For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved new tech and gadgets. And for nearly as long I’ve been interested in tying that technology in with my recreational activities, skiing chief among them. In middle school, I skied with a Sony Discman, with a 30-second anti-skip buffer that could scarcely protect it from bouncy technique. I remember getting short-range radios to communicate with my family and friends on the mountain in high school, despite the fact Sugarloaf dumps down to a single lodge and such coordination was unnecessary. And the birth of smartphones led to a glut of ski-focused apps, many of which I wrote about for this paper a decade ago.
Given how well social media tends to anticipate our wants before we even realize them, I should not have been surprised that I started receiving ads late last year for Carv. A combo of hardware and software that is marketed as a “Digital Ski Coach,” Carv tracks your balance and technique via sensor-packed footbeds that feed data into a smartphone app. The app, in turn, provides coaching on improving edging, balance, pressure, and rotation. The coaching can be as light a touch as a quick audio note on things to work on after you finish a run (the app is smart enough to hold off the advice until it feels you’re on the lift), or as involved as live turn-by-turn coaching during a run.
Even if you forgo coaching, you get a readout at the end of each run with stats across 13 metrics, from edge angle to number of turns. This is in addition to the suite of statistics you expect from the bevy of live fitness apps already out there – things like average and max speed, vertical feet and time on hill are also measured.
At least, all of that is what Carv was advertising on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. At $200 for the hardware (footbeds, battery packs, and assorted cables) it was right in the sweet spot of ski tech that, while not inexpensive, I was able to pretty easily justify to myself. The idea of a way to improve my skiing, especially without a lesson and skiing solo, has huge appeal. Not to mention a whole new source of metrics for my stat-hungry brain. Carv is based in the UK and Austria, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an order placed on Monday arrived by the weekend.
Installation wasn’t too different from a typical footbed, beyond the fact that Carv’s sensors fit between the liner and boot shell, rather than directly underfoot. Gaffer tape runs a cable up to the cuff of the boot, where you clip on a battery pack with enough juice to power the sensors for three days per charge. All in all, setup took about 10 minutes. Like most Bluetooth, I found pairing the sensors to my phone a bit touchier, but any issues were solved with the old standby move of unplugging everything then plugging it back in.
Since the digital coach seems best calibrated for reading turns on groomed, intermediate terrain, I took myself to Sunday River and started putting in midweek laps on North Peak. I started the day in “Free Ski Mode,” which passively reads your sensors rather than coaching turn-by-turn. As I rolled onto Escapade, Ava (the Carv equivalent of Siri or Alexa) purred “go get ’em, tiger” into my earbuds, and I did my best to put in a respectable run. Soon after I hopped back on the lift, Ava was back in my ears. She read off my “Ski:IQ” (a numerical rating of my skiing), and gave some advice: “Try to time your greatest feeling of pressure with rebounding you across the slope as opposed to straight down it.” More runs meant more advice, which ranged from specific to metaphorical in the same way it often does from an instructor.
While I thought that the Free Ski data was fun, I was a little underwhelmed by the coaching – a single sentence with something to try or to change on your next run didn’t really blow my socks off. But the Training and Challenge modes are what sold me. In these, you’re given specific goals and challenges – basically, drills – to work on for each run, with a coach in your ear the entire time. With 36 sensors in each footbed, each reading pressure and balance 20 times a second, the coaching feels live, and I could feel it actively changing and improving my form. Training on balance, I’d hear the second I was in the backseat or favoring one ski. As confident as I am in my form, we can always improve, and it was incredibly cool to find this app identifying specific areas of weakness and offering prescriptive advice.
Can this kind of technology replace the standard ski school? Well, no. For starters, it’s aimed at a specific type of skier and skiing. It will only really work for folks who are already out of a snowplow and making carving turns, and it doesn’t really know how to handle reading off-piste skiing. And, more importantly, as attentive as it is, it can’t be in conversation with a skier in the same way that a real-live teacher can.
Toward the end of the day, I had the pleasure of riding up Sunday River’s six-pack Chondola socially distanced on one end of the chair from a student and instructor in a private lesson. During the ride, she explained the problem currently plaguing her (and many of us) – dropping into a wedge as the sun got low and her legs got tired. The instructor asked questions about why and how it happened, walked her through the best ways to keep her weight balance and skis on edge, and even went into a brief explanation of sidecuts and ski physics. Even the most advanced app can’t provide this personalized and personable instruction, marketing claims aside.
But, for a comfortable skier looking to improve his skills, Carv is a home run. I’ve been focusing on fundamentals in this second pandemic ski season, and it’s a fun way to gamify your skiing and see real improvement, especially when you’re on the hill alone. Just remember that your friendly neighborhood ski instructor is still here to lend a hand.
Josh Christie is the author of four books, most recently “Skiing Maine,” and co-owner of Print: A Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Portland. He also writes about beer, books and the outdoors.
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