Skiers are not a homogenous lot.
The ski community includes Nordic jumpers, runners and biathletes alongside pipe and park denizens, co-mingled with backcountry enthusiasts, some of whom race up the mountain instead of down it. All of these activities require highly specialized gear. This brief treatise isn’t about any of these sub-cultures, but a primordial schism within the ranks of Alpine, resort-based skiers.
My daily encounters with the ski-seeking public – both online and in person – reveal that a wildly diverse population all self-describe as “expert.” There are experts who’ve skied every winter for 50 years and experts who somehow haven’t skied for the last 15. Many claimed to have raced in high school and virtually all profess the ability to navigate a double black diamond run.
Yet if you were to observe all these experts in action you’d realize instantly that a host of skill sets are in play. The most distinctive differences involve stance and how the skis are pressured. Many longtime skiers who consider their expertise a given deploy a narrow stance that looks lovely but inhibits their ability to achieve a high edge angle. Among the legion of experts are skiers who do little to pressure the ski, allowing their mass and momentum to apply force to the edge.
The flawless execution of Anna Veith, née Fenninger, captures the ineffable balance
between Power and Finesse properties.
In contrast to these types, skiers with a racing background use an unmistakable, wide-track stance with incessant forward pressure. The twin trenches they leave in their wake attest to a pilot who isn’t just standing on his or her skis, but working them. The defining trait of the Power skier is a stance that uses a stable upper body to anchor leg movements that send the feet far from the body’s midline.
Finesse skiers prefer to keep both feet more or less under their shoulders. Because it’s difficult to maintain a continuous carve from this position, most of their turns entail some skid or drift. The Finesse skier’s less dynamic movements conserve energy and exert less force, which suggests that a softer flexing ski will be more responsive for them than the stouter tool favored by the Power skier.
The point of drawing this distinction between Power and Finesse skiers is the two styles have different, even opposing, needs when it comes to ski selection. The Power skier craves snow connection while the Finesse skier will fare better if the connection is a little looser. The Power skier lives in the upper reaches of the recreational speed range; the Finesse skier is more comfortable at a relaxed speed.
The Power/Finesse divide is most significant in the All-Mountain genres, where waist widths range between 85mm-100mm. One reason the All-Mountain genres are so diverse is that they must serve a very wide swath of skier abilities and styles, from those first exploring off-trail conditions and those who ski little else. All-Mountain skis are expected to handle both firm/hard and soft/fluffy conditions, which means they must somehow blend the traits of race skis (on the Power end of the spectrum) with those of Powder skis (the Finesse end).
Race skis in all their many manifestations are so Power-oriented that to even rate them for Finesse properties seems as pointless as judging them for Off-Piste Performance. A parallel critique can be made of applying Power criteria to Powder and Big Mountain skis. To pick an obvious example, engaging the tip at the top of the turn is the Holy Grail for a racer and holy hell for the crud skier.
Because Power and Finesse properties are linked to terrain options and because terrain on big mountains can change significantly in the course of a day, it’s possible to want a Power ski in the morning and Finesse ski for the afternoon. I recently experienced just such an evolution while trying 3 different Head Kore models during a storm day at Mt. Rose. In early runs you could still feel the hard bottom, so the Kore 99 felt right at home in the mixed condition. As the snow fell ever deeper, I segued to 105 then 117 models, with each step magnifying the mellow qualities of drift that enabled me to nurse my aching pins to the final bell.
Such opportunities to adapt the Power/Finesse balance during the course of a day are rare. Most people must be content with a single pair of All-Mountain skis that must appear to strike just the right balance no matter what the snow condition. This is why the tenth and final test criterion on a Realskiers test card asks the evaluator to provide a score for Finesse/Power balance. The skis that embody the best qualities of both styles deliver the biggest performance envelope and the best chance to satisfy the eternal quest for the perfect ski.