When asked what sort of ski a prospective buyer is searching for, by far the most common answer is “an all-mountain ski.” After all, doesn’t everyone want a ski that at least purports to do everything reasonably well?
Yet all-mountain skis are a relatively new development, appearing for the first time in the mid-90’s. Before then, skilled skiers used race skis as their daily driver as they were the only tools available for the job.
The first hint that the market was about to shift away from racing as the sole paradigm came in the early 90’s, when Salomon redefined the world of high-end skis by creating 3 series of skis, only one of which was meant for racing. The Salomon trilogy was dubbed Equipe, for racers; Force, for freestyle athletes; and EXP, for technical skiers like instructors who didn’t fit neatly into the other two genres.
The market soon embraced the idea of making expensive skis for a variety of skier types, opening the door for the emergence of the all-mountain ski.
Jumping forward to the present day, the ski market has since multiplied the number of expert-level categories to include 7 different sorts of expert skis, in addition to true race skis, anointing a new family of models at roughly 10mm increments of waist width. By today’s definitions, the all-mountain models land in the middle tranches, spanning the range of waists from 85mm to 100mm wide. (For further details on modern ski classifications, visit Realskiers.com
As this monograph is in some ways an exercise in nostalgia, I have not limited my top 12 picks as the best all-time, all-mountain skis to the present day but have reached back to include iconic models that emerged since the term “all-mountain” came into common usage around 25 years ago. My picks aren’t necessarily the most innovative or game changing, but they were, for a while, the best at handling any condition the mountain might dish out.
Here then, listed roughly in order of their debut, are my selections as the dozen best all-mountain skis in recent ski history.
Völkl Snow Ranger
Völkl didn’t invent the fat ski – that distinction goes to Atomic – but they were the first to make an expert powder ski using an elite construction. When fat skis were first making a dent in the market, no other model was as powerful and versatile as the original Snow Ranger, which could still hold its own as an all-terrain ski today.
From today’s perspective,it’s hard to believe that the Chubb, born in the first generation of fat skis, was only 90mm wide at the waist. When the brilliant Shane McConkey began to straight-line steep couloirs on the Chubb, any lingering resistance to fat skis as cheater sticks evaporated. Applying the Chubb’s construction to a water ski’s shape resulted in the Spatula, creating new dimensions in ski design that endure to this day.
K2 wasn’t an early adopter of shaped skis, but once the brand put their marketing prowess into promoting the concept, there was no turning back the clock. A young Bode Miller started to win races on the funky red, white and blue skis, validating the technical capabilities of deep sidecut skis. America followed suit, setting the table for K2’s run of dominance in the U.S. market.
Shaped skis were still by and large a carving club when Dynastar debuted the 4×4 as an unabashed off-road ski, inspiring comparisons to SUV’s for their all-terrain adaptability. Although absurdly narrow by today’s standards (a shade under 68mm underfoot), the first 4×4 would later morph into the 4×4 Big, one of the most popular fat skis of its era.
Like the 4×4, Salomon’s X-Scream was one of the first shaped skis that wasn’t intended as an on-piste carving tool but as an all-terrain implement. The first X-Scream earned instant acclaim when it rolled out in 2001, spawning a string of successors that made the X-Scream family the most popular in Salomon’s history.
Stöckli Stormrider XL
Stöckli tends to build all-terrain skis with DNA extracted from Super G race models, making their Stormrider series among of the burliest all-mountain skis ever. The Stormrider XL, sporting a waist width of 75mm, was an ancestor of the current crop of Stormriders, which range in waist width from 83mm to 115mm. The one constant has been a stout, wood and metal lay-up that takes no prisoners as it slashes through any and all snow conditions.
One could make a strong case that the Völkl Mantra served as the primary prototype for the modern all-mountain ski genre. Like the Snow Ranger that preceded it, the Mantra pulled no punches when it came to integrating first class construction into a modern shape. Any ski with decent surface area will work in powder, but it takes a stout ski to subdue crud. The Mantra, in all its incarnations, has been pulverizing crud since its inception.
Dimensionally, the MX83 falls just outside the current definition of an all-mountain shape, but temperamentally it’s predisposed to dominate in any condition. Rather than float over fluffy pow, the MX83 rips it out by the roots, tearing through whatever lies in its path. What makes it deliriously well suited to off-trail skiing is its unique ability to flow over irregular terrain as if it were made of mercury.
Atomic Nomad Crimson TiThe Nomad series focused on Frontside performance, but the top of the line, the Crimson Ti, had the moxie to travel anywhere with aplomb. The only system ski among our dandy dozen, the original Crimson Ti was so stable at speed it inspired the confidence to roam all over the mountain, where it revealed a capacity for decimating crud with the same power it applied to carving up the groom.
Nordica Hell & Back
Many skiers are under the illusion that it takes a slab or two of Titanal to make a strong, powerful ski. Nordica laid that notion to rest when it concocted the Hell & Back, an all-glass construction with the grip of Gorilla glue. A fall-line charger without fear, the Hell & Back had a big brother, the Patron, which set the benchmark for powder performance for several seasons.
Rossignol Soul 7
Strictly speaking, the Soul 7 was a tad too wide to make our list, but one can’t overlook top-of-the-heap sales success. A follow-up to the already popular S7, the Soul 7 hit the sweet spot on a slew of trends: lightweight construction, tapered tips and tails, and eye-catching cosmetics. But the key to its powder performance lay in an Old School property: rebound of the kind that coined the term, “porpoising,” which describes the way the Soul 7’s coiled power lifted the skier up after every turn.
I’d skied 1,000’s of models before I first stepped into a pair of Bonafides. All it took was one run and I was in love. As with any true love, all other contenders for my affections faded into the background for the Bonafide demonstrated that it could do anything at any time in any condition. I hear the quibbles that it requires speed and expert technique to extract its charms, but I dismiss them as hollow carping. As this list makes clear, when has it not been true that better skis reward better skiing?
Postscript Before you compose some pithy post that will exalt your favorite ski that somehow failed to make this list, please remember that this highly unscientific exercise isn’t meant to identify the very best skis (usually of the race variety), nor the most popular and not necessarily the most innovative or influential. The common thread is that they epitomized versatility in their respective eras.
If you liked this article, please visit realskiers.com for much, much more, including reviews of 216 2016/17 skis and comprehensive comments on 94 families of 2017 boots.