The ISPO Munich held yearly in between the end of January and beginning of February in the capital of Bavaria, is arguably the biggest sports fair in the world. Dozens of halls filled to the brim with the latest offering by the biggest companies (and the occasional startups and SME´s) are enough to make your brain whirl and give your leg muscles a proper workout.
During the 2019 ISPO, after spending hours going methodically through the season´s new offering from the major brands, and a few independents, I was knackered. I had wondered miles away from where I had started and found myself in the China Pavilion, a hall filled with Chinese exhibitors.
As a skier the plain white booth by the Chinese ski manufacturer Henan Manlin Sports Products Ltd. caught my eye. It was the last day of ISPO and the only thing on display was two pairs of skis. A smiling young lady with long black hair introduced herself as Ms. Kim He, the Sales Manager of the company. She told me, that the company had been producing skis in Gongyi City in Henan Province, China, since 2015. Ms. He also added, that the company has so far been mostly producing skis for other ski brands, situated for example in the United States and Scandinavia.
The reason for their ISPO visit, however, was to showcase their own brand, Stepsnow. This of course, sounded very interesting. Whereas most outdoor equipment and apparel these days are made in China or elsewhere in the Far East, very few Chinese brands have been able to make a name for themselves internationally.
The other ski on display was an all mountain ski and it caught my attention: 188 cm long with a 97 mm waist, a 23 m turn radius and rocker in the tip and tail, weighing around 2 kg each – it sounded like it could make a good all-round ski. The traditional bend-test hit the “pretty stiff” marker and as they felt fairly light, I knew I wanted to test them on snow. As Ms. He and her boss did not have anything against it either, I walked away from the booth carrying the StepSnow skis.
I mounted the Stepsnow skis with a pair of Salomon Shifts, which matched nicely the light blue color of the tips of the skis. The top sheet design of the skis is somewhat unorthodox: light blue, followed by burgundy red in the mid-section and beige in the tail. The combination gives the skis a retro 1970´s look, which could turn off some people, but I have to say I kind of like it.
The Stepsnow weighs around 2100 g in 188 cm, which is 200 g heavier, than a 188 cm Blizzard Rustler 9, but the Stepsnow is also 3 mm wider at the waist. This means, that mounted with the Shifts, the skis weighed just below 3000 grams each. If you´re used to skiing on touring-specific skis mounted with lightweight Dynafit bindings, it may seem like a lot, but a hard-charging ski, like the Dynastar Legend Pro Rider F-Team, weighs around 2,4 kg/ski without the bindings.
So, it´s all about what you are used to and how much emphasis you put on touring. (Also, when touring with a binding like the Shift, you don’t have to lift the weight, like you would with a frame binding, so you do not feel the weight as much.)
I tested the skis mainly during two ski trips I made in the spring: the first destination was Pyhä, Lapland, where I skied a week in late March and the other in Kirovsk, Russia, where I skied another week, following the week at Pyhä. On top of these trips I visited the small Swinghill ski area, near Helsinki, where I made laps going uphill, testing the touring capabilities of the skis, and also skied some moguls.
If I were to put the skiing characteristics of the Stepsnow all mountain ski in a nutshell, it would be: fun ski with easy turn initiation, excels both in short and long turns, and has a pretty good edge hold. The Stepsnow proved to be one of the most fun skis I have skied for a while. They skied so well and effortlessly, that you easily forgot about them and just concentrated on having fun skiing.
I didn´t really get to ski deep snow or powder – I think, that the closest thing was the 10 cm we received in Kirovsk on top of the hard snow layer. The wind did pile it up on gullies, where it was probably boot deep at places. Thanks to the good amount of tip rocker, the skis performed really well in the soft snow. The turn initiation was easy, and the skis were quick to get from side to side.
Most of my test days were spent skiing on either solid, concrete-like snow, or on a layer of crust with some softer snow underneath, and of course on the slopes. The slopes had mostly a solid hard surface, with the occasional softening on an especially warm and sunny day. First of all, I have to say, that the skis carve really well, really naturally and easy – both short and long turns. If you use a modern stance also while skiing off-piste, these skis will just eat up the terrain, even when the snow is crud, leaving friends on skis with a more conservative side-cut and rocker in a pile of snow dust behind you.
The skis were just a blast to ski. I think, that this is probably be due to the ski designers finding the sweet spot of just the right amount of tip and tail rocker, giving them ample flotation, easy turn initiation and side-to-side agility, without compromising the edge-hold and carving ability. The slightly turned up tail didn´t wash out in the turns either.
How about the negative sides then? Well, the following day after we got the 10 cm of powder in Kirovsk, the temperature first rose and then went below zero again, making the off-piste somewhat challenging with refrozen loose snow here and there. While I could ski it pretty ok, it would have been probably easier with a beefier, heavier ski, like the aforementioned Dynastar Legend Pro Rider, which could´ve offered more stability. But then again, those type of skis are rarely as fun and effortless to ski as the Stepsnow was.
This is of course the dilemma when you design a ski: you cannot really have the edge hold of a heavy titanal-laminated wood-core ski in a ski, that is nimble, easy to ski and light enough for touring – and vice versa.
After the second test week in Kirovs the skis started to show some chipping of the top sheet material. When I later addressed this to Ms. Kim He, she told me, that the company has already discussed the issue with the material supplier. While the supplier stated, that the ICP 8210 was “the best material”, since it chips instead of braking, new material tests were already being done, according to Ms. He.
I did not get to tour extensively on the Stepsnow, but I did manage to squeeze in a few days in Pyhä, Lapland and Swinghill, Nuuksio.
For me the Shift/Stepsnow combination felt like a great all-around setup: light enough for quick and energy-efficient touring and capable enough for no-compromise downhill performance, but of course this depends on your touring preferences and what you´re used to. I did not get to tour big mountains, so I cannot really yet say, how I would feel after a 4-5 hour climb to the top of a 2000 m mountain. But for side-country and shorter, 1-2 hour tours, the skis equipped with Salomon Shifts, definitely felt light enough. And most of the time, they managed to put a big smile on my face on the way down, which – for me, usually is the main point.
The Stepsnow proved to be a really fun, effortless ski, which excelled in both short and long turns, either carving on the slopes or skiing off-piste. The balance between the sidecut, stiffness and tip and tail rocker was spot on. The weight is pretty standard for a freeride or all mountain ski, around the 2 kg marker, so it is not a touring-specific ski. However, when equipped with a binding, that allows you to use pins on the way up, instead of a frame construction, the skis make for a good side-country and small-tour ski. There were small issues with chipping of the top sheet, but it was more of an aesthetical issue, really.
Bottom line: great playful all-around ski for on and off the slopes, regardless of the snow conditions. (I have yet to test the skis on super icy terrain or real powder snow, when I will get to do that during the coming season, I will add my experiences into to the test.)
Stepsnow ski specs:
Length: 188 cm
Contact Length: 149 cm
Tip: 132 mm
Waist: 97 mm
Tail: 118 mm
Radius: 23 m
Weight: 4,23 kg /pair
Boot center: 860 mm
All and all, being able to test an all mountain ski by a Chinese ski brand was really interesting. At the moment we are used to the fact, that the outdoor equipment and apparel we use, are made in the Far-East, but no local companies from the area have really been able to get their brand out in the West. In a way it should come as no surprise, that the Stepsnow skis ski really well – the company behind ski brand has already been manufacturing skis for other western brands. If companies like Henan Manlin Sports are able to embrace the skiing culture and take a few cues from the big guys in marketing and branding, who knows what the outdoor sports market will look like in the near future?