Skiing has always been, and I pray always shall be, a challenging sport. Part of its intrinsic charm is that it takes time and fortitude to master it. Were it a dullard’s game that one could subdue on first encounter, the sport could never forge the deep-rooted, lifelong bonds that connect man to mountain.
During its modern-day ascendance in the mid-twentieth century, all of skiing’s natural hardships – the weather, the travel, the untamed natural terrain – were exacerbated by equipment apparently devised by the same people who came up with waterboarding. If you wanted edges on your skis you screwed them on yourself. (Imagine how well that went. Tearing out chunks of edges was commonplace.) If you wanted to wax your bases, you first had to paint gooey green glop on the bare wood ski so you had a base to wax. If you wanted a boot that really supported your anatomy or helped guide the ski you would have to wait a couple of decades for the plastic boot to arrive. Bindings came in two basic varieties: those with no chance of release whatsoever and those prone to releasing spontaneously, often resulting in moments both hilarious and life threatening.
An anecdote culled from personal experience may help you, dear reader, understand the consequences of such equipment for America’s youth. Peel back the veil of time to 1956. Understand that between the ages of 5 and 8, wherever the Pontiff-in-Training wanted to ski down he had to first climb up. The bare wood of untreated bases proved better than skins for climbing, but the gliding properties of my set-up were sub-standard. And so it came to pass on one straight-line descent down the Lord’s Prayer at Big Bromley, Peru, Vermont that I double ejected. My bindings worked perfectly: neither released. My boots did the best they could: deciding quickly whether to stick to me or the skis, they shrewdly chose the latter. Fortunately for me, my trusty socks, which I kept in a strictly unwashed condition for good luck on just such occasions, stayed on my feet. My skis, boots and bindings continued on unperturbed to the bottom of the hill.
Over time equipment became much better which would have made learning the sport a lot easier except we carefully didn’t allow new skiers access to any of the good stuff. Instead, we made them a special sub-species of equipment just for them! We called this special gear, “rental equipment.” The essential design criterion for a rental ski was that it last at least 5,000 uses under conditions that would cripple a Humvee. (Then it was re-sold to a ski area rental shop in the mid-West where it probably is still in use today). The design goal of the rental boot was to fit comfortably whether worn with or without tennis shoes. The rental binding’s raison d’être was the ritual public humiliation of its user. Hundreds of ski school students were abandoned on the slopes by their classes when their Spademans magically released or they could not fathom how to re-enter a Look Integral. If people wanted to learn how to ski they were going to have to suffer, just as their forefathers did before them.
To make matters more interesting, even if you were savvy enough to acquire your own equipment there was still the issue of just how to use it. Two basic forms of instruction existed: your friends or ski school. The friend route was like life in Thomas Hobbes’ natural world: nasty, brutish and short. In the classic formulation, the friend takes the inductee to the top of Devil’s Peak, provides two contradictory pieces of advice, pushes off and is never seen again. Those who survived the lesson experience became skiers and those who didn’t became patients. Some relationships suffered.
The ski school option was much more difficult. The sport was so daunting to learn it obviously required a teaching sequence, which is code for mastering a skill then discarding it and learning a completely different skill and so on, with the actual, necessary skill put off to some future date, after all other maneuvers have been exhausted. Most skiers who began taking lessons in the early 1970’s are either dead or still taking lessons, the sweet taste of competence forever receding before them.
With such a grueling indoctrination period, it should not surprise that the sport of alpine skiing has developed an instinct for preying on the novice. The same way German Shepard’s can smell fear, the ski trade can sense the confusion and lost-child anxiety of the newbie skier. So do we reach out to them, pull them into our warm embrace and show them the way? Or do we do to them as our fathers did to us, and their fathers before them? Why, of course we do both: we pull them in, take their money and leave them looking like idiots.
One way to thin the herd of applicants who otherwise threaten to crowd our slopes and degrade our skiing heritage is to sell them so much useless paraphernalia that they can’t afford lift tickets. This I presume is the driving force behind the invention of the ski carrier. I’m not talking about roof racks, I’m referring to the devices intended to assist one in making the treacherous voyage from the parking lot to the ticket window. Apparently among the great fears terrorizing the neophyte skier is how they are ever going to get skis, boots AND poles (!) ALL THE WAY from where they are parked, seemingly in rural New Jersey, to the slopes of Mt. Snow. Obviously this can’t be done without – you guessed it – special equipment.
The most innocent device created to fill this void in our lives was the Ski Tote, which at least wasn’t bigger than your skis, was designed to hold skis and poles (whew!) and could serve as a ski lock once you made it to the ski area. The fact that no self-respecting ski thief would ever dream of molesting your skis, which had the resale value of crusty guacamole, did nothing to deter the sale of thousands upon thousands of Ski Totes.
What eludes me to this day is why nascent skiers don’t just mimic the more talented who roam among them. I have never, ever, in a life long enough to be carbon-dated, seen an expert skier with a ski carrier of any kind. Among homo sapiens, the ski carrier ought properly to consist of the hand and the shoulder, with the other hand available to cope with poles. (More intricate arrangements are possible, but this will normally get one from point A to point B. Please remember that skis once shouldered are weapons. Thank you.) And that should be it.
But some brave innovators have not been content with this dreary reality. They see a young mother struggling to manage unruly offspring and all this gear and they think, “I can help these people.” And so they create some of the most moronic devices ever conceived. An excellent example was a tube large enough to house a ballistic missile into which the harried mom could funnel gear. To facilitate transport, the giant tube is equipped with tires from the Mini-Me catalog of fine products, dwarf wheels that might roll on Astro-Turf but couldn’t remain upright over any known parking lot between North Conway and Northstar. So our harried mom, let’s call her Mildred, because we’re not done with her yet, is now dragging all the family’s ski gear in a tube that has helpfully pitched on its side. It takes all her motherly determination to keep moving forward. Lord only knows where the kids are, probably seeking protection through the court system. When Mildred finally gets to the base lodge she discovers she needs a new mortgage to rent the square footage needed to store the tube-of-plenty. Somehow the resort forgot to install the complementary racks made to hold ski tubes the size of a whale’s uterus.
Poor Mildred. Her problems have only begun. Let’s be benevolent and assume she has donated the tube to charity and somehow her skis have been teleported to an area proximate to the base lodge. All she has to do is walk in her ski boots to her skis and she’ll be skiing! Not so fast. Do you seriously expect Mildred, who has already suffered so much, to walk in her boots? What, and risk permanent deformity? Thank heavens for products like the Revolution (no mere insurrection here) Walk EZ. Without these handy devices affixed to her ski boots, Mildred will suffer any or all of the following afflictions:
• Frankenstein’s Monster-Walk Syndrome, careening side-to-side until her spine disintegrates or she is stoned to death by angry townspeople.
• Gibbon Slouch, in which Mildred maintains balance only by bending her spine until it looks like the St. Louis arch, with her knuckles brushing the snow.
• Skibootoliosis, in which skeletal deformation runs rampant, resulting in Mildred always walking as if she were wearing someone else’s plug boots, even when she’s in slippers.
But with Walk EZ, what ethereal delight! Mildred can now dash across the Squaw Valley parking lot faster than Usain Bolt. Never mind that Walk EZ have been over-engineered (in their first, glorious iteration) to the point that Mildred can’t lift them without steroid injections, they so simplify the otherwise ineluctable art of walking that it’s amazing people don’t affix them to their mukluks, their Topsiders, their Manolo Blahniks! Can’t get from the cab to the curb! Try Walk EZ! Keep stumbling to the bar in your patent leather pumps? Walk EZ to the rescue! Of course, once you get to wherever, be it bar-side or slopeside, there is the annoying business of setting one’s Walk EZ aside. In ski boots, of course, this problem was well anticipated by the Walk EZ folks, who devised a way of attaching them to the back of your boots. A goiter for your spoiler. No geek factor there.
I have a helpful suggestion that may assist the huddled-befuddled skiing multitudes and those who aspire to join them. If you’re otherwise ambulatory but you can’t walk in ski boots, maybe upright sports aren’t for you. Try luge or quilting. If you’re able-bodied and can’t manage to pick up skis in one hand and poles in the other, what chance do you have of orchestrating gravity and mass into a sublime slide downhill? Things like walking in boots and picking up skis are go/no-go signals, divine markers meant to steer the somnambulant back to a more fruitful, or at least less immanently dangerous, path. Skiing is the divine right of all and blessed are all who slide on snow, but please people, have a little faith in yourselves. Believe, as I do, that you can make it from car to lodge without heavenly intervention or the humble assistance of Walk EZ. I know you can do it. I believe in you.
To check out other musings, click on the following links:
* Volume 1: The Greatest Boondoggle Ever: A Three-Part Story Told in One Breathless Burst
* Volume 2: The Cruel Shoes
* Volume 3: Killing it at Kitzbuhel: Part 1
* Volume 4: Killing it at Kitzbuhel: Part 2 : How I Won the Hahnenkamm And Other Life Lessons
* Volume 5: Annals from the Dark Side of Skiing: Lycra, Lace & Leather Featuring the World’s First Exhibition of Dryland Solo Synchronized Swimming Blooms on a Las Vegas Evening