The ever-accelerating pace of change that infests every corner of modern life has not spared the world of skis. It was only seven years ago that the first, funky-shaped skis appeared on our shores. If you ran a ski test back then, as I did for the now defunct Snow Country magazine, male testers skied on 205-cm models and women were lashed to 195s. Now the governing body of ski racing has to prohibit male slalom racers from skiing sticks shorter than 155-cm or lord knows how short they would go, and the only place you'll find a 205 is at a ski swap.
Looking back through my test logs of the mid-1990s, the ski world looks so different I might as well be scanning test dockets from the 1890s. As with any nostalgic exercise, there is the shock of seeing names that are no longer among us. Adieu Olin, ciao Authier, bye-bye Pre, auf Wiedersehen Tyrolia and Kastle, see you later RD and S, aloha Hart. But perhaps the most startling sea change to the shrinking fraternity of ski brands is the meteoric rise in overall quality.
Back then, it didn't take a wizard with world-class skills to discern the disparity in quality between the top and the bottom of any given category. The stinkers stood out so vividly that skiing them was comical. I still recall my amazement while testing one of Ivan Petkov's S skis-one of the first shaped models-when little old me snapped it almost clean through (only the limp base material still connected tip and tail).
You won't find a pile of splinters where a ski used to be in today's ski tests. The ski brands that are still with us have mastered their production technologies. The challenge in ski testing is no longer determining which ski is best, but deciding which models, if any, don't deserve mention as among the finest in their genre. You're not winnowing wheat from chaff; you're grading the wheat according to taste.
As ski technology has changed, so have the criteria for judging greatness. In an era when all skis were as skinny as pencils, we didn't even imagine rating a ski for its ability to float on top of new snow. At one time, ski test standards mandated brick-hard snow as the only reliable testing surface. Now, judging a ski solely by its performance on boilerplate would ignore many performance qualities that define a ski's behavioral envelope.
Indeed, it is all but impossible to buy a bad ski any more. But it is possible to buy one ill-suited to your preferences. A super-fat freeride ski that is heavenly floating through powder will feel like a bulldozer with a missing tread in a slalom course. Conversely, the snaky little wonders that can change direction faster than a mongoose in race gates will sink like an anchor if taken off-piste. So it's important to understand where and how you want to use your new sticks before you go picking a model. But once you know what general product bucket you belong in, it's very hard to go wrong.
If skis are all so hunky-dory, why bother testing them at all? Because there is still a wide range of sensations any given model may deliver. It's akin to comparing fine wines or luxury automobiles or preferences in physical beauty. You may be smitten by a '66 Bordeaux, a BMW roadster and Cameron Diaz while I lean toward an '82 Burgundy, a Mercedes SEL and Julia Roberts. It's all good, but the flavors and nuances differ considerably. It's one of the more interesting challenges of this publication to limn the behavioral traits of dozens of ski models so that you, dear reader, can find the one that fits your current profile and future aspirations as a skier.
Over years of testing skis and occasionally assisting in their development, I have fallen in love many times with skis that seemed an extension of my soul. With each year, the list of the loveable grows exponentially. A ski world once populated largely by ugly ducklings is now overflowing with swans. As I am seduced by the charms of new sweetheart after sweetheart, the memories of time-stained heartaches seem borne from another world. The past is indeed a foreign country hard to imagine once inhabiting.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.