2023 Men’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 2023 Men’s Big Mountain Field
Two principal phenomena contributed to this year’s cornucopia of new Big Mountain models. Part of the surge in new models could be attributed to a fluke: several brands’ development calendars just happened to call for renewal of their Big Mountain models this year. The second major factor was the huge influence of the backcountry market, which drove marketers to slice the burgeoning BC market into ever finer tranches, multiplying the number of model families devoted to skiing powder.
At Realskiers, we keep our focus on lift-serviced, Alpine skiing. We don’t pretend to cover the touring market for the simple reason that it requires an entirely different methodology and set of test criteria to go along with its specialized gear. For much the same reason, we keep our mitts off of Pipe & Park skis, including those with waist widths that would land them in the Big Mountain genre.
I mention what we don’t cover because the backcountry boom has inspired the creation of new model families that fit somewhere along the ever-expanding Alpine-Backcountry spectrum. K2’s new, 3-model Dispatch series includes two big Mountain entries in 101mm and 110mm widths, along with a 120mm. In K2’s ski pantheon, Dispatch fits between the all-climbing-all-the-time Wayback family and the in-resort, all-terrain Mindbender clan. The Dispatch skier is descent-oriented and powder obsessed. Alas, the Dispatches were members of a large and distinguished community of skis we were never able to get on snow, much less in appropriate conditions, last spring.
Another new series meant to find a home between the worlds of in-resort and ex-resort skiing is Nordica’s Unleashed, which bear little resemblance to Alpine Enforcers and likewise don’t fit in with Nordica’s Unlimited AT series. We got just enough of a taste to assert that they have a strong bias for snow soft, with spatulate tips meant to support a rear-facing descendant. Not our cup of tea.
I’ll get to what’s new among the 21 Big Mountain unisex models we did ski, I promise, but first I must mention a handful of other unexplained absences. As referenced last year, we deeply regret the paucity of data gleaned over two years for the Kästle ZX108 and Völkl Katana 108. In a perfect world, not only would both be Recommended; they’d most likely respectively reside near the top of our Finesse and Power rankings.
Two additions to the list of those missing in action which would also be expected to earn Recommended medallions are the Rossignol Sender Squad, only available in a 194cm, a clear signal that it’s meant for serious skiers and not newbies, and the K2 Mindbender 108 Ti, whose skinnier siblings made major improvements in just about all performance criteria. Also MIA was Dynastar’s M-Pro 108 Ti F-Team, whose previous incarnations have all been first-rate.
As we are living in an age of incremental change, several models we classify as new are modified versions of their well-known antecedents. The Head Kore 111 and Kore 105 both received the same upgrade, a urethane topcoat to mitigate marring, but its effect was more noticeable on the narrower model, so it got the nod as new. Consolation prize for the 111 was to retain its crown as the top-scoring Finesse ski in a category dominated by this bundle of characteristics.
On the other side of the Power/Finesse divide sits the Völkl Mantra 102, this year’s recipient, along with the Kendo 88, of the Tailored Titanal Frame and Tailored Carbon Tips that made the M6 Mantra the epiphany of velvet-gloved power. Once again, the Mantra 102 earned the mantle of best Power ski, but this distinction disguises the effect the new tech had on how easily the new version handles. No other new model we skied made as big an improvement over the model it replaced.
Also among our perennial favorites are Salomon’s QST 106, still extraordinarily versatile, with a new, lower baseline and higher doses of C/FX in its guts, and Rossi’s Sender 106 Ti+, the current owner of the slot in Rossignol’s line held by the legendary Soul 7, back with more Ti and a new version of Carbon Alloy Matrix in its guts. The Sender 106 Ti+ is one of the few Power skis in the Big Mountain category, and it scored nearly as high for its Finesse moves. Hard to imagine who wouldn’t like it, but if you prefer something softer and Finesse-focused, the new Sender 104 Ti could be your soulmate in soft snow.
Another brand debuting two new Big Mountain models in a refreshed series is Fischer, who has reconceived its Ranger series so that every model gets a ration of Titanal. The new Ranger 102 gets a center section of Titanal without compromising the loose, smeary style of its predecessor, while the Finesse-biased Ranger 108 gets a lighter allotment of metal than the Power-oriented Ranger 107 Ti it replaced.
If you’re currently flailing in new snow, you’re on the wrong gear. Powder is the one condition in which the choice of ski can actually improve your skiing experience, without actually requiring you to improve your skiing, if you catch my drift. A properly sized and selected Big Mountain model will make you a better powder skier a lot faster than a great Technical ski will turn you into a proficient carver.
Power Picks: Killing It
The defining difference between our Power Picks and Finesse Favorites can be summed up succinctly: how fast are you willing to go before you steer out of the fall line? If you tend to ride the brakes and the gas at the same time, you’ve overshot your category: you should be searching among the Finesse models.
But if you love to let it rip, sending up geysers that almost engulf you as you go headlong downhill, this is your dating pool. Chances are, every one of these skis is better than you are, which is a good thing when you’re pushing the edge of the envelope. If your skills are commensurate with our Power Picks, you’ll have a partner for powder days that won’t ever let you down.
I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t remind my Dear Readers that there’s one model that eluded our coverage that would otherwise be among the elite Power skis in the Big Mountain genre. The Völkl Katana 108 is a gem worthy of any strong skier’s consideration.
Völkl Mantra 102
Don’t let the model name fool you: Völkl still calls this ski the Mantra 102, but the addition of Tailored Titanal Frame, Tailored Carbon Tips and a tweaked sidecut has totally transformed its personality. Last year’s Mantra 102 was a barely tamed beast, subduing all in its path; the new incarnation is a pussycat that readily bends to its pilot’s will. Among 2023’s new models, only K2’s revamp of its Mindbenders made as big an improvement in Finesse properties as the Mantra 102. It behaves like a different ski.
One measure of a ski’s steering facility is the skier’s perception of width. In its first incarnation, the Mantra 102 was notable for feeling wider than it measured; the 2023 version “skis narrower than indicated, making it very easy to turn,” according to veteran tester Theron Lee.
The combined effect of its triad of new features is what makes the Mantra 102 suddenly so tractable. Like every Big Mountain ski in Christendom, the Mantra 102 is double rockered, but it feels like it has tip-to-tail contact.
Read the full review here
Rossignol Sender 106 Ti+
It was only a couple of product generations ago that a Rossignol model dominated the Big Mountain genre like no other ski before or since. The Soul 7 was an almost perfect powder ski, its behavior dictated by its high and long camber line that ended, as all Big Mountain skis do, in a tapered and rockered tip and tail. Its high arch was primarily fiberglass, making it a coiled spring just begging to be compressed.
The Soul 7’s only sin was to be too popular. Rossi refreshed their star regularly, most notably with Carbon Alloy Matrix when it earned its “HD” suffix, and Rossi kept refreshing its rack appeal, which attracted skier interest even among intermediates. Nothing kills a ski’s cachet among experts quite like universal adoption by the masses, and gradually the Soul 7 lost its luster.
The Sender Ti was clearly made to win back experts disenchanted with its predecessor’s over-the-top popularity.
Blizzard Cochise 106
The Cochise 106 knows how it should be skied, even if you don’t. It’s well aware that it won’t be able to carve a short turn at minimal speed, so it keeps close to the fall line until it can shift into third. Once it reaches cruising speed, it dons its dancing shoes and shows just how indifferent to heinous crud a ski can be.
The Cochise 106 is one of the few Big Mountain models that doesn’t get the heebie-jeebies on hard pack. Its imperturbability where other skis literally tremble is due in part to its classic, wood and Titanal construction and in part to its Flipcore baseline.
The Cochise will always own a special place in Blizzard’s history as Arne Backstrom’s ski, for it was Backstrom who first conceived of Flipcore, the technology that would completely transform the Austrian brand, elevating it from obscurity to prominence in the American market.
Read the full review here
Finesse Favorites: Kicking Back
The original idea behind making a ski as fat as 110mm underfoot wasn’t to open previously unskiable terrain to world-class athletes, but to allow those without such skills to be able to navigate less forbidding pitches when the snow is knee deep.
Our Finesse Favorites fulfill this mission by bringing a sense of playfulness to the business of floating and smearing through powder. They prioritize ease over accuracy, allowing the less proficient powder skiers to more easily access this exciting terrain. The ulterior motive behind manufacturing such models is, of course, to sell you a second pair of premium skis. We warn you: once you go fat, you never go back. Which means, once you ski the deep on one of these plump beauties, you’ll never again foray into the pow without fatties on your feet.
Head Kore 111
Head doesn’t consider the addition of a urethane coating sufficient to qualify its 2023 Kore models as new, and in the case of the Kore 111 – the widest 2023 Kores we essayed – we concur. But answering the question of whether the 2023 version is a noticeable improvement over its near-clone predecessor isn’t as interesting as the fact that both ended up in the top spot in our Finesse rankings. What is it about the latest generation of Kore models that sets them apart from the rest of the pack?
Tech guru and Start Haus owner Jim Schaffner pondered this question after a day test driving the 2023 Kore collection. “This model impressed me as did the other Kore models I skied. Does Graphene work? It’s pretty easy to feel the similarity in all the Kore models. The feeling is one of power, and traction, and smoothing out the ride. I am not usually impressed with skis over 110 underfoot. Light and lively feeling, with strong feel on the edge. Very versatile,” the veteran gear tester concluded.
Salomon QST 106
Salomon’s QST 106 was already pegged as a star product when it was introduced in 2016/17, and Salomon has been enhancing the QST flagship on a regular basis ever since. The latest batch of improvements aim to boost power and grip while trimming a few grams off its total weight. First, the woven mat of carbon and flax (C/FX) that is the QST 106’s primary structural element now extends the entire length of the ski, for extra stability in heavy crud. To improve torsional rigidity and amplify force application, the 2023 QST 106 doubles up on its full-length sidewalls with extra strips of ABS underfoot. And the new version has a lower rocker profile, so it stays in better snow contact regardless of the conditions.
Two other innovations introduced during its previous make-over a couple of years ago contribute mightily to the QST 106’s remarkably quiet ride: Cork Damplifier at the tip and tail, and a Titanal binding platform underfoot.
Read the full review here
Nordica Enforcer 110 Free
The Enforcer 110 Free is so good at motoring through crud that it jumped to the top position among Big Mountain models in its debut season. Its reign would have certainly continued had Nordica not fashioned an Enforcer 104 Free two years ago, which usurped the throne so briefly held by the model from which it was cloned.
Just because the narrower and lighter Enforcer 104 Free feels more maneuverable than its stouter big bro doesn’t mean the Enforcer 110 Free suddenly morphed into a lugubrious tanker. It’s still remarkably agile for its girth and its camber pocket delivers a lively turn finish that makes it ski lighter than it actually weighs. “This is the most versatile wide profile ski I have ever used!” gushed Boot Doctor Bob Gleason. “An uncanny blend of big ski float and directional fortitude, with a quickness and rebound that will have you tap dancing in the tight spots.”
Read the full review here
It was only a few product cycles ago that Dynastar transformed its brand identity with the debut of the Cham series. It was a bellwether moment, both for Dynastar and the burgeoning freeride market segment. The Chams were the first collection from a mainstream brand that used what was then referred to as a “5-point” sidecut, the two extra points indicating the ski’s widest points, which were pulled back from their traditional location at the tip and tail. What came to be known as tip taper has now been universally adopted by every Big Mountain model in the known world.
Flash forward to today, and Dynastar’s signature powder ski, the M-Free 108, retains a few strands of the Cham DNA, but in several respects it’s the exact opposite of the Cham 117. The key carry-over features include the obligatory double-rockered baseline and tapered forebody and tail, both magnified to the max. The biggest difference is the overall sense of snow connection.
Read the full review here
Völkl Blaze 106
From a product standpoint, Völkl has very few problems. The avatars of its latest technologies – the Mantra M6, Kendo 88, Mantra 102 and Deacon 84 – sit atop their respective genres, a stunning display of dominance. When one is so accustomed to winning, one wants to win at everything, and there was one arena where Völkl hadn’t made much headway: skis sold at lower price points. Völkl had earned a reputation as the brand for experts; lesser lights need not apply.
It was partly to appeal to the greater swath of the market who shun the pinnacle of the price pyramid that two years ago Völkl launched the Blaze series. At a $599 street price, the Blaze 106 hoped to attract the economy-minded in the market for a lightweight, off-trail ski. To hit the lower price point, it reduced its use of Titanal down to a mounting plate and lightened up the core considerably: a 186cm Blaze 106 weighs in at a mere 1772g, compared to 2330g for a 184cm Katana 108.
Read the full review here
Nordica Enforcer 104 Free
The Nordica Enforcer 104 Free and Enforcer 110 Free are both first-class Big Mountain Finesse skis – they’ve each recently held top billing in the genre – but they earn their high ratings for ease of use in different ways. The Enforcer 110 Free is inherently better at drifting and flotation, simply by dint of its superior surface area. These are critical properties for a Big Mountain ski, but they aren’t the only admirable attributes. The Enforcer 104 Free out-finesses its bigger bro with easy-steering agility, able to hew to a tighter radius whether on edge or off.
The Enforcer 104 Free even feels quicker than the narrower 185cm Enforcer 100, because you don’t detect its extra 4mm of width as much as you notice its lively response to lighter pressure. It seems to hover like a water bug over wind-battered crud, floating just above the havoc underfoot where it’s still able to move freely side to side.
Head Kore 105
Head doesn’t tout its 2022/23 Kore collection as new, because they didn’t change its 2021/22 models, they just swaddled them all in a top layer of urethane, to make them more scratch-resistant. For the narrower Kores, which will be exposed to harsher shocks on the hard snow where they’ll spend much of their lives, the new coating definitely quieted the skis down a tad. So, we’re treating the 2023 Kores, including the 105, as new, even though Head does not.
The Head Kore 105 is the perfect ski for our times. No, it doesn’t promote universal love and understanding among all people, but it does what it can, considering that it’s a ski. It’s not just that it’s the lightest ski in the genre, it’s how that light weight contributes to a quickness off the edge that makes the Kore 105 feel narrower than its actual dimensions.
Fischer Ranger 102
The qualities that made the 102 FR the star product of the old Rangers were its smeary, playful baseline, its metal-free construction – making it lighter and torsionally softer – and the fact that it had the most distinctive snow feel compared to its competition in the Big Mountain genre. As Fischer made the transition to its new Ranger series that adds a dab of Titanal to every model, preserving the on-snow properties of its flagship Ranger was likely to be a high priority.
Devotees of the retired Ranger FR 102 can relax. If you loved the FR for its surfy attitude, you’ll be at least as enamored of the 2023 Ranger 102. This is still a decidedly soft snow ski, as several testers lamented given that there was precious little natural snow last season. “In fresh snow, you’ll love this ski,” reassured Mark Rafferty from Peter Glenn. “Plenty wide and playful for first tracks. If no new fresh for a few weeks, the Ranger 102 will rip fast turns on the groomers. Strong for blasting through crud. A true marvel,” he raved.
K2 Reckoner 102
One of my favorite bump skis that wasn’t intended to be a bump ski was the K2 Shreditor 102 (circa 2015). Of course, it couldn’t be as quick a real mogul ski edge to edge, so it did most of its navigation by slarving through the troughs and slinking around the lumpy bits. The new Reckoner 102 is in several respects the same ski, albeit embellished in ways its ancestor was not.
The similarities are hard to miss. The shape of the 184cm is identical save for a tip that’s 3mm wider on the Reckoner, giving it a marginally (.7m) snugger sidecut radius. Both Shreditor and Reckoner rely on braided fibers to control flex and torsion, with the Shreditor using a Triaxial braid of fiberglass and the Reckoner using Spectral Braid spun from carbon. Both vintages use Aspen in the core, although the Shreditor complemented it with featherweight Paulownia while the Reckoner uses Aspen in concert with denser fir.
Read the full review here
Fischer Ranger 108
Now that the Fischer Ranger series share a common construction, they also share a similar behavioral profile. Nothing affects a modern ski quite as much as the addition or subtraction of Titanal, so when Rangers were made both with and without Ti laminates, their performance profile would change radically from one model to the next. For 2023, Fischer homogenized the Ranger line by doling out a measure of metal in every model. By dint of its extra width, the Ranger 108 earns a mite more in its midsection, making it the smoothest Ranger in the new family.
The Ranger series has always been aimed squarely at off-trail skiing, where surface area dictates the degree of flotation which in turn has a direct bearing on how easy a ski is to swivel. News bulletin: skiing deep snow isn’t like skiing hardpack. Not just in the obvious way that snow you sink into and snow you can barely dent require different tactics, but in the subtle ways that deep snow affects stance and turn finish, which can’t be carved and therefore has to be swiveled to come across the fall line.
Blizzard Rustler 10
The Blizzard Rustler 10 wants you to look good, so it makes everything about off-trail skiing easier. There’s a long, central band of Titanal on the top to stabilize the ski underfoot while allowing the tip and tail to twist. The idea is to keep the tapered tip from getting involved with every obstruction it meets; instead of trying to hook up at the top of turn like a hard-snow-oriented ski is meant to do, it politely deflects all rough treatment by bending with the blow. The same basic idea at the tail keeps it from insisting on finishing every arc on a hairline trajectory, as if skiing were trying to emulate figure skating.
A more powerful skier who takes his hard-snow technique with him when he travels off-trail might prefer the more connected feel of the Blizzard Cochise 106. But for the majority of off-piste skiers, the Rustler 10 is a better fit.
Read the full review here
Kästle FX106 Ti
Any clear-eyed assessment of what transpires on a powder day at any popular resort would conclude that the “powder” part of the day begins around 9:00 and ends around 10:00. For the rest of the day, all accessible terrain devolves into something considerably less idyllic. The Kästle FX106 Ti is built to cope with this reality, for it wields its smear-ability like a weapon when deep snow switches from a fluffy texture to something closer to tapioca.
During the “powder hour,” any ski with approximately the FX106 Ti’s dimensions will spool out mid-radius turns with unconscious ease; once perfect conditions are in the past, the real work begins. It’s in the slop that the FX106 Ti’s stout, wood-and-Titanal construction proves its mettle, planing over afternoon porridge that would kick a lesser ski off course. With two full sheets of Titanal in its guts, the FX106 Ti isn’t one of those fat skis where the width isn’t noticeable; rather, its heft imparts confidence that in the battle against crud, its pilot is well armed.
Read the full review here
Rossignol Sender 104 Ti
There are several clear signals that the Rossignol Sender 104 Ti isn’t meant for the same skier as its big brother, the Sender 106 Ti+. While the only difference in their sidecut is the 104’s narrower waist, that’s about where the similarities end. The first hint that they aren’t equals is the plus symbol attached to the fatter ski. It’s meant to imply that there’s an extra dose of Titanal in the slightly more expensive ($100) 106, as indeed there is. But the 106 Ti+ also sports other embellishments that make it preferable for an expert who knows how to charge the fall line.
As important as Titanal is to ski behavior, it only covers so much territory, as neither model runs its Ti laminates from tip to tail. The end-to-end element that governs both skis is a weave of carbon and basalt fibers; on the Sender 106 Ti+ the combination dubbed Carbon Alloy Matrix is richer in carbon, so the ride feels more cushioned throughout and remains calm at higher velocity.
Salomon Stance 102
The Salomon Stance 102 is a Frontside ski in a fat suit. Were it not for its width, which by Realskiers’ rules lands it in the Big Mountain genre, and a dash of tip rocker, it would be a Frontside ski, and a strong one, at that.
To understand a ski’s purpose, one needs to know what void it’s filling in its brand’s big picture, as well as where it fits in the category in which it’s competing. Perhaps the best way to define the role of the Stance 102 in Salomon’s 22/23 collection is to identify what it is not, namely a QST.
Salomon’s well established QST series goes all-in on the Lighter is Better approach; while the top models use a Titanal platform underfoot, the rest of their construction depends on a mix of fibers to deliver the right ratios of longitudinal flex, torsional rigidity, light weight and shock damping.
Read the full review here