backcountry Endorsement: red bull athlete and ski-mountaineering hero chris davenport signed with scarpa this fall. Photo courtesy of Adam Clark
How kodak courage, rocker and the AT frenzy are changing the way we experience the snow.
The basics of skiing don’t change too much from year to year: you find a ski town, wait for the snow to fall, then spend as many days as you possibly can going up and down the mountain. But the epic experience augmentation industry (a.k.a.: ski and snowboard equipment manufacturers) keep finding ways to improve those basic elements, making it easier to ascend, descend and document your winter thrills.
Of course, equipment innovation has always provided a steady timeline by which to measure the progress of the sport—from plastic boots in the ’70s to snowboards and Walkmans in the ’80s to fat skis and iPods in the past decade—and will continue to do so even as skiing itself reverts to its “earn your turns” and share the stoke roots. Which is the beauty of three of the top trends driving skiing right now, because as revolutionary as they are, at the core they are still about helping people achieve their awesome on-snow moment, then immediately share it with 900 friends on Facebook.
The SUV-ification of Skiing
From bindings to boots, ski design has gone the way of the Swiss Army Knife. While racing and freestyle still have their arena-specific focus, for most all-mountain skiers, that idea of a one ski quiver set-up that can crush early morning tracks in-bounds then skin after fresh lines all afternoon still dominates.
Which should come as no surprise to most Coloradoans, who are well-versed in the difference between the terrain they can access on their legs, and the terrain they access from the lift. But for ski boot and binding design in particular, alpine’s big brands are now going all-in on the formerly niche randonnee market.
“We are seeing a lot of evolution in the industry right now, with the major alpine ski boot makers jumping into the AT market,” said Chris Davenport, who inked a contract with Scarpa in one of three high profile AT athlete/R&D signings over the summer. “With the big dogs like Lange, Salomon, Atomic and Tecnica all offering high performance boots that also walk/tour, smaller, traditional touring boot companies like Scarpa, Garmont and Dynafit need to be smart and make sure they don’t lose market share in the category they once owned.”
Davenport, who skied all 54 of Colorado’s 14’ers in a single year, and owns two world freeskiing championships, is expected to ski on the product as much as he is expected to help design it. Same with Canada’s Eric “Hoji” Hjorleifson, who signed with Dynafit and helped design that brand’s groundbreaking Vulcan boot. And also with two-million-vertical-feet-in-a-year skier Greg Hill, who left Dynafit for Salomon, and is expected to help the brand expand on this year’s launch of the Guardian binding, a 16 DIN beast designed to tour, but with a downhill focus.
Salomon introduced the binding in conjunction with Atomic, which named its version the Tracker, and helped develop it with former World Cup skiing star Daron Rahlves. Atomic U.S. Alpine Product Manager Jake Strassburger said the binding is aimed at people who aren’t interested in—or can’t afford—two separate ski set-ups. “They want to be able to charge at the ski area on equipment that doesn’t shatter their confidence and then still have access to all of the amazing backcountry right beyond the boundary once the ski area gets throttled,” he said.
Strassburger added that what ski companies are trying to do is meet the needs of the same avid skiers who are pressuring resorts to keep opening new terrain, and offering a more interactive ski experience. But even though big expansions are now on tap for Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Eldora and Monarch, just to name a few, as areas reach the edge of their permit zones, their best—and sometimes only—option may be to simply establish more designated exit zones for skiers to leave the resort. As Strassburger said, “It’s quite a bit easier to put in an access gate.”
Rocker Goes Mainstream
On the flipside of that backcountry ski-quasion, frontside skiers are going to be enjoying more hardpack skis designed with rocker or reverse camber this season. Although traditionally associated with big mountain powder skis and snowboards, World Cup skiers have also been experimenting with rocker for years, fine-tuning the ease of turn initiation with super stable edge hold. It’s only now that those benefits will be available for lift-served skiers who live for that just-groomed arc.
“A little bit of rocker goes a long way in how much easier it can make a ski to turn,” said Rossignol Vice President of Brand Marketing Tait Wardlaw, who added that rocker is adding a new sense of finesse into how carving skis handle in those beautiful blue sky, hardpack moments.
And while Rossi incorporates what it calls Power Turn Rocker into its hardpack handling Pursuit Series, other brands such as Nordica are bringing rocker to the weekend warriors in their Transfire Line, which features early rise tips and slightly raised tails for increased maneuverability. Blizzard is also taking the technology to the boilerplate, adding its award-winning (and big-mountain designed) Flipcore rocker to its Magnum Series, which mixes rocker with two decidedly slim-waisted skis measuring 80mm and 85mm underfoot.
The biggest frontside ski news, however, is probably K2’s new Bolt. Super sleek at 125/72/99, and super stiff with a Carbon Web placement, this is the kind of ski that might actually be too stiff to roll on edge if it weren’t for the turn initiation ease of rocker in the tip.
“By combining proven sidecuts with optimal rocker profiles, we are now able to build resort focused skis optimized for a variety of terrain and ability levels,” said K2 global marketing manager Mike Gutt. K2 was the first ski company to feature rocker throughout its ski line, and Gutt said that in-house, the brand has often referred to the technology as Viagara for skiers, “letting you ski longer and harder” than anything else.
Check Me Out
Of course the biggest technological change ‘rocking’ the ski industry is the same one rocking the rest of the world—namely the explosion in quality video people can easily shoot and share from their smartphones, GoPro’s, and other assorted mini cameras mounted on their helmets and ski poles.
Teton Gravity Research co-founder Todd Jones said it cost a minimum of $80,000 just to get the equipment needed to start filming in the action sports industry when the company launched back in 1996. And that was before you even started paying for film, which cost about $100 every three minutes.
Now, “We had time lapses shot for the movie (Dream Factory, which goes back to TGR’s big mountain Alaskan roots) with a GoPro that are absolutely beautiful,” Jones said. “The evolution has been crazy. You could probably start shooting at the semi-pro level right now for about $5,000 to $6,000 for the equipment.”
TGR has been using point-of-view (POV) cameras in its films for years, and has recently been shooting an entire athlete series using GoPro. But as anyone with access to YouTube or Facebook or a cellphone these days knows, everybody and anybody has gone absolutely crazy shooting and posting video of themselves. Primarily a compilation of great crashes and bad bump lines, most of what people are filming is decidedly hit and miss. The inadvertent filming, of say a Utah ski patroller getting way too aggro with a couple of snowboarders, or a skier accidentally falling backwards off a cliff in Alaska, has actually provided some of the genre’s more entertaining moments.
“In POV, there is a ton of crap,” Jones said. “But you look at some of the DSLR level stuff and it’s absolutely mind-blowing, and there’s also a lot of that.”
But it’s not just how easily people can now film their most awesome personal powder moment that is the real game changer here, Jones said. It’s how quickly and easily they can share it. “Now it’s just shoot, edit, share,” Jones said. “Which I think is great for brands and individuals alike.”
As for how all of that might actually affect the ski and snowboard industry differently than anywhere else, Steamboat Springs snowboard instructor Scott Anfang thinks there might be a whole generation of new riders who come to the slopes just to put their new technology to the test. “I find I’m using my camera a lot more when I go mountain biking, and I don’t mountain bike nearly as much as I snowboard,” said Anfang, who is on the American Association of Snowboard Instructors Snowboard Team. “So I can see people wanting to put these cool things together as they are learning to use them, especially in that environment.”
Peter Kray is Elevation Outdoors’s editor-at-large and the co-founder of The Gear Institute (gearinstitute.org).