Go large – touring on wide skis

Here’s a provocative statement to wind up the traditionalists at one end of the spectrum and the racers at the other end: “it’s way better to ski tour on fat boys than matchsticks. I haven’t skied on anything less than 3 figures underfoot since 2011. So there…”. Having nailed my colours firmly to the mast, I’ll now duck back below the parapet ( to mix navy and army metaphors ).

As I write this in early March 2019, the touring season has properly arrived. I’m off later today for 2 weeks in Arctic Norway, back to Verbier for a week, 2 weeks in Austria, a week just south of Mont Blanc and then 2 weeks on the west coast of Greenland. All that will be done on skis ranging between 105 and 108mm underfoot. I’ve been on Blizzard Zero G 108’s for about 3 years now, but I’ll also be testing several models due out in 2020 for Concept Pro Shop Chamonix including the new Blizzard Zero G 105, the Head Kore 105, the Fischer Ranger 108 and the Ogso Schwartztor at 106

Back in the mists of time, it was assumed that the better a skier you were, the longer your skis should be. Anyone remember putting their ski tails on top of their boots in the cable car to pame it look like your skis were 10cm longer? Yup – me too – just for a laugh. In the same way, when “fat boys” came out, it was assumed they were only for good skiers. Remember the Pocket Rockets at a mighty 90mm underfoot? They were a revolution at the time, yet now they’d be considered fairly average.

In 2011, I made the leap to 3 figures with the Trab Volare. At the time, I wasn’t certain whether I was “good enough” to ski on planks that wide, which illustrates a typical problem of perception of wide skis. It’s interesting that Trab came very much from a ski mountaineering race background, and it was a bold move to release 2 models, the Polvere and the Volare, aimed more at the freeride market. Which brings us neatly to:

The main arguments for touring on matchsticks:

  • Thin skis are lighter so you can go uphill faster

Yup – can’t argue with that. But do you really want to arrive at the top of the skin sweating your bits off, do the changeover in a few seconds and then straightline it, leaning so far into the backs your tips are out of the snow, all the time feeling so terrified that your lycra suit goes brown in the nether regions? If your answer is yes, it’s probably best you stop reading here, since enjoyment of the downhill is not top of your priority list.

If you really want to save weight, look to do it in other areas – pack, clothing, bindings and so on. That way you can have an easy ascent and still enjoy the downhill.

  • Thin skis have less friction when skinning

I’m not convinced that’s true. There’s a specific amount of weight and therefore frictional force associated with sliding the ski uphill. Whether the ski is 75mm or 105mm makes little difference. In soft snow, the wider ski will sink in less and so displace less depth of snow during the forward stride.

  • What about damage to my knees?

It’s been argued that there’s more leverage on things like the MCL with wider skis. I can’t say I’ve noticed especially and, in any case, all that reasoning disappears when the ski disappears under the snow. Whatever the width of the ski, once you go fluffy the support point is in the middle of the ski. If you’re worried about knee wear and tear, either back off the amount of edge you use, do some training or stop skiing.

  • Any other arguments for skinny skis?

Some people would argue that they go quicker edge to edge. Some very well known steep skiers use fairly narrow skis, but these are exceptionally talented folk in exceptionally serious places. As we will see, I’m not convinced that this is either desirable or necessary for the average ski tourer, and for the record I consider myself as fairly average, albeit with some ridiculous aspirations in terms of steepness for a 58 year old mountain guide who really should grow up and act his age…

So what makes skiing on 100mm minimum underfoot so easy and such fun?

  • More flotation

In soft or variable snow, the skis sink in less. Essentially this means that you go forward faster, but that things happen more slowly, if that makes sense. On matchsticks, if you have uneven foot pressure or the snow under one ski changes, that ski (typically the downhill ski) will plunge deeply and swiftly into the snow, with the result that it turns sharply, throwing you into the backs. A wider ski sinks more slowly because of the increased pressure, giving more time to react, ease the downsink and so on. I’m an intrinsically lazy person, and anything I can have to make the job easier, I’ll take it thanks very much.

  • More sensitive edge control

I would argue (with personal empirical evidence) that a wider ski gives finer edge control. For the same amount of lateral knee movement, the angle at the ski snow interface changes less. It’s the opposite of the quicker edge to edge argument mentioned above. And for me, I would prefer to have careful edge to edge control rather than fast. I’m not skiing slalom gates, squeezing every last bit of performance out of my skis. Much of the time there’s a strong element of drifting sideways in my turns, especially in steep tight terrain. The phrase “grippy and skiddy (© Simon Christy 2019)” might sound like a contradiction, but once you get your head and feet round it, it’s a marvellous thing.

As an aside, a wide turn radius helps with this. Narrow underfoot tends to come with low turn radius. Carving, darlings, is soooo passé. So ditch anything less than 20m if you can. I’m up at 24-ish as a rule. Charge hard, kids.

  • Easier kick turns

If you use a wide ski, for the same amount of footprint/flotation your ski can be shorter, which will make kick turns easier. Talking of easier, here’s my final word:

  • Wide skis make it easier

There’s a ridiculous argument goes about that somehow a wide ski is cheating because it makes the whole thing easier, that somehow you need to serve an apprenticeship of suffering to earn the right to ski more easily off piste. Cue a ski version of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen sketch:

Back in my day, we skied on matchsticks. MATCHSTICKS?? You were lucky. I used to ski on sewing needles and me dad would beat us with a wet skin every night to toughen us up. NEEDLES??? etc. etc. and if you tell that to the young people today, they won’t believe you.