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Musings from the Pontiff of Powder: Vol. 9

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE: Zany Skis That Sought to Save Skiing
posted: 03/06/2009

By: The Pontiff of Powder


One of skiing’s most charming attributes is the way the sport embraces lunatic-fringe ideas in the hopes that the latest “innovation” will spur renewed interest in the mainstream, i.e., non-skiing, public. The fact that some improbable adventures actually worked – such as Howard Head’s metal ski or Cliff Taylor’s Shorties, which led to the Graduated Length Method – has inspired countless other dreamers to bring to life truly wretched ideas.



Any overview of product development run amok must pay homage to the good folks who did the R&D at Kastle. Not the current incarnation of the brand, mind you, but in its previous life when it was distributed by Beconta and later, after being absorbed by Nordica. What was remarkable about the experimental skis produced by the Kastle team wasn’t what they dreamed up, per se, but that they went ahead and manufactured skis that would have been safer had they remained in their original state, doodles on some deranged engineer’s notepad. For example, there was the ski with two sidecuts, one for long turns, one for short, depending on how you paired them up on your feet. With today’s even-weighting technique, trying to put these multi-purpose planks parallel would cause the tips to either converge or diverge, neither all that desirable. A wonderful test, not unlike the ultra-marathon in its absurd difficulty, for those who don’t find life challenging enough.



This was such a great idea that Kastle also made a ski with a cracked edge on one side and a continuous edge on the other. (Volkl once marketed a similar effort.) Again, you got two different behaviors, whether you liked it or not. If you have never skied on a full-length cracked edge, it’s like skiing on a tractor tread. The ski is perforce softer and tends to decelerate in the turn. Switching to the continuous edge feels like stepping on a banana with an after-burner. As long as you never weight the uphill ski, life can go on and you may live to reproduce. Then again, anyone buying skis like this should probably do the world a favor and suppress the urge to procreate.



Any ski company that has been around the block a couple times has made the odd stinker, but for sheer chutzpah few can match the launch of Kastle’s Fiber Tube technology, embodied in the Echo Thesis, Syn Thesis, Anti Thesis and the Carving Thesis. The clever notion that spawned these theories masquerading as skis was the hollow-tube construction of bicycle frames. The idea – a lightweight, durable construction – sounds nifty on paper, which the Fiber Tube skis might as well have been made of. The first hint of a problem should have materialized when the Kastle engineers took the prototypes out for a test drive and found they were omni-directional. The skier’s idea of where he or she might like to travel – usually indicated by pointing one’s feet in a certain direction – was weighed by the ski against all other possibilities and discarded.



The Thesis skis were supposedly made “in response to North American dealer demand,” as if American and Canadian dealers huddled and sent out an urgent request for expensive skis with funereal cosmetics and the steering properties of soup. When for some reason North American dealers didn’t buy any Fiber Tube skis, Kastle got back at them by creating the B-52, which was supposed to be a “carving ski,” the then emerging new generation of skis that would transform the hitherto spastic legion of intermediate skiers into experts overnight. With the B-52, any such metamorphosis would have to take place at night as any hope of progress during the day would be viciously extinguished by the ski’s ingenious design. In keeping with Kastle’s rich heritage of ignoring fundamental design principles, the B-52 eschewed the convention of a sidecut composed of a continuous arc, obviously the product of weak minds. The B-52 solution was to turn tip and tail into stumpy, more or less rectangular spatulas, connected underfoot by a bolt-straight section. It looked like a kayak paddle or what a giant might use as a tick-squasher. It certainly wasn’t made for skiing. The B-52 “turn” began with an uncontrolled skid as the chunky forebody dove out of the way of any on-rushing terrain, a lurching snag underfoot as the shapeless center slammed sideways into the hill, then a swimming sensation as the tail spun out. Any carving sensation was not only ephemeral it was probably also delusional. It is safe to say that if the B-52 were universally adopted at the time of its introduction there would be no skiers alive today.



As noted, the trend that Kastle was trying to latch onto with the B-52 was the emergence of the carving ski, which at first was treated by most ski makers as an ugly duckling but quickly evolved into a swan. By 1998, carving was regarded as skiing’s salvation. The world’s largest retail chain, Europe’s Intersport, was so powerful and confidant of carving’s future that it was demanding all ski makers permanently mark each model with the appropriate “carving” category: Race Carver, Super Carver, Easy Carver, Fun Carver (!) and so on, as if these tags would de-mystify ski purchasing for the pan-European buying customer. I remember thinking at the time that these genre titles made absolutely no sense, yet the mavens of Intersport were certain that the Carving names were as intuitive as walking. Stand back, lest the stampede of new skiers, driven by carving’s siren call, crush you underfoot on their way to the Alps to master this new craze.



America and Europe are different. [On some blogs you have to pay extra for insights of this quality.] While in America a PSIA white paper was opining that the arrival of the shaped ski didn’t mandate an overhaul of the professional ski instructors’ association’s convenient, only-100-lessons-should-do-it teaching sequence, in central Europe the independently run ski schools were furiously signing up students for carving lessons. Carving, in case you haven’t guessed already, is not the same as skiing. In carving, you lean everything you own into the hill with leap-of-faith commitment. You are now locked onto a monorail that needs roughly a quarter-mile of cross-hill traverse to even contemplate a change of direction. To fully capitalize on the experience, you use two lifters under your bindings and also have raised boot soles, the ski equivalent of elevator shoes. While carving feels effortless, you are no more capable of changing trajectory than a bus with two missing wheels.



The tool that made this epiphany possible was the Super Carver, a ski with more sidecut than Pamela Anderson. The premise behind the Super Carver was that it made skiing so much easier for the average punter. If you can lean, you can super-carve! It’s so simple, you don’t even need the complication of ski poles! Ahem, one small problem with this scenario. It takes considerable skill to make this all-or-nothing move, and if you do it with sufficient momentum to make it interesting, the forces generated that you must command require legs made from molybdenum alloy. To strap the average Twinkie-gorged American to such an exotic set-up would be tantamount to murder.



Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: there was a world champion of super carving, the immortal Ignatz Ganahl. Americans were kept ignorant of this development in order to preserve the NATO alliance. Once the shape of the super carver was adopted by slalom race skis and the traditional test of short-turn agility adopted the same, victory-or-death technique, with the hip virtually brushing the snow on every turn, a separate world championship for the same skill set seemed odd, even to the Swiss. Ignatz, we hardly knew ye.



Lest my readers think I exaggerate, let me pull back the curtain on the SKI slalom ski test of a few seasons ago. After a morning spent thrashing through rapid gates, Felix McGrath dragged himself into the lodge completely and unabashedly spent. This was a world-class athlete with seven national titles to his credit (back when skis were long and skinny), not long retired from his competitive career. Felix didn’t realize it at the time, but what he had just experienced was super carving with closely spaced gates thrown in for fun, just the way Ignatz used to like it.



So, to review: skiing concocted a sub-set of the sport once credible enough to stage its own world championships that was intended to lure recreational skiers but in fact required strength not normally available without injections and a skill set reserved for perhaps a few hundred athletes worldwide. Just how was this supposed to work?



Thank the Lord for people like Ivan Petkov, who recognized that the earth would be a better place if these superficial barriers to super carving could only be torn down. All Joe Six-Pack needed to become a skier was a little help, which in Ivan’s vision took the form of a pole roughly sixteen feet long with articulated dishes on either end. When Joe was ready to change direction, all he did was tilt his pole until the dish was riding on the snow, then lean on the bastard. Super carving solved.



Uh, almost. One glitch is that this arrangement requires a perfectly manicured mountain, preferably one denuded of forest or other obstacles, like skiers. Undeveloped mountains are too crowded for this activity. Skiing is hazardous enough without fellow citizens armed with poles long enough to vault a moat. I don’t know what prevented the pole-and-dish contraption from achieving wide acclaim; natural selection, perhaps.



In 1990, a few seasons before Kastle unveiled the wonders of the Anti Thesis and its kin, Atomic quietly introduced the Magic Powder, a wacky, super-wide ski that seemed doomed to forever reside on the fringes of the sport. Now fat skis are the norm, Super Carvers have infiltrated the World Cup circuit disguised as slalom skis and the Echo Thesis might one day make a wonderful mountain bike.



To see all of the Musings, Click Here.

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