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What Were They Thinking?

Fall Line
posted: 02/28/2006

Part of skiing's enduring charm is that it's a challenging sport.It takes years to learn, technique varies according to conditions, and the weather can be heinous. Then there's the equipment, which is, too often, incomprehensible. More preparation goes into tuning ski gear before an elite race than NASA devotes to launching the space shuttle. Divining the correct concatenation of ski-boot-binding that, when put into the centrifuge of a 60-mph run, will result in the perfect descent takes equal parts quantum mechanics and medieval alchemy.

There is a lot of good gear out there, especially these days, though it's always been a Sisyphean struggle for skiers to succeed at the rarefied notion of finding what's "right" for them. Yet, ever the cockeyed contrarian, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for gear that flamed out so spectacularly, that was so ill-conceived, that so completely failed at advancing the sport that it quickly separated itself from the pack of the half-price has-beens and the instantly obsolete to the status of historic screw-up.

Consider the house of Kastle, a mad-science fair that used the skiing public as a beta test for most of its storied existence. I should hasten to point out that Toni Sailer won three Olympic gold medals on Kastle, but that was in 1956 on wooden skis. Times change. For sheer design idiocy it's hard to top the Kastle B-52, a shaped ski introduced in 1996 that somehow took the advantage inherent in that architecture and translated it into a board that couldn't carve. Not content with this trick, Kastle simultaneously promulgated a line of hollow-core skis that were very expensive and so unstable it felt like you were skiing on greased castanets.

Dreadful products haven't been limited to skis. Boots have provided a rich playground for the designer who has never seen either a foot or a snowflake. Brushing aside for the moment the excruciating pain inflicted by injecting hot foam, silicone, wax, lava or some other hellish concoction around the helplessly incarcerated foot, there is the matter of using the boot as a tool to guide the ski. This hasn't always been self-evident to manufacturers. Perhaps no boot in history did more to stifle the growth of skiing than the Raichle RE Viva of the mid-'80s. Comfy right out of the box in any size for any foot, it steered like a rudderless barge and collapsed when pressured in any direction. They were like wearing sensory-deprivation devices for your feet—and it was anyone's guess where you were heading next.

Even worse indignities await those who venture into a rental shop to procure alpine footwear. When you see someone crouched like a gibbon over their skis, hands dragging by their ankles, swaying like a tottering statue, understand that it's not them, it's the boots. Most rental boots, and those sold to beginners, offer the same structural support as prayer. Anyone, from Bode Miller to Anja Paerson, would struggle to get downhill in such footwear.

In the history of wacky gear, special recognition goes to boots with air bladders, skis with two different sidecuts, binding plates strung on cables, ski boots that reached your knees—and that ancestral echo of today's ski/binding system, the Nava. The Nava was in essence a moon boot connected to an early-generation plate binding. Since the soft après-ski boot couldn't be trusted to guide the ski, the assembly included a strut attached to the plate that paralleled the calf and tucked in behind the knee. The Nava belongs to a long line of ski equipment that proves the adage: Just because you can ski in something doesn't mean you should.

As awe-inspiring as the silly products that made it to market are, they often are eclipsed by the misfits that couldn't even proceed past the prototype stage. One ready-fire-aim product was the Gauer 360, a stumpy little slat barely long enough for a binding with an aggressively convex base. Apparently conceived for the ice dancer in us all, thee Gauer 360's progenitors could be espied hand in hand, spinning around one another at trade events in the early '90s. The memories of those frightful visions still haunt my nights.

Just during my brief tenure on this planet, whole categories of alpine gear have come and gone. Most prominent is the straight ski, but also beyond resuscitation are the performance rear-entry boot and the omni-releasing plate binding. Many skiers gave up on a sport they might have loved because the products they were seduced into buying couldn't transport them down the hill if they were Jean-Claude Killy himself.

I suppose one should be grateful for this savage war of attrition. For without its winnowing effects on skier numbers, a run down the front side of Vail would be as congested as a train platform in Hong Kong—and as much fun as an afternoon skiing in a Raichle Viva boot.

September 2005

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