Toruing skis

Renoun Citadel 106 Touring Skis

I'm not very good at turning when skiing, so I often try and get by with just pointing my skis down the fall line and holding on. This has the potential to end badly, so I tend to favour bigger, heavier skis with high levels of stability to increase my chances of success. If you aren't making turns, the weight of the skis becomes less relevant and how much you can bend them when arcing a turn is really of little consequence. So, the heavier the better. Some people would say I'm missing out on the joy of skiing, but it is hard to hear them when they are so far behind.

Unfortunately, this skiing philosophy comes unstuck when you get into human-powered skiing (also in fields of moguls). While I still prefer to ski 'aggressively' in the backcountry, I accept you have to make the odd turn here and there. Coupled with that, my questionable fitness (did you know that not-turning requires far less strength and endurance?) means that lugging around heavy, stiff skis really does detract from the enjoyment of a day out exploring in the alpine. After skittering about on a pair of relatively short, narrow and light carbon skis for the past few seasons, including an over-the-handlebars incident in some variable snow, I decided this year I might try and find something in the light weight ski category that offers as much stability for the weight as I could get my hands on. Cue much research, weighing of gear and number-crunching. Eventually, I decided that something around 1800g per ski was 'light enough' for the kind of touring I do, but might give me a bit more support than the 1550g-ish 184cm Salomon MTN Explore 95s I'd been using. These Salomons aren't exactly a light ski by touring standards, and are considered a benchmark ski in the downhill-oriented touring category by revered authorities such as Blister, so I wasn't certain how much I was likely to gain with just another 250g per ski. Was I just looking for equipment to make up for my shortfall in skill? Clearly yes, but I persisted.

While surveying the plethora of available options, I came across the Renoun Citadel 106. Chances are, unless you are a ski-dork like me, you haven't heard of Renoun skis. Renoun are a relatively young company, based in Vermont, USA, using some extraordinary technology in their skis. They are the only ski manufacturer in the world using Vibe Stop, a patented material which is a form of non-Newtonian polymer.

Let me explain why this is significant. High performance inbounds skis often include a sheet (or multiple sheets) of a metal called titanal in their layup. This is used to increase the stiffness and dampness (shock/vibration absorption) versus wood and fibreglass alone. The trade-off of using titanal is that it adds weight, so for touring skis it isn't usually used (though manufacturers have increasingly started using titanal in smarter ways, just adding it in strategic parts of the ski, rather than a full sheet for the whole ski). Touring ski designers commonly use carbon to bolster the stiffness lacking from a core layup of lighter wood alone. Carbon is a remarkable material, very stiff for its weight, but it doesn't provide the same damping properties as titanal. This means lightweight touring skis can go one of two ways. They can be light and very soft, good for turning in steep couloirs and tricky terrain, but without the stiffness and stability required for faster speeds and variable snow. Throw in some carbon and you can make the skis much stiffer, while keeping them light. This gives the ski more support for the higher forces of stronger turns, but tends to come with a harsh, 'pingy' feel to the ski. The lighter the ski stays, while ramping up in stiffness, the harsher this affect becomes. Those who have experience on these skis will likely know what I'm talking about, the best analogy I can think of is the feeling of flexing and releasing a metal ruler versus a plastic ruler. People have done some amazing, ground-breaking skiing on carbon skis, but the ride is anything but plush. Many skiers have a skilful, light-on-their-feet style that works brilliantly with these types of skis. As a lead-footed skier, I need … something else.

Backcountry skiers have put up with these limitations, usually toning-down their aggressive skiing in the backcountry, or wearing a mouthguard to stop their teeth chattering out at speed on carbon skis. Vibe Stop, in theory, is a technological solution to this problem. The secret is in the name. As a non-Newtonian polymer, Vibe Stop reacts to the forces of skiing differently to standard materials. It is soft and pliable when subjected to low energy forces, but ramp things up with a high energy force and it provides a vastly increased stiffness and vibration absorption as a response. The best illustration of these properties is in this video from Renoun, where an engineer wraps what appears to be a soft noodle of play-doh around a beer bottle, then smashes that bottle with a hammer. The bottle doesn't break. The flexible material reacts to the heavy force of the hammer blow and is stiff enough to protect the glass from breaking. Crazy stuff. What's even better, is that this material is lighter than the wood in the core it replaces. So by cutting channels out of the wood core and implanting this material, the ski becomes lighter as well as becoming potentially stiffer.

I say potentially, because at low speeds/forces, the material doesn't respond in the same way. Stiff skis with metal in them are often described as being hard to ski, because the weight and stiffness is harder work to manoeuvre around at low angles and the ski won't easily bend into a turn at low speed. Skiers can choose between a damp, stiff ski for charging downhill, or soft noodle-y skis for their nose butters and agility tricks at low speed on low-angled slopes. There are many compromises in between of course, with every ski manufacturer claiming their skis to be both light but stable, turn-y but hard-charging. But there is always a compromise involved somewhere. Vibe Stop removes that compromise by being light, highly-flexible at low speeds, but providing an unequalled ramp-up in stiffness and vibration absorption at high speeds. A skier's miracle. Like having your powder and skiing it too.

Sounds like a gimmick? That what I thought! But my curiosity remained and Renoun were kind enough to send me a factory blemished pair with last year's graphics (but the up-to-date construction) to test out. While Renoun make some heavier, in-bounds oriented skis, their dedicated touring/soft snow ski is the Citadel 106. The Citadel has an aspen wood core, tri-axial fibreglass and a carbon layer, as well as a titanal binding plate and 12 channels of Vibe Stop (more than in any other Renoun ski). At 106mm underfoot and in a 191cm length, these aren't a pair of touring toothpicks, but a mid-fat platform for skiing all sorts of variable terrain and offering plenty of float if you are lucky enough to find some hero powder. In this length, they come in at 1800g per ski, right where I hoped the sweet spot of weight and stability is. After mounting them up with a pair of lightweight Marker Alpinist pin bindings, I was eager to test them out.

Skis in backcountry location
The Citadel 106 at rest in the Craigieburn backcountry.

So what did I do? I went to Mt Hutt and skied around at breakneck speeds on my lightweight touring setup to find its limitations. The first thing I noticed was just how easy it was to make turns at low speeds. The Citadel are soft and compliant, considerably more manageable than I am used to with heavier skis. I could easily navigate through carved out terrain and areas of moguls no longer required a strategy of airing off the first lump at speed and trying to land on the back of the last one. Amazing. Despite not having a huge amount of rocker, exaggerated tip splay or a lot of tip taper (where the widest part of the shovel and tail of the ski are closer to the middle of the ski), all design features of modern skis to ease turn initiation and soft snow performance (better float, less hooking), the Citadel is remarkably easy to ski. Skis that use these design features end up having less effective edge length as a result, which is part of what makes them easier to ski. Well, easier to turn. If skiing at high speeds is what you value, then a shorter effective edge is not necessarily an advantage. The Citadel keeps a fairly long effective edge, but is still easy to ski because of how soft it is at low speeds. It also has a slightly higher level of tail splay than average, and a moderate amount of tip taper, so it certainly isn't shaped like a carving ski, but it also isn't a hyper-accessible shaped ski like Rossignol's Soul 7 series.

But how does it fare when the stakes are raised? I'll be honest, I was really impressed. I was able to ski aggressively without immediately having to tell myself to tone things down because the tips of my skis were flapping on the snow like fish out of water. The skis stayed largely composed and confidence inspiring. Are they as stable and damp at high speeds in roughed up snow as the 2.6kg per ski Head Monster 108 or 2.5kg per ski Rossignol Sender Squad (a 112mm waist ski that only comes in a 194cm length)? No. The non-Newtonian polymer stretches the laws of physics, but it can't turn them completely inside out. There is no substitute for mass when it comes to staying on line through the deflection attempts of variable, tracked-out snow. But for a 1800g ski, the Citadel was very impressive in this regard and much more confidence inspiring than other lightweight skis that I have been on. I was definitely able to find their speed limit and generate some protesting tip flap and some hinging in front of the boot. But to be honest, this was at speeds and levels of aggression that are fairly reckless in a pin binding setup. There's a reason why professional big mountain and freeride skiers are on slightly (or significantly) heavier skis with alpine or hybrid bindings and the associated elasticity and reliable release characteristics those provide. 

How about touring? Spring has given me enough days to make the assessment that these are, for me, a very good touring ski. Camber underfoot helps with grip while skinning on hard snow, while the light weight and large surface area help to stay on top of the soft stuff. Skinning is a breeze and I didn't notice the added weight compared to my previous, slightly lighter skis. I used the Citadel in the Craigieburn backcountry in classic 'mixed conditions' of bullet ice, crusty snow and a bit of soft stuff. When it clouded in and a descent was required with visibility matching the inside of a ping pong ball, the easy manoeuvrability  and stability was very helpful during encounters with invisible changes of angle and making  turns to avoid obstacles seen only at the last second. They were confidence inspiring enough that, a few weeks later, I climbed Mt Rolleston with them on my back, for a ski descent from the Low Peak. The Citadel again delivered all that was asked of them, making comfortable turns on the steep no-fall terrain up high, while staying composed as I opened them up on softer snow in the middle of the descent where the run-out was less hazardous. 

Climber on Mt Rolleston
Peter Allison approaching the Low Peak of Mt Rolleston. Photo: Tom Hoyle.

For the type of skiing I do on a dedicated touring ski, which is must-make-now turns in no fall terrain, through to romping through hero snow at higher speeds lower on a big mountain face, the Citadel are exemplary. Some reviewers have suggested that their performance on ice is below that of some narrower touring options, but I've found them dependable so far. If grip on ice is a life and death situation, I am usually prepared to take other measures for my safety than relying solely on the last few percentage points of edge hold from my skis. I tend to think the prepared condition of your edges is likely as significant a factor as the difference between skis. But others may differ in their approach.

Durability may also be a factor. These are pretty light skis for their size, and it is hard to baby touring skis. There'll be inevitable rock impacts as part of touring. I've torn through the bases on the Citadel with a couple of shark incidents and while doing the P-Tex repairs I noted the bases are pretty thin. However, these strikes would have caused issues for the bases of any of my skis, based on the feeling of the impacts (I really need to investigate this 'light on your feet' style). Nevertheless, equivalent skis such as Faction's Agent 3.0 come with thicker base material and 'extra thick' 2.5mm edges at the same size and weight, so for those who have concerns about durability, there are other options in the touring ski market. The Citadel don't have a plastic or metal cap at the tip or tail either, so when ramming the skis tail-first into hard, icy snow at a transition, you risk mangling the tail and potentially promoting some premature delamination of the sandwich lay-up. I noted some minor tail damage on my pair and will probably avoid doing this in the future. The Citadel do come with a proper sidewall though, and non of my rock strikes have resulted in edge damage, so while there are likely more durable touring skis out there, I don't think the Citadel are more fragile than average in this lightweight ski category.

Which brings us to price. As you might expect from a boutique ski manufacturer with a proprietary technology that may revolutionise ski construction, Renoun skis aren't cheap. However, they do offer a direct-to-the-consumer model which likely keeps the price down to some degree. It is also fair to say that other high performance skis in the touring category using materials like carbon fibre in specialist ways (I'm thinking skis like the V-Werks line from Völkl or anything from DPS) are equivalently expensive—as the manufacturing process is more complicated. Only you can know if the extra performance of these skis is worth the money to you.

Many readers will have already flinched from reading something this long, or simply grown to hold the opinion that I just need to get better at skiing. But what I will say to those of you have made it this far, is that Renoun's Vibe Stop technology is not a gimmick. A lighter skier with aggression levels below 11 on the dial could be quite happy on the Citadel 106 as their only pair of skis, certainly if they are a 50/50 resort/touring skier. The Citadel are light enough to tour on, very accessible to ski while offering remarkable performance for their weight and I found them confidence-inspiring on all types of terrain. For those who prefer the highest end of stability and suspension for inbounds skiing, but are looking for a touring ski around this weight with remarkable stability to weight ratio, the Citadel warrants serious consideration.

And remember, to turn is to admit defeat.

By Tom Hoyle