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SKI’s gear experts are self proclaimed gearheads and know pretty much everything there is to know about the best gear on the market. In our “Ask the Gear Nerd” column, our gearheads help Active Pass members understand the nuances of ski performance to help them make informed purchasing decisions. Normally, you’d need to join Active Pass to benefit from their expert advise. But because we’re ski bums at heart who love a good freebie, this one’s on us.
When SKI publishes ski reviews and the annual Gear Guide, we often get a flurry of letters to the editor and social media comments from Eastern skiers who argue that our reviews are only helpful to skiers west of the Rockies. Their claim: The skis we classify as all-mountain or all-mountain wide (skis with 90mm-plus underfoot) may perform well out West, where the snow is soft and plentiful, but they would never hack it on Eastern slopes.
Is this true? SKI’s women’s gear editor, Jenny Wiegand, put that question to veteran SKI testers Kristi Brown Lovell and Mark Wallace. Brown, a former University of Vermont ski racer, calls Stowe, Vt. home; Wallace, also a former racer and founder of Parlor Skis in Boston, Mass., builds custom skis primarily for East Coast skiers. If anyone knows what skis get the job done on Eastern snow conditions, it’s these two.
JW: I know I live and ski in the Rockies now, but in college I raced all over the East Coast, so I know what the conditions and terrain look like out there. Granted, I was always on race skis when I skied back East; but knowing what skiing is like out there, and having tested hundreds of all-mountain and all-mountain wide skis, I think that some of these wider skis can totally hack it on Eastern slopes. Am I wrong?
MW: I have lots of opinions. First of all, let me just come right out and say that I’m a wide ski fan. But there are a couple of different ways to answer this question. I oppose this view that ice requires narrow skis. That is not totally accurate. I also oppose the view that conditions in New England are shitty.
I know that the East Coast Facebook commenters say that, we hear it [at Parlor]—it’s the narrative. But that’s such a narrow view of both the terrain and the snow conditions here. There are so many amazing pieces of skiing out here: chutes, trees, gullies, woods, high alpine in the backcountry. There’s a huge variety. So this idea that it’s all icy, manmade snow and narrow trails is partially true, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture.
JW: Wider skis typically have more rocker and less effective edge, and that’s not going to be great for ice. But a lot of wider skis now have less rocker and more traditional camber underfoot. So why wouldn’t these skis handle East Coast conditions? Is it because they’re just wider and you’re not skiing them on edge like you would a narrower ski, and that’s why you’re not gripping on ice?
KBL: I think that’s definitely part of it. When the pendulum swung back to wider skis in recent years, it did people who were trying to improve their skiing ability a disservice. We’re seeing a lot more sliding now—or buttering, shall we say. But that seems perfectly acceptable now, especially with a younger audience. I even try to do that a little more just to play or not have to be on edge all the time anymore, because it’s actually much easier and less combative on your knee, and just generally energy-wise. Now we’re seeing the pendulum swing back to narrower skis.
MW: I strongly believe that waist width is much more determined by skier style than by snow conditions. We have a lot of clients who ski 105mm-115mm underfoot as their New England daily drivers because of the terrain they are on; or because they ski with a more upright stance; they have a wider stance; they like the leverage; they don’t care about the lack of stability. At the same time, we have clients who ski the West Coast, who just cruise all day, who won’t go over the low-80mm waist width.
KBL: Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely skis out there that are wider—still under 110mm I would say, more like a 106mm—that are totally bomber. The Fischer Ranger 102, for example. That thing rips.
JW: Right, I disagree with the blanket statement that wide all-mountain skis can’t handle East Coast conditions. I understand that wider skis are clunkier and not necessarily the best tool for the job back East. But it’s a fallacy that wider all-mountain skis can’t cope on hardpack and groomers. I mean, take the Völk Secret 102, Elan Ripstick 106, or Rossignol Rallybird TI…
KBL: I love the Rallybird! Those skis are fun!
JW: And that’s a ski I could ski on the white ribbon of death during the early season and still have a great time. It charges. And if you know how to carve, you can definitely use that kind of ski on the East Coast. Am I wrong?
KBL: No, I agree. I tried the Rallybird back here. And coming from Rossignol, this is a whole different kind of ski.
JW: So is it fair to say that people who think they can’t ski wider skis back East either A) haven’t tried the new wider skis with bomber constructions, or B) don’t keep their edges tuned, or C) don’t know how to carve to get those skis to grip on ice?
MW: You used to race, I used to race—we know how to build high edge angles. If you can build high edge angles and good early pressure in your turns, the wider ski gives you more leverage in your turns and you have to do less work to make the same turn.
But if you don’t control the top of the turn well, and you come into the turn wanting that ski to come across the hill for you, then the width works against you, because you’re getting more edge angle all at once to bring you across the hill. Then the wider ski or lever may feel less stable, kick out on you, or chatter in the turn.
I can carve a 110mm reverse camber ski on hardpack, but does that mean everyone can? No, but I like it because I don’t have to do as much work. The ski does all the work. But that’s not true for every skier out there.
JW: So what’s the perfect width all-mountain ski for Eastern skiers?
KBL: I’d say around 88mm underfoot for the intermediate skier. For advanced, I’d say maybe the mid 90s, or low 100s if it’s a one-ski quiver.
MW: I don’t think waist width is the end-all-be-all. Mid-80s to mid- or high 90s is a very serviceable New England frontside ski. I would argue that construction is more relevant than width. There are wide skis that are not stable, and there are wide skis that are stable.
I think what makes a good, traditional New England ski is a ski that’s engineered to carve. It should have stability built into the philosophy and design of the ski. Whether it’s using metal, or using a narrower overall width, or adding camber to a ski that might not otherwise have it—if you’re not engineering a ski in a way to deal with more mixed snow conditions, it’s probably not going to perform as well. For example, we have the Parlor Cardinal Pro 102, which is a Titanal ski with camber underfoot, early rise, and a little bit of tail rocker. That thing—you can carve it anywhere. It’s built like a race ski, it’s just wider. But that ski will hold up out there.
That said, if you never go off the trail, which a lot of skiers don’t, and you feel like you’re not skiing powder or only ski powder for such a small percentage of your days that it’s not going to influence your purchasing decision, then for many skiers there are diminishing returns for going wider.
JW: What’s your daily driver back East?
KBL: It’s in the 90s. I played around with different skis this season. I was loving the Völkl Kenja 88 earlier this season, just because they have a more playful personality. They’ve got a lot of energy. The Völkl Aura is great, but I feel like I can do just as much on the Kenjas. Then the Völkl Blaze 94 and 106 came out, and I actually love the Blaze 106 more for me—and for skiing back East, wildly enough. Once it starts snowing, so like from February on, I’m on the Blaze 106 more often than not.
MW: If I don’t know what kind of conditions I’m going to get out here, I’m skiing the Parlor Cardinal Pro 102. For all the reasons we talked about: it’s got a lot of metal, it’s got camber, it’s still playful-ish, but if it is boilerplate, it carves turns and is super stable.
JW: These days, so many skis in the frontside and all-mountain categories are so versatile in terms of the terrain and snow conditions they can tackle, that waist width really comes down to personal preference. The narrower skis can hold their own off the groomers, and the wider ones blow my mind with how well they can carve on hardpack.
KBL: Exactly. It’s like, some of us have our favorite pair of jeans. But others have a couple of favorite pairs. It’s so personality-driven. Skiers just need to ask themselves: What do they really like to ski? One ski doesn’t fit all.Section divider
More Insights from the Gear Nerds
Frontside vs. All-Mountain Skis—What’s the Difference?
Truth is, the line can be blurry between these two ski categories since ski manufacturers started throwing everything they have at producing well-rounded and versatile skis in both. As a result, you can now find narrow all-mountain skis that also rail on groomers and frontside skis that can hold their own in crud. That said, there are still some key differences between frontside and all-mountain skis, the biggest being that frontside skis are primarily designed for on-trail performance, while all-mountain skis (even the narrower ones) are engineered to tackle conditions and terrain off the groomers.Section divider
Why Ladies Should Consider Longer Skis
Modern ski technology and construction, such as rocker profiles, have made longer skis much more accessible even to shorter skiers. And in most cases, the added length of the ski is a bonus. Whereas skis of yore without rocker used to ski true to their length because you skied the entire edge length, skis today tend to ski shorter than their length because the amount of effective edge is reduced by the rocker profile.Section divider
Why and How Does SKI Rank and Review “Value Skis”?
At SKI Test, brands can enter a second ski of their choice in any standard category—carving, frontside, all-mountain, all-mountain wide, and deep snow. The catch is that their entry must be priced at or under $650 MSRP (or around $750 MSRP with binding). These entries are then tested along with all of the regular-priced entries at the SKI Test and are scored the same way by our test crew. After the scores are tallied, the Value entries are ranked against other Value entries with a special equation. That scoring formula takes the ski’s score from testers, multiplies it by 1,000, and divides it by the price. This formula heavily emphasizes the price, which is why we also include the regular test score alongside the value score.