountain ski pries the tip and tail off the snow to some degree because there’s no better way to motor through crud – powder’s wicked stepbrother – than with a tip that won’t catch and a tail that won’t hang up. Some Big Mountain models are cambered underfoot, some aren’t. The biggest behavioral chasm in the category is the separation of models that can be trusted to hold just a ribbon of edge on hard snow and those who do their best work in the worst conditions, drifting over rubble like it was made from ice cream.
There are two major provisos that need to be shouted from the rooftops: one, acquiring an everyday ski that is too wide poses an increased risk of joint fatigue and even injury to the skier, even if he or she never falls; and two, skiers charging full speed on skis with huge girth but little effective contact area and perhaps no capacity for clean edging pose a danger not just to themselves, but every other person in their flight path.
Please pay attention, because this is why our test criteria are more important today than ever. Heavily rockered skis in the Big Mountain waist width zone of 101mm to 113mm can easily inspire the illusion that their owner suddenly has skills. After all, he can now kill it in the freshies, charging like an off-the-rails locomotive. When he rolls his act out on the groomers, still hauling, still squatting over the middle of his skis, his ultra-rockered tips and tails wildly slapping the snow, his ability to change trajectory and avoid the downhill skier is perilously close to nil.
This is perhaps the most important slope safety issue of our time. Please, people, restrict your use of Big Mountain skis to the off-trail terrain for which they were designed.
The 2021 Women’s Big Mountain Field
Despite the limited demand, suppliers continue to regularly renew their offering, keeping the Big Mountain genre supplied with fresh faces. The newest of the new is Rossignol’s Blackops Rallybird Ti, a ripper that replaces the legendary Soul 7 HD W. Nordica’s Santa Ana series has two new options, the Santa Ana 110 Free and 104 Free. Völkl’s latest attraction is the Blaze 106 W; part of its come-hither appeal is its unusually aggressive price ($599).
Returning to the field are Blizzard’s Sheeva 10 and 11, K2’s Mindbender 106C Alliance, Völkl’s Secret 102, Fischer’s Ranger 102 FR WS and Salomon’s QST Stella 106.
To learn about the women who penned these reports, please visit our Women’s Test Roster.
Tester: Ingrid Backstrom
The first time I got on the Blaze 106 W, the off-piste conditions were borderline horrible (and I have low standards). I ventured slowly off the rock-hard, icy piste, expecting maximum teeth-shaking chatter. Instead, the Blazes held an edge. I could feel the hard ridges of frozen snow beneath the skis, but the edges were biting, and the skis felt soft enough. I could make hoppy, GS-style turns, and I loved how the Blazes made it almost effortless for me to finish the turn right under my foot, propelling me into the next turn.
On icy groomers, I could hold an edge and go for bigger turns without chatter. I was blown away by the playfulness in this softer ski. The Blaze 106 made fun skiing instantly accessible to me on tricky snow after many months of not skiing.
When I skied them for the first time in powder, they felt as light and nimble as they had been on the hard snow, while their shape and width gave them the perfect float. I was giggling with how playful they felt, and how much control I had with such minimal effort. When the sun came out and the snow got heavier, I could find my stable center position and power through the crud with a bit wider stance, the skis doing the work for me and enabling me to ski until the lifts closed—my favorite type of ski day.
Read the full review here
Tester: Kim Reichhelm
Testing powder skis is a real treat, but it’s also a real job. The K2 Alliance team of testers takes the same test run over and over again to find the skis that rise to the top consistently. The team varies significantly in our ski style, age, size and aggressiveness. The variety in our ski styles helps us find the best overall ski design for the customer. Our mission is to design skis that are high performance and complement our individual style, regardless of our stance and aggressiveness.
When the morning snow report is over five inches of fresh, the Mindbender 106C is my ski of choice. As is the case with the 90C, the 106C features Spectral Braid™, a combination of carbon and fiberglass woven at an angle around the aspen core. This first of its kind construction gives the 106C versatility, stability and control. It’s amazingly quick edge-to-edge and super stable in variable conditions. The 106C has the perfect amount of float for the freshies in the morning yet continues to be forgiving and fun as the day goes on. Be warned this is not a sissy’s ski. Demo this ski in different lengths before you buy. A little bit shorter might be a better call if you are not super strong or aggressive.
Read the full review here
Tester: Juliette Willimann
The first time I tried the prototype of the Blackops Rallybird Ti was in Chile in the summer of 2019. My first thoughts were, “Oh YEAH! This ski is just incredible. A perfect freeride ski!” After a few runs, I realized that the tail was a bit too stiff, it wouldn’t slide when I wanted it to and I need to always have a lot of energy to make the ski turn on harder snow or steep terrain. Although it made me nervous to say so, I explained during the debriefing what I was feeling. They agreed to make changes to the ski.
In October I skied again with the team on the new version of the Rallybird Ti. Half way through my first run, I stopped and said to the test boss, A.J., “BRAVO, J’adore ce ski!!” The balance, ease of turn initiation and release is amazing. I can drive the skis where I want, charge through the turn or slide. The ski is not pushed around by bumps and crud and it’s playful. The titanium makes the ski strong enough for all situations, but because it is not a full sheet, it does not overpower my turn. I can ski steeps, powder, crust, jumps and groomed pistes all with the same control.
I’m very proud to be part of the development of this ski. You’ll see me skiing on it every day!
Read the full review here
Tester: Edie Thys Morgan
When you go to Jackson Hole, you want one thing and one thing only. You want powder, and lots of it. You don’t really care if your ski can carve GS turns without a whimper on firm groomers, or turn on a dime in the crux of a chewed up chute. You certainly don’t care if it will hold on a marble hard wind-scoured ridge or if it can downshift without flinching when you get into a dicey tight spot that was a whole lot friendlier the last time you were in it. Why bother wondering if it can navigate sun-baked moguls without your knees and your back squawking and your teeth rattling out of your head?
No, you don’t care about any of those things because you’re going to be ripping down Rendezvous Bowl and hitting the Hobacks for 4,000 vert of uninterrupted champagne fluff. And then you wake up, and guess what? Your vacation just might come between epic dumps. When it does, you’re going to wish you brought that one ski that can do all of the above.
The Secret102 may look like a fatty—and it’s definitely got the girth to plow through the powder of your dreams and its skied-out aftermath—but it’s no one trick pony. The ski gets happier as you dial up the intensity, which is also to say, it performs best when you’re the boss.
Read the full review here