The Taos Reforma Test
On another morning at Taos when the spring snow had yet to soften up, I headed over to Reforma, where the Hell & Back passed the Reforma test, for sure.
The skis were easy to navigate big, firm bumps at the top of Reforma, they were outstanding in the mellower section in the middle, then great for crossing over the faces of big bumps and turning in the air before straightlining out the bottom at high speed.
Not many skis handle all of these sections of Reforma well. The Hell and Back did. That morning, I did multiple laps down Reforma in conditions where, if I had been on any number of other skis, I would have just skipped the run altogether.
Heading over to Stauffenberg, I found a wind-scoured entrance, which the tails of the Hell & Back are perfectly suited for. I could dig in without sliding, yet, remarkably, I never found the tails to be grabby. Not ever. Credit the factory tune, or credit the tail shape and dimensions with just the right amount of subtle rise at the end. I don’t care, but I love the tails of this ski, and they continued to provide support without getting in the way as I negotiated the firm bumps at the top, and the less steep but wind-blasted bumps through the middle. These are conditions when you don’t want a noodle and you do want predictability.
Alta’s Ballroom and Baldy Shoulder Area were the testing grounds for deeper chop and cut-up spring conditions, and the best compliment I can pay the Hell & Back is that it behaved very well. Not twitchy, not a balancing act on a tiny sweet spot. Solid. Predictable. Good.
BTW: Resort Ski vs. Backcountry Ski
As I hope I’ve made pretty evident by now, the Hell & Back is a very capable resort ski—even if Nordica is positioning it as a side country ski and it comes with a notched, skin-friendly tail.
Personally, I like to take a ski into the backcountry that can handle firm, bumped-up resort conditions, because you never really know what you’ll encounter in the backcountry.
I need to get the Hell & Back in deeper snow, and I don’t expect this ski to be some shockingly floaty 98mm ski. But I would go ski this thing in variable backcountry conditions without any hesitation, and I would happily ski these in 12″ of fresh snow.
Some Comparisons: Nordica Hell & Back vs. Volkl Mantra
When skiing the Hell & Back, it was impossible for me to stop comparing it to the Volkl Mantra, so I want to say more about it.
The Hell & Back (which, besides the graphics, is unchanged from 12/13 to 13/14) was borne from the Nordica Enforcer. The two skis come from the same mold, the Enforcer just also had metal. Nordica clearly decided that they could ditch the metal and lighten up the ski a bit, while preserving a good bit of the Enforcer’s capabilities.
Sadly, I never skied the Enforcer, so some of you may be able to comment on the Enforcer vs. Hell & Back vs. Mantra.
But it’s hard for me not to think of the Hell & Back as a slightly dialed back Mantra. And for those people out there who like the Mantra but feel like it’s more ski than they want or need, here you go.
In my opinion, the Mantra seems to get better the worse the conditions get, so the tougher the conditions (nasty, off-piste refrozen death cookies, or steep, bulletproof entrances) the more I’d prefer to be on the heavier, metaled Mantra.
But the Hell & Back does nasty conditions quite well, too, it just isn’t as stable and it’s not as damp. It’s also a bit more user-friendly, but it will still buck back if you try to lazily ski from your heels.
I love the Mantra and I think it achieves its goal perfectly. But as I look around and see them everywhere on the mountain, I wonder whether everybody on them really needs that much ski. Lighter weight expert skiers might find the Hell & Back to be plenty of ski. Same with heavier intermediate or advanced skiers.
The Hell & Back doesn’t destroy crud like the Mantra—if the Mantra is a “10” then the Hell & Back is maybe a 7 or 8. But it is lighter, a little quicker, and a little easier to maneuver than the Mantra. And I’ve got to imagine that is a formula that would work well for quite a few people.
I’m not in a position to compare their pow performance, so I’ll just call that a draw for now and allow others who have skied both to weigh in. (But I do suspect that the softer shovels of the Hell & Back ought to give it the advantage over the Mantra in deep pow.)
In sum, I think the Mantra is a dialed ski that does its job perfectly. But some people might be interested in a dialed-back version, and the Hell & Back would be an excellent option.
Nordica Hell & Back vs. Kastle BMX 98
I also spent a little bit of time on the Kastle 188cm BMX 98. While it is a few centimeters longer than the 185 Hell & Back and the 184 Mantra, it felt like a TON of ski by comparison. For places like Alta and Taos where you can spend a good bit of time in bumped-up, tight chutes and tight trees, I would likely go shorter than the 188cm BMX 98, while I would happily ski the 185 Hell & Back or the 184 Mantra.
Nordica Hell & Back vs. Dynastar Cham 97
Like the Hell & Back, the Cham 97 has a deep rocker line. But unlike the Hell & Back, the Cham 97 has a lot of splay—and hence a short running length—for a 184cm long ski.
In firm conditions, I preferred the Mantra and the Hell & Back, but I could see the Cham 97 coming alive in softer snow, with a tail that is probably easier to release than the Mantra or Hell & Back when things get deep. But in firm conditions, the Mantra and the Hell & Back felt more balanced to me than the Cham 97.
(A Longer Than Normal) Bottom Line
We’ve gotten to a point in ski design where you can seemingly create an endless number of design variations on two pieces of wood that slide down snow. And those infinite designs are a big part of the reason that modern equipment has made skiing so fun.
But in my opinion, the Hell & Back does a very good job of combining proven designs—camber, fat tail, wide tips—with smart modern updates—deep tip rocker line with subtle splay—to create a ski that handles well. It skis like a very good, traditional ski, but better. It feels … classic.
Beginners won’t find it to be the easiest ski out there, but strong intermediate, advanced, and expert skiers with solid technique will like this ski a lot. It’s capable, versatile, and predictable. It is a magnificent carver. It has a real tail that will kick your ass a little if you’re trying to hang out for too long in the backseat, but this is not a punishing ski. It’s just that the better your technique, the more rewarding you’ll find it to be.
If you don’t tend to ski deep storm days, I could easily see this serving as an excellent one-ski quiver for a lot of skiers. And if you do encounter deep days, then I could easily see this being the narrower selection of a two-ski quiver.
If you’re looking for a capable, predictable ski that isn’t heavy, demanding or punishing, and you prefer to carve rather than smear turns, you ought to take a look. There are quicker skis out there (183cm Armada TST), but they are twitchier and less capable than the Hell & Back in sub-optimal conditions.
And there are skis that charge harder in chop and bulletproof conditions than the Hell & Back (Volkl Mantra), but they are also more work, while the Hell & Back is as fun (maybe even more fun) when laying them over on groomers.
I’m really looking forward to hearing what those who have skied them think, because I think the Hell & Back will be a very good fit for a lot of skiers.
(Also, check out our east coast review of the Hell & Back.)
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