How many times have you struggled down a steep slope that you thought you should have had no trouble with, had difficulty keeping up with friends or simply felt too tired to keep skiing long before you'd had enough? At times like this I'm sure you've often wondered if it was your skis letting you down and not your technique, or your legs! Having been lucky enough to have tested many new skis over the last few seasons, of all types and makes, I have now found what I consider to be the `best' skis for me in most snow conditions. Not only have I found a pair of skis that suit my style and ability-level but the simple fact that I know I have tried most other skis on the market and have chosen `my' skis over all the rest gives me tremendous confidence in myself and my equipment in any situation, I no longer have any doubts - or excuses!
For many people, ski testing could be the ideal way of choosing their next pair of skis (or boots) or simply confirming that their own skis are perfectly adequate. Either way, it is the only sure way of finding equipment that is guaranteed to suit your style of skiing and your ability. It could also convince many people who have always hired their skis in the past, that the investment in a pair of your own is worthwhile if you can be sure of what you are buying. So how do you go about getting yourself on a ski test? Where and when are they held?
The first test I was involved in was arranged as a package holiday, organised by the Ellis Brigham shops and was held on the Stubai glacier in Austria, just thirty miles from Innsbruck. I got involved in this test twice, in '90 and in '91 (when I travelled out on my own and `gate crashed' it), the test being held at the end of May when the glacier was almost deserted, perfect for ski testing. With no lift queues, mostly empty pistes and good snow conditions up to one or two o'clock, conditions were ideal for testing any quality of the skis you may like - wide, wide turns, down the fall line `bombing' runs or anything else you care to try.
The holiday started with a 24 hour coach trip across Europe, starting out on Saturday afternoon, with pick-up points along the way from Manchester through London to Dover. Not the most enjoyable journey I've ever been on - but then I don't sleep well at the best of times (hence my own travel arrangements the following year!). Arriving in Neustift around 5pm. Sunday, we just had time to unload our luggage into the rooms and have a shower before dinner. Evenings were spent in the bar exchanging the usual skiing related stories, later in the week the favourite topic of conversation being which skis you'd been testing that day. There were a few pairs of boots available but of course exact fitting is more critical here and I was not able to try any at the time. Only after two failures and a custom foam job have I found the right boots for me!
The mornings started with a good breakfast and a short briefing on what we could expect in the way of equipment that day. The first day I was `volunteered' to be one of the first members of the public to try out the then new Salomon skis. The coach was used to transfer everyone the 12 odd miles up the valley to the lifts, a four man two-stage gondola taking twenty five minutes to reach the top station. In the winter another gondola goes to the half way stage where you can take a double chair to the bottom of the main drag lifts. Being a ski test, there were dozens of spare pairs of skis in the van, which necessitated most people taking up two pairs. Up on the glacier the test `base' was set up at the bottom of a short drag lift just above the main restaurant, giving access to a choice of runs. This meant walking up a short -but steep- hill carrying two pairs of skis at the beginning of each day, leaving everyone needing a rest before they'd even started!
The skis were grouped into makes and were looked after by reps of that company. Picking a pair of skis was easy, just ask what they had in your size, give them your binding setting, stick a boot into the front of the bindings and wait for your `slave', grovelling in the snow, to adjust them for you. Then it was simply a matter of clicking into the bindings and skiing off. As we were expected to try five or six pairs of skis each day, I usually did just two or three runs on each pair before swapping them for something else. At this point we were asked to fill in a report card for each pair, marking them out of ten for everything from ease of turning to edge hold and from glide to responsiveness. Actually, it was much easier than I imagined it would be for me -then an improving intermediate- to recognize the characteristics of a ski, although after testing around twenty five pairs in four days things can get a little confusing!
Afternoons were free for anyone to go mountain biking, play tennis or simply take in the hot sun or go for a leisurely walk. Evenings were started off by an informative talk on some of the latest (next seasons) equipment that we were trying out from one of the company reps or a talk from one of the top skiing coaches that had accompanied us on the trip. This was followed by an excellent meal and the all important drinks in the bar. The week flew by and what with a bit of snow boarding thrown in, `free' skiing on your favourite pair of skis on the last day together with making lots of new friends it was most enjoyable and all too short.
Another test held on a regular basis, also in Austria and around the same time was one organised by the Daily Mail and held on the Hintertux glacier in the Zillertal valley, around ten miles further on from Mayrhoffen. I was involved in this test in '92, the main difference being that anyone can arrange their own way of getting out there, whether on a package holiday or on their own. You just have to turn up at the bottom of the lift each day and pick a pair of skis to test from one of the manufacturer's vans. What you have to remember here is that you have to pick one pair of skis for the whole day as you will usually be asked to leave your own skis with the people loaning you a pair. There are no skis available on the glacier (although there were snow-boards) and you can only use the main lift up to the glacier once a day - once up there you have to ski with your choice for that day until you decide to come down. I picked a pair that was new to me each day and had some rather disappointing days skiing and was very happy to go back to my own skis for my last day.
These tests were held each year, but that was a long time ago now and there may more, or fewer of these running nowadays. If you think that ski testing could be for you, try contacting Ellis Brigham and other ki sports shops, look for details in the Daily Mail and other papers and look online for other companies also running these tests and holidays. Remember, the number of places could be very limited, so don't wait too long if you have to book. When comparing the cost of all holidays, remember to allow for the usual and any hidden added cost, like travel, parking, ski hire (may be needed for out of test hours use), lift tickets, meals etc., that may not be included in some packages.
So what skis DID I choose after all that testing? My favourites at the end of the '90 test were K2 Extremes (which I bought at the end of 1990) and were still my second top choice after the '91 and '92 tests, the only ones I then considered better (for me) were K2 CV Comps - and then only just. Which skis will suit you however will certainly be different as these are no longer available and in any case, no two people ski alike, so get out there and try them for yourself, happy testing!