As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved new technologies and gadgets. And for almost as long as I’ve been interested in linking this technology to my recreational activities, skiing foremost among them. In college, I skied with a Sony Discman, with a 30-second anti-jump pad that could barely protect it from bouncing technique. I remember having short-range radios to communicate with my family and friends on the mountain in high school, despite Sugarloaf pouring into a single lodge and such coordination was unnecessary. And the birth of smartphones has led to a glut of ski-focused apps, most of which I wrote about in this article a decade ago.
Given how much social media tends to anticipate our desires before we even realize them, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I started getting ads late last year for Carv. A combination of hardware and software marketed as the “Digital Ski Coach”, Carv tracks your balance and technique via sensor-filled soles that feed data into a smartphone app. The app, in turn, provides coaching on improving edge, balance, pressure and rotation. Coaching can be as light as a quick audio note on things to work on after finishing a run (the app is smart enough to withhold advice until it senses you’re on the lift), or as involved as live lap-based coaching during a race.
Even if you forgo coaching, you get a readout at the end of each run with 13-metric stats, from edge angle to number of laps. That’s in addition to the suite of stats you’d expect from the multitude of live fitness apps already available – things like average and max speed, vertical feet and time on hill are also measured.
At least this is all what Carv was announcing on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. At $200 for hardware (assorted footbeds, batteries and cables), it was just the right place in ski tech that, while not cheap, I was able to justify myself quite easily. 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 are based in the UK and Austria, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an order placed on Monday arrived at the weekend.
The setup wasn’t too different from a typical footbed, beyond the fact that Carv’s sensors fit between the boot liner and shell, rather than directly underfoot. The tape runs a cable to the boot cuff, where you clip in a battery with enough juice to power the sensors for three days per charge. Overall, the installation took about 10 minutes. Like most Bluetooth, I found pairing the sensors to my phone a little trickier, but any issues were solved with the old standby motion of unplugging everything and plugging it back in.
Since the digital trainer seems best calibrated to read turns on groomed intermediate terrain, I headed out to Sunday River and started doing mid-week turns on North Peak. I started the day in “free ski mode”, which passively reads your sensors rather than training laps. As I rode Escapade, Ava (the Carv equivalent of Siri or Alexa) purred “go get them, tiger” into my headphones, and I did my best to make a respectable ride. Shortly after getting back in the elevator, Ava was back in my ears. She read my “Ski:IQ” (a numerical rating of my skiing) and offered some advice: “Try to time your greatest feeling of pressure by bouncing down the slope rather than directly descending.” More races meant more guidance, which ranged from the specific to the metaphorical in the same way an instructor often does.
While I thought the free ski data was fun, I was a little disappointed with the coaching – a single sentence with something to try or change on your next run didn’t really blow my mind. But the Practice and Challenge modes are what sold me. In these, you have specific goals and challenges – essentially, drills – to work on for each race, with a trainer in your ear the whole time. With 36 sensors in each footbed, each pressure and balance reading 20 times per second, the coaching feels live, and I could feel it changing and actively improving my form. While practicing on balance, I would hear the second I was in the back seat or in favor of a 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 guidance.
Can this type of technology replace the standard ski school? Well no. For starters, it caters to a specific type of skier and skier. It will only really work for people who are already out of plows and doing carving turns, and it doesn’t really know how to deal with off-trail ski reading. And, more importantly, as attentive as he is, he can’t converse with a skier the way a real teacher can.
Towards the end of the day, I had the pleasure of riding the six-pack Chondola from Sunday River, socially distanced on one side of a student and instructor chair during a private lesson. During the ride, she explained the problem that currently plagued her (and many of us) – falling into a corner as the sun went down and her legs getting tired. The instructor asked questions about why and how this happened, told him the best ways to keep his weight balance and his skis on the edges, and even gave a brief explanation of the sidecuts and the skiing physics. Even the most advanced app can’t provide this personalized and personal instruction, marketing claims aside.
But, for a comfortable skier looking to improve their skills, Carv is a home run. I’ve been focusing on the 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 alone on the slope. Don’t forget that your friendly neighborhood ski instructor is always there to lend a hand.
Josh Christie is the author of four books, the most recent “Skiing Maine,” and co-owner of Print: A Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Portland. He also writes about beer, books and the outdoors.