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The Wisdom of Saucer Boy

The Wisdom of Saucer Boy

From the vaults: “Brain Floss”—Shane McConkey’s original ponderings on powder-ski design
posted: 10/30/2009
Shane McConkey, ski designer

We were digging through old catalogs the other day, doing background research for a January feature on powder skis when we came across this. “Brain Floss” is the late, great Shane McConkey’s musings on what makes a great powder ski. It was released in December of 2002, when the first few models of his innovative Machete Spatula were rolling out of the Volant factory in Wheat Ridge, Colo.  Obviously, a ski as radical as the Spatula—reverse sidecut, reverse camber, and just plain huge, at 125 mm in the waist—needed to be explained. Reading “Brain Floss” today, it seems remarkably prescient, given the subsequent revolution in powder-ski design. It’s also quite well written and entertaining. See what you think. Here’s the original text in its entirety.

 

Brain Floss

A guide to the Volant Spatula, the world’s greatest powder ski.

By Shane McConkey

 

Important!

You really should read this before you ski on your new Spatulas.

 

 

Keep this guide so that you can refer back to it after you have tried the Spatulas. It will help remind you of certain things you will need to know.

 

These 185 Spatulas are recommended for people weighing 180lbs and less. The performance and benefits of the progressive shape of these skis will decrease as the skiers weight rises above 180.

 

CONGRATULATIONS!  You have just purchased the most progressive invention in the history of powder skiing since the original fat skis were invented. These skis will change the way you thought you were supposed to ski powder, minimize the effort you put into your skiing, and greatly improve your powder skiing experience.  

The following is meant to give you some idea of what the Spatulas are all about, why they are shaped the way they are and how to ski them.

First of all, in order to clear your mind and attempt to make sense of all this, take most everything you have ever learned about skiing and stick it where the sun don’t shine. Or at least in the garage next to your shaped skis. Why? Because:

1.     Side cut is NOT good in powder.

2.     Camber is NOT good in powder.

3.     Carving is NOT necessary in the powder.

Simply put, if you want to maximize your abilities in soft snow you do not want to use the same tool as you would on any kind of hard, groomed or compacted snow.

 

How to ski your new Spatulas

As you well know your new Spatulas have a very unique almost bizarre shape. It is important for you to understand the adjustments to your skiing technique you will need to make in order to ski them well. Don’t worry! Its easy. Many people may get intimidated by the progressive shape of the Spatula and think that it takes an expert to know how to manage them. Not true. These skis will make powder skiing much easier for even the least experienced beginners. Actually the opposite concepts explained here will be much easier for a beginner to grasp than an expert conditioned to use their skis the way they always have. The expert will have to open their mind and be prepared for some very different concepts. Or simply, they must floss their brain!

 

Ski on both feet!

Put your weight a bit more on two feet throughout the turn instead of mostly on your downhill ski. This will help you stay afloat and facilitate sliding when you need to. You will also be able to load up your downhill ski as you normally would in most soft snow situations but knowing how and when to use both feet will greatly increase your abilities with the Spatulas.  Sun crust and wind affect are prime examples of when to use both feet. In these conditions the Spatulas will blow your mind. Normally these conditions would require you to slow way down and be very careful not to hook a tip. Not anymore. Ski on two feet and let ‘er rip!

 

Open it up!

Your powder skiing experience is about to change dramatically.  It will become much easier for you to maintain control at higher speeds. If you were the type of powder skier who used to make lots of slow, little bouncing up and down turns then you need to try going faster. Open it up and go for it! You can still milk the powder slowly if you want but after you get the hang of hauling ass you won’t want to putt around anymore.

Slide instead of carve!

Yes, believe it or not this is something that you should be trying to do in the powder. Sliding will be the most difficult of Spatula techniques to learn but you should be able to get the idea in time. Even if you never attempt to learn slides you will still be able to blow doors on everyone else without Spatulas. Who knows, you might just naturally start doing them anyway. The more dense and compacted the snow is the easier it will be to perform slides. Sliding will greatly improve your maneuverability and control. Begin your powder turn and then instead of hitting your edges hard to carve a turn, stand up on two feet and let your skis slide or skid diagonally across the fall line. It will be harder to perform a slide directly down the fall line. Start off doing them diagonally.

 

Trade skis with a friend for a run.

Just to compare what you used to ski on to what you have now. I guarantee you will only try this once and then you will keep your Spatulas for yourself!

 

 

Floatation and Sliding

In order to better understand why the Spatulas are so efficient the two most important concepts to grasp are flotation and sliding.  In a ski world where everyone is constantly thinking power, pressure and carving it may seem like a crazy concept to accept almost the opposite theory. Then again soft snow is pretty much the opposite as hard snow. Retraining your mind that sliding not carving is actually a good thing is a very hard concept for many people to swallow.

A ski which is fat under foot will float much more than a ski which is narrow under foot. A ski with reverse side cut will give the skier the ability to slide their turns where as side cut will force the skier to sink and carve. Reverse side cut combined with decamber immediately puts the tip and tail higher than the waist of the ski as well as pulls the edges of the ski away from the snow leaving the point of first contact with the snow at the waist of the ski. When you set your skis sideways to start a slide there is much less ski at the tip and tail to catch the snow and prevent the slide. It also helps to eliminate catching your downhill edges and stuffing it. The Spatulas are also twin tipped. This helps immensely for initiating a slide. Expert skiers can use the twin tip to ski and land backwards if they wish. Skiing backwards in the powder will be surprisingly easy compared to any other twin tipped powder ski.

In virtually all situations you will still be able to carve your turns. The Spatulas simply give you the option to initiate a slide or to scrub speed by sliding similar to how you would do it on the groomer. Why is it so easy for snowboarders to scrub speed in the powder? Why is it so easy for them to make turns and go fast when skiers are laboring slowly down the hill? Why do snowboarders use less energy than skiers in the powder? It is a simple matter of flotation. Snowboarders are always on top of the snow. Skiers are mostly down in it. The Spatulas will give you all the benefits of snowboarding’s floatation and ease as well as satisfaction in the fact that you are actually on skis and still have all the luxuries and mobility options that skiing offers.

 

 

Reverse Side Cut

For normal skis side cut is used to make it easier to turn. You simply roll the ski on edge, add some pressure to the ski and it carves around. In recent years ski manufacturers have been adding significant amounts of side cut to their skis greatly facilitating the ski experience for everyone. This is true. ON HARD SNOW!

In powder or soft snow side cut creates two distinct negative effects:

 

1.     “The Pool Cover”- Your weight is directly on top of the narrowest part of the ski. This type of weight distribution immediately puts you in a sinking into the snow situation similar to what happens to the pool cover when you try to run across it. This causes your tips and tails to float but the center of your skis where all your weight is sinks, bogs down and then you must plow through the snow. You will be forced to carve every turn and expend a lot of energy bouncing in and out of the snow.

Sinking/carving = Bad. Floating/sliding = Good.

2.     “The Unstable Hooker”- Skis become very unstable and much more difficult to control. In sun crust or wind affect you may have noticed the occasional Unstable Hooker. This is when you start a turn and your downhill ski hooks fast and hard up and across your uphill ski. You cross your tips, step on your downhill ski with your uphill and then stuff your face into mountain. Or at high speeds you may have noticed your skis trying to swim around a bit making it hard to control as you try to keep your tips up and out of the snow. The solution to this in the past has always been to maintain a wider stance in powder and to slow it down a bit.

 

Fortunately now you can use your Spatula to dish out a good spanking to that Unstable Hooker and Pool Cover. The reverse side cut of the Spatulas immediately sets you afloat on top of the snow allowing you to initiate turns and negotiate everything you encounter much more easily without having to labor through it. Reverse side cut also eliminates the instabilities commonly encountered with “shaped” skis in the soft snow. You will notice little or no Unstable Hookers and you will be able to enjoy a much more relaxed stance in variable snow and at high speeds.

 

You will also notice that the Spatulas feel much lighter while on your feet than other skis of similar surface area. Try swinging them from side to side while on the lift. This effect is created by the reverse side cut. It gives them a very light swing weight. Normal skis with side cut have a weight distribution which puts the bulk of the skis at the tips and tails. The Spatulas are the opposite. The bulk is at the waist. The Spatulas are a lot of ski and there is a lot down there stuck to your feet. However, they will feel much lighter and more maneuverable than you can imagine.

 

 

Decamber

On normal skis camber is used to add power and extra pressure to the tip and tail of the ski. This gives the ski stability, strength and helps it initiate a turn. It also and adds power through the arc of the turn. This is true, ON HARD SNOW!

In soft snow camber has these negative effects:

 

1.     “The Sunken Plow” – Tips and tails are constantly trying to dive down into the snow. No matter how much you load up the skis with pressure or how soft the skis are the tips still always want to dive lower than the waist of your skis. This causes excessive unweighting or bouncing and leaning back onto your tails. It puts you in an unbalanced position. The point is to get up out of the snow not down in it.

2.     “Franz” - Skis will only ever turn by carving. Skis will not in any way be made to slide. Tips and tails during unweighting are always lower than the center of the skis prohibiting any attempt at a slide. Throwing the skis sideways in anyway will end in a caught outside edge followed by a quick whiplash onto your side.

 

The Spatula’s decamber will prevent most Sunken Plow situations depending on the skiers weight. (The lighter you are the more you will reap the benefits of the decamber.) You will notice that you will not need to lean back on your skis in the powder nearly as much as you would on normal skis. This will allow you to stand upright and attack the mountain much more efficiently.

Having the option to eliminate the Franz carve from your powder skiing will open up a whole new world for you. Try sliding a bit sideways as you finish your turn. Remember to stand on both feet. Try doing  a long slide instead of doing a turn at all. Skiers constantly link one turn to the next in powder because in the past we lacked the ability and technology to slide. It also has traditionally been considered proper style to make identical, consecutive linked turns down a powder slope. Now you have the option to carve, slide, crab sideways, hockey stop (If your really good) and basically use the slope in many creative ways instead of such a limited, traditional style.

 

How to ski your Spatulas on hard snow

These skis are not versatile. I will make no attempts to fool you (as all ski manufacturers typically do) into thinking that you can use these skis in all kinds of snow conditions. They are made specifically for the many types of soft snow. Powder, sun crust, wind affect, deep, shallow, light and heavy. They are not designed to be primarily skied on ice or most types of hard snow. Of course you will frequently find yourself skiing on some sort of hard snow even on a powder day. It may be on the groomer going back to the lift or you may hit a hard patch or a mogul along the way. Not to worry. They can be easily managed in any situation. You just have to know how to do it.

The first question that absolutely everyone always asks me is: “Yea, but how well do they work on the groomer?” The most accurate analogy I have come up with is that they work about as well on the groomer as a pair of GS skis work in the powder. Manageable but not great. However, I am confident that the satisfaction and pleasure which you will receive from the powder intended qualities of these skis will soon make the issue of Spatula performance on hard snow nonexistent. When the situation demands that you ski your Spatulas on the groomer or hard snow it is very important that you remember two things:

1.     Stand on both feet.

2.     Initiate turns by sliding.

Think of it this way. When initiating a turn using skis with side cut you simply roll the ski on edge and the tip of the ski catches the snow and depending on how much pressure you give it the ski either carves around fast or slowly. No matter what, the ski will turn. This is not so with the Spatula. They have the opposite shape. They were not designed to carve on hard snow. They were designed to slide and carve in soft snow. You will need to train your mind to think slide not carve especially when on the groomer. A ski with reverse side cut if forced to carve on hard snow will perform exactly the opposite task as a ski with side cut. Try it, you’ll see. Start the turn like you normally would. Weight forward shifting to the downhill ski, add pressure to the tip of the downhill ski, follow through with more pressure on the downhill ski through the turn and……..your downhill ski tracks off in the wrong direction and you fall onto your uphill ski! It won’t work! You must initiate your turns on both feet and by sliding them around! After you have begun your turn by sliding you will notice that you can actually finish the turn by carving once you are on your tails if you want. The tails of the Spatulas will catch and you can carve the end of the turn. It all sounds weird I know, but just remember this and try it a couple times on the groomed and you will probably get the hang of it in one run. Remember! You’re a slider now not a carver!

 

How the Spatula was born.

Back in 1996 the ski industry was just beginning to go through two revolutionary discoveries. The invention of “shaped” skis and the popularization of fat skis for soft snow. As we all know now fat skis have totally changed the way we ski powder and shaped skis have totally changed skiing on harder snow. As manufacturers began to experiment with massive side cuts for carving the groomer and the race course it was only natural for people to want to test out these new shaped skis. At the same time skiers were also just beginning to realize the benefits of fat skis in powder. Back then I had also recently made the switch from skiing on traditional skis to the very fat (at the time) Volant Chubb. I was spending my time marveling over the benefits of fat skis in most sow conditions. Then I decided to try out the new shaped skis in the soft snow. Since the qualities of fat skis were so fresh on my mind all the time I was immediately able to recognize how horrible side cut is for soft snow. If I had been skiing on traditional skis all year like most everyone else this revelation may not even have happened.

 

During the summer of 96 at a bar in Las Lenas Argentina while hanging out with some friends I quickly sketched a picture of some fat skis with reverse side cut onto a beer napkin. We all spoke about it and of course some even laughed at the idea. I took the napkin home and kept it in my “Cool and funny stuff” file in my file cabinet for about 2 years never really expecting that any ski company would bite on the idea. In the mean time as ski companies started making their shaped fat skis with all this side cut I remained skiing on fat skis with minimal side cut trying to milk as much flotation and control as possible from them.

 

Then in 1998 the Volant design engineers came out to Squaw Valley. The plan was to test out some new shaped fat skis that they wanted to make with a bunch of my friends and knowledgeable skiers. These new skis were basically a Volant Chubb with more side cut. We tested them against many skis including our old, used for a year Chubbs. Yes, they were more versatile and could be used to carve easier turns on the groomed but in the powder they still were more work than skis with minimal side cut. Then Scott Gaffney, who was one of the testers, decided to open his mouth and suggest a concept which is probably the most important yet now seeming so obvious discovery in powder ski technology. He said, “I think my old, dead, decambered Chubbs float much better in the powder than those ones with new ski life or camber.” And then the light bulb flashed on. I dug up my old beer napkin and began pondering the concept. I thought about hard snow and soft snow and began comparing the similarities of powder to water. I realized that the effects of riding on powder snow would be very similar to riding on water. Water skis have reverse side cut. So do surf boards. And they both have decamber or rocker.

 

Over the course of the next two years I would talk to people about how cool it would be to have skis with decamber and reverse side cut specifically for powder. Almost everyone I mentioned the idea to would either laugh or politely smile. All except for Scott and JT Holmes and a few others.  I never really pushed the idea to Volant very hard because I assumed that no one would listen. Nobody buys powder only skis. The industry already lost on that bet. The skis that sell are the all mountain carver that are so versatile right? Right. No one wants to buy more than one pair of skis. So why even attempt to make something that a ski shop can’t even sell? So nothing happened for 2 years. Finally after stewing over it for too long I began talking to the design engineers at Volant about just gong for it and jury rigging a pair or two together in the shop in their spare time. If it wasn’t for the hard work and extra after hours put in by Ryan Carroll and Peter Turner in the Volant factory the first and only four pairs would never have been made in the summer of 2001.

 

The first prototype arrived at my doorstep in August. Soon afterwards I packed up my beautiful, shimmering, new, steel Spatulas and flew down to New Zealand to work on a film project. As I am a very spoiled professional skier we were heli skiing the whole time and I got to test them out. They immediately blew my mind! Everything was so easy! No more leaning back to prevent tip diving. No more excessive body movements to force the skis around. No more big GS turns or body smears to slow down. No more boot sink.  I couldn’t believe it! I ran straight to the phone and called Volant over seas and spewed my guts raving for 45 minutes about how great they are.

 

Unfortunately when I got home I got the news that Volant was going to be sold to another company and that everyone was getting canned. No one was going to be able to put any time into making more Spatulas. There were four pairs in existence on the planet with no foreseeable solution. I held on to three of them and Ryan Carroll held on to one single ski of the remaining pair. The other single ski went on tour with the new Volant to help promote the Spatula concept if and when we ever got it together enough to start making them again.

 

Luckily as time would tell Volant got back up on its feet and contracted the Atomic factory in Austria to make all its skis. Perfect! Atomic makes great skis and their standards are nothing short of excellent. They also happen to be the company who first made super fat powder skis back in the 80s. The Atomic Powder Plus or “Fat Boy” is today still considered on of the best powder skis ever made by many western skiers.

Peter Turner and I then pushed for some budget money to be spent on creating around 300 pairs of Spatulas to be made in the Atomic factory.

 

The powers that be thought it over. Powder specific skis? They won’t sell very fast. If we are lucky we will break even with these skis. But they are revolutionary. They will change the way people think about skiing powder, the most enjoyable type of skiing. They will open up a whole new world for people. It’s a big risk, but what great idea isn’t? Everyone said yes and the project was a go. Now as I sit here and write this its October 2002 and Volant is making the first batch of the greatest powder skis ever. I can’t wait for it to start snowing and for a small part of 300 people’s lives to change! Have fun on your new Spatulas! And remember, if someone makes fun of them, there are no friends on a powder day! You don’t have to wait for their slow ass! Good luck!

 

Shane McConkey

 

 

reviews of The Wisdom of Saucer Boy
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I loved this, the interesting thing has been to ski so many shapes over the years. You end up realizing no ski does it all if you really know how to bend one, and the modern fatties have kind of taken out this strange mid-level powder experience....

ie, old days, you skied down in the powder.

new days, skiing on top almost all the time.

in between there was a generation of fairly soft fatties with sidecut and traditional camber that, with the right pitch, snow depth and density, you could actually load up just like a GS board when you get late, hook it up, and let the skis throw you across the fall line, then pull you back around. It's a killer turn if you can do it on the hardpack, not too many really can, but just as we were really bending old fatties, these new ones came along, prebent, and they give so little back (again for those who can load up a ski)

So, on a good pitch, you could, with the old ones, skim along top, then sink a few, driving tips is fun, every gate racer learns it early, launching through the edge change, and really play with the ski's radius down there below the surface. It was fun, but the new wider waists and reverse camber sticks resist this with every grain of their being.

Still, the new ones are fun, like waterskiing.

The other thing is arcing a old fattie on hardpack. the new ones won't do this at all, but the old ones left a knee-deep trench. That's fun to lay down.

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