I’ve been skiing for 27 years, most of those on men’s or unisex skis. That wasn’t a conscious decision—it wasn’t a decision at all, in fact. That’s just what I had to work with. With an older brother involved in ski racing and a ski instructor dad well versed in high-performance gear, more often than not I found myself on hand-me-down race skis—stiff planks with two sheets of metal, unyielding core materials, and a traditional mount point. When I couldn’t bend the ski or carve like my brother, I thought nothing of it. I figured I just had a lot to learn still. Over time, I discovered how to move my stance forward to better access the front of men’s skis, and as I grew stronger, I was able to apply muscle and sheer will power to make these skis bend to my will.
It wasn’t until seven years ago when I got on a pair of women’s-specific skis for the first time—my mom’s Völkl Flair 76—that I realized how effortless skiing could be. I was skiing with an instructor friend on this occasion, and I distinctly remember his incredulity that I was skiing on such “soft, flimsy skis.” “Those aren’t the right skis for you,” I remember him scoffing. True, they were a little soft for my aggressive style of skiing, but that didn’t limit my ability to keep up with him or outlast his stamina by the end of the day thanks to having lighter skis underfoot. Who was he to tell me what skis I should or shouldn’t be on? These women’s-specific skis were fun!
Since the beginning of skiing—a sport dominated by men back then and to this day—guys have assumed they know what skis are best for women. “Husbands go into the ski shop looking for skis for their wives, and think ‘Well, I have the Blizzard Brahma, so my wife should have the Blizzard Black Pearl,” says Leslie Baker-Brown, marketing manager of Blizzard Tecnica since 1988. Those wives then simply shrug their shoulders, uninformed about the options for women and unaware of what it is they actually want in a ski. And it’s not their fault; until recently, there haven’t been many options for women—they either skied on shorter men’s skis or unisex skis with pretty top sheets because that’s all that brands produced.
But thanks to a growing number of women like Baker-Brown and supportive brands, that’s changing. Blizzard Tecnica, K2, and Elan are among those brands investing significant time, energy, and money to discover what ladies want in a ski by forming task forces of women charged with research and development.
Kim Reichhelm, professional skier and founder of Ski with Kim, a ski adventure company that specializes in leading trips and clinics for women, has been part of the K2 Women’s Alliance since its inception more than 20 years ago. The Alliance—an all-women’s group of professional skiers, instructors, and ski shop owners who conduct focus groups, test skis, and give K2’s product development team women’s-specific feedback—was the first of its kind. “It’s cool that even back then, K2 was taking the time to ask, ‘How different are you women, and what do you really need and like in a ski?’ ” says Reichhelm.
What the Alliance learned from countless ski tests surprised even the women involved. “A long time ago one of our women claimed we needed a forward-mount position. And I thought that was B.S.,” Reichhelm recounts. “But then we did a blind test with five skis, each exactly the same with half-centimeter variations in the mounting point. Turns out, I was wrong. I found that actually, I liked the skis with forward-mount points, as did the rest of the women. So then we said, let’s take it one step further. If we like our skis mounted farther forward, maybe we would also like the narrowest point of the ski moved up. All of these things we now do in women’s-specific skis we learned from years of testing and research.”
K2’s findings are backed up by Blizzard Tecnica’s Women to Women (W2W) project, founded and spearheaded by Baker-Brown in 2013. “Most women’s boot sole lengths are in the 24-25 range, much shorter than men’s. Guys in a 27.5 boot are going to access the front of a ski better because they have a longer boot sole length,” explains Baker-Brown. “So regardless of our build, women are already at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing the front of the ski because of our shorter boot sizes.”
Over the years, these women’s task forces have put other myths and hypotheses about women’s skis to the test and, big surprise, debunked many of them. “For a while K2 just assumed lighter is better. Lighter is not always better. Lighter skis don’t perform the way heavier skis do,” says Reichhelm. “We strongly believe that you can go too lightweight,” seconds Baker-Brown. “Those skis ski like shit. You have to have some mass behind a ski so you can find its sweet spot.” Yet women tend to be lighter than men, Baker-Brown acknowledges, so they need something lighter than a men’s ski.
Designing a women’s-specific ski that is lightweight yet doesn’t sacrifice performance has become the Space Race among ski brands over the past decade. “We just don’t have the same strength-to-weight ratio as men and we don’t power the same way men do. We finesse more and are more graceful in our skiing. So, we’ve been experimenting with Titanal to eliminate weight but still make the ski perform well,” explains Reichhelm.
Enter the all-new K2 Mindbender Alliance series, featuring a Titanal Y-beam that eliminates some weight without ditching performance-enhancing metal altogether. “The Mindbender [Alliance] is a 100 percent women’s-specific ski from start to finish: the mold, the layup, the sidecut, the rocker—every single thing is women’s specific,” says Reichhelm.
Slovenia-based Elan has seen similar technological innovations thanks to its all-female W Studio, a women’s-specific research and development team that’s been an integral part of the brand for 15 years. To solve the weight-performance balance issue in women’s skis, Elan developed its Tubelight Wood Core, a laminated wood core with carbon tubes routing the perimeter of the ski. “Interestingly enough, Elan’s Tubelight Wood Core technology was made for W Studio skis, but it’s also used across the Ripstick collection in both women’s and men’s skis,” says Mary Jane Carroll, a member of Elan’s W Studio. “Usually, men’s technology is adapted or modified for women’s skis—but in this case, the script was flipped and when the men’s line wanted a strong ski that was lightweight yet didn’t compromise performance, they looked to the women’s line and found major success leading to the brand’s most awarded freeski ever, the Ripsticks.”
Elan is flipping the script in another way. While brands are integrating more women into their research and development process, Elan is the only ski manufacturer that has a woman at the helm, guiding the design and production of all its skis— women’s and men’s. Melanja Korošec, a Maribor, Slovenia native with a racing background, rose the ranks to become the brand’s head of product management, calling all the shots when it comes to Elan’s product strategy.
“I have worked in the ski industry for over a decade and rarely ever, if ever, see a woman in the position of making product development calls for all the skis being made. It’s badass,” says Carroll. “One of the coolest parts about Elan’s women’s skis from the W Studio is that a female is integrated into every single step of the way,” she adds. “From the initial planning process to the design to the engineering to the manufacturing, there’s a woman involved from concept to production. There are more women in Elan’s factory building skis than men.”
While other ski brands aren’t quite there yet, the fact that all-female research and development teams are cropping up, and with them more women’s skis, bodes well for the majority of female skiers.
“I’m not going to argue that women’s skis are better for everybody,” says Reichhelm. “I can ski on unisex skis, but, by the end of the day, I’m much more tired. I can make just as good of a turn and ski all day without stopping on a women’s-specific ski. Whereas when I’m on a unisex ski, I’m exhausted and my legs burn half way down the run because I have to work harder.”
The younger group of people calling the shots at ski brands these days seem to get it, says Reichhelm. “They understand that women’s needs are real and that we need to address them. It’s fantastic, because it shows an understanding that skiing can be so much more fun for women.”
Written by Jenny Wiegand for Ski Magazine and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Ski Magazine