You’ve read product catalogs, seen magazine gear guides, and heard lift-line conversations referring to “big mountain” or “freeride” skis, but all you can tell is that they look a little longer and sometimes a bit fatter than your own. So what makes a big mountain freeride ski different from a powder ski or an all mountain ski, and why would you want a pair? Here’s the breakdown.
While the term “big mountain” may sound a little ridiculous taken out of context (aren’t we all skiing on the same mountain?), it comes from the competitive freeride (or “extreme,” if you’re over 35) skiing circuit, where the mountains, terrain, and consequences are in fact much bigger than what average skiers encounter on a daily basis. The skis themselves are made to handle with stability at high speed in ungroomed snow on steep terrain, the kind of conditions expert skiers crave. If you’re wondering whether a big mountain ski is right for you, well, there’s a small part of us that wants to say if you’re not already familiar with what we just explained, you might not be ready to own a pair. But far be it from us to tell you how to live your life.
Generalization is anathema to the expert gear advisor, but if we take a single core qualification–high-speed stability on steep, ungroomed terrain–there are certain guidelines within which most big mountain freeride skis will fall, from the layup of the core to the dimensions, the shape, and even the method of construction.
You may have heard the adjective “damp” thrown around in reviews and conversation, and it is a crucial characteristic in a big mountain ski. Damping is the ability of a ski to absorb and cancel out vibration, or chatter, and the more damp a ski is, the smoother it will feel at higher speeds. Damping can be accomplished by making a ski stiffer and heavier, by adding more and different materials, and by changing the construction method. Solid hardwoods like ash, metal laminates like Titanal, and additional layers of fiberglass give a ski more resistance to chatter, with the side benefit of making the ski stronger and more durable. Traditional vertical laminate (a.k.a. “race-room”) construction–pressing the ski between a topsheet and base bound by two vertical sidewalls–also increases damping and power transfer to the edges. Adding core material and using traditional construction both invariably make a ski heavier, which is why you’ll never pick up a pair of big mountain skis and think, “Wow, these babies are light!” Extremely damp skis also tend to feel dead at slower speeds because they’ve been tuned to start producing feedback only at eye-watering velocities.
In the past, extreme skiers would pull GS and downhill skis out of the race room to use for competition, because they were the stiffest, longest, and strongest skis available and the idea of fat skis had yet to develop. Nowadays, the same athletes have a wider variety from which to choose, with most opting for a ski somewhere in the 110 to 120 millimeter width range. Anything narrower will tend to get knocked around by imperfections in the snow surface, while anything wider won’t allow the ski to punch below the surface and reduce the impact of a big air. It’s also rare to see a big-mountain skier riding a ski that’s shorter than they are tall, with the logic being the longer a ski is, the more stable it is at high speed. You’ll notice we aren’t talking about powder float here; while big skis do float better in powder, pow days don’t always coincide with freeride event schedules, and by the third day of competition all that fresh snow is going to be hammered anyway.
If there’s anyone around still eschewing the benefits of rocker, it is the alpine racer, followed close behind by the big-mountain skier. More edge in contact with the snow equals more control; rocker pulls the edges up off the snow, increasing maneuverability at the expense of stability. Excess sidecut is another modern convention you won’t find in many hardcore big mountain skis, as extreme shapes make it harder to keep a ski straight during hard landings and high-speed runouts. In recent years, tip rocker has gained acceptance from even the most die-hard of freeride competitors, but a true big-mountain ski will likely still have some camber underfoot, a huge turn radius, and a flat tail to offer maximum power and control.
To most people, a long, heavy, straight, damp, minimally rockered ski won’t sound like a lot of fun, which is why we caution inexperienced skiers to steer clear of the category until they’re ready. Don’t be scared or put off, though; there are plenty of skis out there with enough beef to make them more than fast and stable enough for the average skier, and more often than not, so-called “big mountain” skis are just a manufacturer’s way of indicating a more expert-level powder ski. If you love skiing fast and jumping off of things, you find yourself overpowering your skis, and you do it all while maintaining safe control of your speed and direction, maybe a big mountain freeride ski should be next on your list.