Usually it's a treat to visit a ski area for the first time. But only if you can see it. I must be one of few people to have made two trips to Zermatt and still not seen the Matterhorn. I know what it looks like, thanks to the images plastered around the village; and I once had it described to me by a helpful US visitor. (She wasn't that impressed, having seen it at Walt Disney World.) But on each of my trips – both of them in the autumn pre-season – Zermatt's famous mountain was hidden from view by thick cloud.
Towards the end of last season, I had a similar disappointment at another Swiss resort, Verbier. The problem there was not clouds obscuring a classic Alpine view; rather that the poor visibility rendered the purpose of the visit impractical. I was in Verbier for the day to test new skis for the 2001/02 season; and when you can hardly see two feet below you, distinguishing between different models is not easy. Even in lucid moments, when the skis' graphics became visible, problems of navigation made it difficult to give much attention to evaluating edge grip, stability, ease of use and the other criteria on which the skis were to be rated.
Luckily the weather in Verbier cleared after I left, and the ski test I had visited – the "Land-Rover Verbier 2001 Ski Test in association with Fall Line skiing magazine", to give it its excessively full name – continued for the rest of the week in good conditions. So, being in no position to judgethis season's new skis, I consulted Hamish Wolfenden, equipment editor of Fall Line, about the models that showed up well on the test cards he collected from the 200-odd skiers taking part, who ranged from holidaymakers to the celebrated US instructor, Dan Egan.
This season's skis see some evolution of past trends. Although the radius of the "sidecuts" – the curving cutaways on each side that enable skis to carve a turn – remain much the same as before, ski lengths continue to shrink to further aid manoeuvrability and response. And other manufacturers have followed the lead of Salomon's Pilot models by developing technologies that permit skis to bend consistently along their length. Traditional carving skis have a flat spot beneath the boot binding; with the new models the binding "floats" rather than being screwed flat on to the ski, so under lateral pressure in a turn the ski edge will form a perfect arc, permitting smoother turns.
There is a new trend, however, in the design of ski tails. Twin-tip skis, developed to enable terrain-park "trick" skiers to land skiing backwards from jumps, are turned upwards at both ends; and it was found that the rear "tip" displaced less snow when coming out of turns than a traditional, almost-square tail. So this season several manufacturers have introduced skis for use on and off-piste with tails that are either raised or simply rounded off.
For the Fall Line test, the 2001/02 skis were grouped into performance categories. Racing skis are a special case; otherwise, "manufacturers tend to split the mountain up," says Wolfenden. "They have a range of 'freeride' or 'all-mountain' models; they have piste skis; and finally there are terrain-park twin-tips. But the categories now overlap, because the performance envelope of every pair is getting bigger, and because the ski 'feel' is becoming universal. You can take terrain-park skis off-piste and do jumps from cliffs, or take a freeride ski and make it perform very well on-piste. The Salomon Pocket Rocket is tailored for freeride skiing, and is good for experienced powder skiers and intermediates heading off-piste for the first time. But it's also perfect for doing tricks."
I asked Wolfenden simply to go through the skis that scored highest on the test cards, ignoring the racing models. He knew which these were long before he had crunched the numbers and compiled the full test report, which covers 20 pages of the issue of Fall Line published this week. "I just had to look at the ski rack at Verbier," he says. "The best ones were never there, because skiers would take them away for hours at a time.
"The top ski was the Völkl Carver Motion, which is an all-mountain model designed for advanced skiers. But it came up trumps with everyone, from intermediates to top-end skiers. It combines good construction and shape with the right kind of flex; it's smooth, stable, accurate and fun to ski." The Völkl has one of the new, "floating" bindings, designed in conjunction with Marker. The pick of the all-mountain expert skis, the Salomon CrossMax 10, uses that company's Pilot technology to achieve the same consistent flex. "The CrossMax is very good on and off-piste," says Wolfenden. "It's designed for fast manoeuvring, with lots of power coming out of the turns. One ski guide who had been at Verbier all season took a pair for the afternoon, going into powder off the backside of Mont Fort and then going on-piste. And he loved it in both conditions."
Even broader in appeal was the Salomon Pocket Rocket. A wide ski with rounded tips at either end, "it's a universal, friendly all-mountain ski that is super-easy to use," according to Wolfenden. "Good for everyone from intermediates to experts, it opens up powder skiing to people who never thought they could do it."
Among the 140 pairs of skis on test, there were some whose popularity came as a surprise. The K2 Axis X Pro was highly rated "because unlike those carving skis whose geometry gives them a quite specific turn shape, it lets you vary the turns. And because it's both agile and robust – someone described it as 'a gymnast and a bulldozer'." Finally, the Nordica W65 and W70 scored very well for on and off-piste carving. "They were right up there with Atomics and Salomons, which was a shock," Wolfenden says. "I don't know how they've done it, but Nordica have really spiced up their skis."
Völkl Carver Motion, about £440 with binding; Salomon CrossMax 10, £500; Salomon Pocket Rocket, £420; K2 Axis X Pro, £580; Nordica W65/70, £330/£370Reuse content