Ski testing with Ellis Brigham in Hintertux

10th May 2016, by Abi Butcher

Over the last weekend of April, conditions on Austria's Hintertux Glacier were perfect

Over the last weekend of April, conditions on Austria's Hintertux Glacier were perfect

I’m knee deep in the lightest powder I’ve skied all season. The cloud have momentarily shifted to finally expose a pitch of soft, dry, untouched powder — which we bound down, incredulous at our find. We’re not in Alaska nor Japan or any other ski destination renowned for its snow — but on the Hintertux Glacier, on 28 April.

Regrouping at the bottom, we make our way to the lift, eager for another run — and to try another ski. I’ve been on the Armada VJJ and while it’s been amazing to ski a proper fat ski (116mm under foot) I do want to compare it to an all-mountain ski.

This week has been a bonus to my season. A last-minute invitation to join Ellis Brigham on their annual ski test resulted in three days on the slopes in Austria, enjoying some of the best conditions I’ve had all season while watching how the big-name UK mountain equipment store operates behind the scenes.

Danny from Ellis Brigham Aviemore enjoys the powder

While most of the skis have already been purchased for next season, this week serves to familiarise key Ellis Brigham staff with the skis they’ll be selling over the winter of 2016-17. The key buying staff including Steve Wells, ski hardware buyer and Luke Watkins, assistant buyer, are in Hintertux, along with managers and sales staff from each of the 16 stores that stock skis, and a host of brand managers from various ski manufacturers including — while I was there — Atomic, Salomon, K2, Line, Marker, Armada and Faction.

I swap in the fat Armada skis for a pair of DPS Wailer all-mountain skis. They’re 106mm underfoot, and a friend of mine is mad-keen on her DPS skis so I wanted to see what they’re all about. Verdict? Very nice, but not as fun as my Zags — I have a pair of Big 2Ls that are about as fun as you can get. In my opinion, anwyay.

And that’s the thing about ski testing, I quickly learn. These days, there are no bad skis on the market — they are all fun, some do better on piste than off, some cut through the crud more easily, some are lighter, others are heavier. The standard of ski equipment on the market this coming winter is mind-blowing.

Ellis Brigham staff putting some 80 skis away after a day of testing

Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports is a family-owned company, started in Manchester in 1933 by Frederick Ellis Brigham who opened a shop making walking boots and cycling shoes.

The business is still run by brothers Bob and Ellis Brigham (the lovely Bob was in Hintertux), with the help of their sons Mark and Robert. There are 24 stores across the UK and the managers or heads of ski departments are all out in Austria, tasked with testing each of the 80 skis Ellis Brigham will sell next winter. Everyone is asked to make notes, pick a “top three” and familiarise themselves with what will be on offer.

The choice is baffling to me, but then I struggle to remember the model name of my own skis (which I just googled). What I do know, however, is that I was incredibly impressed with the standard of knowledge and skiing ability within the Ellis Brigham crew. There are some former competitive skiers among the staff, and most, if not all, have done several ski seasons.

After two days of powder, the sun shines and we’re rewarded with incredible piste skiing: clear, crisp corduroy without a hint of ice. These are the conditions we skiers dream of.

Is this really April? Fantastic conditions in Hintertux

In these conditions, my top ski of the whole week was the Nordica Sentra S6 — powerful, stable, responsive, playful and downright fun. My second favourite was Blizzard’s Black Pearl, which skied really nicely off-piste, too, although I had to adjust my technique from big, arcing freeride turns to a more “old-school” style. My other second-placed favourite is Nordica’s Santa Ana, an all-mountain ski that I first tried and fell in love with in Aspen this February. The Santa Ana and the Enforcer, the men’s version, virtually sold out across Europe and North America last winter and are likely to do so again this season — incredible, award-winning, go-anywhere, do-anything skis.

During my week with the Ellis Brigham team I learnt a lot. That skis are becoming increasingly technical, borrowing ideas from car and building designers, and all ski equipment is getting lighter and easier to use — next year Marker is making an update to its binding that can be used easily with both touring and alpine ski boots. For us consumers, that just means things are getting better and better — easier and cheaper, too.

Having spent years sourcing my ski equipment from either abroad or directly from the manufacturer, believing British shops lacked the correct expertise, I’m now very happily eating my words. The staff at Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports know what they’re talking about, and any customer walking into a store can be confident that they’ve skied on everything they’re selling. You can’t do a lot better than that.

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The last day of my 2015/16 season: not bad at all!

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