I wanted to take the time to post some recent experience on various width skis in interesting conditions. This is somewhat related to the recent posts regarding the optimal daily driver ski width. This post is somewhat focused on the fact that ski width is rarely the determining factor how how a ski will perform in a given situation: it is but one component. Perhaps as it is the only one that is easily quantified, it gets more attention than is likely warranted. Aside from the extremes (ice and hard snow for narrow skis, deep bottomless heavy snow for huge skis); width is perhaps only 20-30% of the equation.
I focused on 2 sets of skis that were different in flex and weight, but similar in dimensions. Basically, it is 2 different thoughts on how to design a ski in terms of flex, weight, camber, and the like. One type of design leaned toward a certain type of skiing and terrain, the other was almost a polar opposite.
Conditions were up to 15 inches of new snow, well wind-packed, over a couple of days, with extremely wind-affected snow in most spots. Conditions ranged from ice fingers and nearly unskiable ice, to a few inches over firm snow in the trees. Also seen were wind-lipped punchy crud, smooth wind-affected steeps that were "first tracks" of a thicker wind-pack layer over good snow, and snow that was so "holey" that it would be a fine place to earn a few weeks off of work due to a previously unscheduled knee surgery.
Around 100mm underfoot:
- Elan 999 181cm. 98mm underfoot, 24m radius 2 sheets of metal, very soft tip, quite a bit of early rise in the tip, substantial underfoot, very light in weight/doubles as a fine AT ski
- Blizzard Bonafide 180cm: 98mm underfoot, 20m radius, 2 sheets of metal, lower/longer rise in the tip, much stiffer throughout the ski, much heavier in weight.
around 110mm underfoot:
- Elan 1010 183cm: 110mm underfoot, similar profile to the 999, 23m radius. 2 sheets of metal, thin/light layup, soft early rise tip, camber underfoot
- Blizzard Scout 185cm, 108mm underfoot, 27m radius, wood/titanium construction, very little camber underfoot, long tip and tail rocker section. Much stiffer tip and throughout vs. the 1010.
- Slabby untracked high-speed steeps, up to 40 degree pitches. This is where a stiff ski, not hooky, will really come into play. On steeps, a ski that is still enough to withstand big edge angles will be more confident, and naturally, speeds are higher when skiing steeps aggressively, with more energy upon release.
In the smooth windpack What mattered was the stiffness of the tip, more than anything else. Here, both Blizzards had the edge. Having to rate the group, I would probably put the Scout just ahead of the Bonafide; the widest tip being the best for this condition, but the narrower tip still easily skiable. The 185cm length on the Scout was also an advantage; it is hard to dive a tip on a ski 10cm taller than the skier. Superb performance here, above the tree line. The 1010 was just under the Bonafide; the tip is wider on the 1010, but softer, and I felt like the ski wanted to over-turn. It was quicker, but the others were quick enough. The 999 was getting a bit overpowered: big edge angles were really bending that tip around, almost skiing me back up the hill. As relates to width here, the case could be made that either width would be plenty adequate.
Conclusion: the defining characteristic in these conditions were tip profile and stiffness. Stiffer+bigger is better at speed in steeps for really hauling. Advantage: Blizzards
- Punchy, wind-lipped windpack with intermittent holes: this is the knee-shredding terrain I was talking about earlier. Key is staying above the fray, not getting pulled into the junk snow. Smoothness is paramount.
Again, one would think that width played a big role here, but it really didn't. Both the narrower and wider skis did about the same: I had enough float to keep the skis on top of the junk for the most part. I did find that not having a hooky tip on either of the skis was a big plus; carvers in here would not have been fun. The skiing styles were different, again due to the relative weight and flex of the ski. The Bonafide and Scout were more akin to bigger turns, charging through the rough snow. The 1010 to some extent, and 999 definitely, wanted to dance over the ridges and ripples, and were more damp than the Blizzard offerings, providing additional ease. Slower, more deliberate and quick: Elan. More powerful at speed: Blizzard
Conclusion: flex matters more than width, as does how you want the ski to perform. GS arcs may require a different feel than tighter fall line skiing. User preference on which is best.
- tracked out crud: all over the place on these days. Get a few turns of nearly fresh, then start hitting set-up piles of snow. There was also some firmer snow underneath that came into play at times.
This where I definitely noticed the width difference. Down low, if the snow was basically untouched, it tended not to be as deep: maybe mid-boot at best, and cut-up everywhere else. In these conditions, the narrower skis started to pull away. The quickness of the 999 and Bonafide was unmistakeable: they were so much easier to set up at the top of the turn, and the skis really pulled me though the turn, unlike the more deliberate nature of the Scout and 1010. Much more fun and energetic. The differences between the 999 and Bonafide were similar as in the other conditions: 999 lighter, smoother, quicker; Bonafide stronger, more stable, smaller sweet spot. Same could be said for the Scout and 1010, although the Scout, as a prototypical big-mountain ski, started to feel a bit out of it's element here compared to the others.
Conclusion: the narrower skis were responsive and more fun. Stiffness played 2nd fiddle to width and ski profile.
- trees! medium to high speed trees, a few inches of new over crust, some bobsled turns in the heavily skied areas, wind whales in others. Probably the best skiing of these 2 days.
Flex is key when picking a tree ski. For a guy like me, who doesn't weigh a whole lot, a bit softer ski is nice. I get a quicker, more responsive feel on a ski with a softer flex, especially a softer tip. When I need to change edges in a hurry, I can just yard my heels back and get the ski pivoting on the tip. Hauling through trees are one of the most demanding conditions, so it tells us alot about the skis.
In general, I found the narrower skis here to again be superior. Quick edge engagement is key in trees: I like a ski to be responsive; when I tip it onto edge, the ski is engaging and moving where I want it to. The bigger 110mm skis, although adequate, just were more ponderous: they got there, eventually, but the delay and lag takes the fun out of quick trees, when you want the feel of rapid-fire turns: bam, bam, bam. By far the most aggressive in the trees was the Scout: at 185cm, and being a stiff ski, it was super fast, but also I felt borderline out of control at time. Surely the 177cm would be better here. There was little room for error on this big ski: make a mistake, and you were flying, trying to catch up to the ski. Turn feel was mostly "slarvy"; there wasn't a lot of direct edge engagement, as it is tough to get to a longer tip. I like to make some of my bigger turns in that slarvy, light edge style in the trees, but in rapid-fire turns, I need a quicker edge set. The 177cm would have skied like a wider yet quicker Bonafide, much better for trees. The Bonafide was next in line: the quickness was appreciated, but the stiff overall big-mountain GS nature of the ski that worked so well in wide open spaces was less than ideal here. Edging it out here was the 1010: slower edge to edge, more ponderous as noted above, but the softer tip and bigger sweet spot easily offset those weaknesses. It was quick, I could pivot right on the tip, move the ski around, ski it edge to edge fast, or loose and with a slarvy, sliding feeling around the trees. It had a great combo of turns shapes available to it. The only thing holding it back was width. The 999 is the 1010, but narrower, making it a superb tree ski. Take the turn-on-a-dime feel of the 1010, make it narrower, quicker, and give it that wide range of turn shapes, from soft to firm edge engagements, and you have one superb tree ski. Tip flex is money in these conditions.
Conclusion: a slightly narrower ski, wide variety of turn shapes that the ski likes, and big sweet spot/softer flex, worked best.
Overall, I found that width played some sort of role on what I thought of the skis, but really, flex and other design criteria were way more important. I would rather have been on the narrower Bonafide than the wider 1010 in fast, aggressive new snow, as I could trust the front of the ski to track where and when I wanted it to. Likewise, in tight spaces, the wider 1010 out-skied the narrower Bonafide, due to better flex pattern for tight spaces. It just goes to show us that width really doesn't mean a whole lot, aside from pure hard snow (when narrower tends to give us the best grip) and really deep snow (when float is the key criteria). Elsewhere, in resort conditions, there are a whole host of factors that can come into play when choosing a ski.