Last winter 634,000 Americans bought new ski poles, leaving at least as many of us to get along with battered and nicked shafts, missing or dull points, and frayed straps. A couple of million snowboarders did not buy poles. You can tell a snowboarder. He's the guy dragging himself along an upward cat track, looking like a cast-ashore fish struggling to return to the water. Pole-equipped skiers do not suffer so. In addition to propulsion, they have a device to help trigger the timing of a turn.
Unbalanced skiers plant poles on the snow to prevent themselves from falling over. Still others wave their poles about as they ski, in the manner of a person falling off a cliff, or of a drum majorette at a Columbus Day parade. "Hey everybody (wave, wave), I'm skiing!"When you attach four-foot-plus poles to a pair of human appendages called arms, you have more than six feet of what becomes the most visible feature of your skiing. Skis used to be most visible, but they've become shorter than poles, and are partly concealed by snow anyway. Soon they'll be so short we won't see them at all, and we'll just ski with poles.
With the exception of Hermann Maier, almost everyone I know wants to look stylish when they ski. Style is what's left over after you've correctly executed the basic mechanics of a turn. Pole handling affects how stylish you look. Done deftly, it's a flicking of the wrist to set the pole tip lightly on the snow. The action is difficult to perform unless the pole in your hand happens to be light, like a well-balanced tennis racquet.
More than 40 years ago, poles were anything but light and easy to swing. Made of bamboo, or with steel shafts used in manufacturing golf clubs, and often with clumsy baskets, they were sturdy aids to climbing, but not of much help in maintaining turn tempo. In 1959 Ed Scott designed the first aluminum, break-resistant tapered shaft. Now a pole could be flicked back and forth like a metronome, establishing the rhythm of quick turns.
"Everyone wanted to make short linked turns initiated by a pole plant...wedeln," said Scott. "The new poles were a sensation." (A tinkering inventor and renowned curmudgeon, Scott, 85, died earlier this year in Sun Valley.)
Poles are as indispensable to skiers as gesticulating arms are to characters in Seinfeld, yet they are inexplicably overlooked by ski writers. When I served as this magazine's chief editor, I habitually assigned the reporting of new poles to the most junior editor. I was wrong. Just as war is too important to be left to generals, poles are too important to be left to junior editors. If you haven't bought a new pair in recent years, this very senior editor will apprise you of what you're missing.
Straight ski poles are passé. If your grips and shafts are straight, hasten to your nearest ski shop and get crooked.
A proper pole grip today should be angled forward, anywhere from four to 13 degrees. The reason? There's a natural angle created by your fingers and your wrists when you grasp a pole. With the grip inclined slightly forward, your arm is relaxed as you hold the pole vertically. With a straight handle, it's stressed. Incidentally, herein may be the explanation of why for years we've seen over-stressed folks in liftlines, hunched over, possibly asleep, as they lean on too-straight poles, the baskets planted up by their ski tips.
At least three leading pole makers-Scott USA, Goode and Leki-now feature detachable straps. It's a safety feature, allowing the pole to release from your wrist if the basket snags on a tree branch or obstacle or, say, a moving T-bar. Now as an added safety procedure when you ride the lift, Scott is recommending that you remove the strap from the pole with your gloved hand still in it. When you reach the top and are prepared to ski down, you snap the strap back onto the pole. After riding a gondola, of course, you should also remind yourself to re-place your boots in your bindings, your goggles over your eyes, and your brain in a mode where it remembers to complete your first turn with the uphill edge of the downhill ski.
Idiot-proofing seems the order of the day. Novices and people suffering incipient Alzheimer's often have difficulty remembering whether to insert their hands into the straps from above or below. (From below is correct.) Now it no longer matters if you forget. There's a glove that comes with the strap built into it. Simply snap the glove onto the grip, and point your skis down the mountain, remembering, of course, to first insert your hand into the glove. The all-in-one glove/strap ($60 to $130) is offered by Goode, which pioneered those marvelous thin, light carbon-graphite poles 10 years ago.
When I bought my first expensive pair of graphite poles, I so feared having them stolen that I carried them into the day lodge and kept them by my side as I ate. One of the great things about the strap-detaching poles, which manufacturers fail to mention, is that you now have to bring only the straps into lunch. Outside on the ski rack, what creep is going to rip off a pair of $100 shafts?
You may now buy $125 poles whose length can be altered in an instant. For a tight slalom, you may want to lengthen the poles. A field of moguls coming up? Shorten the poles. But why bother to change pole length? For the same price you can hire a guy to follow you down the hill carrying a bag of different poles and skis. Yes, the mountains will soon be thronged by ski caddies, hired by wealthy sold-out-of-dot.com-in-time skiers so they can play the next terrain shot with the right gear.
If you plan to re-equip yourself with poles having releasable straps and changeable length shafts, the tab could be in excess of a hundred dollars. That's a lot more than the $30 the average American skier spent last season for poles. How do you justify spending three times more? Use the poles to perform other functions. The nice thing about changeable length poles, for example, is that you can adjust them for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, or lend them to taller and shorter friends. Once upon a time, someone made a pole whose hollow grip served as a whiskey flask. In the longhaired heyday of freestyle skiing, one guy smuggled cocaine into the country inside pole shafts.
Last winter, when I was in British Columbia's Adamant Mountains, the helicopter brought us lunch served outdoors. As I recall, half of the 40 diners were seated in the manner that has been employed for a half century, yet remains largely unknown. You thrust the tails of two skis into the snow about a foot apart, then lay your two poles across the binding toepieces. The result is an instant chair seat.
After she retired from racing, Andrea Mead Lawrence, the only American skier to win two gold medals in a single Olympics, took to skiing without poles. She thought them unnecessary-even an impediment to good technique. Notwithstanding Andy's charisma, no one followed her example. Poles are as essential to skiing as a lamp to night reading. Don't get trapped in a couloir without a pair.
Contact John Fry at email@example.com.