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Travel Skiing: Which way should you turn?

Thinking of buying yourself some skis? It helps to know what questions you'll be asked
Choosing a new pair of skis is becoming more and more like taking an exam. There's so much studying involved, for a start: this year's Snow+Rock catalogue offers 65 different models - they're all suitable for someone, but which is the one for you? And if you haven't been concentrating recently, most of what you know about skis is hopelessly out of date. You can forget all that stuff about traditional models: the carving ski - wide at the tip and tail, narrow below the boot - is the only kind that matters now.

The trick with exams, of course, is knowing what questions will come up. And I can help there.

Not only did I join Snow+Rock's annual ski test in April, at St Christoph in Austria, where all this season's new models were evaluated by 80-odd members of the company's staff; I also found out how the staff test customers coming into the shops to buy skis.

The first tip? Don't express a preference for the make of ski your instructor recommended last season: ski instructors are notoriously conservative - they've been using tradtional skis for years, and don't see why their expertise should be devalued by carving skis, which are both easier and more fun to use. Don't say, when asked about the last pair of skis you bought, that they were red ones, or, worse still, that they were slalom skis; even if the latter is true, dyslexia is so common among skiers that it will be assumed that they were in fact made by Salomon. And don't quote the old chestnut that the better the skier, the longer the ski. There used to be some truth in this, but with the advent of carving skis, which are worn comparatively short, it causes sniggers in the back of the shop.

Be prepared instead to answer honestly the following questions. For how long have you been skiing? (Answer this one in total weeks skied, because someone who says "for 10 years" may have skied for only one week, 10 years ago.) Which other active sports do you do? (The answer gives a clue to the way you ski, on a spectrum from finesse to ferocity.) What is your idea of a great day's skiing: is it powder all the way, smooth skiing on-piste, or riding the bumps? Do you have high aspirations, and need skis that you will grow into? And what are your vital statistics - budget, height and weight? (Don't lie about the last, because it is critical to the adjustment of your bindings.)

Your answers will determine which category of ski is suitable for you. In the Snow+Rock ski test, the different models were categorised - to compare like with like - and then ranked according to their suitability for a spectrum of skiers from beginners (level one) to experts (level 10). Testers pounded down the same slope at St Christoph, in consistent snow conditions, to ensure a figurative level playing-field for each pair of skis. After every three runs, they headed into the pits - literally, since the manufacturers' representatives dug themselves into the snow so that eye-level adjustments could be made to binding settings - for a quick ski-change.

This year, there were clear favourites in some categories. Among the mid-range carving skis, the Head Cyber Cross TI, the K2 Merlin Three and the Fischer Revolution Super Carve all did well on the test; for expert carvers, the Atomic Beta Carve 9.26 and the Salomon Axendo were highly rated; and among the competition giant slalom skis the clear winners were the Atomic Beta Race 10.26 and the Rossignol 9X.

But the real stars of the test were the new free-ride skis. Wider overall than other carving skis, but still with the characteristic waisted shape, they cope with all snow conditions both on- and off-piste. They are the hottest skis in the US and were in great demand among the testers, particularly the Salomon X-Scream and Atomic Beta Cruise 9.22 models. How do you qualify for them? Cheating at an exam is not to be recommended, of course, especially if it leads to buying unsuitable skis; but I did question Dion Taylor, Snow+Rock's equipment manager, about the kind of customer to whom he would recommend free-ride skis. His answer was: "Someone who says he wants to develop his off-piste abilities, have the whole ski area as his playground, and get to the bottom first." Now you know.