Testing new skis on Austria's glacial runs

The ski industry puts next season's hardware on trial during the summer. Stephen Wood travelled to the Alps for a preview

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The Independent Travel

On the road up the Tux valley, in the Tyrol region of Austria, the hotels were shuttered and the ski rental shops dark. Only at the very top, in Hintertux, where the road ends in a large car park, were there signs of life: some flickering neon above a ski shop, a cable-car in motion, and a cosmopolitan group of skiers with – to judge from the car registration plates – Russians and Poles among them.

If you have never skied in the Alps in summer, you may wonder what it's like. Obviously, not very crowded; but also not very satisfactory. Summer snow is reliably found only on glaciers, where the ski slopes are short and located a long lift-ride up the mountain. And the snow turns to slush in the warm afternoons.

But for those with a serious ski habit, these swathes of snow are worth the 2,500km drive from Moscow, at least when the nearest proper skiing is in the Southern Hemisphere. And the slopes come in handy, too, for ski-equipment retailers who want their staff to experience the skis to be sold for the coming season.

Why was I driving up the Tux Valley in early May? To join a dozen members of the sales team from Ellis Brigham shops, who were taking part in the company's annual ski test at Hintertux.

This test does not determine which skis are to be sold in the shops: that decision is made earlier in the year at several industry-wide tests, four of them normally attended by Steve Wells, Ellis Brigham's ski hardware buyer. Rather, the event is an opportunity for team-building and to reward staff members, as well as familiarising them with the new products. But it is still a test: from its pop-up "shop" on a slopeside balcony, the test team took each ski for a couple of runs and then returned to fill in a report card, scoring it out of 10 on criteria such as stability, agility, and ease of use.

Since tester comments are quoted in Ellis Brigham's annual catalogue, The White Book, the task is taken seriously. On the balcony, pens were sucked and distances stared into as team members pondered how to describe one ski's responsiveness – was it "super-poppy"? – and debated whether another "needs more rocker" (the term refers to the turned-up nose and tail which many skis now sport).

Back in the UK, the numbers were crunched and the comments collated; and on behalf of skiers considering a purchase this season, I asked Wells which skis had performed best. He took the question literally, considering all those tested rather than – as he might have done – restricting himself to the new products.

"The genuinely new ski is actually a rarity," he pointed out. "Manufacturers do a great deal of testing, and that means skis are continually evolving." But some are created with what Wells calls "the wow factor", and keep on selling, season after season, with only detail changes. His first choice was just such a ski.

"It is relatively easy to make a ski that is good for a specific purpose," Wells says. "The exceptional skis are those that do what they were designed to do, and a lot more. The Head Magnum (£590 with binding) has been around now for half a dozen years, and it's iconic because of its great versatility. We call it an instructor's ski because it's ideal for someone who might be teaching beginners how to snowplough in the morning and heading off-piste in the afternoon.

"The Magnum is actually a detuned racing ski, yet people like using it on-piste because it is so forgiving. It's a master of all trades. Our men's ski of this year's test, though, was the new Nordica NRGY 90 (£430, ski only). We had a good feeling about it from the start. I often stop halfway down a slope to watch other skiers; and at February's Snowsport Industries of Great Britain ski test at Kühtai, in Austria, I studied skiers on the Nordicas. They were obviously having fun."

It was very popular at the test, too, Wells reports. An all-mountain ski with a long nose and tail, it's lively, and good on soft snow, but also performs well on the piste. Though the NRGY 90 is actually pitched at advanced skiers, the testing showed that it is also great for more confident intermediates.

Even with a very good ski, Wells says, there are usually some people "who don't get it, who don't understand why it's so popular". But no one on the test had such a problem with the NRGY 90.

The pick of the women's skis proved to be the Blizzard Black Pearl (£430, ski only). Like the Head Magnum, this isn't a new ski: it is in its fourth year. However, it performs equally on hard-packed groomed runs as well as in knee-deep powder, and all conditions in between. And it really shines on horrible, broken snow: it's effortless there.

"Blizzard was something of a failed brand five years ago, says Wells. "But it took inspiration from the go-anywhere skis in the US, and now it leads the way with that type of ski, stiff under the foot but forgiving at the nose and tail."

The final "best of test" was a bigger, free-ride ski, the Rossignol Soul 7 (£480, ski only), available for women as the Savory 7. Again, this is not a new ski: launched last season, it was such a success that most Ellis Brigham shops had to re-order it. "Some free-ride skis are great off-piste but feel big and heavy on the piste; yet despite its size, the Soul 7 is easy and full of energy on groomed snow," says Wells. Not surprisingly it is unchanged for this season.

Still not sure about the best ski for you? Then have your own test. By arrangement with the Ellis Brigham shops at the indoor snow slopes in Milton Keynes, Tamworth, Castleford, and Glasgow you can try out the best skis on the summer test at Hintertux.

The ski prices quoted are for Ellis Brigham shops and online (ellis-brigham.com). Expert advice line: 0800 035 6483

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