Old School

oldschool

Perhaps you have noticed this snow sliding endeavor that most outdoor adventurers engage in in one form or another in winter time – that of lift serviced skiing and riding, which has always been one filled with trends, fashions and even gimmicks. Consider rear entry ski boots, Burt “retractable” bindings, or Spademan bindings- those with no toe piece. Ski poles have seen swing angles and shock absorbers added and there was even one model that had a screw top above the grip allowing the pole to double as a booze flask. At one point many of us hoped dayglo would be gone forever, or at least dayglo “onesies.” An impromptu overview of some of the things that have come and gone is always a humorous conversation starter. Often lost in the conversation are those elements that often started out as a gimmick but then caught on, therefore becoming an innovation. Given that I’ve been directly involved with this alpine sport since the mid 70’s some of what will be put forth may seem like ancient history to the younger set. I’ll try to avoid the obvious such as the shift from lace up ski boots to buckle boots but as you’ll see some of these things come and go, or go round and round.

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Gimmicks

Before anyone thought to make the relatively new trendy plastic buckle up ski boot with high backs, some enterprising company came up with Jet Sticks. Essentially Jet Sticks were plastic levers that strapped to ones boots and to the back of the lower leg that accorded a skier more leverage on their skis. Jet Sticks lasted only a year or two (maybe longer depending on one’s budget), as the innovation of high backed ski boots made them obsolete forever. But, not so fast friends. The manufacturers of our more Nordic inclined brethren, the telemark gang seemed to essentially go through a reinvention of alpine skiing. Once upon a time there was a character around here named Ned “The Shred” Randolph. If not the best telemark racer, Ned was right up there. Prior to the Nordic skiing industry first adding plastic cuffs to leather boots and then just going full plastic, Ned being both a resourceful guy and one with an understanding of physics, went into a local restaurant and got a plastic pickle bucket and cut it in half and attached the halves to his boots and legs. Soon other racers followed suit with these latter day Jet Sticks with boot companies quick to follow.

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Do short skis suck?

Skis themselves have had no shortage of tweaks and gimmicks and trends. Initially it was all about length. Long stiff skis were generally more stable at high speeds. The original daredevils were those who went the fastest. But the Hot Doggers, the freestyle bump skiers of the 1970’s gave impetus to a trend of short and softer flexing skis that were easier to maneuver through the massive moguls that used to form on ungroomed slopes. It should be noted here that slope grooming itself has morphed through the years with relatively recent innovations that allow for more and better grooming. We’ll get into some of the technological trends below, but back in the day not many slopes were groomed very often so there were a lot more moguls. I learned to ski on my older brothers Head Standards that were so long I couldn’t touch the tips. I then shifted to short skis, which were indeed easier to ski. It was with those 180cm Rossignols that I moved to Utah with, and the land of Volkswagen sized bumps. One day I stood hitchhiking with my skis at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon when two blondes in a convertible BMW sped by without stopping, and honking their horn. As I watched them go, I could not miss the bumper sticker that read in bold letters “short skis suck!” The again there are short skis and then there are truly short skis, and tiny little skis seem to keep popping up. Bobcats, Big Foots, Salomon Snow Blades are some of the iterations, but the weirdest of all has to be the Scorpions.These were skis about 90 cm long that had the bindings mounted at the rear, leaving no tail. That setup alone was strange enough but these skis also had a clear gel filled pocket that contained little colored metal weights in the form of beads. The idea was that the beads shifted with the slope angle giving the skier more stability on steeper slopes, in an attempt to make is ski “longer.” There was also a ski made by Erbacher that was relatively short (about 170cm) that one could stack a series of three weights on near the tip depending on how “long” you wanted the ski to feel. There was a time when anyone who was anyone, at least here in the Wasatch, skied on Dynastar Course skis. Those skis came with a red plastic blob with a weight in it that was fixed to the top of the ski tip and was said to dampen vibrations. Those same vibrations often popped one of those “nipples’ out leaving one with one ski with a hole in the tip, but then a ski with a hole in the tip is another gimmick that seems to come and go. Not to be forgotten are the tails of our skis. The main “trend” that comes and goes is the split or swallow tail but there have also been a couple variations on the “beaver” tail or a tail that turns to one side (the inside usually) with the thought that it enables one to finish their turn more effectively.

Spademan is for the freestyle in us all.

Spademan is for the freestyle in us all.

Ski bindings have seen their share of change, driven by the desire to alleviate injuries. Initially the idea was to prevent broken legs, the classic skier injury due mainly to a binding not releasing. The Miller Ski Company even went so far as to (briefly) guarantee you would not break your leg while using their new bindings. While binding innovations did in fact lead to a significant decrease in broken legs, the incident of injuries from falling while skiing did not decrease so much. The injuries moved to arms shoulders and knees. At the risk of confirming my advanced time on this planet I can admit to living through the debut of the ski brake. Those too were often initially thought of as a gimmick, and true to human nature with any radical change many people dwelt upon all that might go wrong…runaway skis, skis falling off of those riding lifts and onto your head. All that fuss quickly died down, and the incident of injury from a windmilling ski that had released yet stayed attached via the “safety strap” did in fact- fade away. Those straps, long thongs and all others also went away forever…or did they?

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And then there are ski poles. Ski pole length really hasn’t changed much; too short and they don’t work, too long and you jam your wrist. Basket size has gone up and down a few times and the materials poles are made of changed from bamboo to aluminum to graphite and other composites. Until quite recently I honestly thought the only places one would ever see a bamboo pole again was either in grandpas garage or a museum. Now there are at least two manufacturers of bamboo poles, and I’ve spotted a few folks with interesting homemade versions …

Snowboards

To me, snowboarding is an innovation and variation of the act of sliding down a slope covered with frozen water crystals on boards, using one board instead of two. The basic idea is the same, an idea by the way that the majority of humans find crazy, even idiotic. I won’t go through the entire history of snowboarding equipment and snowboarding itself, but already some trends or innovations in snowboarding have gone extinct (or are disappearing fast), such a clicker bindings. An undeniable fact is that the advent of snowboarding pushed us all out of the box and through the ceiling when it comes to fashion and trends. I’m not talking about the trend of taking up snowboarding; something that surely was a trendy thing for certain skiers to do. What happened even for those skiers who never took up or tried snowboarding, whether out of sheer snobbery or otherwise, is that due to snowboarding our skis and clothes all changed. Snowboarders arrived on scene with one short fat board with two tips and they wore baggy loose fitting clothing. Until this time the trendsetters for skiing came via top level ski racers with long stiff skis and tight aerodynamic clothing. Snowboarding made manufacturers take a hard look at how skis were constructed and led to carved skis with wider tips and then twin tips and shorter wider skis with new factors other than camber. Can you say “rocker?” Better yet would you please explain rocker? Clothing too! Those baggy hip-hop driven togs might’ve originally been a bit ridiculous with the low hanging crotches and all, but looser fitting clothing simply feels better. Perhaps most importantly snowboarding led to a change in how many people ski. Skiing has always been a “look at me” ego driven endeavor, and the coolest guys used to be the fastest guys. Bump skiers were just hot dogs after all. Snowboarders pushed the envelope on what one does while sliding down with spins and other tricks and switches and aerials. I feel the limits of extremes were also pushed with a lot more snowboarders initially dropping big airs than skiers. The new technology of skis soon allowed like-minded skiers to join the huckfest. A nod here goes to the fact that extreme skiing and skiers are not entirely new, just the number of them. There have always been a few local guys like long time pro patroller Jimmy Collinson who, prior to being the father of freeskiing champions Angel and Johnny Collinson, was known to have skied every chute on the north side of Lille Cottonwood Canyon- with many of them skied solo at night no less. I once found Jimmy with a crazy gleam in his eye in the tram machine shop endeavoring to install some pieces of aluminum into some ski pants to act as self-arresters in case he fell. I also have to note that once upon a time, right about when I moved to Utah from the east in the late 70’s, I found a significant sized core group of local powder skiers all wearing colorful two-toned loose fitting matching tops and bibs made out of 60/40 cloth. I’m talking about Mother Karen’s outfits of course. They looked good and they made sense, but probably due to the vagaries of fashion or the challenges of market forces they faded away forever…but then who knows? Sometimes it’s just timing. Had Snowbird locals Karen and Red brought out their suits right at the time when Gore-Tex (a great innovation) arrived instead of a few years prior they may have had a much bigger hit.

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Super high tech trendy gimmicks?

I have two adult sons; Ross is a pro snowboarder in the Tahoe area and Jackson is a skier who works as a snowmaker/groomer here in the Wasatch. They only get together to ride about once a year, and quite often they “race” each other while riding the same day 500 miles apart with an app called Ski Pursuit, that tracks among other things, ones highest speed. Smith now makes goggles that can read out your speed or even scroll texts. There is also Vails Epic Mix, which can track all sorts of on slope “accomplishments” and automatically posts your results on Facebook.

I could go on forever, or round and round as the case may be, but again the idea is to stimulate discussion either here, or maybe over beers somewhere. I can’t end yet however without a look at the advances in technology in the equipment that resorts use to aid us in our endeavors.

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Picture this: you’ve just had a fourteen-minute ride on a slow double chair with hard seats in a snow squall. Your clothing is soaked, your goggles are fogged and your boots feel like two blocks of ice. Now you have to negotiate a mogul covered slope that you can barely see, on long stiff skis since you long ago tossed the short skis due to concerns about questions regarding your manhood. Sounds like fun…well we didn’t know any better. Now we have high speed quads with padded seats and lifties who only have to sweep your chair off once they get the lifts dug out and open. The slopes are groomed (and shaped) with winch cats using flex tillers and 10 way blades, and the grooming is done every night. Our clothes are all Gore-Tex, or one of the waterproof yet breathable fabric knock offs. Both ski and snowboard boots can be heated, and can have orthotic footbeds installed. Our goggles have fans or no-fog coatings. Our skis are a shorter, wider and stable model with a rocker/camber/side cut formula designed for all mountain riding. Snowboards brag about the same factors. Life on the slopes really is much better these days but it’s funny you know those gimmicks and trends just seem to keep popping up. They brought back bamboo poles, so whats next? I’d sure like a Gore-Tex Mother Karen’s powdershirt with that pouch pocket!

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