This is an absolutely great ski category and it seems to me that it’s time to take another cumulative look at the players in this range. So……………………………..
I’d say “theyrrre baaaack”…..except of course, they never really left. What did happen though is that the trend of wider and ever wider skis gradually sort of pushed this category of skis onto the back burner of many skiers minds for a while. Then, a not so funny thing happened. Out west, we’ve had three years in a row with unusually long periods of firm to downright hard snow. For sure, there were pockets and patches of weather here and there but we were all skiing on the snow rather than in it much if not most of the time.
So………skiers were coming into the store looking for something to go along with their powderish skis and the skiers that really don’t ski off the groomers all that much anyway were starting to look at narrower skis than they might have just a year or two ago. Hence, interest and sales of wider skis started to taper off. This was gradual at first but the trend was started and it grew. Sales of narrower all mountain skis like the crazy 88’s and some even narrower more technical carving types of skis increased steadily and the ski manufacturers have taken note with very good skis last year (13-14) and some nice new designs for (14-15)
The best skis in this group make a great one ski quiver for Eastern skiers and also for western skiers that mostly ski groomers. Western skiers that ski a lot of variable conditions discovered that these were often more fun and useful than their wider skis when it hadn’t snowed in a week or so but they still wanted to off trail at least part of the day. These are not real hard snow specialists or true technical skis. Rather, the skis in this category are hard or mixed snow biased all mountain skis with nice capability in snow depths of up to the boot top but also with some of the compromises that one should expect from “all mountain” skis.
And of course……….they’re not really all 88’s…………….I still like the sound of it.
Returning players from 2014:
The Kendo returns as it has been for some years now. While a bit of tip rocker was added recently, it really didn’t change the capabilities of the ski much although the overall feel is now somewhat different. While the Kendo is not new or really even new-ish, it is one of the long term market leaders in this category so even though it’s unchanged, it should be mentioned in this recap. Pursuant to that goal, the Kendo was the first ski that I (re)tested when I started in on this width category. This year, the 88’s were initially all tested at Mammoth.
The Kendo is on the stiff side of medium for this category and it is pretty firm in the tail. This is a good fit flex- wise for a strong skier. Out on snow, my first run on the Kendo was early in the morning and in the shade, the snow was still very hard. I started with short and medium radius turns on the groomers and the first impression you get from the Kendo is that it is very light and nimble feeling. At slower speeds it takes a little pressure to get the ski to flex but once speeds pick up, the Kendo bends well. Once the ski begins to flex you immediately feel one of the major attributes of the Kendo. This is a lively and energetic ski with very good grip. When the ski releases, it returns more “pop” than most of its competitors. Near the bottom of the first run, I opened up the speeds and the grip was still very good and the Kendo was stable from the end of the rockered section all the way to the tail. At the highest speeds and on refrozen marbles, the rockered tip felt detached and fluttery. Although the ski had good grip throughout the run, it was not particularly damp and the 177 felt short.
The second pass with the Kendo brought some broken and mixed snow conditions along with some chalky lumps that were trying to be bumps. In between all this was a fair bit of soft snow that was blown in by the ever-present Mammoth winds. Through this wide mix of conditions the light weight made the Kendo exceptionally quick and tossable and the tip was very maneuverable in the semi bumps but the stiff tail would bounce you if you were not well centered. The Kendo remains a traditional feeling ski that is a bit biased toward firm snow and is a bit better on smoother snow than in the rough stuff or the bumps.
This was a new ski in the Blizzard “Freemountain” collection for 2014 and it replaced the Bushwhacker in that position. The Bushwhacker has been repositioned in the new “Lite” category which consists of skis without full metal layups. The Brahma uses the same metal layup and rocker/camber profile as the Bonafide but places it in a 88mm platform. This width range makes an ideal ski for a daily driver for the east or for the western skier with a preference for packed snow. This also is a great choice for the western skier as part of a broader quiver that would include a wider, more soft snow oriented ski. The Brahma is unchanged except for graphics for 2015 and this review is a combination of last years testing and some retesting done this year.
On snow, the Brahma exhibits a similar feel to the Bonafide but because of the narrower width, it is more nimble in bumps and in quick turns. When turned up on edge, the Brahma hooks up at the aft end of the tip rocker and it has very solid grip underfoot. The Brahma has a little bit of tail rocker and it releases more easily in mixed or cruddy conditions than a flat tail would. This characteristic was noticeable in spring of ‘13 when testing this width range of ski on a steepish section of off trail terrain at Mammoth. This pitch is almost always wind packed, halfway bumpy and usually has a mix of firm, chalky snow and soft blown in fluff. On this pitch, the Brahma released easily and felt more nimble than the more technical narrow waisted skis that rail the groomers so well. Out on the firm groomers, the more technically oriented skis would hook up sooner and felt a little more damp and grippy but the Brahma held very well for this width category. The tip engages at the end of the rockered section but as the angles go up the whole length quiets down and the Brahma does not feel as disconnected as some skis in this range. This year we got snow late in the spring and I got the chance to ski the Brahma again in some boot top mixed snow conditions. Although the Brahma has more tip rocker than most, it doesn’t feel too hingey in this kind of snow and it deflects less than most of the skis in this width class. The tail rocker is minimal enough that it is not really very noticeable during higher angle turns until the release phase at the very end. For a ski with a lot of grip underfoot, the Brahma is a very versatile package in mixed conditions and I give it an even bias between hard and soft conditions.
K2 Rictor 90:
The name Rictor has been around in K2s lexicon for some time but for 2014, they applied it to a collection of skis rather than a single model. These are skis that K2 feels will have appeal to skiers with a bias or preference to packed snow conditions but also, varying amounts of desire to ski in off trail or unpacked conditions as well. The Rictor 90 is the widest of this group and sure enough, it falls right into the wide end of our first all mountain category. Some K2 models in this width range have been pretty stiff in the past but the Rictor 90 is not that way at all. The stiff tailed skis of the past have been replaced with a much more balanced flex and that bodes well for increased versatility. We tested the Rictor 90 in the spring of 2013 and hit a couple of key conditions again in the spring of 2014.
I couldn’t get on a Rictor 90 at Winter Park last so I had to delay the start of my testing until the western swing of the industry tour. Out west, there was not as much opportunity to test on really hard snow so although I did get on the ski a couple of times, my hard snow impressions were inconclusive at the time. This year, what little snow we had was hard and so I firmed up my hard snow testing this year. On the firm groomers, the ski was capable in any turn shape and it was not persnickety at all about how you skied it. The stability was good at most speeds and the dampening was very good at all speeds. The grip of the Rictor is about middle of the pack for this width range and felt adequate for most of the western conditions where I skied it. The long tapered tip of the Rictor feels disconnected at most edge angles and just did not feel active in packed conditions. While the body of the ski was solid enough, the tip of the Rictor was a little flappy on rougher snow.
When I got to test the Rictor 90 last spring, it was in a wide variety of conditions that from wind scoured semi formed bumps and little patches of shallow wind blown chalky snow. Late this spring I got a few runs in some boot deep softer conditions. Regardless of the condition, the Rictor 90 was easy and fun to ski. It handled mixed conditions at Mammoth much better than some of the stiffer skis and really shone through as one of the better soft snow oriented skis in this width range. The mix allowed the tapered tip to turn in really easily although it was still feeling easily deflected through the rockered sections. I would give the Rictor 90 a bias toward soft snow and medium speeds and quite high marks for mixed conditions and bumps where it is one of the best in category.
Head Rev 85:
While last year, we carried both the Rev 85 and the 90, the 85 was so successful, we decided to focus on just the 85 for this year (2015). The 85 is a pretty conventional two layer, wood and metal sandwich construction with a small amount of early rise in the tip. Where the Rev 85 really differs from other ski in this range is that it has a very wide tip and a very significant tip to tail taper angle. There is no additional taper in the tip or tail and the medium flex is very well balanced.
On the firm groomers at Mammoth, the Rev 85 will naturally execute low to medium speed carves very well with just a simple ankle roll. With higher angles and more pressure, you can run up to higher speeds comfortably and you’ll find edge grip that’s well above average. The taper toward the tail helps the skier to release the carve into a skid with relatively little effort and then roll back up into a carve again if he chooses to. The Rev handles these transitions very easily and it is exceptionally flexible in turn shape. The skier that tends to lean on the boot tongue and power the ski around will find that is not necessary on the Rev 85 as a centered stance and modest pressure is all it takes to get it going.
Last season, the Rev showed that it can also handle some soft and mixed conditions just as well as it does the firmer snow. The tip is a little wider than average for this width of ski and it planes well in a little soft crud and even light snow. The flex and the extra wide tip makes the Rev 85 mid pack for the category in the bumps but the tapered tail helps to keep the skier from getting bucked around. The Rev was at its best down at Mammoth when that windblown half bumpy sidehill trail gave it a little room to run. In those conditions, I felt that I could aim the Rev 85 into clumps of windpack and then dart around some of the more widely spaced bumps easily. When that rough snow pitch spit me back out onto the groomers, the 85 seemed to be happy at most any speed regardless of the turn shape. This is a very well balanced ski with a bit of a hard snow bias but it is quite comfortable in most western snow and it’s a natural for the east. A final bonus for the Rev is the price. This ski sells for $799 including the new Tyrolia derived 12 DIN binding system and that is an exceptional value for a ski at this performance level.
Rossignol Experience 88:………(semi-new)
The Rossignol Experience 88 is back for its fourth year and the basic construction is the same as before. The Ex 88 does not use metal in its layup but uses an Aramid fiber called Basalt instead. The Ex 88 differs from some skis in this category in that it has a lot of sidecut and quite a bit of flare in the tail rather than the more common taper. While marketed as a “rockered ski” the amount of tip Rocker on this ski is slight. What is different for 2015 is that Rossi is now using the Honeycomb “air tip and tail” from the S-series in both the Ex 88 and Ex 100.
I skied the Experience 88 at Winter park during last season’s more extensive testing. This year’s ski didn’t feel notably different on hard snow. Skiing off the lift and down the first little (crowded) pitch, I felt the 88 hooked up and responded surprisingly strongly to ankle roll carves. I attribute this feel to the wide tip and wide flared tail. When skidded and swiveled at slow speeds, the tip and tail were a little reluctant to let go and they really wanted to carve rather than slide. Going off to my normal series of turns of short radius to medium to long, the 88 hooked up with less input and angle than most and it pulled through each successive turn with a good strong crossunder. I’m accustomed to the Ex 88 and so when I hit some very hard snow on a little scraped off pitch, I was not surprised that it held very well. This ski grips as though it has metal in it and it is among the best skis in this category for grip. The air tip version for this year didn’t feel like it had quite the same level of stability or dampening as the prior versions.
Last year, I got the Experience out on some difficult snow which was some chalky and wind blown. This year I had the same conditions early along with a few little patches of refrozen bumps some being fairly tight and others were more open and scattered. Then in the late spring of ’14 we got a little shot of soft snow. The Ex 88 is a little challenged by the tight spots as the wide tip and especially the tails tended to hang up a little. The sidecut of this ski really wants to carve and there are times when that is not the best tactical approach. Once the ski had a little more room, the tip and tail were no problem and the Ex 88 handled the mixed snow very well. In the off trail conditions of last year vs. this year, I could feel the lighter weight of this new “air tip” version. While not a dramatic difference, the lighter ski feels more nimble and maybe a little springier. As long as there is room for the sidecut to work, the Ex 88 is nimble and versatile in turn shape and very grippy. I feel that when compared to the other models in this group, the Ex 88 is hard snow biased due to the shape rather than the flex and it’s a little better on packed surfaces than on soft or rough ones.
New models for 2015
Salomon X Drive 8.8:
This is a brand new ski from Salomon for 2015 and it is the flagship of a collection of models featuring their “X-drive” chassis. This is a series of X shaped diagonal stringers topping the core for torsional stability. When you combine this structure with a Ti laminate supporting the core, you get a very solid build and a ski that is on the stiffer end of the scale. This ski has a firm but very even flex and with no imbalance between tip and tail. Although Salomon was one of the pioneers of the rocker concept, they chose to use only a little in the tip for this ski model.
On my first spin down the groomers on the 179 test ski, I immediately felt that slow speeds were not this skis’ forte. Short radius, steered turns at low angles were fine but as the angle came up and the ski engaged, it took some leg to get it to bend. As speeds picked up, the turn radius lengthened, the angles came higher, and the X Drive came into its own. In medium turns and then longer ones, the Xdrive felt very solid and smooth and it inspired speed well beyond that where some other skis felt rattley. This solid feel was not just a function of the ski being stiff (although it is) but rather, it has a great blend of damping, flex balance, and long edge contact.
In the off trail segment of the testing, the Xdrive rode through the soft blown in snow and over the widely spaced, firmish bumps easily. In the spots where bumps got a liitle tight and a little more formed up, it was a bit of a chore to steer around and the firmish flex was a little more bouncy than some softer skis. Later in the season when we finally got some snow, I got the chance to ski the XD in some mixed and broken crud and some variable boot top snow. Here, the XD needed some speed for the flex to come around but the damping and stabilty were excellent through the mix of conditions.
The XDrive 8.8 is among the most traditional feeling skis in this width range. The edge contact feels long and the rocker is unnoticeable. Edge grip is good, damping and stability are excellent. For this category of ski, this has a bit of a hard snow bias and prefers higher speeds and medium-long turns.
Nordica NrGy 90
This is a new entry from Nordica for 2015 and it replaces the Steadfast model from the long running “Hell and Back” collection. While some of the new for ’15 models in this range are pretty traditional in build, the NrGy 90 takes a different path. The NrGy carries taper and rocker at both tip and tail such as you might expect to find on wider skis. The overall flex of the 90 is on the soft end of medium but a structured metal top layer retains good torsional stiffness without adding much weight.
On firm groomers, and scraped off hard snow, the NrGy grips very well in the cambered section but at low angles, the tip and tail are not very active. As speeds pick up and angles go higher, the extremities quiet down. Some active pressure on the front of the boot will engage the front of the ski even further and the ride is smooth with a medium damp feel.
In the off trail section at Mammoth and throughout the later part of the season, we had the opportunity to run the NrGy 90 in a wide variety of mixed and broken snow and this is where it shows its best side. On the chalky and rough semi-bumps at Mammoth the 90 was super easy to ski and the taper in tip and tail made the ski slithery and compliant in the bumps. The ride in those conditions was smooth though the middle of the ski and the 90 felt seamless in the quickly varying conditions. Later in March, Tahoe actually got some snow and on one rapid fire test day I got to ski the 90 in boot top crud and also later on in some “dust on crust” situations. Through all these conditions, the NrGy 90 showed an easygoing and playful nature. The application of taper and rise in both the tip and tail can allow the ski to feel “smeary” if the skier desires it and most skis in this width range don’t excel at that. In the heaviest crud, and at the highest speeds, the tip deflects more than some stiffer skis will. This is one of the better skis in this width range for soft and mixed conditions and we think it has a soft snow bias.
Stockli SR 88:
Recently, Stockli has gradually been working over their Stormrider line and the SR88 is a new model for 2015. For quite some time, Stockli had a range of skis that was of exceptional quality but were also exceptionally stiff. This limited the audience to a small number of heavy and/or very strong skiers. As new models have replaced old ones, these attributes have been changing pretty dramatically. The newer generations of Stormriders are now in the middle range of flex for each category but they have managed to retain the great torsional stiffness and damping that they have been famous for. The SR 88 had been rumored for quite some time before I actually saw one at the SIA show in Denver this year. I didn’t know for sure what to expect, but when I finally saw one, I was a little surprised. When I picked up the 177 in the show booth, I noticed how light it felt and how the flex was softer than I anticipated.
The first time on snow was at Mammoth and the conditions were great for this width category. The groomers were firm early and it was possible to find a pitch where the jr race team had scraped the snow down to very firm and a little chattery. When you tip the SR 88 onto its edge, the first thing you feel is a seamless engagement. There is a touch of tip rocker on the 88 but it is very minimal and you feel the whole ski engage rather than the somewhat disconnected feel that you’ll get on some skis with more rocker. Even with lower angles and minimal pressure, the ski bends easily and as the angle builds, you can feel the bend get deeper and it is very easy to shape the turn any way you choose. The steeper, upper part of the race hill was the hardest snow on the mountain and the SR 88 gripped well in every turn from short to long and the feel over the rough and chattery ruts the racers had left behind was exceptionally damp. Near the bottom, I was going as fast as I felt I wanted to and there was still no sensation of instability. I did feel that I wanted to pull pressure back from the tip because unlike some stiffer skis, it is possible to overpressure the tips and cause the skis to want to overturn.
Out on the chalky, semi-bumpy off trail pitch at Mammoth, the SR 88 smoothed everything out and ran from the windblown chalk into the soft blown in stuff and then out again seamlessly. On this pitch, the speeds were more moderate and the SR was at its best in medium turns where the grip and damping were a real plus and the ski just didn’t get knocked around. The flex of the SR in this snow made the ski feel very supple through the rough stuff and the rebound at the turn finish was moderate While some skiers may prefer a ski with more “snap” I personally like the more moderate rebound as I find it easier to stay centered on the ski in mixed conditions. The SR 88 displays the comfortable feel of a “cruiser” type of ski but it has edge grip that is at the top of the class. That is a rare combination.
Dynastar Powertrac 89:
For 2015, the all new Powertrac series brings a visual resemblance to the existing Cham series but while there is some similarity, the Powertrac models are not at all the same skis. The flagship Powertrac 89 carries substantial taper at the tip and tail but it is not nearly as dramatic as the Cham models were. The wood metal layup of the PT 89 has low camber overall, a flex on the stiff side of medium and a little early rise at the tip. The tapered tail looks a little like a pintail but it is not real dramatic and there is a tiny bit of rise at the tail as well. Finally the mount point on the Powertrac 89 is in the center of the main contact area rather than in the center of the overall length and thus it is notably farther forward than on most other skis. This is a “5 point” design in a category where that is an unusual feature.
Early in January, I had the Powertrac out on a cold morning for a couple of hours on the groomers and was immediately impressed. The grip in the contact area is right in the top group for this category with engagement coming from the forward contact point. At low angles, the PT 89 steers easily in short radius turns and as angles climb higher and you apply more pressure, you get a solid feel and good stability regardless of turn shape. The tip taper prevents you from getting engagement beyond the contact point but the tapered and rockered section does not flutter and flap around. Near the bottom of each run I was going pretty fast and as I approached the lift corral, I broke the ski out of its carve to scrub speed and the Powertrac was surprisingly easy to smear off the edge. Throughout the several runs I made on this morning, I found the Powertrac to be one of the most versatile in turn shape for this width category and also one of the best for edge grip.
During the normal test cycle at Mammoth, I got the chance the revisit the PT 89 in comparison to the rest of the category, and this time, there was a greater mix of conditions. On the firm chalky snow and in the windblown mixed conditions, the Powertrac again showed its’ stability and turn shape versatility. In the chalky, semi-moguly pitches where there were still patches of soft snow blown in, it flowed easily in around and between the bumps. The tip was exceptionally easy to direct and the tail released without hangup. Although the Powertrac skied the mixed conditions as well as some softer skis, it never got knocked around like the softer skis did. On this day, Mammoth was such a mixed bag of conditions that you could get almost anything. There was rough, chalky snow down low, wind buff up high and even some patches where the blown in snow was mid-boot deep. Through all this, the Powertrac was the ski that I thought did the best job across the whole mountain. Late in the year, we actually got a mini storm cycle in Tahoe and we had a week of soft conditions. I had a PT 89 of my own by then and got the chance to round out my impressions during a day of soft variable snow of up to a foot deep. The tapered tip gets knocked about less by crud than a fuller tip width does and the front of the PT tends to slice through piles of variable snow rather than get bounced by it. I think that the broad range of capabilities of the Powertrac 89 sort of defines what this category of ski is about.