Words: Abigail Butcher / Images: Marcin Wiklik
Each year we dispatch our key ski department team to Hintertux Glacier to test out next season's skis and see how and why each made the cut. This year ski and travel writer Abigail Butcher came along to find out how our staff are trained in Austria, why British ski retailers are the best and why we are experts...
People aren't buying as many skis as they used to: fact.
Fact two: UK skiers aren't buying as much equipment from British shops as they used to.
As a ski writer, I am fortunate enough to have always bought my equipment either direct from the manufacturer or, more often, in Europe while in a ski resort.
Like many, I believed the guys who live and work in the mountains knew more than anyone in a shop in London or Manchester might… that was until I joined Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports on its annual pilgrimage to Austria's Hintertux Glacier.
Every year, Ellis Brigham's ski hardware buyer Steve Wells and assistant buyer Luke Watkins head up a team of key ski staff from stores all around the country. While Steve and Luke have already chosen next winter's skis, the testing week at Hintertux serves as a fine-tuning to their decision and familiarisation for the rest of the staff, who have to work their way through 80 different pairs of skis including piste, all-mountain, touring, and fat powder skis in both men's and women's versions.
Hailing from Lymington, Hampshire with no Ellis Brigham store nearby, I had no prior knowledge of their staff's experience.
On the first run, the breadth of that experience — and their level of skill on the slopes — was painfully evident. There's Spanish Danni, from the Aviemore branch, who tours up mountains faster than most people ski down; and dreadlocked Alex who grew up competing in freestyle competitions. Justyna, who works part-time in the Milton Keynes branch, used to ski race as a child in Poland before working as an instructor, and is now a race trainer.
Keith, the boot guru from Castleford, very patiently taught me how to adjust my own bindings something which, despite 20-odd years of skiing, I have not yet learnt nor trusted myself to do (it's simple if you know how — but don't forget to check the forward pressure!).
We had pristine conditions — knee-high powder for two of the days I was there, then blue skis, sunshine and perfect corduroy pistes on the final day.
Every evening, the team sat down to a couple of presentations by ski manufacturers — with the likes of Völkl, Atomic, Faction and Nordica explaining their range available for next season, the technology and the differences between each model.
The fact that Ellis Brigham is a family-owned and run business is evident at every turn — most of the staff I took runs with have returned to the company between ski seasons or to supplement their income while competing.
Bob Brigham was out in Hintertux, casting a fatherly eye over proceedings — and treating each table to a bottle of fine Argentinian Malbec during supper on the last night.
One thing I've learnt is that every customer who walks into an Ellis Brigham store to buy a pair of skis can be assured that staff will have tried the ski, know what they're talking about and can recommend the right equipment for the customer's skills and experience.
On top of this, what Steve Wells doesn't know about every single model of ski on the market, and how it skis, is quite frankly not worth knowing!
You can safely say that after 20 years of doubting, I'm converted. Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports all the way!