They've been called fat, ugly and odd looking. When people first put them on they say they feel like a duck on snow. They grumble, are apprehensive and typically reluctant to step into a pair.

Skis that resemble planks, albeit warped planks, don't sit well with skiers used to narrow, graceful lines and light weight. But, fat, odd-looking skis appear to be the shape of the future.Just when you think everything that could be done to skis has been, along comes the new "wide" and "radical sidecut" skis. And they are, retailers say, the hottest thing to hit the sport since buckle boots.

Jan Peterson, of Jan's in Park City, says the new wide skis, at $500-plus a pair, have been the No. 1 selling ski item this Christmas.

Troy Thayer, sales and marketing director for Evolution Skis, concurs. He says the company's "Wide Glide" is the No. 1 seller in alpine equipment.

"And that is a surprise, especially for me. I was a skeptic when they first came out," he adds.

Recently, about 50 ski teachers from the Alf Engen Ski School at Alta tried the new SCX (Side Cut Experiment) ski from Elan. With few exceptions, says Dan Meldrum, an owner in Canyon Sports and one of the first to test the skis, "they loved 'em."

The new wide skis look like a short, flattened version of a conventional ski. To further add to their strange appearance, the bindings are offset to the inside to make up for the wider platform.

The wide skis, says Thayer, were built specifically for those helicopter skiing the back-country powder.

"The tip flotation allows the ski to be skied a lot more effortlessly than conventional skis, especially in powder and crud," he says.

"What we've found is that skiers, even very good skiers, are skiing more because it's not so tiring. They're easy to turn, not only on the first run, but also the last run."

Junior Bounous, director of skiing at Snowbird, started skiing the wide ski two years ago and now skis nothing but . . . "Under all conditions."

It is, however, not the perfect all-around ski. In powder, crud, unconsolidated and loosely packed snow, the wide ski skis well. On hardpack it is somewhat slow to respond.

Another new look is the hour-glass shaped skis by Elan and Knisel. They are very wide at the tip and tail, like the wide skis, but are narrow, more in line with a conventional ski, at the waist.

This ski, in contrast, is good in all conditions.

The radical sidecut, says Jim "Cowboy" McHugh, a representative for Elan, or narrow waist, allows the ski to be put on a turning edge, "and the response is phenomenal."

The ski is made to turn on a shorter radius than a conventional ski, which makes it turn quickly and smoothly on hardpack. The wide tip and tail allow the ski to float through powder and crud.

"They're very much like oversize tennis racket or oversize golf club. That is, skiers have a larger platform on which to work, which ultimately gives them more confidence," he notes.

Testing on the new skis began three years ago. Last year they were introduced in Europe - "Very successfully," says McHugh - and this year presented to the U.S. market.

"First time I skied them," admits Meldrum, "I thought this is unbelievable. The skis held on ice and hardpack like no ski I'd ever skied, and yet they were smooth. It was no gimmick; it worked."

Consensus is that the skis are not for the very beginner or the seasoned racer, but fit well on all levels in between.

Somewhere in the middle is K2s "Big Kahuna," somewhat narrower than the true wide-body skis, with somewhat less sidecut than the new radical design. This ski, too, is getting rave reviews from skiers. Ski magazines have given it extremely high marks, says Wayne Eggum, a representative for K2.

"What we wanted was a ski that works under all conditions . . . and response tells us we've done that. We realize that after a few powder runs a skier's got to hit packed. We've sold out of the ski already. I wish I had another 500 pair right now," he says.

Both the wide and the radical sidecut skis are shorter than conventional skis. The wide skis come in three standard sizes - 152, 167 and 182 centimeters.

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The Elan comes in two sizes - 163 and 183. Price tag on the SCX skis is around $300.

Price tag on the K2 model is around $510.

The overall width of the new skis makes up for the shorter length, with no noticeable loss of stability.

Those who at first considered the fat, ugly skis as a short-lived gimmick are now changing their tune and singing praises of the new shape of skiing to come.

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