I like to think of myself as a conversational generalist. That is to say, I know a little about a lot of things, maximizing the chance that I can go at least a minute or two with someone before things become awkwardly silent, plus I get to ask what I hope are intelligent questions in lieu of making a genuine contribution to esoteric conversations. For this reason, I was mildly surprised to realize recently that, despite being a ski instructor of 13-going-on-14-years, I knew virtually nothing about ski equipment.
It’s actually pretty common. Most people who buy their boots, boards and bindings haven’t the foggiest idea what the difference is between brands like Atomic and K2, are afraid to try anything from Volkl over not knowing how to pronounce the name, and don’t quite realize that skis aren’t like clothes. Every model comes in one design only – colour-coordination is not an option. To quote a friend of mine when I drew this fact to his attention: “There are different kinds of skis?”
I’ve only owned two pairs of skis in my life, and I’ve gotten the same six to seven years of use out of each. Both times, I followed the Ski Buyer’s Standard ApproachTM, which is to describe vaguely how I ski, have the salesman narrow my options down to two, and then to pick one arbitrarily. This year, I wanted to be informed. I wanted to research. I have no idea if my journey from equipment neophyte to equipment literati is universal, but it felt organic to me. So, without further ado, I present the Beginner’s Guide to Buying Skis (Assuming You Have the Time, Money and Interest – If Not, Just Do What the Sales Guy Tells You).
BGBS(AYHTMI-INJDWSGTY) Step One: Test ride
Renting gear at the ski hill itself isn’t much of an option for me – resorts in Ontario don’t typically stock the good stuff. A lot of bigger resorts are surrounded by pro shops, however, and they’re happy to let you take out a pair of demonstration skis for the day. And for a price. In my case, Squire John’s in Collingwood, Ontario, is my shop of choice if only because of its reputation, and the fact that you can put the cost of up to three rentals towards your eventual purchase.
(It was at this point that I reflected on how I’ve kept up my ski instructing largely as a means to fund my few days of recreational skiing, because wow, this is not a cheap sport. In a good season, I get out on my own maybe three times, compared to 10 for professional purposes.)
If you’re lucky, the hill you’re at will have a ‘demo day’ where pro shops set up tents near the chalet and lend out skis for free. The loan is only for an hour or so, but it’s enough to give you a taste.
BGBS(AYHTMI-INJDWSGTY) Step Two: Take notes
The tricky part of this process for me was analyzing the gear instead of my abilities. As skiers, we focus on our bodies and skills – the skis and boots are just the things we put on our feet. Without ever saying so explicitly, the message from instructors is that we affect our skis, not the other way around. I think that’s why, more than any other reason, I simply had no idea what to make of the Head i.Supershape Magnums I took from a demo tent for an hour. I thought they were grippier on ice than my five-year-old Nordica boards (Hot Rod Nitrous model, FYI), but wasn’t sure.
The best thing to do is take notes. How did you ski on the new gear? Was turning easier or harder? How about carving? Even if you’re not sure whether to blame yourself or the skis, write it down. The next time you take out a pair of demos, you’ll start to see patterns emerge, and the differences between models will become apparent. You may just be having a rotten day on the slopes, but you’ll still notice what’s easier and harder to accomplish. Same goes for an awesome day when you can feel you’d do better if it weren’t for the lead weights on your feet.
My first set of notes was vague: “Better on ice than my current skis” was all I could jot down about the Heads. Then I tried the Rossingol Pursuit 18 and Pursuit 16 back to back, and had more to say. “18s are great on ice/cruddy conditions. Very smooth, minimal vibrations. Smooth transition from turn to turn. 16s have smooth transitions but grip less on ice. They vibrate more.” A pair of Fischer World Cup RC skis elicited notes like “Very stable; amazing carved turns. The skis resist making shorter turns; I feel clumsy.”
Rather than focusing on my own skill set, I just paid attention to how I skied that day. Was it easy? Was it hard? Was it fun? Through my notes, the evidence took shape before me. The inescapable verdict was that equipment plays a huge role in performance.
BGBS(AYHTMI-INJDWSGTY) Step Three: Research
Now that I had four different demos under my belt, I figured it was time to educate myself on the ski technology itself. That is to say, what about its construction made me ski the way I did? I had the what, but lacked the why and how.
I thought that the manufacturer websites would be a good place to start, but holy cow was that a mistake. The industry at large has mostly cottoned on to the fact that people don’t do the research I was trying to, and very few websites have useful information. Nordica is the worst offender, using an annoying all-caps font for empty (and tacky) copywriting like “absolutely dripping with cutting-edge technology” and “designed to meet the expectations of the most demanding skiers.” Atomic is similarly unhelpful, with lines like “power, precision and versatility for everywhere in the resort.” Thanks a bunch. I am enlightened.
Rossingol is far and away the best, with descriptions that try very hard to explain who would want to use each model. Rossi provides technical details and really, earnestly wants you to know about how the design would make me feel on the hill, but it still had a regrettable in-crowd vibe with jargon I couldn’t quite grasp. Elan and Fischer both have nifty Product Finder functions that ask you questions to help narrow down their selection, but true insight is hard to come by.
In the end, I just walked into a ski store and talked to a salesman. Sales staff at pro shops know their stuff, and the guy I talked to was happy to help, even though I said up front I had no plans to buy that day. He was able to bridge the gap between bragging about new technology (as the manufacturers do) and explaining how it actually works. The fact that I went in with my testing notes was huge – doing so put his abstract technical explanations into an experiential context, and I walked away much more informed for my troubles.
I’ll be the first to say that my journey into the world of equipment this season was quite unnecessary. Again, most people on the slopes (even instructors like me) ski and teach just fine without knowing what “rocker technology” is or understanding why some skis handle vibration better than others. And as the salesman told me, there are a ton of skis out there that fit my basic profile, and nine times out of 10 I wouldn’t notice a huge difference between them.
But you know what? I have a new appreciation for where I am as a skier because the boards I rode all came with unique demands and limitations. The Rossi Pursuit 16s are meant for a slightly less technical rider, and they became unstable when I really tried to get a powerful carve going. I felt like a fricking wizard on the 18s, like nothing could stop me, while the Fischer World Cup RCs demanded more edging finesse than I have to offer and left me struggling all day. Any skier who loves the 16s would feel similarly overwhelmed by my 18s. Realizing this made me feel momentarily inadequate, as though being better suited to the 18s than a more stringent model was some kind of slight against me. But you don’t get to the future without owning the present, and come spring (when everything goes on sale, natch), I’ll be the proud owner of my new Pursuit 18s, ready to continue working my way up the gear chain. And I won’t be able to wait for next season.