Secret 96

Völkl takes product development very, very seriously, testing nearly 1,000 different skis a year, in every length it will manufacture. It uses a team of both in-house product designers and a dozen or so “externals” – top instructors and racers – to evaluate every design aspect. Their task is made trickier in that key design elements like Tailored Titanal Frame, 3D Sidecut, Tailored Carbon Tips and the Secret 96’s double-rockered baseline, all need to blend together for the magic to happen.

I mention this because the new Secret 96 is essentially the same ski as the M6 Mantra, which sounds like a short-cut way to gin up a women’s ski.  Far from it. One of the essential design goals of both new skis was to precisely tailor all aspects for all sizes, a process particularly beneficial for the largest and smallest sizes. Every decision was challenged in service to the main goals: more liveliness when pressured; accessible, tighter turn shapes; and smoother behavior in the turn transition, the “drift-to-carve” moment.  The intent was to open up both the M6 Mantra the Secret 96 to more skiers, especially in the shorter lengths, i.e., those made for women.

FX96 Ti

Kastle fans everywhere can rejoice now that the latest FX series has been restored to something like its original self, with twin Titanal laminates around a poplar, beech and Paulownia core. Compared to the last FX flagship, the new FX96 Ti is a slightly heavier ski, but the added stability in all conditions has doubled its performance ceiling, well worth the roughly 50 extra grams.

With the FX96 Ti returned to something closer to its original self, its performance ceiling has doubled, leaving little doubt that, within the new FX family, the FX96 Ti is the star product. Not surprisingly, it’s quicker on and off the edge than the plumper FX106 Ti, but what is eyebrow-raising is it feels more tenacious on edge and responsive off it than its narrower sibling, the FX86 Ti. A peek at its test results confirms its off-piste predilections, as its score for Drift out-points its edging accuracy in every phase of the turn.

An aggressive expert may tear directly downhill on the FX96 Ti to test its limits, but it doesn’t need to be driven in overdrive to be appreciated. It performs perfectly predictably at medium speeds when fed a steady diet of medium-radius turns. Because its lower camber line makes it easier to bow and its well-rockered baseline is simplicity to steer, we confer upon the new FX96 Ti a Silver Skier Selection.

Bonafide 97

Over its relatively long lifespan, the Bonafide has found a few thorns in all the roses thrown its way. One criticism is that its brawny build is best managed by experts, and there’s something to this claim in that the Bonafide performs better with some energy flowing through it, meaning it likes to be ridden fast. Some find it boring and wonder what the big deal is. In the Bonafide’s defense, all high-performance skis perform better under an expert’s guidance and an affinity for speed is not, by itself, a demerit. Furthermore, if you want rebound energy out of a Bonafide you have to load it. If you just stand there looking cute, it won’t react because you haven’t told it to.

While there are worse problems to have, being known as an experts-only ski is a concern nonetheless, one Blizzard addressed last year with the introduction of the TrueBlend core. The objective of TrueBlend was a smooth, round flex adapted for every size, married to a flex pattern and baseline likewise adapted by length. The key to its execution was the precise location of denser strips of beech in a predominantly poplar core. Each size was treated like its own model, so the shorter skis were also softer and more accessible to lighter and lower skill skiers.

“There’s nothing this ski won’t do with ease,” comments Jim McGee of Peter Glenn. “It won’t overwhelm a strong intermediate but will really reward the expert,” he concludes.

Santa Ana 98

It’s not entirely coincidental that the Santa Ana 98 debuted last season along with Terrain Specific Metal, Nordica’s way of doling out just the right amount of metal for each of its five Santa Ana models. The Santa Ana 98 was needed because its predecessor, the Santa Ana 100, used wall-to-wall, end-to-end sheets of Titanal, so they skied like supercharged rockets. Skiers who just wanted a ski to make powder easier were over-served.

So, unlike its sister Santa Anas, the 98 was born on a Ti diet, but just because the Santa Ana 98 doesn’t ski like an Enforcer 100, don’t think for a second that it’s been gutted.  Within the Santa Ana clan, the 98 falls on the side of the threesome that are intended to live at least part of their lives on hard snow. It wasn’t created to ski powder at the expense of competence when carving up groomers; it’s meant to live comfortably on the border of both worlds.

Every ski in this genre alleges that it’s like the mythical Super Mom who can manage the boardroom, the boudoir and the household books while learning Mandarin. They can do it all and never break a sweat. But Women’s All-Mountain West skis almost never live right on the 50/50, hard snow/soft snow border.

Mindbender 98Ti Alliance

Last season, K2 athlete McKenna Peterson shared this glimpse behind the ski development curtain at K2:

The creation of the Mindbender line was an opportunity for K2 to completely revamp its women’s freeride skis. We started with a conference call between K2 engineers, product managers, K2’s female athletes and K2’s women’s test team. We each stated what our ‘ideal’ line of skis would look like and the engineers started innovating. Throughout that winter, the women’s test team completed 5 tests at different ski resorts, in varying conditions. Some models, like the 88Ti, skied really well right out of the gate and we only tested those prototype variations at two of the tests. Other models were tested over and over again until the ski was perfect.

The first time I skied on what is now the Mindbender 98Ti Alliance was during our second round of testing at Crystal Mountain, Washington. It had snowed a bit up high but had rained down low on the mountain so conditions were variable. I’m a big mountain skier and have always preferred fatter skis for float and stability at speed, but there was something about this 98mm underfoot ski that made my jaw drop. Up high, the 98Ti floated through the powder, perfectly balanced between riding on top and diving too deep. The ski carved through the nasty re-frozen wet snow of the lower mountain as if it were butter. The ski was both confident and playful. We had a winner.