At the top of the Axamer Lizum, the tiny corrugated ridges of the immaculate pistes are all the more conspicuous because the view of Innsbruck down below us has been scrubbed out by a thick fog. No piercing blue skies today, no sweeping panorama for distraction. There are barely any other skiers in sight. It’s the kind of Sunday morning when an extra coffee or two in the hotel breakfast room might have been an alternative plan. But not for us.
“This is perfect,” says my companion, fuelled (as ever) with adrenaline, an entrepreneur’s tendency towards optimism and the caffeine from a hasty espresso in the café at the top of the funicular. We’re on a mission.
In 1964 and 1976, these slopes were the battlefield on which the women’s Olympic downhill was fought. From the brutalist typeface that proudly announces the “Olympiabahn Talstation” to the retro-futurism of the concrete restaurant where we disembark, we are surrounded by faded central European expressions of the pursuit of excellence.
But never mind the inspirational history and the romantic echoes of bygone Winter Games from before I was born (just). I am not a women’s downhill champion. I am a middle-aged bloke stubbornly harbouring delusions of athletic and technical mastery of a sport that has always teased and tortured me. And today I have a 21st-century secret weapon.
In each of my boots are 36 pressure sensors, three accelerometers, three gyroscopes and three magnetometers. Every shift of my weight, roll of my knees and changing angle of my ski edges is being measured precisely, transmitted by Bluetooth to an app on my phone, and then assessed according to an algorithm derived by machine learning from a database of turns made by skiers of every level, from nursery-slope beginners to the world’s elite coaches and competitors.
The result: if I nail a turn, I hear a rewarding ping in my headphones. If I fail to keep my skis in perfect alignment or initiate my edge angle early enough, I hear the dreaded beep. This dazzling tech may draw sporting heritage from the likes of Franz Klammer, but it seems to have inherited a soundtrack from Super Mario World circa 1990.
The fine-tuning of ski technique I’m used to often involves a shouty and uncompromising human coach. Carv – which makes the technology that is know monitoring my feet – has gamified all that.
Today we are working on a variety of drills, optimising the edge angle and edge similarity during our turns. Meet the required standard in 17 out of any 20 turns and a voice announces it is “levelling up”. Your 'Ski:IQ’ is constantly being assessed and, you hope, improved.
“Are you still on the edge angle drill?” asks my ski partner for the day, Jamie Grant, at the bottom of the Olympia-Damenabfahrt. “I just reached level 14 on that run.”
I’m still on level 12, I reply, as if it’s not a competition, and as if I’m happy with that, which, of course, are both lies.
Still, Grant – as founder and CEO of Carv – deserves to be ahead. We’re in his adoptive back yard; he spends a good part of each winter in Innsbuck working with a team on the latest improvements to Carv, and spends summers raising funding rounds in London and the US, while overseeing manufacturing issues for the next season.
Despite Covid-19’s efforts to wipe out the industry he’s disrupting, it may yet take him to the kind of net worth of some of his elite clients. It rings true when Grant says his vision for a digital ski coach has caught the eye of and tapped into the enthusiasms of angel investors. A certain type of ski nerd (I speak from personal experience) will find Carv impossibly addictive. If you can constantly gamify your skiing and improve your technique, whether you’re on a week with your kids or getting competitive with friends, why wouldn’t you?
Carv is executed with an enthusiast’s touch. It can diagnose a flaw in your technique, motivate you to improve and show you a video of a drill that will help you fix it. But it’s not all serious. The voice tells you “Nice run” when you nail it, and spurs you on with “Let’s Carv it up”. And I can’t remember my satnav ever coming out with “Go get ’em, tiger”.
In a market where a day’s tuition in Aspen costs the best part of $900 and the same in Zermatt will unburden you of around 500CHF, the $349 price is not unreasonable. For each of the three years since Carv was launched, Grant and his team have sold out of all the units they have manufactured. Even this year, with the early ski season largely closed due to social distancing regulations, Grant says that sales are two-times ahead of where they were this time last year. Word of mouth is working. Social media is helping to build the brand. Carv may be fun to use, but it’s also a serious piece of equipment that insiders are glad to know about.
Back in London, I try to check some facts for this article. Unusually, Grant takes a little while to respond. A message arrives. “Sorry, skiing in St Moritz today ;)” Austria’s resorts are in lockdown. There are harder knocks that businesses have had to bear this year, but it’s a sign of the disruption in Europe that seems likely to affect Grant’s year. Still, he’s confident of a switch to focus on the lucrative US market, where the drive-up clientele at high-end resorts promise to offer steadier demand compared with those navigating Europe’s travel corridors and shifting cross-border regulations.
Carv owes its beginnings to a previous financial crisis. In 2009, Grant was due to take a position in investment banking, but graduate jobs soon disappeared, so a PhD in financial economics at Imperial College in London beckoned. As a side hustle, he took the train to a less glamorous artificial slope in Essex and started work to create a digital ski coach powered by artificial intelligence.
Perhaps the initial career choice would have been a safer path towards the high life, but running a winter sports start-up has its compensations. Grant recalls a moment when his accountants reacted in disbelief to the company expenses he had filed – eventually they accepted that lift passes and mountain-top beers were indeed all legitimate costs in this line of work.
But somehow the character of the Carv employees does not match the image you’re probably forming. From the Innsbruck interns to the CEO himself, they’re remarkably grounded for a team that may just be sitting on the best idea to have emerged from ski tech since heated lift seats. Like all ski-bums and seasonnaires, for them it’s about the love of the snow and the mountains first and foremost, and you can tell that from the product. They care – email their customer services and it goes straight to the team in Innsbruck.
And Carv works. After a few weeks, I’m regularly hitting a Ski:IQ of 144. (The average decent skier should score 100; yes, I am showing off now.) I can feel I’m skiing better than I have done in years. Perhaps better even than my teenage self who trained, a lifetime ago, to become a ski coach – the old-fashioned, human variety.