Water skis on snow? Really? Although the idea might sound crazy to you and me, it made perfect sense to the late Shane McConckey, back in 1998. A professional skier and BASE jumper, Shane is considered to be the father of what is known as “rocker” technology, which has revolutionised the ski industry in the past decade.
A skier in the power of Snowmass (Colorado, US)
Over the last 60 years, alpine skis have evolved in many ways. Whether it is the shape, the design or the materials used, the goal has always been the same: to come up with a new pair of skis that would deliver optimum performances.
Among the most important innovations, one can mention the Head Standard. Invented by the famous Howard Head back in 1950, it was the first ski that featured a metal-laminated design. A few years later, fibreglass skis also made their entrance on the slopes. In terms of shape and design, the monoski was introduced and popularized in the 70s and 80s. And in 1993, Elan released the first pair of skis with a pronounced side-cut (you may know them as Parabolic skis).
Of course, all of these specific innovations are part of a bigger picture. Let’s have a look throughout the number of patents recorded worldwide during those 60 years:
Figure 1: Number of patents recorded for all kind of skis between 1950 and 2013
Why the sudden peak after 2000?
Until 2002, traditional downhill skis were all designed with a particular shape profile called “Camber” (Figure 2). Such shape is characterized by a middle section being arced upward (i.e. the camber), while the ski rests on two contact points: one near the tip, and the other near the tail.
Figure 2: Ski with camber profile
When pressure is applied, the entire ski touches the snow, offering greater contact and edge hold during turns. But at the same time, the camber feature also works like a suspension, resulting in increased stability. On the overall, cambered skis are known to be very efficient (and remain a popular choice) on hardpack snow, groomed terrains or icy slopes, as they provide better grip and more power. However, when it comes to powder, it’s a different story…
Applying pressure to keep constant contact with the ground can be beneficial on hard snow like the one found on resort slopes. But in deep powder, you will tend to sink!
Shane McConckey had noticed that. And while performing some tests in Alaska in 1998, he came up with an idea that changed everything. He realized that riding on powder is not that different from riding on water. In both cases, you want to stay on top of it! Grabbing his water skis, he then decided to give it a try. And it worked!
So what’s the secret?
Water skis are simply shaped differently. They are designed with a “rocker” profile, which can be compared to the rail of a rocking chair (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Ski with rocker profile
Also known as reverse, or negative, camber, rockered skis offer better floatation on soft snow as the tip and tail rise much earlier than on cambered ones. They will allow you to plane on top of the powder, making every turns much more easy to complete.
After his trial, Shane persuaded two engineers to work with him on this project. And in 2001, the Volant Spatula was born, the first alpine skis with a “rocker” profile! Following this huge discovery, it didn’t take long for ski manufacturers to realise that combining camber and rocker profiles would enable them to create even more variations, suitable for everyone’s needs or level !
About the author
From a Chilean mother, and an Italian father, Lorenzo Bossi was born in the U.S.A, but spent most of his life in France. And he is now studying in England ! He previously completed a MSc in Electrical & Optical Engineering at the university of Paris-South 11, but his passion for sports brought him to Sheffield, where he is currently pursuing a MSc in Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. Competitive runner since his youngest age, he also has a thing for football, climbing, and of course skiing! Finally, as a jazz lover, he likes to spend some of his spare time fooling around on the piano.