How Ski Technology Has Changed in the Last 10-15 YearsPublished on 05/06/2023 · 9 min readInterested in how skis have changed in the past few years? Ski Expert Ian Greenwood breaks down all the major advancements in technology.
Photo by Ian Greenwood
For the older skiers who may be reading this, you remember. The old skis of the past were long, straight, and skinny. Sure, they were a bit of a bear on groomers, but once you got the hang of it, you could lay them over and carve. Off the groomers, though? A different story! In order to succeed off-piste with the straight skis of yesterday, you needed to master a range of arcane arts if you were to make it down in one piece. “Porpoising,” a method of skiing that involved diving the tips of your skis up and down, was one of the only true ways to attack powder-laden slopes. And that doesn’t even include the mention of moguls. While they are certainly still the enemies of knees today, when approached with straight skis that weren’t particularly interested in turning, the title ‘destroyer of knees’ sounds more accurate.
Luckily, ski tech and other gear have undergone years of innovation beyond the cumbersome straight skis of the past, when it was not uncommon to see a racer muscling a pair of 205 cm Rossignol skinny skis through a slalom course. These days, the ski industry produces a dizzying amount of options: fat skis, park skis, touring skis, directional skis, twin tips, and more. With such a breadth of choices the average skier now can find the perfect ski for them, and the sort of skiing they prefer. Gone are the days of the straight ski, where only the most adventuresome of skiers would dare to head off-piste into unknown terrain.
The First Twins, James Bond, and an Upgrade in Width
It's mostly understood that Sondre Norheim is the godfather of downhill and telemark skiing, back when he was skiing on wood skis in leather boots in Norway. For decades, ski technology saw little change other than the advent of steel edges. But that all changed in the 1950s and 1960s when skiing became a cultural sensation due to the popularity of daredevil ski racers like Toni Sailer and Stein Eriksen. That was when ski manufacturers began adding new materials to wood skis, such as Howard Head using aluminum to strengthen the wood or Toni Sailer's brand of skis that used fiberglass.
The shift towards multi-directional, rockered, twin-tip alpine skis began in 1974 with the production of the Olin Mark IV. While notable to most for their appearance in a James Bond film titled For Your Eyes Only, they have another piece of historical significance. The Olin Mark IV was the first ski on the market with a twin-tip design, meaning both the nose and tail were raised, which, on paper, meant you could ski them switch (backward). But most don’t consider the Olin Mark IVs more than a strange blip in history, as it would take nearly 20 more years for another company to produce a true twin-tip ski.
The width of the narrow straight skis got an upgrade a few years later in 1988 with the Atomic Fatties. 115mm underfoot, these skis were wider than anything previously on the market. Their invention was the result of a moment of brilliance on the part of an Atomic ski designer, who decided to slice a snowboard in half and mount it with ski bindings. Due to the surprising effectiveness of this Frankenstein monster, Atomic finalized it with the Fatties, a pair of skis that performed better in deep snow than anything that preceded them.
The Salomon 1080 and the Rise of the Twin-Tip
During the late '90s, Salomon fully kicked off the twin-tip craze with the creation of the “1080,” which was the first true twin-tip ski. The 1080 derived its name from a trick where a skier spins around a total of three times in the air before landing. This name was chosen because they were trick skis, designed with the intent of encouraging skiers to partake in the park-riding renaissance initiated by snowboarders in the 1990s. Their twin-tip design allowed skiers to land forwards and backward (or regular and switch), which expanded trick possibilities twofold.
Before proceeding to an even more significant development in ski technology history, I’d like to pause and note the importance of twin-tip design. Straight skis, which were the standard prior to the 1080, were fully flat in the tail. For bombing groomers, this was an advantage. They held an edge incredibly well, but it also meant that initiating turns was difficult, which sacrificed their maneuverability. Twin tips have a rise in the tail that shortens their “effective edge.” This shorter effective edge makes it considerably easier to initiate a greater variety of turn styles, from slashes to swerves.
The Salomon 1080 made waves, and other competitors quickly followed suit. Jason Levinthal, freeskiing pioneer, founder of Line skis, and garage ski builder extraordinaire, built the “Ostness Dragon,” as a response to the 1080 in 1999. The Ostness Dragon was another full-length twin-tip ski, whose existence was memorialized in a photo advertisement that featured pro skier Kris Ostness throwing tricks out of a quarterpipe. At this point, it was clear that twin-tip design would feature prominently in the future of ski technology and the rise of freestyle skiing.
Sidecuts, Rock On
Similarly, the advent of “shaped” skis in the 1990s is worthy of mention. Prior to the 1990s, skis were shapeless, meaning they were straight throughout the body of the ski. During the 1990s, ski designers experimented with the revolutionary concept of a ski's sidecut. “Sidecut” refers to the difference in width between the tip, the waist, and the tail of the ski. By giving skis curved sides, designers unlocked a whole new slew of potential ways to ski. Varying sidecut designs offered differing turn radiuses for skis and made initiating turns that much easier. Skis with a long sidecut promoted long, arcing, turns, whereas those with a shorter sidecut relished a tighter, shorter turn radius. The rise of shaped skis also led to a drastic decrease in the length of the ski.
In 2002, the final piece of the puzzle was put in place with the creation of the Volant Spatula, a ski that employed the revolutionary rocker profiles, otherwise known as reverse camber. The Spatula was the result of a partnership between pro skier Shane McConkey and ski manufacturer Volant, with a focus on powder skiing. McConkey based the design of these skis on an old pair of water skis he had floating around, with the intent of creating a ski that surfs and floats on top of deep powder. The Spatula even went so far as to utilize a reverse sidecut, in which the middle of the ski was fatter than the tip and tail to provide more surface area underfoot.
Rockered skis, like the Spatula, fully cemented the existence of the dedicated “pow ski” for deeper snow. Here are some of the basic tenets of rocker design: rocker refers to the amount of ski that curves off of the snow when said skis are placed flat. Skis with considerable rocker in the tip and tail take on more of an ‘s’ shape, as opposed to the bow shape of more traditional carving skis. These fully rockered skis are perfect for a heli trip as they surf above deep snow, rather than sinking in. Think Hellbents or Pontoons.
A cambered ski is the counterpoint to rocker and is designed for skiing in firm and fast conditions. Essentially, more rocker translates to powder performance, whereas more camber will be your friend on icy groomers. These days, more and more manufacturers are incorporating both rocker technology and camber into the same ski, perhaps using an early rise tip to provide float but traditional camber underfoot to provide grip on ice.
Ski Tech Gets Introspective
By the late 2000s, the nexus of a fatter waist width, varying sidecuts, twin-tips, and an assortment of rocker-camber profiles meant that nearly every permutation of ski shape was on the market. Now, companies are turning towards the materials used within the skis. For example, WNDR (a recent start-up helmed by Matt Sterbenz) has begun the use of an algae-derivative for the layers within the core of their skis. This material isn’t just light and responsive, it’s also more sustainable than the petroleum-based core materials of the past. Another example is the titanal Y-beam technology used in the K2’s popular “Mindbender” ski series. Rather than a single, straight, sheet metal at the core, K2's 2019 Mindbender Ti skis employ a Y-shaped sheet metal that's designed to promote torsional stiffness, stability, and more consistent flex.
For more on enviornmentally-friendly options, check out An Expert Guide to Sustainable Ski Gear.
environmentally-friendlyOn the touring end of things, companies, like Blizzard, are continuing to tweak core compositions with the goal of providing lightweight and more stable skis that are just as good going uphill as the descent. Many companies are now using carbon fiber to replace metal skis to produce a lighter ski that is still stiff. DPS, a small ski manufacturer of powder skis has even gone so far as to incorporate NASA-grade aerospace foam into its skis for more durability. Elan has even claimed that they are building the first-ever Smart Ski, which will constantly analyze the flex of the ski. And with the rise in backcountry touring, many companies are starting to release hybrid resort/touring skis that can be used both in the resort and out. So, while it may seem that the most radical advancements in ski technology happened years and years ago, there are still quite a few industry leaps in the process. This time, though, it’s on the inside of the ski, rather than the outside.
In the last decade or so, much more has changed than just the skis! With the advent of the smartphone and social media, ski gear has had to adapt to keep up. These days, it seems like everyone, from park skiers to dad skiers, is rocking a GoPro or action camera or similar device somewhere on their body. And new ski gloves are made specifically for use with a touch screen. Meanwhile, helmets, which were hardly ever worn in the past, are now ubiquitous, complete with BlueTooth audio in the earpads and magnetic ski goggles with swappable lenses. New lenses, like the Smith Chromapop, can change due to different lighting conditions throughout the day. Even ski boots have seen a huge leap, with many now made with a walk mode, putting an end to the days of watching your favorite tourist or ski instructor saunter awkwardly through the resort base.
These days, the racks at ski resorts are littered with every type of ski imaginable! If you want to chat ski tech or want to get geared up with the latest advancements, reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.