Skis That Take a Turn for the Better

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

Skis That Take a Turn for the Better

Between hourglass, fat, and all-mountain boards, there's an easy way down every run
By Glenn Randall

I'm not sure whether you can peg it to a dip on the growth charts or competition from the upstart snowboarding industry, but downhill skis are currently undergoing more than a little makeover. Instead of serving up old technologies behind another set of pretty new topskins, ski manufacturers have put their products through some surgery, and the results are encouraging: With a tuck here, a pinch there, or some fleshing out, skis have become easier to use while delivering better performance. Of course, it doesn't hurt that a board cutting a radical figure will garner as much lift-line attention as one with a new paint job.

There are basically three ski shapes to choose from, and deciding which one is right for you depends on how you like to get down the mountain: One skier's slalom run is another's downhill; one's junk is another's powder. In general, all-mountain and giant-slalom skis are being built with more sidecut--that is, a greater degree of curve to the edges--to make initiating and carving turns on them easier. A few additional millimeters taken out of the waist and added to the tip and tail of a rock-steady GS ski can make it downright snappy. Increase the sidecut more--producing a wild-looking, curvaceous breed known as hourglass skis--and the boards will allow just about any skier to carve turn after turn. Hourglass skis are the sport's own version of power steering.

On the other hand, the adoringly termed fat ski, which continues to get squatter, is skiing's answer to a Cadillac ride. Fats have at least 20 percent more surface area than traditional skis, together with relatively little sidecut, so that even the inexperienced powder-goer can float over bottomless fluff or crud. As fat skis have become wider, they've also become shorter to make turning easier, but I can't endorse them for all parts of the mountain. They're perfect for anyone who likes to spend his or her time in-bounds but off-piste.

In hope of sussing out the best of the new breeds, I skied last spring on a bevy of all three morphs. The new models in general, and my choices in particular, undoubtedly make skiing more enjoyable. Prices listed are suggested retail, but most shops will offer the same gear for at least 15 percent less.


Adding a little flare
Innovation rules even among skis that at first glance appear conventional. Over the last five years almost every manufacturer has adopted cap construction--some 90 percent of downhill skis now feature a one-piece topskin and sidewalls--so they've had to turn elsewhere in their game of one-upmanship: damping systems. Designed to subtly smooth out the ride and thus keep skis in constant contact with the snow, some damping systems are nothing more than shock-absorbing materials laminated into the ski, while others are elaborate suspensions sitting right on the surface. The other advance--that increased sidecut--gives you heightened responsiveness at very little cost to stability.

Such changes have perhaps made no greater impact than on giant-slalom skis. Whereas the stable but speed-happy GS boards of the past were only for racers, the latest offerings combine improved turning ability with unparalleled steadiness. The best GS ski I've come across is Dynastar's Coupe G9 ($625): A deep-dish sidecut and even flex make the Dynastar easy to turn, even at moderate speeds. When I pointed the boards downhill I soon found myself going faster than I thought possible--and still feeling good about it, thanks to the ski's wide tip and tail and shock-absorbing composite fiber materials. Only in the bumps does the Coupe G9 still feel too stiff.

Slightly more benevolent, and therefore potentially more appealing to skiers who don't have unlimited time to spend on the slopes, is the all-mountain ski. All-mountain skis have GS-like sidecuts and more flex; I can bring all-mountain boards around faster, which keeps me out of trouble in tight places. Atomic's ATC 3 ($529) and K2's MSL ($589) ski like chips off the same cap: Neither had the absolute edge-holding ability of a slalom ski or the Mach-one steadiness of a GS board, but with nearly identical sidecuts and forgiving wood-core constructions they both made easy work of some narrow chutes. These skis also held their own when I put the hammer down--both have sophisticated damping systems.

My favorite all-mountain ski, however, is Salomon's Prolink EXP Demonstration. For the admittedly stiff $700 price, you get short-turn ability plus a unique and effective damping system: Shallow cylinders just fore and aft of the bindings house thin pistons that impact a shock-absorbing material when the ski flexes. The system doesn't deaden the ski so much as it reduces hardpack chatter. Worth mention, too, is Rossignol's Mtn. Viper X ($635), an all-mountain ski that splits the difference between its relatively soft peers and a full-blown GS racer. It's best for cruising the wide-open steeps.


No need to throw your weight around
Your first thought upon seeing an hourglass ski is that it's straight out of a Looney Tunes film festival--the most extreme models have radical sidecuts when compared to those of typical GS skis. But what the huge arcs cut into either side of the board give you is unbeatable turning ability. Step into the skis, head down a groomed run, and unweighting becomes obsolete--just tip the ski on edge and you'll carve a perfect turn. The cloud hovering over hourglass skis is that so much sidecut makes them a little harder to track straight, something more advanced skiers will worry about when their skis are running flat and fast.

The S Ski Performer ($475) and the Elan SCX Monoblock ($500) are cut on the extreme end of the hourglass spectrum; the Elan is an inch wider than many GS skis at the tip and tail, but narrower in the waist. The nimble Performer--the manufacturer recommends that you buy its skis on the shorter side--is fine for those who love to cruise groomed blues all day. Elan's radical wood-and-fiberglass SCX Monoblock is worthy if you're trying to break free of skidded turns. Its whopping 56-millimeter difference between tip and waist always puts you on edge, literally and figuratively: When you're not carving on it, it feels nervous. You can grow out of the SCX, so consider renting it as a learning tool or buying it if you've got a long line of kids to teach.

The hourglass ski that I gave the heaviest consideration is Head's Cyber 24X ($550). Because its tip and tail are about 10 percent wider than those of a typical GS ski, you get some added float in loose snow and right-now turning ability. What you don't get is the nervous wandering when you're running flat. With neoprene rubber sheets inside the ski to damp the vibrations as well as external ridges to keep the narrow-waisted board torsionally stiff, the Cyber 24X made carving up the whole mountain enjoyable when I was in a less than gung-ho mood.


Floundering is not allowed
These are skis that have gone on a major chocolate binge: They're wide from tip to tail--so wide that a pair of the most exaggerated fats set side by side has the ample girth of a snowboard. And they act like a snowboard, so skiers of all abilities can surf over anything that isn't packed. The obvious tradeoff is that fat skis are difficult to turn on hardpack because moving from edge to edge takes a long time. If you're considering fat boards, remember to buy shorter than you're accustomed to--the 180-centimeter Rossignol Axiom ($520), for example, has more surface area than a gigantic, 220-centimeter downhill racing ski.

The Völkl Snow Ranger ($645) is about 20 percent wider than a conventional ski, but I still didn't believe that that would be enough to get me through some wicked spring glop. It was, and I did, actually enjoying the run and looking for more. Two pieces of metal in the ski made of a titanium and aluminum alloy help dampen the harsh ride you might encounter in hard crud. Figuring that if wide was good, wider had to better, I ventured into Breckenridge's hike-access terrain with the Axiom, which is wide--more than 25 percent wider than the Snow Ranger. I could punch a hole a foot deep into the mush and crust, but the lightweight, foam-core Axiom just wouldn't sink, and I danced in conditions where others floundered. It was no fun on the hard stuff, but if you can keep the Rossi to the terrain less traveled--or even venture to undisturbed slopes in a helicopter--your ski dollars will have been well spent.

Glenn Randall is an Outside correspondent who has been skiing for 20 years and writing about gear for the last 15.

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