It's a carve up on the slopes

Carving skis have become the sensation of the season. Stephen Wood tests out a pair
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The Independent Travel
They don't work in icy conditions. They are no good for beginners, because you can't snowplough on them or do skid turns. On a fast, straight schuss, they are very unstable. The more people you talk to - excellent skiers, equipment experts, ski instructors - the more you wonder why "carving" skis have been such a sensational success this season.

These new skis, also known as "side-cuts" or "parabolics", are wide at the front, curve inwards from either side down to the binding, and then splay out (to a varying extent) into a fish-tail shape at the back. The principle behind them is that the wider front helps to initiate a turn when the ski is on its edge, and that the narrower middle section allows the ski to bend more easily into a bowed shape. When the whole length of the edge is forced downwards by the pressure through your boots, the curve of the ski will - in theory- make the turn for you.

Very strong skiers can achieve carved turns with traditional skis: they exert such pressure through their boots in fast turns that any ski will bend. The magic of the carving ski is that it enables even the average intermediate skier, who exerts only about a third of the pressure that a racer forces into his or her skis, to achieve the same effect. Or so the brochures say: the US ski manufacturer K2 claims that its intermediate- level carving ski, the K2 Two, offers "stability in all kinds of terrain. It helps you carve naturally. It allows you to maintain balance and poise ... the better you get the more this ski lets you accomplish".

The ski magazines in the USA were instant converts. Skiing declared that "not since the switch from leather boots to plastic has there been such a profound change in ski equipment". Its rival Ski announced "the biggest leap forward in ski design since 1954", and - having tested 64 new models last autumn and given the K2 range a maximum six-out-of-six gold medals - concluded that "skiing [has] just got a lot easier".

British ski buyers have been convinced, too. Ellis Brigham reports that in the chain of 10 shops that bear his name "75 per cent of the skis we have sold this season have been carving skis. Nobody made a fuss about the first ones that appeared last season; but now all the companies are making them, and making a fuss about them - which has convinced the customers that these skis are a big deal. Right now, it looks as if next season every ski will be a carving ski." According to its British importer, K2 has come to a similar conclusion: about 90 per cent of its 1997/8 range will be carving skis, with only the high-performance models retaining a traditional shape. (He added, intriguingly, that only one market has not fallen for carving skis; but he didn't know why the Japanese aren't buying them.)

Last weekend, I borrowed a pair of K2 Two skis to test in the French Alps. The manager of a ski-hire shop in Les Arcs was very excited by them: he'd heard such good things about the K2s that, if I'd played my cards right, I could have rented them to him. But my fellow skiers seemed oddly unimpressed. They divided into the experts, who found carving skis interesting, good fun in certain conditions, but not to be taken entirely seriously; and the intermediates who had struggled to achieve the promised great leap forward in their skiing abilities. All were still waiting to feel the magic of "natural carving". The more we talked, the longer the list of criticisms grew.

Most of them were unfounded. To my relief I found that I could ski just as badly on carving skis as on any other: on every surface, from icy to powdery, the K2s indulged bad habits. You can snowplough - although logic tells me that a straight-edged ski will give better braking performance. You can do skid turns - and I did some languid beauties on the endless lower pistes around Les Arcs 2000. Carving skis, which are worn shorter than the traditional equivalents, certainly do wander on a schuss; but their curved profile seems to make them less prone to catch an edge on well-worn rutted tracks. And with their wider-than-normal prow, they give you a very easy, de luxe ride.

The holy grail, though, eluded me. After two tentative and unrewarding days in its pursuit, the instructors at Les Arcs convinced me that I would have to turn faster, push harder and lean further if I was to get enough bend on my skis to carve a turn. Right at the limit of my capabilities, it began to feel good; then, suddenly, it hurt. But I am almost walking normally again, and the wound on my shin is healing.

There is, of course, no such thing as the carving ski: after all, Ski magazine found 64 varieties, with a range of angles of side-cut, degrees of rigidity and dimensions. Add the variations between individual skiers, and you have no consensus about carving skis. The K2 Two, with its moderate side-cut, suited me very well and I would happily keep trying to carve on it; but you might find it unmanageable in icy conditions, no good for snow ploughs or skid turns and unstable on a schuss.

And, if my experience is an unreliable guide, so is the advice of the "experts". The instructors at Les Arcs told us to keep our skis apart when carving turns: otherwise, well before the optimum angle of lean is reached (you stand up only when your uphill hand touches the snow), your boots will snag each other. This was obviously sound advice. But at Lyon airport I picked up a copy of Skieur magazine, attracted by its step-by- step photographic feature on the use of carving skis. In each picture the skier, in the traditional parallel-turn stance, had his skis right next to one another.