The Best Skier on the Mountain

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: January 28, 2019

When I took my first steps on skis, it was Stein.

He was the skier everyone wanted to emulate. “You ski like Stein” was the highest possible compliment one could pay to another member of skiing’s cozy fraternity.

Pardon the cliché, but it was a simpler time. The ski culture was more homogeneous, with only one aspirational skiing archetype to copy, the racer. The equipment pool was also more uniform; while construction and consistency varied wildly among brands, virtually every ski made was long, cambered and skinny. Skis made specially for women weren’t even contemplated.

The same forces that eventually caused racing’s iron grip on the sport to crack – a fissure in which the seeds of the freestyle movement grew – also began to tug on the lock-step uniformity of ski design. Short skis, bump skis even ballet skis were added to the ski designer’s cabinet.

Once the national media took note of “hot dog skiing,” the change genie was out of the bottle. New stars named Wong, Brooksbank and Clendenin created a fresh definition of excellence. On many big mountains, the best skier was no longer a racer, but was most likely an ex-racer who had converted to the less regimented sport of freestyle.

This pattern would repeat itself roughly fifteen years later when the technically trained trio of Scott, Glen and Mike re-set the bar for what the best skiers on the mountain were doing. Doug Coombs, who inherited the mantle of best “extreme” skier on the planet from Schmidt, also had a solid grounding in Alpine racing. Jeremy Nobis was the embodiment of race technique transferred to radical terrain.

During the rise of freestyle, racing continued to churn out household-name icons such as Toni, Jean-Claude, Gustavo, Alberto and of course the incomparable Ingemar. But even this cast’s incandescent stardom wasn’t enough to alter the fact that the best skier on any given mountain might no longer be a racer.

Just look at those lovely edge angles! Marcus Caston transfers exquisite technical skiing to the pristine powder of Engelberg.

We interrupt this tale to expose the role of large-scale grooming in causing the ski-icon world to further fragment. Ubiquitous grooming essentially transformed most lift-serviced terrain from natural to artificial. This allowed the advent of shaped skis and carving technique, which would permanently alter ski design.

For every establishment there is a rebellion, and carving’s grip on in-resort skiing drove skiers who prefer their mountains au naturel to create ever-wider platforms. When major brands thought they were pushing boundaries with 90mm-waisted skis, pop-up brands like Faction, Black Crows, Liberty and DPS started to make the skis they wanted, which were invariably either wide or super-duper wide.

The other major factor igniting the diversity of “best skier on the mountain” archetypes was the popularity of ski movies, particularly after the arrival of the groundbreaking Blizzard of Aahhh’s, by Greg Stump. Matchstick Productions and Teton Gravity Research, building on Stump’s legacy, brought the exploits of the new “best skiers on the mountain” into every skier’s living room, capably filling the void left by Stump’s retirement from ski moviemaking due to his prescient concerns about his subjects’ safety.

The new rules of King of the Mountain weren’t hard to understand: if a major filmmaker, of which there are now several, gives you a stand-alone segment, you’re in the argument for best skier on the mountain. Skiers who redefined all-mountain excellence after Coombs and Nobis formed a new firmament of firsts-name-basis stars: Shane, Seth, Candide, Micah, Johnny, Jon, Tanner and the list goes on and on, with no drop-off in talent, right to the present day.

I don’t know what kind of ski works best on decorated concrete, but Tom Wallisch and his friends at Line seem to know.

We’re still living in a film-dominated epoch. The best skiers on the mountain fuel the film biz and define the archetype for their time. The explosion of skier talent in all directions has spawned a period of ski design creativity that has put skis made for every conceivable sliding activity at the public’s disposal. In the last 15 years, if a major brand ignored or underserved a market segment, a small armada (pun intended) of small-batch brands rose to the occasion.

The confluence of film and new designs that didn’t require the validation of traditional retail distribution to find its cult audience meant in-resort heroes could easily acquire a ski meant for skiing a 50-degree slope of moving snow. What John Q. Public may not have considered is that the film icon throws his or her 120mm-wide planks sideways because it’s the only move possible just above a precipice, before sending it straight over the edge in a cascade of fast-running slough.

The importation of this method to in-resort skiing led to a period when the best skiers on the mountain adopted a drift-to-straight-line tactic as appropriate everyday technique. In essence, the absence of technique became a technique.

If you’ve encountered practitioners of the no-turn-is-a-good-turn “technique,” you may recall that it’s terrifying to behold and more terrifying to ski alongside of. I’m happy to report that there’s a trend among the best skiers on the mountain back to technical skiing.

Just in case you suspect I’m a cranky codger with no appreciation for freeskiing artistry, consider that among my favorite current icons are the insane Léo Taillefer, the flawless David Wise and the tirelessly creative Tom Wallisch. I can’t imagine how they do what they do even as I sit, gobsmacked, watching them do it.

Perhaps that’s why I draw my inspiration from Marcus Caston, whose video Return of the Turn: Groomers stirred the thought stew that became this Revelation. In this segment, Caston and a posse of local Snowbird shredders demonstrate that technical skiing and big mountain skiing can live together in perfect harmony.

Being a gear geek, I naturally noticed that Caston and crew were raging on a ski I know well, the Blizzard Bonafide. The accuracy of their arcing proves that inside this 98mm-waisted beauty beats the heart of a GS race ski. But unlike a race ski, the Bonafide can take its act off-trail and never miss a beat. Caston and crew are captured here on expansive groomers, but as his other videos in the Return of the Turn series reveal, he takes his technical skiing skills with him wherever he travels.

Timeless.

Let that be a lesson to us all: good technique never goes out of style

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