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Utah Ski Testing

About 18 inches of fresh snow fell on Salt Lake City on Monday, which was welcomed news for those of us in the outdoor industry converging on the city for one of the big equipment events of the year: the Outdoor Retailer Winter Show. All that fresh snow might be Tantalus’ temptation had we been trapped in the city, but many of us arriving for the show also tuck some skiing in around the edges of the big event.

One way to ‘tuck in’ some skiing is to attend the on-snow demos the day before the main show begins. Here new equipment is brought up to one of the surrounding resorts and we dirtbag skiers, drawn to the prospects of skiing someone else’s gear all day, are attracted like flies to honey. In principle this sounds like an envious opportunity; in actuality it’s usually an expensive mistake to spend a day skiing on new equipment that you’re going to like a whole lot better than your own decade-old gear.

Today I concentrated on what I consider to be true backcountry skis. Many boards billed as ‘backcountry’ skis are burdensome beasts. Yeah, they might be a bit lighter than resort skis, but barely. These entries are often called ‘Sidecountry’ skis or ‘Slackcountry’ skis because people using them tend to use the lifts of a resort to gain the bulk of their elevation before working sideways or climbing higher in search of fresh snow.

Nothing wrong with that strategy, but if you’re looking for skis that will primarily be powered uphill by human-powered quads rather than petrol-powered quads, a light ski has its virtues. Lightness, however, isn’t the be-all and end-all of a ski. If you want your ski carving through dense snow and crud, rather than deflecting erratically whenever it hits an inconsistency, the ski needs some mass. Think about driving a nail, it’s a near impossible job with a 6-ounce hammer and downright easy with a 22-ounce hammer.

So a ski that tours well uphill (light) but also skis downhill well (heavy) is a compromised creature, a gazelle blended with a hippo… and I was looking for the best Gazappo (or Hippazelle) going.  In previous years, skis that were roughly 80mm under foot, 120mm in the shovel, and 107mm in the tail were considered the best all-mountain profile for ski touring. This provided a ski that didn’t sink too much (when breaking snow or descending powder), delivered good hard-snow performance (ice), and didn’t weigh too much. But the market is going fatter as skiers are finding that tortionally stiff wide skis are still delivering good hard-snow performance. So the motto this year about all-mountains skis is: ‘90 is the new 80’ (i.e., 90mm-waisted skis are replacing 80mm-waisted skis as a favored all-mountain ski).

As far as downhill performance is concerned anyway. But does this still apply to touring skis where legpower is the engine propelling you up? Is fatter better? I'm not fully convinced, but today I felt my momentum flowing away from the 80s toward the 90s. Previously I have thought of the K2 Shuksan (119/78/105mm) as a good all-around platform and, at 1600 grams per ski, an acceptable compromise in weight, meaning the ski is light but not too light. I’ve skied many lighter skis than the Shuksan that have served me better given good snow conditions, yet if I were limited to owning just one ski for all my backcountry tours, something similar to the Shuksan would top my list.

Today, I skied the Baker Superlight (90mm underfoot and about the same weight as the Shuksan). I also skied the Goode 95 (95 mm underfoot), the G3 Saint (95 mm underfoot and the Dynafit Manaslu (95 mm underfoot). These skis were 10 to 15 mm wider than the Shuksan but most (because they are made with lighter materials that flex well longitudinally and yet are stiff tortionally) still ski great. The wider platform also lets you use a shorter ski, providing another way to make the skis no heavier and perhaps even lighter than 80mm skis.

And, unfortunately, all these skis had me thinking about upgrading my touring skis. They were fabulously fun to ski in Utah powder, were easier to control in the deep snow than the Shuksan (which I also skied for a comparison), they carved on the groomers well, and they handled the bumps decently. The new-school rippers with the mach-schnell attitude of devouring huge descents with a few GS turns would find the sticks I tested too light to dampen the forces they generate, but for ski tourers who aren't transported to the top of a mountain by helicopter (like virtually everyone we see in ski films), who enjoy milking turns from the terrain they’ve climbed, and who don’t want to descend in three seconds that which took them three hours to climb, these lightweight 90mm-waisted skis may, in deed, be the new 80.


(Note: Over the winter and spring as we ski the new breed of lightweight 90mm-waisted skis in more conditions, we’ll continue to report on their performance. So far, we're most excited about the K2 Baker Superlight and the Dynafit Manaslu.)