Wide and Wonderful

Deep-six the midfats. Once you've floated on the luxury cruise liners that are today's powder skis, there's no turning back.

Published: September 2003

A bit optimistic of you, isn’t it, buying a powder ski? There are skiers who won’t buy snowblowers, afraid that the moment they do, they won’t see a flake for months. Youcould jinx us all. But you’re not the superstitious type, and now that you’ve had a taste of skimming over powder on your midfats, rather than struggling through it, you’re ready for the full-on toboggan.

Powder boards were once maligned as “cheater” skis. They’re still that, opening new realms of adventure to the out-of-shape and underskilled. But today, the sport’s boldest big-mountain rippers are going faster and landing bigger air than ever, thanks to the stability and float of wider skis. And once you’ve experienced the thrill of making longer, high-speed turns in trees or skiing out of craters below once-unthinkable cliff-drops, you’ll find you can live with the stigma.

What makes a good powder ski? Ask a guy whose job it is to know them all: Andy Anderson, head of product testing and procurement for Canadian Mountain Holidays heliskiing. “You want a fairly soft flex in the forebody, with minimal torsion,” Anderson says. “It should have a nice little kick in the tail section. And you don’t want a lot of sidecut, or the moment you twitch your knee the ski is going somewhere.”

There isn’t a powder ski made that Anderson and his CMH crew haven’t tested in the bottomless fluff of British Columbia. So far, Anderson says, they haven’t found anything to beat one of the originals, the Volkl Explosiv, which debuted in 1992, about the same time as Atomic’s Powder Plus and Volant’s Chubb. Other than a two-year stint as a twin-tip, the Explosiv hasn’t changed a bit: same shape (120-95-112) and same construction (Volkl’s burliest wood core and vertical sidewalls). In the world of ski design, that’s unheard-of continuity.

At the other end of the spectrum is the latest powder offering from Volant, the Spatula, which is as radical as it gets. It’s the brainchild of freeskier Shane McConkey, and it turns ski design inside out: reverse camber (the tip and tail curve upward off the snow) and reverse sidecut (widest at the waist). It looks like a waterski, and that’s fitting, considering the three-dimensional medium of powder has more in common with water than with packed snow. McConkey warns that the Spatula requires an all-new technique: Smear your turns, as you would frosting on a cake, rather than setting an edge. As you might surmise, theSpatula isn’t much fun on hardpack. Will it catch on? Volant admits that sales of the ski, in what is already a niche market, are limited, but adds that interest among shop employees, especially in powder-choked corners of ski country, has been huge.

There are many wide rides out there these days, and it’s tough to draw a line between pure powder skis and those that work on hardpack too. We’ve set the bar at 85-mm waists or wider and split them into three emerging subcategories: the truly huge, for adventurers looking to conquer the steep and wild with high speeds and big air; the twin-tips, for backcountry huckers who see fakie landings as part of their repertoire; and the sorta-wides, for the rest of us, who want maximum vertical on those powder days at the resort. Beware: In our opinion, they’re all just too fat to work well on groomers. But when the gods deliver the goods, you’ll be afloat in powder heaven.