Narrower All-Mountain Skis
EpicSki Usual Suspects (but new to me)
Date: Nov. 29, 2014
Location: Sunday River, Maine
Weather: partly Sunny; teens and twenties, F.
Conditions: Firm cord in the morning, devolving to swaths of extremely slick boilerplate across 80% of each run with some desultory sugar and bumps along the sides. There was a lot of traffic on the hill. (Any easterner who's ever skied a popular major area on a busy Saturday in less than ideal conditions will find this description very familiar.)
Terrain: Green / Blue / Black groomers.
Me: 5' 7" (171cm), 135lbs (61kg); 52 years old; east coaster; beer leaguer; 40 days a season; home mountain: Saddleback, Maine
Demo day at Sunday River. I was looking at all-mountain skis to fill the gap between my race skis and my 100mm heavily tip-rockered soft-snow skis. Regular EpicSki readers will recognize the tested skis as "usual suspects." This is by design. I picked the models I did partly because they have been well-received by Bears. I had not been on any of them before. Therefore do not expect novelty here!
The first thing I (re-)learned was that the whole proposition of trying a bunch of skis in a row for a run or two each in busy and changing conditions is kind of crazy. Imagine going to an increasingly noisy and crowded restaurant and having a progression of six slightly different dishes with six slightly different wines over four hours, and trying to evaluate the wines against each other. Demoing profitably is a game that takes some practice, and I am out of practice. Thus all the "in hindsight" and "if I had it to do again" comments in this post.
As you will have seen above, conditions did not favor my middle-of-the-quiver research project. In fact, given the slope and crowd conditions, the well-used 155cm slalom boards I brought from home were more fun on the day than any of the skis I tried. Yes, even in what passed for bumps. I'd even go so far as to say that if I had to do it over again I would abandon my "all-mountain" plan altogether and home in on whatever groomer zoomers were available. (E.g., Rossi Hero series, etc.) Of course you will not be all that surprised to hear that there were not all that many of those to be seen!
One very notable aspect of this test was that the tunes on all the skis I tried seemed good. Never had that experience at a demo day before. I speculate that it's because it's so early in the season and most of the skis have not been "around the block" on the demo circuit yet.
Skis tested, in order:
Kastle MX 83, 163cm. Only took one short run on this ski. Probably a mistake in that I was coming off of my SL and should have allowed extra time for adjusting to a relatiely slower-twitch flavor of ski. At this length the ski felt like a bulldog in a tutu. Though noticeably quicker to engage and bend on a moderate edge than the MX 88 I tried later, it nonetheless had a GS-y feel that clashed with its short length in an unsatisfying way. I would have liked to try the 173 as a contrast, but did not get to it.
Kastle FX 84, 168cm. This is a ski I had been wanting to try for years. I think I was the first person to ski this particular pair, out of the wrapper. They definitely spoke to me more than the MX 83 - easier to bend into an arc, more natural-feeling length. Made probably the best carved turns of the day from any of the all-mountain skis (i.e., discounting the Rallys and my slaloms). They have an exceptionally clean, precise feel on a high edge. No doubt the pristine edges did not hurt here. The impression was of a "thin" (not to be confused with narrow) ski, if that makes any sense - boning knife vs. chef's knife. Did not feel slower to engage than the MX 83, despite reports to the contrary here and elsewhere. Stability was good - perhaps more poised but definitely less planted, than the MXs. Got it briefly into some chalky, crusty bumps, but cover was thin there and I was concerned about damaging a pair of brand new expensive skis. Later, after I'd returned the FX to the tent, I found some better moguls to test in. In hindsight I really should have gone back to these "good" bumps with the FX 84s. Doh. So, jury is really out on these for me. I liked them a lot, and respect their unique feel, but they didn't sweep me off my feet in a swoon. On the hand I didn't really get them into enough ungroomed stuff to let them shine.
Head Rev 85, 170cm. Favorite ski of the day, if I'm careful to put my "all mountain mindset" hat on. Flex pattern really suited me, as telegraphed by the relatively easy subjective hand-flex of the forebody. Seems to be one of those skis that is soft enough even at head height for me to bend it without effort. Took them through some bumps where they felt cushiony and totally natural - no adaptation period. Also very good at edge modulation for brushed "instructor turns" on terrain too steep (and/or crowded) for me to lay down real railroad tracks. Despite the deep sidecut I actually did not find these particularly easy or inspiring on a locked edge. Initiation felt reluctant. I experimented with different movement patterns but could never get them to really light up in the first half of the turn. This is similar to - but less severe than - an experience I had on the Titan 170 a few years ago. I suspect I would be one of the many people who seem to like a forward mount on Heads, but I did not attempt to go there with the rep. These skis were quiet on the snow. Basically I'm just confirming what other people have said about this model - does everything pretty well and would make a stalwart companion. Nothing wrong with that!
Head Rally, 170cm. Admittedly more of a groomer-oriented ski here. I really wanted to try this @ 163cm, to see if this model might bridge the gap between carveability and bumpability. Unfortunately I repeatedly missed this size at the tent. I settled for trying the 170. This is a super fun arc-happy ski that engages and comes around in a medium-size circle like magic, but it's not quite what I'm looking for here. For one thing I found this ski's tip to be too unforgiving in the bumps, sort of like my current Blizzard Supersonics. If I'm going to get a carver that's on the stiff and hooky side in bumps, I might as well get one that's a bit shorter - more nimble and slalom-y - to capitalize on the carve side of the equation. I'm sure the 163 would nimbler, but I don't have a sense for whether it would actually be any friendlier in moguls. Along with the MX 83, this is a ski that I think suffered from being a little off for me in the length department.
Blizzard Latigo, 170cm. Most "different" ski in the group. Subjectively very quick edge-to-edge, even compared with the Rally. First impression is of easy and intense grip on a locked-in arc, with a distinct emphasis on the underfoot section of the ski. After a while I started to realize that this impression may have been a bit of an illusion, as I slid out in a few spots that I think I might have held onto with some of the other skis that had more even edge pressure along the length of the ski. (But maybe not, as conditions were definitely deteriorating by this point.) The only ski I tried where I found a noticeable delay in engagement when tipped. Once hooked, it stayed hooked. This was easy enough to get used to and did not seem to detract significantly from its "carveability". This ski skied quite short, no doubt due to the more significant rocker. (Interesting example, coming off the Rally in nominally the identical length, of how you have to adjust your "right size" on a per-model basis. The Rally was a bit too long, while these were fine, and maybe even felt too short at times.) There is an agile "ice skate" quality to the Latigo that was thrilling at times but then in other moments came off like a bit of a cheap trick. Maybe this is what you get when you come on stage after a bunch of Kastles and Heads. It seemed to like what Dawg once referred to as "impact turns": On and off the edge quickly. In bumps it was very fun. I can see why Bears have liked it. It had less of a progressive feel, though, than any of other skis in moguls. It was quick, but slightly harsh by comparison - a hardtail, not a full-suspension bike. I speculate that this is related to the stiffish tip flex that Blizzard seems to like to build into their skis. The rocker eases you into the terrain in a way that seems gentle at first, but then when you start actually bending the ski it's a bit jarring. This characteristic exists alongside another Blizzard trait I've noticed, which is the very "bright" snowfeel, which you can even hear when you ski on harder snow. (I have noticed these qualities on all the Blizzards I've skied - at least 4 or 5.) I happen to be looking for something quieter and damper. This is totally a personal preference and not a ding on the ski. I also realized today that the 85-ish skis ski moguls so well that I don't really need a narrower waist for that reason, and since I want a ski for use in (relatively) softer ungroomed conditions as well I might as well stick with the 80+ width.
Kastle MX 88, 168cm. Had to seize the opportunity to try this, given all the years of plaudits here. Unfortunately I tried this one later in the afternoon, after a gap of a couple hours since getting on the Latigo. By that time surface conditions were really atrocious, even by my fairly ice-tolerant standards, so this ski probably did not get a fair shake. Nevertheless at times I came closer to to experiencing magic on this ski than on any of the others. As advertised, with a bit of speed in some choppier mini-mogul conditions it was super smooth. The "luxury car" claim is real. Also it was surprisingly managable in moderate bumps. Length seemed perfect for me. In some areas super-slick ruts had developed with very abrupt sugar-pile bumps, without many alternate shoulder-tracing lines available. Here the ski had too much tail to be comfortable. In fairness, I'm not sure ANY of the day's skis would have fared much better - these are simply difficult conditions to ski happily. I tried to get this thing up into a real carve a few times, but essentially failed. The surface was so shiny and impenetrable that only a full-on race turn was going to hold, and - confidence issues aside at that point in the day - there simply wasn't enough elbow room amid the other flailing skiers to try this at the MX 88's preferred turn radius - which felt MUCH bigger than any of other skis, BTW, including the two other Kastles, despite being nominally not that much different. (NOTE: This would seem to me to put the lie to the notion expressed here before that if you are between sizes for the MX 83/88, pick the other model. Based on my experience with the MX 83 @ 163, I can't imagine that a hypothetical 168cm MX 83 would be as slow an initiator as the actual 168cm 88 was for me. Although, again, I tried the 83 on nice edgeable cord first thing in the morning, and the 88 trial was on bulletproof. So maybe I'm wrong about about how different they are.) In short, this is not a ski for me where I currently live, with the confined terrain I mostly ski, even on a good day. It wants to have room to roam that I can't provide except on rare occasions.
There were plenty of other skis I would like to have tried but did not - because I ran out of time (LX 82) or because they were not present (Dynastar Powertrack) or because they were out on the hill when I was at the tent (Motive 86).
Edited by qcanoe - 11/30/14 at 12:04pm