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Sport this cool gear on the slopes this year

Need a gift for the snow fans in your life? 'Today' contributor Paul Hochman shares some hints on the latest in this winter's skis and snowboards.

The snow is finally here, which means it's time to hit the slopes. Vail has 31 inches of snow; Heavenly in Lake Tahoe has a 40-inch base; and Stowe, Vermont is reporting 31 inches. So, if you’re looking for a gift for a friend or family member who’s gearing up to go skiing, you’re in luck. “Today” gear editor Paul Hochman was invited to appear on the show to share a look at the latest in skis and snowboards. Here’s the lowdown on the gear he discussed on the show.

The systems:
This year ski companies are talking about ski systems. “System” refers to the way the bindings are connected to the skis, and the new developments make a difference in the way skiers turn. The goal of any ski system is to allow a ski to bend into a perfect, uninterrupted arc, right in the middle of a turn. You’d be surprised how difficult that is with a conventional ski-plus-binding arrangement; screwing a binding toe-piece and heel-piece to the top of a ski makes a flat spot in the ski’s middle, where the ski cannot flex. The engineering solution: Allow bindings to glide along the ski’s top skin on rails. Different companies have different approaches, but virtually all of the best skis in the world now have systems attached. The benefit: the whole ski becomes the sweet spot.

The skis:
Völkl Supersport SuperSpeed
$1,115 (price includes Marker Piston bindings)
Oil suspension tuning module? Check. Carbon-fiber-infused, dual-chamber wood core? Check. Titanium sheath? Check. Yes, it’s a rocket ship. In fact, the Superspeed is the most-aptly named ski in the business. Sure, plenty of GS race skis handle velocity well, but they punish skiers who make mistakes. This ultrafast expert ski is totally forgiving at white-knuckle speeds. Get back a little, and the ski will hold onto you. Rough snow? The ski smoothes it out. The key: the Superspeed’s patented oil-damped piston system, made by Marker Bindings, sits in front of the binding and keeps “tip flap” to a minimum by absorbing big vibrations. Every bump, which would throw a lesser ski (and you) off the arc, gets squelched. In sum: tailor-made for speed demons and experts who have lots of wide-open terrain to play with.

Fischer RX9 Railflex2
$1,030 (price includes Fischer RX binding)
Speaking of rocket ships, Fischer’s most profitable Austrian division is aerospace. In fact, many Boeing jets use Fischer’s proprietary “Air Carbon,” which is among the lightest, strongest carbon-fiber materials on the market and which resists fatigue and degradation in high-vibration environments. The Fischer RX9 has it, making it a smooth, long-turning ski like the Völkl; but the RX9 does short, quick, slalom-sized turns with far more precision. The thin air-carbon layer in the RX9’s top skin — the source of the ski’s starchy quickness — is mated to a unique Fischer binding interface system, called Railflex 2, which allows the included Fischer binding to glide along aluminum rails. In sum: This ski system is for high-speed addicts who crave some shorter turns, or strong Easterners who have less terrain to play in.

Dynastar Skicross Carve
$1,210 (includes Look bindings)
For less aggressive skiers and intermediates, or for lighter skiers who prefer subtlety to power, the Dynastar Skicross Carve is one of the most sophisticated beginner-to-intermediate skis in the world. The ski’s system is the difference — rather than melding a binding and ski into a seamless whole, as with other systems, Dynastar blends different ski constructions with one another: each of the ski’s zones (tip, waist and tail, respectively) is built for its purpose. Example: The tip’s cap shape requires only a hint of pressure to flex it, so it’s easy to start carved turns. Under the foot, Dynastar put a vertical sidewall, because sidewalls transmit force directly to the snow from the skier. The cap and sidewall are held together by Dynastar’s aluminum binding lifter, which dampens it. In sum: This system is ideal for intermediates and lighter skiers who crave medium-sized arcs and gentle cruising.

K2 Apache Recon
$1,175 (includes Marker Piston IBX system)
For Western skiers whose taste runs to experimenting in powder or even venturing out into back bowls (Vail’s enormous, intermediate-friendly Blue Sky Basin comes to mind), the K2 Apache Recon can take you from tentative powder sampler to full-on, deep-powder freerider in one season. The Recon’s wider waist is one reason: It's a robust 78mm. The width lets the ski float easily over powder. But its optional system — a Marker “IBX Piston” binding — works similarly to the Völkl’s by slowing or even eliminating tip vibration and absorbing unwanted chatter. But the Recon’s binding system is not integrated; it can be purchased as an aftermarket product, an á la carte option that sits on top of the ski’s metal laminate, fiberglass-wrapped fir/aspen core. In sum: This is a great intermediate-to-expert powder ski that also thrives on groomed snow.

Atomic Downhill Ski
$999 (not including bindings)
OK, so virtually nobody in the viewing audience will ever ski on a pair of these, but they’re a great story nonetheless. Virtually out of business about 15 years ago, Atomic has come back to take the racing world — and, by extension, the consumer ski world, by storm. And now, ironically, it’s leading the US Ski Team to victory. The pair we’re showing is being used by American ski racer Bode Miller, who is currently ranked number-one in the world. In fact, the Austrian ski team, traditionally a powerhouse in ski racing, is upset at Austrian ski maker Atomic for letting an American get a pair of these magic sleds. Even the number-two ski racer on the U.S. Team, Daron Rahlves, skis on them. The difference: The traditional wood-core, sandwich construction is handmade in Altenmarkt, Austria, and has a dimpled top skin, like a golf ball, to break up the wind drag as Miller, Rahlves and other racers drop into their aerodynamic bullet tuck and break 90 mph.

Burton Snowboards
Price varies, depending on board customized
Customize the top design, bottom pattern, sidewall colors; even put your name on the board itself. For kids who love to be different without being too different, this is the way to go. Just go to, and the site takes visitors through the few steps it takes to totally customize their own board. The process takes about two to three weeks after a kid (or Santa) designs their board online. Note: This option exists for virtually all of Burton's snowboards and can result in millions of different design combinations.

Steepwater Snowboards: The 164 Plow
Steepwater is the diametric opposite of industry-leader Burton — the company is tiny (only a few employees), and exclusive. But the boards they make are ridden by champions the world over, including company co-owner Steve Klassen, who recently won the Red Bull XTreme World Championship on the impossibly steep Bec des Rosses in Verbier, Switzerland. In fact, the 164 Plow is ideal for rough, ungroomed terrain, which makes it especially useful in the West. The two main differences between Steepwater boards and most others are the large radius sidecut (meaning a very shapely mid-section, allowing for quick maneuvers from edge to edge), and tapered tail (the tail is narrower than the nose, which allows the rider to release from the turn easily). The large rocker in the nose and the stiff section in front of the front foot allow the board to literally plow through choppy snow.

K2 Black Hawk Helmet
BMW and K2 teamed up to create a helmet called the Black Hawk, which allows users to listen to their MP3 player through speakers in the helmet. Further, if a cell phone call comes in, the skier or rider, sitting on the chairlift, won't have to take off the helmet to receive the call, because the helmet's integrated earpiece makes phone calls audible, too.  And if both MP3 and cell phone are hooked in at the same time (the Black Hawk allows it), the MP3's music is automatically muted during phone use to allow the helmet's wearer to hear the caller.