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Why Gear Matters

Why Gear Matters

Features
By Jackson Hogen
posted: 02/02/2004

I admit it. In the fall of 1979, I delivered 87 four-hour-long binding technician certification clinics. That calculates out to talking about alpine ski equipment for more than two weeks straight, 24 hours a day. And I liked it.

You see, to me, gear is not just stuff. There's too much emotion invested in ski equipment to dismiss it as a mere toy collection. Skiers don't just buy and own ski equipment; they bond with it. When put in motion, it becomes an extension of their very beings, a blood partner in facing intricate descents down dicey, perilous slopes. Not everyone feels this way about their gear, of course, but if you ski with any frequency, a relationship tends to bloom between you and your friends on your feet.

A skier's connection with his or her rig goes beyond the affection athletes in other sports lavish on their gear. When Ted Knight's character in Caddyshack croons to his putter, "Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy," skiers recognize the devotion that can exist between a sportsman and his equipment. But a putter (or tennis racket, baseball bat or other athletic artifact) can't rip you free of Earth's gravity or send you scorching down a mountainside at speeds a cheetah would envy-or save your life. Skis can.

One of my most memorable ski days was spent chasing two-time World Extreme Ski Champion Doug Coombs around Jackson Hole, an achievement unthinkable without my 200-cm Völkl Snow Rangers. Doug has simple advice for those lucky souls he guides: Keep up. My Rangers got me down the precipice of Corbet's, kept their cool in the pucker-tight Mushroom Chutes and miraculously linked three small rock drops in Toilet Bowl. Without those skis, I wouldn't have survived even the entrances to those runs. They made me better.

Originally conceived as an answer to the mukluk's deficiencies as a sliding device, a ski does much more than just glide across snow. With only the slightest tug on the reins, the modern shaped ski sets every turn's trajectory. A skier need only make a small contribution; the ski will do the rest. (In the bygone days of straight skis, if the skier did little, the ski did nothing.) The modern sidecut is a great boon to the many recreational skiers who, despite oceans of good intentions, can't find a drop of time to invest in physical conditioning. That's reason enough to love your skis right there.

The ski is so central to our sport that we've named the activity after it. We don't call fishing "rodding," or tennis "racketing." The ski defines and reflects who we are as skiers. It contributes mightily to what terrain we can handle, the turns we can make and the speeds at which we can travel. The ski becomes so much a part of us that at times-such as when speeds approach the supersonic-the connection between skier and ski can become almost telepathic. How else can science explain Bode Miller's mind-boggling recoveries? Just when it looks like he's about to be split like a chicken, heading off-course at speeds that melt metal, his skis hook up and he's right back on line.

How can skis rise to such anthropomorphic heights? Zealots who spend hours tuning and waxing and buffing their bases to perfection know how. They draw closer to their skis with each stroke of the file, each caress of the brush. Their tuning bench may be a kitchen table, or between two beds in a motel room with towels underneath as a sop to neatness, or anywhere a vise can be secured. But you don't have to be a master technician to adore your boards. They earn our affection just for being passports to a world of snowy, cold-aired, pine-scented wonder.

Unlike in other domains of the human heart, with skis no one has to settle for a less-than-perfect mate. Just about every nuance of need has been calculated in creating the rich diversity of skis. There are skis for casual cruising, skis for flying upside down and landing backward, skis for outrunning an avalanche to a cliff-band, skis for carving laser-precise aarcs on boilerplate, skis bent on racing gravity itself to the bottom of the hill. There are skis for learning, skis for women, skis for powder in the morning and groomers in the afternoon. There are skis for those Baryshnikovs whose every arc is ballet and skis for those less gifted whose highest aspiration is to simply bask in nature's glow.

As multicultural as the ski world is, it's all but uniform compared to the kaleidoscope of sensations that populate the realm of boots. Beneath their seemingly cookie-cutter exteriors, boots are a United Nations of fits, feels and steering subtleties. Some feel like being strapped into a Formula One monocoque; others feel like you're trying to drive a bus from the back seat. Some confine the foot like an iron maiden; others have all the volume of an empty warehouse. There are boots with one buckle, two buckles, three buckles or four, and here and there laces are making a comeback. There are "soft" boots that substitute fabrics for plastics wherever they can, and race boots so stiff the Hulk couldn't flex them.

Perfectly melding fit and performance in this labyrinth of options can be a lifelong mission. This is why so many elite skiers, once they find a boot that works, never let it go. Five-time national champion Felix McGrath still skis on a Nordica Grand Prix designed in the '70s, and Olympian Cindy Nelson has been known to prefer her old blue Cabers, a brand that passed away more than a decade ago. Everyday skiers suffer from the same affliction. My longtime ski buddy Woodsie still skis in the Salomon SX 91s I gave him in 1984, and any day on any hill you can see boots of similar vintage.

While it's wonderful to see loyalty in an age of fickle allegiances, it's also tragic. I used to hold on to skis I loved for years. Several seasons after shaped skis came along, I would still take out a pair of 207-cm Rossignol 7X K's, the white ones, with Derbys on them. On powder days, no less. The effort, the precision, the technique, the timing, once reveled in, were a giant pain in the keister compared to the ease of fatter, shorter, shapelier sticks. I quickly became a true believer.

Ski gear and ski technique move forward on parallel tracks. Skiers can only do what their equipment allows them to do. Just as a new computer works best with the latest operating system, new skis need new boots and new bindings to release their potential and open the door to effortless skiing.

To the true believer, shopping for new gear can be almost as much fun as using it. I remember the joy and mystery of inspecting pair after pair of new skis in the hunt for perfection, marveling at avant-garde technologies from Hexcels to Henkes, from Molnars to Molitors. I still get a frisson of excitement every time a new ski slides free of its cellophane pouch.

The process that leads there starts here. In the pages that follow, you will find many potential wings for your feet. Read carefully and you shall find salve for your skiing soul and, with any luck, your new best friends.

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