Date: February 3, 2012
Ski: 2011-12 Nordica Hell & Back, 169cm, 135-98-125 R17
Location: Vail, Colorado
Temperature: high teens and low twenties, F.
Terrain: mostly Blue Sky Basin, with a couple of runs in the back bowls, and a little bit of groomer skiing Snow Conditions: No significant snow in a week. Maybe an inch, at best, of new snow overnight. Back bowls area had re-frozen and were dust-on-crust. Frontside groomers were skied off in the late afternoon on the way back to the base. Snow in Blue Sky was a mix of well-preserved soft snow in the north-facing shade on Divide, Heavy Metal, and Pete’s; with some shallow, somewhat crusty crud in the more open areas of Champagne Glades and the Wuides.
Me: 49yo, 5'7", 135lbs, Level 8+/-, beer league racer, east coaster.
This is a very solid, stable, edgeable ski that handles groomers well for a fatty, and gives you confidence to charge through choppy conditions at speed in open terrain. For a lightweight guy like me it is not a playful or easygoing ski in the bumps or tight trees – at least not without the cushioning layer of fresh that I’d have liked to try it in.
I rented these skis in the late afternoon, in anticipation of a next-day storm. The storm came to Denver and the plains but never materialized in Summit County, where I was skiing with friends for the week. As things shook out with the weather, I would have been better off on my 85mm Sultans, but I’d already forked over the money and had the skis in the car, so decided it would be fun to try them anyway, and see how they fared in the thoroughly skied-out conditions that prevailed just about everywhere.
Props to Precision Ski and Golf in Frisco for providing immaculate skis with a first class tune. Recommendations from other Bears to visit that shop were right on the money.
Looking at the ski, there is significant early rise in the forebody, extending well back from the shovel. There is no rocker at all in the tail, and in fact it is exceptionally flat and square, without the slightest hint of a kick tail turn-up. A friend demo’d the Steadfast – a better choice for the day, as it turned out – and it was interesting to note a couple of obvious visual differences in profiles: There is significantly less tip rise on that ski, but the tail does have the little flip on the end. (I’m predisposed to like the kick tail on an all-mountain ski; I think it makes for smoother skiing in moguls, and I like the way you can back out of a dead end or pee break in the woods with confidence when the tail has a bit of a curl.) Subjectively, the Hell and Backs felt light – the Griffon rentals mounted on them did not look like they had as much heavy baggage as the typical demo binding.
First run was down Milt’s Face, with a mix of dust on edgeable crust and mild chunky crud. In these conditions the Nordicas were head-and-shoulders more fun than my regular skis. The width and the tip rocker helped make them feel very stable and confidence-inspiring, planning over and through the choppy riffles. I had no fear of piercing through a pile of who-knows-what and getting thrown forward. The theme of the day was established right from the first turns: These skis want you to make solid, GS-y turns, driving from the cuff and being patient. If you do that, you will be rewarded. I found them less natural in a couple of spots where minor bumps had formed, hinting at trouble to come. Subsequent runs in Tea Cup and through open trees in Over Yonder, in similar conditions, confirmed first impressions. At the bottom of Over Yonder, where the pitch steepens and abrupt moguls form as people funnel down to the base of the triple chair, I struggled to get the skis to come around quickly enough, and found myself pushed into the back seat several times by the firm flex pattern when encountering a trough at a sub-optimal angle.
Next came several trips through the Champagne Glade area of Blue Sky. In the upper part, skier left, the trees are tight and it was quite bumpy. The Hell & Backs just aren’t very quick or forgiving skis in these tight quarters with no powder. Obviously they’re a bit wide, which in my view makes it harder to finesse the edges with subtle gradations of slippage. More significantly, they were just too stiff for me, especially in the tails. My usual slithery, quick-turning mogul technique just did not work with these puppies. No zipper lines for me this day. I sorely missed the fluidity and slow-rebound feel of my Dynastars in this terrain. On the other hand, as I adapted my skiing to the skis, and gravitated more toward skier right, where the trees become very scattered, I did find that I was able to sail along at speed in a way that my Sultans do not support so well, especially where significant bumps had not yet formed. That was really, really fun.
We spent quite a bit of time yo-yoing on Divide, which had the best, least transformed snow. In a very few places I did get into a bit of 6” deep nearly-untracked, and could begin to see how the skis would be a lot of fun in those conditions, as long as there was a little elbow room. On the upper sections of the run, I had no issues, but as it steepened and became more bumped up, I had to resort to making big, round turns around the shoulders of 2 moguls at a time, which was enjoyable, but I would have preferred to have felt like I had more flexibility in terms of line or style. If I tried really hard to press forward super-aggressively, I could ski my usual line, but it was just a huge amount of work for me to bend these skis in deep moguls. If I weighed 190 instead of 140 it probably would have been a different matter. The deeper, softer snow in the trees off trail on skier right was nice, but the skis just didn’t feel agile enough in there to make me happy. Earlier in the year I tried a pair of Rossi S3s, which came across the hill very quickly and easily in steep terrain. Even though they were 9cm longer than the Nordicas I was on at Vail, they skied very short on account of the significant rocker on both ends, and I’m pretty sure they – or even the S7 - would have been a lot easier to twitch around in those trees. So be forewarned: the Hell is a very different kind of ski from those “easy button” models, nominally shorter lengths notwithstanding.
On groomers, it was easy and comfortable to arc clean turns. The ski has a solid, reliable feel while carving. I did not get it up to any really high speeds due to the fact I did not get a chance to take them on any safely uncrowded groomed runs. Despite the excellent tune, they did suffer a bit on the really scraped off end-of-day bits, but I didn’t ding them for that, given intended usage.
Now, from a common sense point of view, none of these observations should surprise anyone. Basically my experience just confirms the once-obvious idea that 100mm skis are not particularly well suited to moguls and packed-out conditions. However, it’s worth emphasizing, in light of recent media and industry exaggerations re: the capabilities of wider and wider skis, that these are not all purpose skis, in my view. The 2012 Skiing magazine buyer’s guide issue, for example, placed this model at the top of the heap in their “New Midfat” category. I don’t buy the idea that a 98mm ski can be a midfat, in the sense that “midfat” implies suitability as a one-ski quiver or as the middle ski among three. At least I don’t see this particular ski as filling that kind of a spot for many skiers. (Maybe a more tractable design of the same width could do it.) Seems to me that for 95% of real-world resort skiers, who get out on the hill only after many constraints are applied, skiing the kind of soft-and-open conditions that this ski excels at and is clearly is made for is the exception, not the rule. Interestingly, it’s not hard-snow performance that’s really at issue; it’s adaptability in the face of a wide variety of packed ungroomed scenarios where the ski falls short. At least for me. Make sure to take into account my east coast bias as you hear me say it. :)