Shopping for skis is a process of elimination. Make a few key decisions, and you'll arrive at the right ski without too much trouble. At the mountain-shop level, 90-plus percent of people who walk in the door want a good, versatile ski. There are certainly other choices: fat skis, mogul skis, GS, slalom-but those are specialty items. Most people want, and will do best with, a primary ski that they can go to over and over as their all-mountain, everyday ski.
The first thing you have to decide is whether or not you want an integrated binding. If someone comes in who just broke a ski but still has a perfectly good binding, we're obviously not going to talk to him about buying a system when what he wants is just a ski. But systems are the new reality. You've had Salomon driving it with the Pilot skis, and nowadays you have all the other guys jumping in on the new technology: Völkl Motion, K2 IBC and so on.
As a dealer, I don't have to offer everything that way; I can offer some skis with systems and some a la carte with separate bindings. Where all of this is going to go in the end still needs to shake out. One reason the Salomon Scream series still sells well is that it's an a la carte ski, so you can put whatever binding you want on it. Same with the K2 Axis X and Dynastar Skicross 9.
On the other hand, you have less flexible situations, where if you want a certain ski you have to buy the binding, too-like some Dynastars, where you have to take a Look binding. Most people seem OK with buying new bindings: If you're going to buy a new horse, you want it to have new horseshoes too, right? But most shops offer skis either with or without bindings.
And if you're going to buy a binding anyway, you should buy a system. A system allows skis to be skied shorter because of the consistent flex pattern. You can really feel the difference when you go from a nonsystem design to a system. It's a positive thing, and I think you'll see a la carte choices going away at the mid- to high-end.
Rarely Too Much Ski
Next, consider the level of performance you're looking for. An Atomic SL:11 in a 157-cm length is a fun ski, but your legs probably wouldn't want to ski it all day. You might want to have a pair, but not as your ski ski.
We're a mountain shop, so we make the assumption that since our customers are skiing at a place like Killington, they're probably pretty serious skiers who want the best equipment that they can afford. And, hey, who doesn't want to get better as a skier? Who doesn't want something that's going to allow them to be the best they can be? That's why you're walking into a mountain ski shop: Most of the equipment and gear is high-end, and there's better selection and sizing for the serious skiers.
I'm not a big believer in low-end skis. The lowest ski I carry is the Atomic C:8.18 Device, which goes for about $350 with a binding. It's a great ski and a great deal. There are a lot of skis priced below that, but if you're spending money at all, why not spend a few extra bucks to get the good stuff? And even if you're really conscious about price, you don't have to settle for a cheap ski. The best deal going is last year's ski at half-price. Shop the early sales and pick up what's left over. There's always some good equipment around in the fall.
If money isn't an issue, and you're looking for an all-mountain ski, there's no reason not to get the top-of-the-line ski or maybe the next one down. We ask the customer this: At 1 in the afternoon, do you want a ski that's going to make you work hard for the rest of the day, or do you want something that will allow you to kick back a little? If you want to relax, get a ski that's one step below the top ski. They're both high-performance skis; one's just a little more forgiving.
Sizing Made Simple
Sizing is the final decision, and it can be one of the major factors. It can simplify the choice, depending on what's available iin the exact size you want. For example, Salomon breaks its size run in 10-cm increments: 165, 175, 185. K2 does it on the sevens: 167, 174, 181. That fills in the cracks. So if you can't decide between a 175 or a 185, you go with something that falls in between, like a K2 or a Dynastar.
I like to keep sizing simple. Most people belong somewhere between 160 and 180. If you're an average-to-tall guy, or a more aggressive guy who likes to make long turns on open terrain, you should be on something around 180. Shorter guys and taller, more aggressive women should be on a 170. And smaller or less aggressive women will want a 150 or 160.
All of our employees are well-qualified to help narrow down the choices. Mountain shops have it tough: Just when we start seeing people come through the door in December, our buddies in the cities are putting all their stuff on sale. But our advantage is that our employees are committed skiers, who have chosen a way of life and are living and breathing their equipment on a daily basis. They're hands-on with whatever is cutting-edge, demo-ing, trying out, upgrading their own stuff all the time, all season. They're on the front line every day. Why wouldn't you want to take advantage of their knowledge and enthusiasm?
When a customer walks in, we'll pull four or five all-mountain skis off the wall, all from different manufacturers.Whether or not you want a system will narrow the choice from four to two. Then there's sizing, and personal preference as far as the brand or nationality of the ski. The final choice usually ends up being pretty easy, and you're going to walk away with a great ski that will only enhance your enjoyment of a great sport.
Lee Quaglia has owned the Aspen East Ski Shop in Killington, Vt., for nearly 30 years.