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.
Last season the model turnover rate in the Big Mountain category was so low, it seemed suppliers had accepted the fact that the market for fat powder skis was limited to a trickle of sales per season. Perhaps the snows of two seasons ago spurred them into action, for this year the Big Mountain field produced a bigger than ever bunch of Recommended models, headlined by nine new or significantly tweaked skis.
One of the best new models is also one of the oldest, Line’s Sir Francis Bacon. Re-designed this year to make this seemingly eternal model more like its first incarnation, the 2020 SFB might be the finest Finesse ski in the genre. Sad to say, you won’t find it in our coverage, as your esteemed Editor was the only one of our far-flung cast to try it. I took it out in the crud of Snow Basin and it was as sweet as honey fresh from the hive. If the grail of off-trail skiing is mindless ease, Sir Francis Bacon should be credited with its discovery.
Perhaps the reason the SFB didn’t get any love is because a trio of new arrivals stole the spotlight. Volkl followed up the launch of the M5 Mantra with a Mantra 102, a take-no-prisoners Power ski with mayhem on its mind. Speaking of minds, K2’s new Mindbender 108 Ti should attract the attention of the small army of skiers who should retire the Sidestash, Obsethed or Kahuna gathering moss in the storage shed.
Perhaps the most significant new Big Mountain ski of 2020 is Nordica’s Enforcer 104 Free. Its significance lies in its size: at 104mm underfoot, on paper it would seem redundant in a line that already has an Enforcer 100 and 110, but it only takes one run to see why Nordica had to make this model. It’s so much easier to ski than either of its siblings, without diminishing its Power quotient, that’s its destined for overnight stardom.
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.
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.
Not since the first Cochise rolled off the production line some eight years ago has there been a Big Mountain ski like the new Völkl Mantra 102. You can feel the power percolating under the hood before you have it out of first gear. Even though it’s “only” 102mm underfoot, it feels more substantial. At slow speeds, its triple-radius sidecut (long-short-long) encourages the Mantra 102 to stay close to the fall line so it can pick up enough inertia to show its other moves. Once you’ve shown it you care by injecting speed into its veins, the Mantra 102 becomes more compliant. Even though it’s double rockered, its Titanal Frame design, which puts more mass around the tip and tail, keeps nearly the full length of the ski engaged. While not exactly nimble – its lowest score is for short turns – it doesn’t have to be, for whatever lies
The Blizzard Cochise has been around long enough that it’s become the longest tenured member of the Big Mountain academy. But don’t mistake its age for weakness. Until the Völkl Mantra 102 came along this year, the Cochise had no peer as a balls-to-the-wall crud-buster. It has the turn radius of a blue whale and the construction of a GS race ski. If you’re in its way, I would suggest moving. The reason the Cochise hasn’t lost its relevance has less to do with how it’s changed than how it hasn’t. No other ski beats it for stability at speed, and we mean in any condition. The dirty little secret that experts know about how to ski chopped-up powder is to step on the gas. The Cochise already knows not to pick a dainty path through the crud but to barrel through it, skimming over what’s still clean and pummeling
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. But for the majority of off-piste skiers, the Rustler 10 is
The Head Kore105 is a very clever combination of some Old School principles, a few features that are de facto standards in the Big Mountain genre and technology that is on the cutting edge of ski design. Head is the only ski maker with a license to use Graphene, carbon in a one-atom thick matrix, which allows its engineers to stiffen or soften flex with minimal affect on mass. To maintain this weight advantage, the heaviest component in the core is a slice of poplar next to the sidewall; the rest of it is a synthetic honeycomb called Koroyd and a quotient of Karuba, an ultralight wood commonly found in Alpine Touring skis. The Kore 105 gets its power and energy from the carbon, fiberglass and Graphene that are laminated around this exotic core. To further trim grams, the topsheet is a cap made from polyester fleece, another dampening agent
For 20/20 Fischer has again re-designed the flagships of it Ranger Ti series, returning to a lay-up with twin Titanal laminates for stability and liberal use of carbon to make it responsive. Carbon inlays in the tip and tail help make the extremities thin and light, so the new Ranger 107 Ti is easier to foot steer when necessary. “It’s user-friendly but still can be skied aggressively,” notes one admiring tester. “You can take your foot off the gas and it’s still responsive.” Compared to the Ranger 108 Ti that preceded it, the Ranger 107 Ti has a slightly less shapely silhouette and a longer contact zone underfoot, giving it more directional stability and an overall calmer disposition in the sloppy seconds that prevail on so-called powder days. Its new sidecut favors the skier who can maintain momentum through a series of rhythmic, mid-radius turns that neither enter nor exit
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.
Last year the Nordica Enforcer 110 owned the title of easiest Big Mountain ski; for 20/20, the crown stays in the family but it passes to a new king of kindness, the Enforcer 104 Free. (The “Free” is a fresh suffix this year that denotes the slightly lighter wood core that’s been in the 110 since its introduction.) The Enforcer 104 Free leapfrogged to the front of our Finesse rankings by being even more maneuverable and responsive than the highly recommended ski that served as its role model. Back-to-back runs on the 110 and 104 in 10 inches of partially tracked powder confirmed what one might suspect a priori – that the narrower ski was noticeably easier to steer no matter how you slice it. Whether pivoting your feet to make a short turn shorter or banking off a wind drift, the Enforcer 104 took less force to guide. To
The Enforcer 110 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 this year, 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
If Salomon’s brand identity over the past forty years could be summarized in a single word, it would be “innovation.” The driver behind its history of successful new product introductions is a corporate culture grounded in extensive Research and Development (R&D). Salomon’s Annecy Design Center continues to launch breakthrough products capable of disrupting a market, such as last season’s Backcountry/Alpine Shift binding. The same relentless devotion to R&D that made the Shift possible has spurred Salomon to re-design the QST 106 for the second season in a row. The list of the latest changes may sound like a handful of minor alterations, but together they turbo-boosted the QST 106’s Power score and its 20/20 Finesse score is even higher. I confess I’ve been maintaining a soft-snow-days only liaison with a QST 106 since we first met, so my bias in its favor is engrained. I’m now seeing a 181cm 106,
The Mindbender 108 Ti tries to win the war against crud by caressing it instead of crushing it. It has a gift for rolling to the edge that makes it feel quicker than the norm among skis of its 108mm girth. To execute a truly tight radius turn requires overruling its roughly 30m-sidecut radius and foot swiveling a flat ski, a move the Mindbender 108Ti has down pat. Its impressive 9.25 score for drift speaks to its ability to brake according to the current style that uses skidding as the primary form of speed management. It takes only one section of uncut powder to realize that this unsullied canvas is where the Mindbender 108Ti would prefer to display its artistry. Who wouldn’t rather ski unblemished freshies? By afternoon what was once pristine is now a mogul field. Remarkably, its soft, rockered forebody allows the 108Ti to conform to gnarly bumps
This is going to seem like an odd way to begin a review of the returning Line Sick Day 104, but if you love skiing powder – and I know you do – you have got to ski the 19/20 version of the Sir Francis Bacon. One of Eric Pollard’s original signature models, the SFB has been subjected to a series of tweaks over its long tenure. Now something very much like the original (143/107/139) is back, and it’s crazy good. As for the Sick Day 104, the narrowest of Line’s Big Mountain bunch, it’s like the bright, bored student who could get good grades for edge grip but would rather skip class than let The Man tell it how to ski. Its natural tendency is to show up a little late for the turn, gradually roll up on its side then bank off its broad base to finish the
There’s nothing like swaddling an already excellent ski in a rich coating of creamy carbon. We skied an Amphibio Black Edition last season that finished tops among Technical skis, and in the past we’ve skied Kästles that were also encapsulated in a carbon sheath. They, too, won their category, so the Elan Ripstick 106 Black Edition came with high expectations. It did not disappoint. It snaked all around the mountain like a fat, black mamba, coiling around a medium-radius turn as if it were alive. The Ripstick 106 on which it’s modeled is already a fairly soft ski; slathering it in carbon didn’t change it compliant nature but complemented it. The carbon coat calms everything down, muffling shocks before they can cause any trouble. If your mind aches to go off-trail but your body aches if you do, the Ripstick 106 Black Edition is a brilliant buffer between heavy snow
Like every model in the Big Mountain category, Elan’s Ripstick 106 has lighter weight near the top of its design criteria. The Ripstick 106 is also in step with its competition in its use of carbon to replace heavier components, but the Slovenian ski maker deploys it in a unique fashion that takes full advantage of carbon’s capacity for shock damping and elasticity. Two 5mm-diameter tubes reside in CNC-machined grooves that follow the sidewall along the base of its all-wood core. Positioned as they are near the snow and the edge, the carbon cylinders can keep the Ripstick 106 on a calm edge when navigating rough terrain. If you’re familiar with Elan, you’d be correct to surmise that the Ripstick 106 uses its signature, asymmetric sidecut, dubbed Amphibio. Given the Ripstick 106’s inherently looser tip and built-to-drift girth, the Amphibio effect isn’t enough to keep its tips cool, calm and
The one traditional ski trait that is still largely absent from today’s ski market in general and the Big Mountain category in particular is rebound. Before rockered baselines became standard equipment on any ski meant for powder, the end-to-end camber line of an all-glass ski created a giant spring. In the down-up-down weighting rhythm then in vogue, the skier de-cambered the arch of the ski at the apex of the turn and allowed the stored energy in the glass to recoil and send the skis and skier back near the surface to transition to the next turn. Skis without any rebound stayed submerged, where the tips would inevitably cross, dooming their owner to ignominy. Ten points to the first reader who guesses which classic characteristic is so intertwined with the identity of the Rossi Soul 7 HD it could be said to own it. The Soul 7 HD is the
Twenty years ago Dynastar produced a signature ski for Jeremy Nobis – then regarded as the game-changing big mountain skier of his generation – called the Inspired. The point behind this oblique introduction to the Legend X 106 is that the Legends of today aren’t made for the Jeremy Nobises of this world. Instead of being stiffer than the norm, the Legend X 106 gets its silky ride by deliberately softening the forebody so it will conform to irregular terrain when driven at recreational speeds. What makes the modern Legend X 106 more malleable than its ancestors is a 3-piece sidewall called Powerdrive. Developed for its Speed Zone race skis – albeit with a different mix of materials – Powerdrive breaks up the bond between the laminates in the core and the rigid outer sidewall. Without heavy Titanal laminates to cast a cloud over its inherently peppy personality, the Legend
The Fischer Ranger 102 FR is an interesting amalgam of Old School principles and New School attitude. At heart it’s a traditional, wood-core, glass laminate construction with square, ABS sidewalls, but on closer examination the wood laminates in the core are carved into a Chinese puzzle of latticework developed for Fischer’s market-dominating cross-country skis. To keep the lightweight Air Tec Ti core from being bounced around by stiff mounds of set-up crud, a thin sheath of Titanal covers the core underfoot. Keeping the metal component to a minimum allows the Ranger 102 FR’s glass structure the freedom to flex under mild pressure and immediately pop back into its cambered position. Put this action/reaction pulse into motion and you have the makings of a very fun powder run.
The women’s Big Mountain genre has bedeviled us since we began covering these super-fat models as a separate category seven seasons ago. Part of the problem is that skis this wide require some semblance of new snow to be given a fair evaluation, limiting their appeal as test subjects except on rare occasions.
Another factor depressing feedback is the limited market for skis that will serve as a second or third pair for its owner. Our crew has commercial considerations that oblige them to focus on where most of the action is in the women’s market. Their priority is to test what’s new and the Big Mountain genre doesn’t see a lot of model turnover precisely because sales in this fat segment are slender.
While we don’t have a lot of test results to lean on for support, recognizing the few models that attracted some attention allows us at least to talk about the genre and provide thumbnail portraits of some its stars. But we don’t have sufficient data to support statistical ratings and so, as has been the case for the last several seasons, we’re not presenting test statistics or Finesse/Power ratings. The Recommended models are listed alphabetically by brand, as they are all equal in our eyes.
If we had unearthed even a single card on one of the ever-dwindling number of women’s Powder models, you’d read about them here. Very few, if any, mainstream companies catalog a women’s Powder model (>113mm waist) anymore, as small-batch suppliers meet what limited demand exists.
The women’s Big Mountain field is inextricably entwined with its unisex cousins, as this infinitesimal slice of the market doesn’t consume enough units to merit women-specific spin-offs. Fortunately for all concerned, men’s Big Mountain skis have already been put on a carbon-rich diet, the same regimen required to create a women’s ski. What’s good for the goose has already been built for the gander.
For several seasons we’ve bemoaned the absence of test card data on women’s Big Mountain skis and, sad to say, nothing has happened in the last year to change our tune. We still didn’t get enough data to post so much as a wild conjecture about skis we strongly suspect are quite good, such as the Nordica Santa Ana 110 and Völkl 100 Eight. Even the five skis that have more than single-card support didn’t reap enough results to rate them. This is why there are neither Power nor Finesse scores provided for Women’s Big Mountain models.
The Line Pandora 104 is a paean to the merits of simplicity when it comes to making wide skis for women. An all-aspen core and fiberglass laminates reinforced with carbon stringers – with the memorable moniker Carbon Magic Fingers – in a cap construction with a dash of square sidewall underfoot is nearly all you need to know about its composition and construction. A striated topskin designed to shed snow is a nice touch that helps keep the Pandora 104 light by ditching any pow that tries to hitch a ride. Becca Pierce from Bobo’s raved about the Pandora’s winning personality after sending it through piles of soupy spring snow. “Absolutely perfect for these slushy spring conditions!”
Even though Salomon gave the QST Stella 106 a significant boost in edging power last season, the French brand again raised its performance ceiling for 19/20. It reconfigured its construction by switching the roles played by basalt and flax, so basalt is now entwined with carbon in a bundle of braids while the flax flies solo in its own mat underfoot. This switcheroo creates a ski that’s at once lighter and stronger on edge than ever. To give it even more on-trail stability, Salomon trimmed its tail flare and tightened up the Stella’s turn radius (from 20m to 17m @ 167cm).
The Rossignol Soul 7 HD W isn’t similar to the most popular Big Mountain ski of the last decade, it’s identical to it. Part of this model’s enduring appeal is the allure of its Air Tip design that decorates the shovel with filigree that appears jewel-like when illuminated from behind. Like a potential date who’s both brainy and attractive, the looks draw you in but it’s the substance that makes you stay. All the real action in the Soul 7 HD W happens in the camber pocket underfoot. The roughly medium-radius (16m @ 164cm) sidecut ends where the tip and tail rocker begin, effectively consigning the lovely tip to the simple assignment of keeping its nose out of the snow. Right behind the eye-candy shovel is a long fiberglass arch, loaded with energy. When the skier compresses the camber line at the bottom of a powder turn, the glass deforms;
The new Völkl Secret 102 should not be mistaken for a set of training wheels. If you don’t have the requisite technical skiing skills, the Secret 102 can sense this shortcoming the way German shepherds can smell fear. As you digest the contents of Perry Schaffner’s critique of the Secret 102, cited below, please remember she’s fresh from a collegiate racing career and is an active coach who crushes every turn as if it owed her money. “This is a great powder/off piste ski. Really carries speed well. I skied the top in the choppy powder [at Snow Basin, UT] and it cut through it fairly well. Additionally, it was surprisingly lively on the groomed snow. Obviously a little more challenging to ski it in groomers since it is fairly wide under foot. I think this is a great ski if you mainly ski powder with some random days of
The defining feature of the Sheeva 10 is also its most obvious, a top layer of Titanal that runs virtually edge to edge underfoot and tapers to a central tongue that terminates halfway up the forebody and down towards the tail. The partial laminate of metal simultaneously serves two purposes: it magnifies torsional strength where it’s widest while allowing the rest of the ski to go with the flow. The tapered tip isn’t itching to dip into a turn and the tail isn’t the clinging type. This freedom to deflect helps the Sheeva 10 to drift over ratty terrain as if it were level. The Sheeva 10’s ability to deliver the stability of a metal ski and the playfulness and ease of glass and carbon in a single package is recreated in a larger format, the Sheeva 11 (140/112/130). While in the Big Mountain world greater girth is sometime associated