Dueling Editors: Has ski design gone too far? Or do the innovations need to keep coming? This opinion originally published in the September 2015 issue (44.1). Shortly after the magazine landed on newsstands, the edit staff received an email from former POWDER editor Neil Stebbins (from 1975-1986) stating that John Stifter, another former POWDER editor (from 2012-2015) was the one to go too far. Readers needed a rebuttal. Read Stebbins’ refute to Stifter’s argument here.
Illustration by Kelly Halpin
"YOUR MOM AND I are going to ski with you today," said my dad over breakfast.
We awoke that morning at Snowbird, Utah, to 23 inches of fresh snow. Instead of prepping to gloat to my high school buddies back home about the huge pow day they were missing, I was forced to consider what was, at the time, unthinkable: skiing with my mom.
I nearly choked on my bagel. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you, me, and your mom will be skiing together," said my dad. "We rented these new fat skis, called Pocket Rockets, and the rental guys said we'd ski and feel like we're 20 years younger. So now we can keep up with you!"
Unfortunately, that ideal has been reduced to the point that ski manufacturers produce and market skis for the lowest common denominator. Which equates to little to no metal, superfluous rocker and honeycomb tips, and contrived sidecut profiles just for the sake of engineering.
Perhaps I should cherish the memories I have of skiing tracked-out powder off the Cirque with my parents. At the time, though, it felt like a nauseating blend of mowing the lawn, math homework, and being told I was grounded. While I watched eager shredders fly by, I waited for my parents to gingerly stem their way down the mountain with repeated tumbles. Granted, their foam-cored cheater skis did, in fact, augment their ability to get down the mountain faster while inducing a few ephemeral smiles. After all, that's the point of this pastime, right? To steal a few laughs, break up the monotony, and feel the release of it all?
Unfortunately, that ideal has been reduced to the point that ski manufacturers produce and market skis for the lowest common denominator. Which equates to little to no metal, superfluous rocker and honeycomb tips, and contrived sidecut profiles just for the sake of engineering. Consequently, fundamentals—rooted in Dick Durrance's hell-bent-for-leather fall-line approach or Dolores LaChapelle's graceful powder skiing style—have gone the way of my high school math skills, replaced by technologies meant for, well, moms (or rather, those people who, however wonderful they are, don't ski all the time). The changing tide acts as hockey-stop spray right to the bronzed-faced purists that have taught us all the beauty of a proper turn. In short, due to banal tech developments, the majority of us have forgotten how to ski.
How did this happen? It's a circuitous history, no doubt. In 1947, Howard Head noticed a disturbing trend—analogous to the current vogue infecting the pure form of the turn—with the all-wood (ash and hickory predominately) and negligible camber skis of the day. An aeronautical engineer, Head implemented aluminum into a sandwich-like core to lighten the load and steel edges that ran the length of the ski to improve durability and stiffness. Similar to our contemporary machinations, "the metal ski helped to create a new era in skiing because it made possible for thousands of recreational, weekend, and nonathletic skiers the pleasure of advanced skiing, easy turning, a measure of deep snow skill, and a durable product," according to SKI Magazine's "Encyclopedia of Skiing," published in 1970.
Watch any ski movie from the last five years and you'll see professionals riding in the backseat, popping wheelies instead of stomping airs, and smearing their way down the entire mountain without putting the ski on edge.
Of course, ski tech stagnated until the mid to late '90s when engineers (finally) realized the benefits of a wider surface area and hourglass shapes, in addition to twin tips and rocker and reverse sidecuts (thank you, Shane!). And without fail, the industry initially blew it, reverting to its antiquated techy lexicon by marketing the latest sidecut advancements as parabolic. Fortunately, these new shapes and sizes birthed one of the greatest revolutions in the sport, allowing for an injection of innovation that, arguably, saved skiing. Rocker and early rise spawned new styles of powder skiing; twin tips made way for a litany of new possibilities while skiing or landing or taking off backward; sidecut and progressive shapes permitted skis to always be on edge, giving skiers the ability to trench a groomer and initiate and exit a turn easier and more enjoyable than ever; and new constructions that included fiberglass, carbon, lighter wood, and even foam. Together, new skis made the young skier excited again, the old skier young again, and provided a more efficient touring experience.
But just like other modern advancements, these supposed conveniences have gone too far. Without rocker, carbon, or capped sidewalls, I flounder in powder and can't tour as far or spin as fast. Watch any ski movie from the last five years and you'll see professionals riding in the backseat, popping wheelies instead of stomping airs, and smearing their way down the entire mountain without putting the ski on edge. Or they just survive getting bucked from one marshmallow pillow to the next. Clearly, they're getting away with it, so what's the problem, right? It's all in the name of fun, and if someone likes to smear and butter and haul ass in the backseat, then that's their prerogative.
I'm not advocating for every ski to be a World Cup DH board that requires you to power clean 500 pounds. But I'm also not going to disregard the graces our elders labored to teach us by clumsily skiing my way down the mountain on a ski designed for Betty Crocker or four feet of perfect Alaskan pow. Proper ski-turning style looks like Lionel Messi kicking a soccer ball—effortless and elegant. So if you aspire to ski like the equivalent of elevator jazz rather than John Coltrane, then you should probably invest in Styrofoam as the next great ski core. Or never ski anything but powder.
We all deserve skis that can pivot and respond when weighting or unweighting while negotiating powder, crud, hardpack, or halfpipe ditch. Ultimately, skis should drive, not merely skid.
Last season, while skiing one of the 300-plus skis featured at Powder Week, my skiing regressed. I stemmed down like my mom instead of driving the ski from a neutral stance and channeling my old racing coach (hands forward, Stifter!). Despite the progressive camber profile, carbon inserts, and lightweight tip construction, every time I attempted to roll the ski on edge and bend it and angulate in homage to five-discipline-race-master Marc Girardelli or big-mountain slayer Eric Hjorleifson, I smeared the 107-millimeter wood-cored ski instead. I know there are a lot of skiers who did not have the racing curriculum spoon-fed to them like me, and as skiing style has changed to include smearing and buttering, so too has the equipment. But we all deserve skis that can pivot and respond when weighting or unweighting while negotiating powder, crud, hardpack, or halfpipe ditch. Ultimately, skis should drive, not merely skid.
So who's at fault? The engineer, marketer, or me? Probably all three. A handful of ski companies produce gimmicky incarnations that have spawned the reactionary Anti Donkey Ball Rocker Society. We don't need 500 millimeters of tip rocker for shredding Alta's Eagle Nest. Rather, we need an effective edge and less tip flap. Unfortunately, ski engineers seem tasked with making dumbed-down skis instead of balanced sidecut with traditional camber underfoot, supple tip rocker and a bit in the tail, vertical sidewalls, and a sandwich laminate that includes wood and metal, but not carbon.
I don't blame Mike Douglas and his Salomon brethren for inventing the Pocket Rocket. It made skiing more fun, increased skier visits, and helped keep our lifts running and mozzarella sticks fried. But in our best efforts to evolve, we've devolved into a myopic state of ski design and engineering. While others find joy in skiing in the backseat, I'll continue to indulge on Mikaela Shiffrin YouTube clips, waxing nostalgic about Stein Eriksen's superior style, and pining to ski with Eriksen's modern-day contemporary, Chris Tatsuno. And, of course, attempt to overcome the 15-year-old humiliation of skiing with my mom.
POWDER Executive Producer JOHN STIFTER grew up skiing and racing at Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho. Read the rebuttal to Stifter’s argument here.