If there is a single, do-it-all ski – particularly for western, big-mountain skiing – it no doubt lives in this category and probably has a waist width of 98 or 100mm. The reason is simple: up to this girth (95mm-100mm), these relatively wide skis don’t feel fat underfoot, so they ride the groom like a Frontside ski yet provide as much flotation in powder as possible without the width being a negative when the powder is gone. Manufacturers recognize the importance of this genre and therefore give it their very best effort, creating a rich array of options for the high performance skier. It’s remarkable that one category can contain so many different sensations and almost every ski is really, really good. Pay attention to this category, Dear Reader, for if you don’t already own an All-Mountain West ski, you will.
A mere decade 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.
Manufacturers continue to invest in new models in what remains a hotly competitive category. Some of the new entries are on the Lighter Is Better (LIB) train, like Atomic’s Vantage 97 C and Head’s Kore 99, while others take the contrarian track, building metal-laden powerhouses such as the Kästle MX99 and Völkl M5 Mantra.
All the unisex All-Mountain West models, new or old, light or otherwise, strive to serve two masters by providing enough surface area to facilitate off-piste skiing while retaining basic carving skills for when the off-trail is off-limits. AMW Finesse models focus on making off-road terrain easier to tame for less aggressive skiers, while Recommended Power skis come alive at higher revs. Once infused with speed, the top Power skis don’t so much float over choppy terrain as demolish it.
Not all the best skiers on big mountains use All-Mountain West skis as their everyday ski, but the ones that do are probably on one of our Power Picks. It’s not that less skilled skiers can’t handle them if sized appropriately, but these skis aren’t meant to mosey down the mountain. They’re built to batter down the stiffest crud, an approach that only works if the throttle is open. If you’re an expert skier and you haven’t tried one of these models yet, don’t let another season go by without doing so. To paraphrase the late, great Warren Miller, if you don’t do this year, you’ll be another year older when you do.
The Blizzard Bonafide absolutely, positively doesn’t care about the prevailing snow conditions. It can transition from brittle corduroy to 18 inches of fresh without a hitch in its stride. It’s this chameleonesque character that makes the Bonafide a perennial contender for the title of best all-condition ski, end of story. The Bonafide is able to bully beat-up snow because in many respects it’s built like an Old School GS race ski, which was the powder tool of choice in the era just prior to the proliferation of fat skis. Last year the Bonafide was given a wee bit more shape, making its carving performance even crisper without detracting one iota from its drift-ability in gnarly old snow. Extraordinary performance is the product of insightful design and the quality of its execution; the Bonafide attests to Blizzard’s scrupulous attention to both.
What do orcas, Grizzly bears and the Kästle MX99 have in common? They’re at the top of the food chain in their respective environments and therefore completely in control and utterly at ease. The MX99 instinctively masters all terrain because it never met any member of the snow family that didn’t cower in its presence. It does not find hard snow to be hard and soft snow, even in its densest, most saturated form, is no match for its Titanal-fueled will power. Like all the Kästle MX models, the new MX99 has no attainable speed limit. You can fire the afterburners until your lips flap, but the MX99 will never lose its sangfroid.
The Stöckli Stormrider 95 is so instinctively powerful, once set in motion it radiates control, pulling the skier into its orbit. “Go faster,” it whispers. “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ve got this.” The Stormrider 95 is so masterful in all conditions, it feels as if it almost doesn’t need a pilot. You’re just there to point it downhill and let the Stormrider 95 attune itself to the rhythm of the slope. Last year the Stormrider 95 underwent a weight-loss program that included tapering the thickness of the two Titanal laminates that contribute to its eerie calm at speed. Because the latest Stormrider is lighter and more flexible, it feels quicker edge to edge than seems possible with a 95mm waist. The improved agility hasn’t affected the Stormrider 95’s principal virtue: it has the stability on edge of a tank, able to blast through a bunker of 3-day old crud
Let the word go out across the land: the Mantra is back! The new M5 Mantra actually isn’t a replica of an older, cambered version revered by so many of the Volkl faithful; it has an identity all its own. The M5’s unique construction restores the cambered baseline and tighter waistline of earlier Mantras, but how its various components are assembled that set the fifth generation Mantra apart from its antecedents. Among all the things the new Mantra does better than the model it replaces – tighter turn entry, better edge grip on hard snow, a higher speed range – perhaps the most exciting is rebound, an end-of-turn kick in the pants that launches the skier out of the old turn and across the fall line. It’s a quality a lot of modern all-mountain skis are lacking and one the M5 Mantra glorifies.
The Nordica Enforcer 100 has been an elite All-Mountain West ski since it materialized several seasons ago. It’s survived long enough to see a few offspring rise to parallel prominence in other genres: the Enforcer 93 is already a benchmark ski among the All-Mountain East clan, as is the women’s Santa Ana 93, and the Enforcer 110 is the crème de la crème of the Big Mountain brotherhood. As wonderful as it is to have successful children, it’s even better if the parent is still youthful enough to rock the fall line right alongside them. When it comes to demolishing a crud field, nothing beats the pater familias.
The most distinctive feature of the FX95 HP to the eye is the bright teal insert in its Hollowtech shovel. Its most distinctive feature on the snow is its Progressive Rise baseline that gradually elevates about a third of the running surface (404mm in the forebody, 242mm at the tail). Radically loosening the ski/snow connection allows the FX95 HP to be steered by any known technique, from a laid-over supercarve to a perpetual power drift. This may be Chris Davenport’s signature ski, but you sure don’t have to be in his league to imagine it was made just for you. The ever-perspicacious Bob Gleason calls the FX95 HP, “As smooth as crystal and strong as diamonds. Put it on edge with the hip inside and ride, baby, ride.”
The Pro MT 95 TI is a wide ski for people who don’t like wide skis. It behaves as if it were a lightweight carver with a middleweight’s punch: calm on edge, unperturbed by speed and undeterred by brittle hardpack. If the Pro MT 95 TI isn’t exactly agile, neither is it ponderous; it feels capable of any direction change the situation requires. Despite its design concessions to off-trail conditions, the Pro MT 95 TI doesn’t stray far from its carving roots. Carving isn’t just second nature to it – the way it rails from edge to edge reveals that carving is actually its first nature.
Given its tapered tip and tail, the Kore 99 probably doesn’t care much about rocketing around on hardpack, but it has the good manners not to show it. Proof that it can handle the rigors of hard snow comes with the application of speed in increasingly heavy doses. (Note the nearly 9.0 average score for stability.) But the Kore 99’s proficiency on crispy corduroy is hardly the point; this ski was built for powder and its evil twin, crud. Not only is the Kore 99 palpably lighter than the norm, which reduces the power drain on the pilot, but its fairly straight midsection allows it to pivot more or less at will. This allows for the minor course corrections that are the difference between finding the freshies between the tracks and missing them. In a genre already well stocked with fall-line chargers, the Kore 99 provides an alternative snow feel.
The attributes of All-Mountain West skis can be plotted along two axes: the Power/Finesse spectrum and the On-trail/Off-trail scale. The Dynastar Legend X 96 lives in the Finesse/Off-trail quadrant. The Legend X 96’s signature feature, Powerdrive, works differently from most shock-damping methods, by loosening the link between the outer sidewall and the central laminates. Powerdrive breaks the sidewall into three parts, which allows the main structural layers to sheer more easily, absorbing rough terrain the ski would otherwise bounce off. Because it manages to be damp without resorting to two sheets of Titanal, the Legend X 96 keeps the weight off and the stability up.
The main reason to acquire an All-Mountain West ski is to get the widest ski possible you can use as an everyday ride. The reason you want the widest ski is so you can take it into powder and what’s left of powder between storms. To make that all-terrain access as effortless as possible, you want one of our Finesse Favorites.
The price of off-trail success can be some stability at high speed on hard snow, but this shouldn’t be a concern for advanced skiers who rarely reach the top of the end of the recreational speed range. When kept within their comfort zone – mid-radius turns at moderate speeds – our Finesse Favorites can motor through any terrain you care to traverse. For their ability to tame tough terrain with a tender touch, we award all our Finesse Favorites a Silver Skier Selection.
There must be something to this Amphibio deal, an asymmetric forebody that’s rockered above the outside edge and cambered over the inside edge. The Ripstick 96 flows over whatever run lies ahead, be it a rutted backside bump field or the pristine pinstripes of Deer Valley-quality groomage. It never loses its I-can-carve-that attitude, always striving to lay down twin tracks as if every run was down the frontside of Vail. A ski doesn’t attract above average scores unless it brings something extra to the party, which in the case of the Ripstick 96 is a little kick in the tail that scoots it through the turn transition. The boost into the next turn helps establish a rhythm that feels as natural as a waterfall.
Even though its HRZN Tech tip and tail are built to drift first and think about carving, well, never, the BC 100 nevertheless doesn’t feel squirrelly or hard to manage. Au contraire, it seems up for anything that doesn’t entail being bored to death on groomers. “This was a nice surprise, a perfect balance between stability and playfulness,” says Kelli Gleason of Telluride’s Boot Doctors. Her Dad, the ever-ebullient Bob, also pegs playfulness as a cornerstone quality: “In the blending of playfulness mixed with precision, these are the top of the heap. Easy to ski in variable conditions,” he adds.
Three seasons ago K2 radically revised its ski design, ditching more than a decade’s worth of dampening material and generally paring away excess weight wherever it could. By its own estimation, it went a little too far, so last year K2 reduced the rocker and bolstered the construction of its new star, the Pinnacle 95, with more mass, metal and camber. None of these improvements altered its flagship’s easy-going nature, so the renamed (but not re- redesigned) Pinnacle 95 Ti remains mindlessly simple to ski. One reason the Pinnacle 95 Ti earns elevated scores for Forgiveness is it doesn’t need a high edge angle to hold, so Finesse skiers can tootle along with their feet comfortably underneath them and still ride a secure edge.
The Finesse side of the Supernatural 100’s split personality dominates when it’s skied at low speeds, while its Power traits don’t reveal themselves unless the pilot applies the lash. The Supernatural 100’s ability to adapt to the moods of its master makes it particularly suited to the Finesse skier. Its preference for off-piste terrain is signaled by its gradual “5-Cut™” shape that’s made to drift and carve in roughly equal measures. The glass in its structure provides energy and the Titanal delivers dampening, improved edge grip and better control when churning through heavy snow that would deflect a lesser ski.
Most women don’t want a ski this wide as their everyday ski, limiting their market appeal to second-pair buyers. Less demand leads inevitably to lower model turnover, so there’s very little in the way of new models in the 2019 field. Only one new ski, Atomic’s Vantage 97 C W, cracked our short list of Recommended models.
The list would be longer – and probably different in other respects, as well – if only we could capture more feedback on women’s AMW models. Because of the paucity of data, the numeric scores that determine Power and Finesse ratings aren’t as reliable indicators of behavior as they are in other, more popular categories. A ski listed among our Power Picks could easily flip to the Finesse side, and visa versa.
The holes in our data allowed several potential Recommended models to ride below our panel’s radar, including the returning Fischer My Ranger 98, Head Great Joy and Völkl 90Eight. The new Line Pandora 94 and the improved Salomon QST Lumen 99 also merit consideration.
Over the last several seasons, the brawniest skis in the Women’s All-Mountain West genre have been mellowing out. Gone are the models that simply replicate a carving construction in a fatter profile; today’s WAMW models are unequivocally off-piste appliances. The ones with the best on-trail traits are our Power Picks; any ladies looking in this genre for an everyday ski should look here (and add the Santa Ana 100 to the must-see list).
Dynastar draws no distinction between its men’s Legend X and women’s Legend W models, except that the men’s are predominantly black and the women’s white. The same construction that works well for guys is gangbusters for gals. Petite skiers are teed up for success by a 13m sidecut radius – a short radius to match a shorter skier – tucked inside a relative behemoth in terms of surface area. These contrasting traits give the Legend W 96 surprising agility for its girth and gobs of flotation for off-trail environs. The lighter weight is less fatiguing and makes Legend W 96 ideal for the advanced skier transitioning to a wide ski for the first time.
The tale of the Black Pearl 98 is instructive on several levels. On the construction front, this Pearl has been through several phases, including periods when it was a direct copy of a men’s model. It still uses the same tool as the unisex Bonafide – perhaps the greatest all-terrain ski ever – but Blizzard switched to a Women’s Specific Design (WSD) a couple of seasons ago. What’s notable is that the model that most closely matched the Bonafide was a flop, but the WSD Pearl 98 is so well-balanced women want to take it everywhere. The current Black Pearl 98’s became a couple of steps quicker last year when it adopted a tighter sidecut with an earlier contact point. Along with the weight savings from WSD, its new, deeper sidecut makes the Black Pearl 98 feel narrower and consequently quicker edge-to-edge.
As you’d expect from a ski built to be as minimalist as possible, in the hand the Vantage 97 C W feels light enough to fly away, but it’s so stable on snow one tester even found it “stiff-ish.” It’s certainly a lot more ski than is normally available at a street price of $499. Kelli Gleason of Boot Doctors in Telluride, pegs the 2019 Vantage 97 C W as “more powerful than its predecessor, this ski is a charger and can be sized down to accommodate a more timid skier.” An extraordinary value for the accomplished skier, it’s also the perfect escort for the off-trail debutante who needs a forgiving partner to show her the ropes.
Women who don’t attack every run like it was The Charge of the Light Brigade want a ski that will navigate through off-trail conditions at a trot instead of a gallop. For these more leisurely lasses, we recommend the easy-going charms of our Finesse Favorites. Lighter weight women who have a tough time tilting a Big Mountain model should consider one of these narrower All-Mountain West models as a second pair specifically for powder.
There are three top-line reasons why women should entrust their precious time in powder to K2 and its flagship women’s ski, the FulLUVit 95 Ti. (BTW, the Ti is new to its name but not to its composition.) First, K2’s wheelhouse is building wide skis for the off-piste adventurer. Second, K2 was one of the first brands to develop a complete line of women’s skis and involve recreational female skiers in their product development and testing process through the K2 Women’s Alliance, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this season. The third and most important reason for hopping on a FulLUVit 95 Ti is that no other ski makes off-trail skiing any easier without surrendering stability on groomers. If the primary quality you want in your next all-terrain ski is ease of operation, you’ve found your ski.
Last year Nordica changed the construction of the Santa Ana 100, and while it didn’t fiddle with its shape or baseline, the components of its laminated lay-up were altered in every respect. Its 2017 balsa core was beefed up with poplar and beech and sandwiched between two .4mm Titanal laminates. The Santa Ana metamorphosed from the original, mellowed-out surfer girl into hard-edged gal that won’t take any crap from crud. The great advantage of metal in what’s intended primarily as an off-trail ski is how it behaves in the heavy, harbor-chop crud that can deflect models without Titanal.