Is a ski ever just a ski?
For most of us, the answer is no. While we recognize that our skis are pieces of equipment, purpose-built to get us through snow, we often have a bond with our boards. If we love our skis, we’re completely loyal to them.
This connection to our equipment is vital, whether we’re rocketing down a hard icy slope with total confidence in our skis’ stability or flinging face shots, enraptured by the ability of our skis to float over nature’s prime powder.
And while this vital link doesn’t come cheap, it’s usually not exorbitant either, say between $700 and $1100, give or take a few Benjamins.
So why would anyone ski $10,000 skis?
zai skis: The World’s Best Skis?
Swiss conceived, designed, sourced and built, zai skis (the lowercase spelling is correct) began in 2003 when Simon Jacomet, a Swiss racing coach turned ski designer, left his job at a mass market ski producer (about 500,000 pairs of skis per year) to start his own ski company (about 800 pairs of skis per year).
Jacomet yearned to create a new type of ski, a ski that would connect the skier and the skiing environment, not just when being used on snow, but in its very sourcing and production.
So he returned to his home town of Discentis, Switzerland. A village of 2,000 people, most of whom speak the traditional Swiss Romansh language, the town is dominated both by the surrounding mountains and the 8th Century Benedictine Discentis Abbey, where Jacomet was educated.
It’s a place where everyone grows up skiing and people need jobs.
Where better, thought Jacomet, to design, test and produce the world’s best skis?
What Makes zai skis Different
In November, Jacomet received an email from a college student in the U.S. This man had discovered zai’s new U.S. website and was intrigued. He was also shocked – sticker shocked.
“I want to know how you can charge $10,000 for a pair of skis. Sir, go sit on a road cone, and rotate,” he wrote.
Rather than delete this rough email, Jacomet thought it over and gave this answer.
“Allow me some thoughts before I’ll go (sic) sit on a road cone and rotate,” he wrote.
“What we do at zai has to do with passion, as we all are skiers, live in a ski resort and love the mountains. It has to do with innovation and looking for technical limits. It’s about creating jobs in a mountain area, were young people are often forced to leave the valley.
“It’s about developing a ski from the scratch (sic) combining materials which have never been used this way before and knowing that there will only be sold (sic) small quantities.
“In the end it’s a simple calculation of costs and not at all about fooling the customers.”
Wood, Granite, Felt and Soul
As you probably know, skis are like sandwiches. There’s a base and a top sheet, usually with a laminated wood core in the middle and some combination of composite layers for stability.
Using this basic recipe, Jacomet experiments, combining exotic materials like granite and wool felt with high-end cedar, walnut and other woods to create durable, handmade skis.
And since I know you’re wondering, felt is used in the company’s scadin ski. Natural wool felt fibers are pressed into the surface material to create a strong, flexible, light and scratch resistant top sheet.
Swiss granite is incorporated in the spada ski. It’s prestressed with carbon fiber, so that it can bend without breaking. zai has used this technology since 2006 and credits the stone’s shock-absorbing ability with the spada’s smooth, stable ride.
Each model, in each length, is painstakingly engineered to provide a unique performance profile. Thus, a 160cm spada is not just a shorter version of the 174cm spada, but a different ski with different characteristics. Skiers are paired with skis, not by weight and height, but by desired performance outcomes.
The word zai means “tough” in the Romansch language. And zai aims to build skis that last.
According to Sam Tinson, a spokesperson for zai skis, customers should expect a minimum of 7, 8 or more, hard-charging seasons from these skis.
Plus, as tuning slowly wears down the edges and base, zai will rebuild them to keep the skis in their best form.
So How Do They Ski?
On Monday, my husband, our friend Richie and I tried three zai ski designs: testa, scadin and spada.
The first thing we learned was that not all zai skis cost $10,000.
While the zai for Bentley will set you back a cool $9800, the models we tried came in at lower prices (testa: $4900; scadin: $3300 or $3600 with optional race plate binding; spada $6600 – $7100 depending upon the top coat design).
Certainly not cheap, but less than anticipated. Plus, all zai skis come with a custom binding set up, featherweight carbon fiber poles, a ski bag, 1 year of insurance (including theft protection) and a two-year warranty.
Starting with the bindings, we loved them. Easy in, easy out and lightweight, the front piece angles slightly upward toward the toe. This modification allows turn initiation on the front of the ski without having to overflex forward. Amazing.
testa: An all mountain ski (174cm,130-80-110) it turned like none other, cut through crud and held a solid, unwavering edge on hardback and windblown ice. It was responsive in moguls. Fast, stable and fun, it’s a carving machine.
“The ski for me,” exclaimed Rich after one run.
spada: We tried the spada in two lengths: 174cm and 160cm.
I found the 160cm super zippy but at first, I was overturning. Staying light on my edges and backing off the front of my boot (letting the bindings do the work), made the skis easier to control. I couldn’t stop smiling.
My husband tried the 174cm spada (125-75-105) and calls them “easy to carve, stable, fast and really, really fun.”
scadin: Designed for race handling, we tried this ski with the optional plate for more leverage. At 166 cm (123-74-100) here’s what we thought: super fast, with excellent turn initiation. Or as my husband shared, “I feel like Ted Ligety.”
The upshot? zai skis are incredibly responsive, powerful and stable, designed for European style skiing (think speed, turns and handling), but capable of dominating whatever lies under them.
They are ridiculously fun…and yes, if you can afford it, probably worth it.
How to Try zai skis
Interested in trying zai skis yourself? zai is the official ski of #Vail2015, the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, and demos are available now through February 15th.
You can also find them at Gorsuch in Aspen, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Vail and other retailers in Colorado, Utah and around the world. A complete listing is here.
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