Progress for the rest of us
Outside of organized competition, “progression” is the standard for excellence in modern skiing. Which is why ambitious skiers everywhere strive to take bolder lines and drop bigger cliffs than their peers and predecessors—while at the same time pioneering tricks in the backcountry, and sometimes even fusing the sport with other big-mountain pursuits. It all looks amazing on film—and it clearly inspires the strongest and most passionate skiers among us. But do these feats actually progress the sport for the typical weekend warrior? Not at all! Yet the ability of the weekend warrior clearly has progressed, and at such a pace that even teenagers can mock the previous decade's "skiing style." For those of us who aren't one-upping famous athletes or chasing firsts, the biggest factor in our progress is almost certainly our equipment. The skis of today allow for far more control and maneuverability than the skis of twenty years ago. And they accomplish this by interacting with the snow in ways that weren't even contemplated a generation ago.
The age of the shapeless ski
Even in the early ‘90s, sidecut in skis was essentially nonexistent. Turning on our long, straight boards was a matter of creating friction. We would skid down the hill with our skis angled sideways, gradually deflecting our momentum to the right or left before angling our skis back the other way. Stronger skiers merely used their edges more forcefully, creating a swifter change of direction that involved less skidding. But with no greater idea of how to achieve control on snow, ski designers at the time focused not on refining their shapes, but rather on reducing vibration. One particular company even converted a ski’s vibration into electrical energy, which would then illuminate LEDs on the topsheet. Needless to say, this was an odd and remarkably stagnant period in the history of ski design…
We owe it all to snowboarding
But with the appearance of hourglass shapes in snowboards, ski designers began to rethink even the most basic functions of a ski. They saw the perfect arcs that were created when an hourglass-shaped board was tipped on edge and flexed in the middle. And it dawned on them that an hourglass-shaped ski should be able make the same types of arcs. Yes, skiers, too, should be able to “carve” into the snow and turn without skidding! Out of this inspiration "carving skis" were born, and early adopters raved about the ability to turn "like they were on rails."
Wider tips and tails: not only better on hard-pack
Almost overnight, every skier on earth wanted to experience the new "carving" sensation. So almost overnight, all the big ski companies were producing "shaped" or "parabolic" skis to satisfy them. But the wider tips and tails that made carving possible didn't just perform better on hardpack; they skied better in powder, too! Compared to the thin, traditional skis of old, these wider skis produced a greater amount of flotation. It was a revelation that inspired ski makers everywhere to explore yet another revolutionary new class of ski designs.
Skiing in the snow, not on it
In powder, a skier isn’t on the snow; he’s in it. And for that reason, powder demands an entirely different mode of steering and control. It demands the creation of lift—lift to push a skier upward, and also to steer him from side to side as he rolls his skis back and forth underfoot. When this was first recognized, the corresponding ski designs were unlike anything skiers had seen before. The frown-like cambers of traditional skis were reversed, to create skis that almost could have been carved from saucer sleds. Pintail and swallowtail concepts were explored, with a goal of sinking the tails—and thus pointing the ski upward through the snow. And unprecedented super-fat width was introduced—because just as with an airplane’s wings, greater surface area produces greater lift!
But for those who use chairlifts rather than helicopters, a run rarely involves untracked powder alone. The bottom of the resort is groomed on even the deepest days; and even when cat skiing, we’ll often make our final few turns on the cat track. Which is to say that even the most powder-specific shapes must be at least somewhat maneuverable on firm snow. And for ski designers, this requirement is clearly a limiting factor. A pair of super-fats can be difficult and even painful to roll over for turns on hard-pack. And a pair with full-reverse camber will often suffer from a squirrelly lack of stability on firm snow. So in a quest for greater versatility, aspects of both powder skis and carving skis were married into a single new class of big mountain ski designs. These are the Goldilocks Skis, capable of both floating and carving—and thus enabling us to move confidently through the full variety of conditions encountered in the biggest mountains. For any strong skier, this versatility is mandatory in at least one pair of skis.
The progress continues
But having progressed from the swiveling, sideways-skidding, feet-together skiing of the early ‘90s, one can’t help but wonder how skiing will progress from today. Will the current concepts of carving and floating be obsolete in twenty years? We have no way of knowing. But for now, we can be sure that ski designers will continue to refine and perfect the carving and floating capabilities of today's skis, making skiing easier and more exciting for everyone—and enabling the most ambitious skiers to continue progressing our notions of what is possible on snow.