Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested All Mountain Skis for Women

By Renee McCormack ⋅ Review Editor
Friday October 22, 2021
Talking skis in the Gondola.
Talking skis in the Gondola.

To test women's all-mountain ski models, we have tested new skis back to back while compiling data and observations from eight testing seasons. Unlike other reviews that note performance after only a couple of runs within the same snow conditions, this review examined products in a variety of terrain and conditions, with a variety of skiers, over multiple months to bring you the best possible review.

The Team


We worked in a collaborative format, assembling a team of advanced and expert ladies, many of whom work on skis, to take the competitors through the wringer. We evaluated these test models over multiple seasons at Mammoth Mountain, June Mountain, Kirkwood, Palisades Tahoe, and Alpine Meadows in California. We also headed out for side trips to Big White Resort in Canada, Snowbird, Alta, and Deer Valley in Utah, and finally on a heli-ski trip in Alaska. Our lady testers spanned a spectrum of experience, from hard-charging patrollers to detail-oriented instructors, to devoted recreational ski bums.

Product Selection and Preparation


We began by researching the market, noting what respected manufacturers offer in the all-mountain category (without excluding new but honorable independent companies), which products are bestsellers, and which products had specs that seemed to indicate likely versatile performance. We selected innovative products, ones we hoped would perform well, and were backed by a trusted manufacturer pedigree.

For our women's all-mountain ski review, we partnered with Kittredge Sports in Mammoth Lakes, California. Kittredge mounted all of our bindings for us, detuned each contender right out of the wrapper with an identical race tune, and gave each pair tunes throughout the winter to make sure they all stayed in excellent shape as we continued to use them over and over.

We mounted each with the same binding, the Marker Griffon demo binding, which allowed us to adjust them so that the entire team could test each model. This binding sits close to the surface, allowing for a good feel for the ski while being burly enough to allow hard carving. Having the same bindings allowed us to objectively evaluate performance without factoring in a difference in the bindings.

A full season of testing involves many laps and lift rides in all...
A full season of testing involves many laps and lift rides in all kinds of weather. Here a team of girls heads up for another run.
Photo: Luke Lydiard

Note that we purchased all of these skis ourselves. Just like in every GearLab review, we purchased the equipment we reviewed here on the retail market, and the reviewers did not receive any gifts, payments, or freebies from manufacturers. This sets us apart from other comparative reviews. While private, one-off reviews are abundant on the internet from users that have purchased their own, we know of no other comparative, comprehensive category review where the reviewer purchased all of the contenders. Most similar reviews are produced by magazines and blogs that are reviewing advertisers' products. We take the integrity of this review very seriously and have done our best to conduct it in a fair, unbiased manner.

We're just resting...
We're just resting...
Photo: Scott Rokis

Testing Methods


We started by weighing each of these models on our own scale to provide an accurate weight spec. Then we skied — a lot.

Even with the dry California winter we had in '14/'15, the ladies of our team tallied a combined 300 days on our test models that year and about 100 days combined in '15/'16, with the five additions to the review. We got lucky in '16/'17 with mega-dumps so that we could try them out in deep and variable conditions. Again in '17/'18, we had some excellent early season storms and a decent base on which to feel things out. Once again, for '18/'19, we lucked out with a big five feet at Thanksgiving that gave us a ton of variable snow to ski to produce the review for the Christmas buying season. Later that season, we received great spring conditions and fresh dumps to add new skis to the bunch. Spring 2020 made things trickier for us, as we had already begun testing a couple of skis when the pandemic hit and resorts were closed. We completed that review in December 2020 and geared up in February 2021 to start skiing the upcoming season's skis. We went out in all conditions throughout these many seasons, from icy hard-packed snow and death cookies to slushy spring mush, from perfect morning groomers to late afternoon bumps, as well as two-foot powder days — both light champagne and Sierra Cement.

Sometimes ski testing involves taking headers into tree wells.
Sometimes ski testing involves taking headers into tree wells.
Photo: Scott Rokis

We tried each model in every situation we could, railing the tightest, fastest turns and intentionally seeking bad conditions to see how they would handle. We had ski-a-thon days where we tried different models back-to-back, switching after a few runs for side-by-side comparison within the same conditions. We also lent our test pairs to other ladies (and some men) with varying skills and abilities and got as much feedback as possible on score sheets. We took into account all of these opinions as we compiled the final scores.

Ultimately, this review is a matter of opinion, but we have collected and compiled many educated opinions to present our observations clearly and directly, hoping that our research will help you find the product best suited to you. Below we highlight each of our testing metrics and describe how we put the skis through the wringer on each of them.

Our team often switched skis on the hill, as seen here, in order to...
Our team often switched skis on the hill, as seen here, in order to retest something new in the exact same terrain and snow conditions.
Photo: Scott Rokis

Stability at Speed


This can be a very fun quality to test for, but only when the skis perform well. We tended to rate this metric early in the morning when the snow was hard and at its fastest. We took each ski to the top of the steepest groomer we could find and tried to make as few turns as possible to the bottom. Especially on the hard-pack and groomed snow, we looked for whether the skis chattered underneath us or flexed consistently and whether we felt like we could push the envelope or needed to slow down to feel safe. We took notice of whether the edges held their grip or slid out into a skid and whether the tips were flapping at high velocities or they were quiet.

The Volkl Secret 96 is the best choice for ladies who especially...
The Volkl Secret 96 is the best choice for ladies who especially love speed, appreciate edge-hold, and want a reliable and well-made ski.
Photo: Scott Rokis

Carving Ability


Another test which took place primarily early in the morning on fresh groomers to give each ski a chance to shine in prime conditions. We took each pair onto crisp corduroy, got some speed up, and arced clean turns down the run. We always reminded ourselves of the published turn radius of each ski. We then compared that numeric to how the ski felt while turning and questioned whether or not the metered value corresponded accurately to the sensation. We noted whether they tended to make a tighter or larger radius turn. At the same time, we jotted down whether the ski preferred to hold the edge or to butter and skid the turn instead. We noticed which skis were easy to carve a turn purely and which ones you had to force into a clean arc.

We used the freshest groomed corduroy for our carving tests.
We used the freshest groomed corduroy for our carving tests.
Photo: Scott Rokis

Powder Performance


These days were the glory days of ski testing. We were trading out skis every run or so on powder days to feel each ski's performance in the same type of snow condition since one storm may be different from the next in terms of water content and, therefore, lightness and ease of skiing. The main question we asked ourselves here was, "Do they stay afloat?". Barring user error, we wanted to know if they could maintain some contact with the surface of the snow rather than constantly being buried beneath it. We noted whether the tips tended to dive down or could surf on top of the deep snow; even if the skis were often beneath the snow, we asked ourselves if they were still easy enough to turn despite being submerged. We then compared the sensations we felt with the specs for each ski and noted whether their width underfoot or tip shape contributed to what we felt.

Since the consistency of powder can differ from storm to storm, we...
Since the consistency of powder can differ from storm to storm, we made sure to test every ski back to back in every storm.
Photo: Nate Greenberg

Crud Performance


It's never difficult to find this type of snow to test on, which is why it's also so important that a ski performs well in this abundant terrain. We took all the skis to all varieties of crud - post-powder chunks, beautiful smooth wind-buff, sticky spring slush, and choppy wind-ravaged sastrugi. We wanted to find out how they held up in these tougher conditions; the main question is whether they are tough enough to withstand getting tossed around and can hold their course in rough terrain. We would take each pair of skis out on the same run, one after the other, so that the type of crud was consistent. We tried to pinpoint where the ski's strength or weakness was stemming from - were the tips being deflected, or was the whole ski weak and floppy? Is the ski charging through the chop, and is it absorbing the bounces before they reach your feet?

Each pair of skis was tested in all variety of cruddy conditions...
Each pair of skis was tested in all variety of cruddy conditions, but back to back in the same type of snow before moving to the next version of chop.
Photo: Nate Greenberg

Terrain Playfulness


While this is certainly a subjective metric, the consistent quality that runs through all the skis which our testers found the most playful is their springy rebound after a turn. Therefore, we officially tested for this metric simultaneously asCarving, looking for that bounce-back that a great ski gives you when you pressure it and then release, particularly in a high-speed carved turn. We didn't only test for rebound within this metric, though. We took all of the skis all over the mountain - in the trees, off rock drops, in the park, and through the bumps - to see if they gave us a kick and made us smile. Sometimes we noticed that the weight of a ski affected how joyous it felt; sometimes, it was the agility between sets of edges, and on occasion, it seemed to be an effect of the confidence they gave us.

Playfulness is sometimes subjective, but often it was obvious when...
Playfulness is sometimes subjective, but often it was obvious when each tester finished their run on a particular ski with a giant grin.
Photo: Scott Rokis

Bumps


This category was an easy one to test since we could take each pair of skis out on the same bump line in the same afternoon and feel the differences. We tested each pair in mellow blue-run bumps and gnarlier double-black lines and even found some snake lines to challenge ourselves and the skis. We would find the same line and count how many bumps we could make through on each pair without getting bucked out. We noted whether the ski's edge-to-edge quickness, responsiveness, or stiffness affected the ability to ride the line to completion.

Versatility


While we don't use versatility as a separate metric in our testing system, the nature of our scoring methodology will present which skis are the most versatile by placing them at the top of the overall rating chart. The skis which scored the highest in each of our various metrics across the board will therefore be the ablest to adapt to varying snow conditions. Even though women's all-mountain skis should be better suited to all-mountain conditions than those built for specific tasks, some in the test group performed much better across all our metrics and have been rewarded with the higher slots overall.