An Ode to Skinny Skis
Are your skis the best tool for the season you want, or the season you have? An impassioned argument for thin-waisted planks.
When I say the skiing was icy, I don’t mean your standard East Coast edge-skittering hardpack. I mean ice. Ice ice. Frozen water. Inches of it. Peppered in little bumps, like the bumps that stood on my forearms when later I told people what happened last spring on the summit of the tallest mountain in Vermont. I watched two friends ski down first. They looked like toy ships on uncertain seas—heaving starboard, falling portside, too much in the bow, sinking in the stern—but they didn’t capsize. When I jump-turned down into the slope, though, my skis blew right out from under me on one of those damn bumps. I started sliding fast and I couldn’t get my skis to bite, so I summoned all my animal instincts to keep them below me, where they scuffed the bumpy ice and regulated my descent to the little tree downhill and the big cliff beyond.
But I hit the tree and stopped.
That day I had on powder skis by East Coast standards, that were 98 millimeters underfoot. For two decades now, the American skier has been irrationally gripped with powder fever. Shane McConkey (may he rest in peace) was the harbinger. He reversed the historic trend of manufacturing skis with more sidecut and camber when he sketched a design for the first true powder skis, the Volant Spatulas, on a bar napkin in 1996. In 2001, he tried out the first prototype in New Zealand on wet, heavy snow. The rest of the pros on the trip were flailing, but he was flying, and his performance blew the industry away.
McConkey’s skis were shaped in precisely the opposite dimensions of every other ski at the time: they had fat waists, a reversed sidecut, and zero camber. Skis with this geometry, McConkey proved, rip in powder, and that’s why you see iterations of these obese boards today beneath the feet of so many skiers, even when the snow is firm. “They’re trying to manifest their season,” says Mike Rogge, an editor at Mountain Gazette magazine and a former editor at Powder.
But people are drawn to powder skis even on days when they’d be better equipped on their thinner-waisted sisters, Rogge said, in part because ski magazines and their Instagram feeds feature pros in powder on powder skis.
Powder skis, he says, are a specialized tool, just like skinny skis. But people are drawn to powder skis even on days when they’d be better equipped on their thinner-waisted sisters, in part because ski magazines and their Instagram feeds feature pros in powder on powder skis. Everyone, it seems, is an optimist. And the market reflects this. Last season, sales of skis with widths between 101 and 110 millimeters underfoot grew 10 percent, faster than any other category, according to data provided by the NPD Group.
Now, I’m not saying go hawk your fatties. What I am saying, though, is go tromp on over to that mirror there, look deeply within, and ask yourself, “Honestly, am I best served on most days by powder skis?”
“I don’t think it’s one or the other,” says Rogge. “You can never really have too many skis, and that, to me, is part of being a skier. You want to build the quiver that makes your season the most fun.”
For weeks after my slide, the only lesson I could muster was that a full slope of ice made for bad skiing, not that my skis were too wide for the conditions. But I have since moved back out west, to southwestern Colorado, where the distances between places are great and those distances can be harrowing. Traveling on skis through such lonely spaces has shifted my perspective. I understand now that when the slope is steep and firm, skiing can be dangerous if you’re unprepared. My friends were prepared on the day I slid; they were on skinny skis with sharp edges, skis with leverage and bite, skis, it seems to me now, that are less a toy for pleasure and more a tool for safe passage. I’ve since looked into the mirror, and I know my answer: I am not best served every day on powder skis.
So last fall I bought a pair of skinny skis.
A ski is either a buoy or a blade. It floats or it cuts. None do both well. Powder skis, which must float, achieve buoyancy mainly by sheer surface area, but on corn or boilerplate or wind-whipped, sunbaked, supportable mank, a wide ski is a slow ski edge to edge. Your width underfoot also reduces leverage laterally, so a wide ski more easily blows out of turns. All that tends to make for a sluggish and imprecise ski, one that spreads like a butter knife, not one that cuts like a cleaver.
Of course, you don’t want skis to cut in powder. Those skis don’t float. They sink, and sinking in deep snow sucks. But you don’t sink on firm snow; in those conditions, you want a ski that cuts and tracks when you tilt it, not one that squabbles. The two defining traits of a ski that rails are more curvature along its edges and less distance between them. More sidecut—which gives a ski that hourglass shape—allows a pair to penetrate deeper in its tracks and shortens the turn radius, heightening those sweet, sweet G’s. By contrast, a thinner-waisted ski amplifies traction in a turn because it offers more leverage.
Skinny skis also snap edge to edge. It’s a different sensation than the feel-good, floaty vibes, brah, of bounding through powder like a dolphin rolling on dopamine. It’s more savage. You flick your ankles and instantly there you are, leaping into a new turn, loading onto a new set of edges, leaning in and hanging on and bracing with your quads and glutes and core against a force that wants to eject you, wants to break you. It’s not a dolphin you’re riding, it’s a bull.
But there are better authorities than me on carving. I only raced in high school. Take it from ski racer Bode Miller, who has won six Olympic gold medals. Carving is “one of the elements of skiing that is really, really fun. It’s primarily what I do,” he said, laughing, when I reached him by phone in Montana. And when it comes to carving, your ski choice makes “a huge, huge difference,” he said. With a fat ski, “you can make a slide GS turn, a slide slalom turn, and it’s, you know, playful, fun.” But when you angle a thin-waisted pair of skis sharply into a turn and dip deeply enough to fight the six or seven or eight G’s pulling on you, “it’s really like a whole new sport.”
No skis excel more at carving than skinny skis, and it is Miller’s goal to “softly nudge” people to try them. After all, he’s designing them (and other models) for the manufacturer Crosson. There’s just so much more to skiing that you’re missing if you don’t give skis thinner than 100 millimeters underfoot a chance, he said. But he acknowledges that it’s probably impossible to change the paradigm with so much market momentum behind fat-waisted skis, which is a shame. Many skiers haven’t ever truly carved. “I think it’s something that’s never, unfortunately, been shared,” he said.
My skinny skis are a pair of discounted 2020 Fischer Transalps mounted with ancient Dynafit Speed Radical bindings. They are 176 centimeters long and, conspicuously, 82 millimeters underfoot. They’re the skinniest skis I’ve owned as an adult, rivaling even what I rode when I was a kid and my dad plopped me on the best deals he found at ski swaps. They’re unsubstantial, and the first few times I skied them, before snow in southwestern Colorado had substantially accumulated, I was afraid, deep down, that skiers would think I was, too. They don’t scream fun. They whimper pragmatism, something few skiers really care about, it seems.
In late January, I finally tested my skinny skis in the conditions for which they’re designed: firm snow. That day, on groomers at Winter Park, much of the corduroy had been scraped clean by the afternoon. Bare patches shined with a white-blue almost-ice. I kicked in, rode to the top of Mary Jane, and the skinny skis kicked back.
They’re unsubstantial, and the first few times I skied them, before snow out here in southwestern Colorado had substantially accumulated, I was afraid, deep down, that skiers would think I was, too.
They vaulted from edge to edge to edge, and I could feel that gyroscopic tug as I cut unbroken lines from turn to turn to turn, accelerating on the low-angle groomer as islands of trees zipped by faster and faster and faster. They hammered twin tracks into the hard snow as the slope steepened and opened below me. I felt like a locomotive storming down the valley, fast because I was confident, confident because I was secure. The skinny skis cut where my powder skis would slide. The cutting quaked in my thighs, which were flexed, and I felt powerful.
Then I lost an edge.
As I slid sideways, still on my feet, I didn’t think about that spring slide last year on the summit of the tallest mountain in Vermont, because you don’t think in moments when you must act. I thought about it later, though. If, at Winter Park, I’d been on skis just 15 millimeters wider underfoot, with less edge-to-edge leverage, I could’ve continued sliding and, upon heaving my knees uphill in an effort to regain control, blown my edges out entirely, landing on my hip, catching a rogue edge, spinning upside down, losing skis, poles, and perhaps sailing into the trees. But I was on skinny skis that day, and when I pressed my knees into the slope, my edges caught, slamming me back into my track. I rocketed through my turn, grinning.