Now that we are living in the Golden Age of Public Humiliation, when depravity and ritualized misery are the currency of mainstream entertainment, I feel the Zeitgeist is ripe for revealing the most humbling experience to which I have ever been subjected, namely, ski boot testing. Specifically, testing truly bad boots, shoes so cruel that from the moment you wrestle them on a sense of sickening dread creeps into your bones – even the ones near the ankle that aren’t bleeding - fear thickens the passage in your throat and when the final buckle closes, usually to no effect whatsoever, it is with a thud that portends doom.
I’m not referring here to boots that merely do not fit as well as one would like; one has to look past minor fit foibles or give up the boot-test enterprise. I’m recalling boots and boot-like products that often looked like ski boots from the outside but secretly were sensory-deprivation tanks for the feet or were otherwise so constructed that any information your body intended to pass along to the skis, which now seem so far, far away, will be completed absorbed by the amazing boots.
Before dishing the delicious details, allow me to unburden myself on one point that often comes up when boot testing is discussed. Everyone would agree that fit and performance are inextricably linked; any fit falling short of flawless would mask at least to some degree the performance capabilities of said shoe. Since custom fitting is generally not part of the boot test protocol (and when it is, watch out), how can anyone, no matter how delusional, pretend to parse differences among ski boots? Permit me to shed some light on this conundrum.
First of all, the differences among the various ski boot brands and their oodles of models are THIS BIG. Small fit shortcomings are minor distractions when a boot is trying to kill you. In my experience the opposite of this routine objection is where the truth lies: it’s impossible NOT to tell the differences among boots. It may require some skiing skills to understand the origins of dysfunctional design and some language skills to describe nuances in how a particular boot translates pressure to the ski, but the fact that there are differences and that some are potentially hazardous to the hapless, of that there can be no doubt.
Second and final prefacing thought on boot testing: most boots one tests fit pretty well, or at least fit as well as their designers intended them to. The shell size is as right as it can be, a custom insole is used in place of the stock, factory-provided version and usually all the parts work. As much or more attention is given to fit as one would find at the “average” specialty ski shop, minus whatever liner-heating apparatus might be involved. Just as it is the rare boot that stands out to all testers as best in show, it is only slightly less rare to find boots with nothing but mayhem on their mind. But enough empty rhetoric: let’s get to the worst boots of the last 30 years.
*Please don’t sue me, Mr. Martin. I acknowledge I totally stole your book title, but I could have thought it up independently, just like Leibniz and Newton re calculus, honest.
I’m not sure that it ever harmed more than a few boot testers around the world given the mother brand’s market share at the time, but in the early 90’s Dachstein made a single-buckle rear-entry boot called the Clean and Light. The main selling point – I kid you not – was that the liner could be removed and laundered with your socks, presumably because some deadly foot fungus was ravaging the Tyrol at the time as there has been little market demand for this feature elsewhere since the suppression of the last Plague. In defense of Dachstein’s design team, the washability of the liner was indeed by far the boot’s best feature. It skied like your foot was in an empty box of Kleenex. The entire shell threatened to collapse at any moment. The boot’s only buckle didn’t do any of the fancy multi-tasking with which Salomon or Nordica tarted up a boot, it just brought the paper-thin rear spoiler in proximity to the rest of the enclosure, then sighed into place with a ploof. It was not adjustable. Steering your skis was an empty dream. Your forefoot was left to clang around the cavernous front of the boot looking in vain for a surface to cling to. It may have been possible to rotate the ankle 360 degrees, Linda-Blair-like, without removing the boot as I’m quite sure there was nothing structural preventing it.
But at least the Clean and Light landed on very few feet. Not so the Raichle RX Viva, which sold like cotton candy – to which it bore a close architectural relationship – back in the mid-1980’s. Nearly every moment of my test run is still emblazoned on my memory chip (and I have been working with a team of therapists and others for decades to achieve erasure), just as one can recall losing control of a van on ice on the interstate or when an airplane loses an engine on take-off. My feet, seemingly ensconced in products with fixed boundaries, felt like they were being thrown wall-to-wall inside an endless, empty warehouse by invisible and irresistible forces. I tried to stop in order to re-adjust the forefoot spike some Swiss of Roman ancestry had designed to keep your foot from wandering outside the boot, but my skis couldn’t detect my urgent pleas. I began to ski as I imagine a gibbon would, with my arms extended downward so fiercely my wrists were past my ankles. Still no body movements managed to influence my skis. That’s when I realized Why America Can’t Ski. We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of boots like this, boots that would drive any sane person to join a cult that swore off footwear forever.
Okay, those boots haven’t been around for a long time, but the end of rear-entry boots was hardly the end of wretched boot design. We’ve since seen comical soft boots (the subject of a future meditation) and all manner of 4-buckle beasts that playfully collapse in whatever direction they’re moved. Salomon, a brand that has since recovered its sanity, once made a model called the Integral that was a boot chimera: the head of lion, body of a goat and tail of a dragon, or in the case of the Integral, the body of a Tecnica, the tongue and shaft of a Raichle Flexon and a closure system from the seventh ring of hell. Not to be outdone, Nordica contributed hybrid designs such as Smartech and the servo-assisted Total Fit System (TFS) that managed to circumnavigate the foot several times with straps and twine without altering their intrinsic, barge-like steering quality. In fairness, these last examples are not representative of what either Salomon or Nordica have achieved before or since. Along with Lange, one brand or the other has sat astride the boot world since the ascendance of the plastic boot, but like all grand histories theirs are not without sin.
As recently as two seasons ago I was moved to comment regarding one supposedly race-caliber boot, “It was like squeezing your foot through a doggie door to find it inside Costco.” Reputedly premium brands have proffered boots much more disposed to flex rearward than forward, while others deliberately deflected one’s line of travel in such a way that the unsuspecting skier would most likely be split like a chicken.
But all of these boots are treasures compared to the oh-god-I-only-wish-it-were-an-out-of-body experience of descending an actual mountain wearing nothing but a pair of Snow Runners. Here is the Snow Runner’s essential appeal: “Throw away those irritating poles! Get rid of those injury-inducing bindings! And dispense once and for all with those pesky skis!” Why go skiing when you can go Snow Running! It’s so much fun you’ll want to do it with friends, as someone needs to be able to drive the rest of you to the clinic!
To adopt the Snow Runner as your preferred conveyance, you have to ignore every reason everyone ever had for making a ski and all the accoutrements appended thereto. One good idea for a ski, it turns out, is spreading a load (witness: fat skis) which Snow Runners are not so good at. The best possible fate for a Snow Runner devotee caught in a storm is to be unearthed centuries later to perform in Geico commercials.
Another useful part of the ski turns out to be the tail, which like Manx cats the Snow Runner has genetically clipped. (The latter-day Sled Dog extended the Snow Runner platform a tad, to little avail.) Here’s what you use in place of a ski tail: all the thigh muscles you didn’t know existed until this moment. “Fire” does not do the sensation justice, as burning sufficient to ignite polypropylene is only an intermediate stage. It is followed by “Iron,” in which all sinews, tendons and any other body parts not already convulsing seize into a solid mass with the molecular density of einsteinium. Like any unstable element, your thighs begin leaking sub-atomic particles which might cause your skis to turn if you were wearing any.
I can’t remember much more of the next phase, “Fainting,” as some time during the single, 1,800 vertical run I blacked out for a long period in which I imagined I was prop manager in a shampoo commercial, a natural defense, my therapist explains, to block out the pain. When I saw the base lodge, at first I thought it might be a mirage, as most of the brain parts normally used for reason had lowered the metaphoric lifeboats and were just praying for blessed unconsciousness. When I realized I had been saved, I tried to leap for joy and ruptured every significant connective tissue in the upper leg. To this day I can only play croquet sidesaddle and other divertissements are out of the question.
I exaggerate, but only slightly.
There are many, many other examples of boots seemingly made more to subjugate their owners than please them, but if continue feelings would get hurt, things would be said that couldn’t be taken back, recriminations would fly, perhaps pottery, nuts to you, pissed-off letter to follow, etc. and you can where that’s going, which is nowhere.