Testing, Testing View From the West
Oct 13, 2005 | 229 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What are we talking about here?

– "A drop of mercury slithering down the hill, finding its way with impunity."

– "Offers a helping hand to lead you into a deeper, more meaningful relationship with snow."

– "Like reuniting with a best friend: easy and fun as hell to be with."

– "So juiced it should have to pass a pee test to be declared legal."

Yes, it's that time of year again when the ski magazines come out with their gear guides.

I was probably guilty of similarly desperate anthropomorphizing when I helped test skis for SKI Magazine in the 90s. I empathize with the above reviewers. It's hard after skiing on a hundred different pairs of skis in four days to come up with descriptions that are both fresh and genuinely informative. At least these good folks are trying to stretch beyond the typical "grips it and rips it" tripe.

How helpful are buyer's guides? The editors claim that "we throttled the year's best gear … so you don't have to." But is it possible to glean anything really meaningful from the write-ups?

The pictures are cool. (Sometimes a ski's graphics, its attitude, its pedigree is as important as anything else in making a purchase.) Both SKI and Skiing give you the skis' tip-waist-tail dimensions, and the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price. The former is solid, indisputable information. The latter is merely a kick in the place you may keep your pocketbook, a calculated attempt by the companies to numb us into accepting four-figure numbers.

SKI lists the three "top scores" for each ski (out of the full checklist: powder, crud, stability at speed, forgiveness, moguls, long turns, short turns, hard snow grip, rebound energy and overall impression). Then they tell you which three testers rated the ski the highest, as if, magically, we readers will identify somehow.

Skiing goes with a somewhat techier chart that gives you a "power/finesse" ratio, average scores for speed, off-piste, corduroy, and another ratio describing relative strengths on a "carve/float" continuum. But unless you are experienced with a lot of skis, with a bunch of different shapes and different manufacturers' tendencies (soft Salomons; I-beam sturdy Stöckli), these numbers will be so much white noise, and the things that will stick (if anything) in your mind will be the words: "Only minor tweaks on the reins will keep this well-behaved Italian stallion right on track."

I don't remember a single phrase I wrote about the skis I tested. But I do remember a few of the very best skis. The testers are supposed not to know what they are riding; the top sheets are all masked in white tape. But this is bogus. Almost every ski has its logo on the base. Most skis have distinctive tip caps or ribs or energy absorbing devices that are impossible to mask. Nowadays, most skis come with certain bindings and plates, and that is a dead giveaway, too.

So, they know what they are riding on, and they have their prejudices. When I got on the Atomic Beta Cruise 922 a few years back, I knew right away it was an Atomic. Then I made it my business to find out exactly which model. They turned so precisely and naturally (for my particular body and skill set), I had to go out and buy a pair. Same with the Völkl Explosiv, one of the first fat powder skis. Fellow tester Dick Dorworth handed them to me on a warm, cruddy day, saying, "These'll take ten years off your age." He was right, and I bought a pair of those too.

You don't see them in the magazine, but there are dogs in every test. I remember some Dynamics, some Harts, some Volants that were either so miserably tuned or just plain bad skis, that we had to chuck them out of the test. Years ago, magazines wrote up an occasional critical review. But the manufacturers went ballistic; they did after all wield the power of the advertising dollar. So, flat-out bad reviews went the way of the buffalo, and "weaknesses" are handled with kid gloves. To whit: "At high speeds, bigger pros found a little more nervousness in the shovel than they wanted." Now every review is a good review. (The editors wriggle out by claiming that only the best 89 skis, out of 295 tested, make the magazine's final cut.)

And so we are left with: "Like working a 150-pound tarpon on 12-pound test." Huh? Is this person describing a ski that will go where I point it, hold an arc at the speeds I like to ski, come around for me even when I'm in the back seat?

Magazines are vicarious good fun. They will not make your decisions for you. The only way to know if a ski is right is to put 'em on your feet and take 'em for a spin. Only then will your lizard brain know.
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