When I took the editorial reins at Realskiers.com roughly a decade ago, I instituted a classification system that divided the Alpine ski market into seven segments. Rather than depend on fuzzy skier types, I chose carefully selected bundles bounded strictly by waist width measurement. Nothing has happened in the last ten years to tamper with the essential accuracy and fairness of this method.
Of the seven genres identified in the Realskiers.com methodology – Non-FIS Race, Technical, Frontside, All-Mountain East, All-Mountain West, Big Mountain and Powder – three are all but invisible on the U.S. market. In this first installment of a two-part tale, I’ll explore how Technical, Non-FIS Race and Powder skis came to languish in anonymity in America and what forces keep them relevant despite this handicap.
The Technical category (waists 67mm-74mm) is a remnant of the bygone Golden Age of Carving. Twenty years ago, every brand had to have a collection of deep-sidecut models to remain credible. Over time, the other innovation of the era, super-fat powder skis, would lure Americans onto ever-wider models, eventually squeezing the Carving contingent down to a handful of refugees huddled in the Technical genre.
If the world had depended on the American market to maintain the viability of the Carving genre, it probably would have disappeared years ago. But while Americans fell into an abiding rapture over the possibility of skiing acres of uncut powder, Europe, and in particular the central corridor of western Europe that extends from southern Germany to northern Italy, remained in thrall to wall-to-wall groomers where they could hone their carving craft.
Why did a large part of Europe cling to Carving as the ideal while Americans couldn’t wait to abandon the concept in favor of the fiction of ever-present fresh snow? I’m sure there are many factors in play, but I’ll mention the three I think are most responsible for this schism.
Off-trail skiing in Europe is terrifying to the recreational skier. Off-piste skiing in central Europe hasn’t been sanitized for your protection. There are crevasses you could lose a moose in and avalanches that will annihilate anything in their path. The whole point of having a ski area is to create a safe space to play in. Only crazies like the French and Americans would even think of going OB.
Americans are dreamers who idealize freedom. Americans, by and large, have never met a boundary they didn’t want to cross. We don’t like being told what to do, yet we’re impatient to progress rapidly so we won’t be so dependent on prepared slopes. When we dream, we dream of powder, endless, bottomless powder that flies over both shoulders as we sink into it. That this condition is only rarely encountered in the real world doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Americans want to “graduate” to ever-fatter skis because their girth will compensate for the skier’s lack of skills. (If Americans were required to wear Technical skis in powder, they wouldn’t be so fond of the stuff.)
Americans don’t like being told what to do. So they don’t take lessons, of if they do, they abandon them as soon as they achieve modest proficiency. When the carving craze first swept over the European continent, it seemed like every man, woman and child went back to ski school to learn the new skill set. This did not happen in the U.S. Carving is a skill that has to be developed, but Americans have no patience for long-arc learning curves. They expect technology to provide a shortcut to competence, even excellence, as any commercial for golf clubs makes plain. Technical skis do indeed make carving easier than the pencil-shaped sticks of yore, but the pilot has to perform a series of subtle maneuvers to release their magic.
Despite these handicaps, the unisex Technical field still has a toehold in the American market, but the Women’s Technical cohort is on life support. To pick a prime example, Blizzard created women’s versions of its spectacular new Thunderbird R15 and R15 WB , but neither the Technical Phoenix R13 Ti nor its Frontside stablemate, the R14 Pro, will discover what life is like on this side of the pond. The demand simply isn’t there.
The fate of the Phoenix models is revelatory in a couple of ways. One, it serves as a reminder that the head of every Frontside women’s series we do see in the U.S. is very often a Technical ski we don’t see. To the ski supplier, the hard-snow women’s series forms a continuum from top to bottom, but the American ski buyer lops off the head because experience tells him or her that it won’t sell. This is why most of the skis sold to American women who ski groomers aren’t up to the same standard as the unisex offering.
It’s ironic that the women’s Technical genre should be so anemic in America, where one could argue the made-for-women movement has enjoyed the most traction. The ironic bit is that women’s Technical skis are probably the most adapted for women of any genre, yet they’ve been effectively exiled from the country that spawned them.
As has been noted in this space before, the gulf between true race gear and what civilians use has never been deeper or wider than it is today. One sign of this is that suppliers often have an entirely separate catalog for their Race collections. Note the use of the plural, as brands never have just one Race line. The brands most dedicated to racing offer row upon row of race incarnations, as abundant as shark teeth.
Civilians are mercifully spared from entering this maze, and are instead offered iterations that aren’t bound by FIS regulations, usually in just slalom and giant slalom versions. These Non-FIS Race skis use constructions very similar to the real deal, but are generally made a little softer so one doesn’t have to train year-round to be able to bend them.
If you don’t race, why should you bother to consider a Non-FIS Race model for your quiver? Because they are the best skis you can buy. Ski makers in Europe take racing very seriously and place an enormous premium on victory. They are never more invested in doing the best job possible than when creating their Race babies. On-snow and lab testing go on virtually non-stop, searching for the hundredth of a second that separates one podium placement from another.
Unfortunately, on-snow testing at the retail level – commonplace in other, more mainstream genres – is rare as hen’s teeth when it comes to the NFR category. At Realskiers.com, I’ve had to convene a small contingent of ex-racers to cull sufficient knowledge to write credible reviews (which hasn’t been possible since the pandemic hit). It’s an unusual genre to evaluate on-snow, as there are no jokers in the deck. In Realskiers’ parlance, every single one is a Power ski and all are extraordinary.
Which is not to say they all ski the same. Some seem as stout as the real deal, requiring total commitment from the pilot; others have an almost liquid agility that takes real athleticism to keep pace with. These skis don’t expect you to be an active racer, but they do expect you to be fit and competent. Posers will be revealed in short order.
But if you have the skills, oh boy. Which reminds me, there are no made-for-women race skis. The category is gender blind. At racing’s upper reaches, skis are athlete-specific, not gender-specific. To find a ski with this level of performance adapted for women one has to look in the Women’s Technical field, which as noted above, is anemic in America.
To qualify as a Powder model in Realskiers.com’s market segmentation, a model’s waist width must exceed 113mm. It’s not unusual for Powder skis to come in only one or two lengths, the first tip-off that manufacturers aren’t going to over-invest in a category with a pitifully small target market. But manufacturers have to be present in this segment for reasons related to why they’re in the racing game: eyeballs.
The star athletes who dominate the marquees at ski movies need specialized tools to out-run their own slough to the next precipice. (Please note that this generally isn’t a concern for in-resort skiers.) Once the manufacturer has committed the resources to making a new model for its athletes, it makes sense to build a short production run and put them in the catalog.
The one undeniable virtue of any and all Powder models is surface area, which translates into flotation. The very first Powder ski, Atomic’s Powder Magic, was created as a crutch for the clients of heli services who would be beaten to a pulp in an hour on skinny sticks, but could survive many more (billable) hours on a super-wide beam. The same principle is at work today, for heli services are perhaps the only place where Powder models are, to all intents and purposes, mandated.
While I would contend that all Powder models are more alike than they are different, there are nonetheless at least 3 distinct sub-species. Power Powder skis are meant for chargers who aren’t afraid to point ‘em. They encourage and reward aggression. Finesse models are more prevalent, as their mission is to make the whole enterprise easier and less exhausting. This less-work-more-play attitude also animates the third contingent, that I call The Naturals because they somehow – amazingly – don’t call attention to their girth, even when it’s 120mm underfoot.
Powder models are even more difficult to evaluate than Non-FIS Race skis, because pulling off a test in the right conditions is almost impossible to coordinate. It happens, but it’s pure serendipity when all the stars align. Fortunately, model turnover in the genre is slow, increasing the odds of getting on any given model in appropriate conditions.
One of the problems with the Powder ski segment from a commercial standpoint is that everyone along the distribution chain tends to own them for too long. What the supplier hoped he would sell in a single season, at most two, is still in the warehouse in year three. A similar fate awaits the Powder ski at the shop level; in low-snow years, they don’t go anywhere. (In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve broken the weather, making low-snow years the new normal.)
And the consumer likewise can keep his or her Powder ski in the locker for longer than a decade, and they’re still in no danger of wearing out. There are only so many skiers who really need a ski this wide, and most of these folks already have a pair.
The other overriding reason why suppliers can’t make a buck (or a euro) on their Powder models will be the subject of Part II of this diatribe, which I shall share with you, my Dear Readers and Listeners, next week.