With help from pro skiers like the late Shane McConkey, over the last decade skis have ballooned in width and the new reverse and hybrid cambers give skis a banana-like shape. There's one thing we know for sure: Fat skis make off-piste and powder skiing easier, letting us ski faster, longer and in steeper terrain with less effort. And although fat skis have literally changed my life for the better, there's one thing I've often wondered since my ski quiver has widened to near ridiculous portions: Do fat skis increase the risk of injury?
Simple physics would suggest that the added width of fatter skis increases torque on the knee joint. The way I figured, the extra weight requires more force to tip a fatter ski on edge and that force is applied directly to the nearest joint, the knee. But I'm a skier, not a doctor, so I set out to seek some professional advice.
Dr. Terrance Orr is the head physician for the U.S. Men's Alpine Ski Team and the orthopedic surgeon for skiers like McConkey, Scott Gaffney, Daron Rahlves and Marco Sullivan. When I first asked him my question -- "Do you think fat skis cause more injuries?" -- he laughed and said, "I love fat skis." He then said that he noticed an increase in injuries when shaped, or parabolic, skis first came out. "[Shaped skis] seemed to have a mind of their own," Orr said. "But I haven't seen or heard of similar problems with fat skis. I'm a big fan of fat skis and the increased feelings of confidence that they inspire." Orr did, however, seem to think that really wide skis, if used in the wrong conditions, could cause some unwanted strain on the knee joint.
Next up, I spoke to Ladd Williams, a physical therapist in Truckee, Calif., who has worked with injured freeskiers like Ingrid Backstrom, Scott Gaffney, Brad Holmes, Michelle Parker and JT Holmes. "I don't see fat skis alone as causing an increased risk of injury, depending on the conditions and the skills of the skier," Williams said, adding that the skis should be used in the appropriate conditions by skiers with the skills to use them.
Long-time pro skier Brad Holmes has a slightly different opinion on the matter. He sees fat skis as having both positive and negative attributes. In the past 10 years, Holmes has blown both Achilles tendons while skiing, the first while on skinnier skis and the second, more recently on a pair of fat skis. "I think there's an increased risk with the greater surface area of fatter skis," Holmes said. "Not only can you go faster but they don't sink in as much when you land airs." Fat skis have a tendency to plane out or buck the skier when landing an air, which is what Holmes says led to his second Achilles injury. He also feels that with increased speed comes increased risk, and you can and will ride faster on fatter skis. "But there are positives to fat skis that may prevent injuries," Holmes continued. "You're not as likely to blow your knee because you're stuck under the crust on some skinny, long skis."
At the end of my rather unscientific study, here's what I've concluded: When used in appropriate conditions with prudent decision making, it appears that fat skis actually make you less likely to injure yourself, thanks to increased control, confidence and stability. But an important caveat to that lesson? Chose the right skis for the conditions. When it's bulletproof ice and you're going to ski groomers all day, don't be surprised when your knees ache after skiing your 130-millimeter underfoot rockered pow skis.