Monday, November 22, 2004

"Real" Skis

Customers will often come into the shop and ask, “How much is your basic ski package?”
I’ll start to describe the package and they’ll say, “Oh, are these cross-country skis? I wanted regular skis.” Or “real skis.” They act as if cross-country skiing was invented by bored downhill skiers who thought it would be a hoot to invent a way to ski up a hill once in a while.

The fact is, nordic skiing is thousands of years old and downhill, or alpine skiing as we know it, with locked-heel, releasable bindings, has yet to see its hundredth birthday. The Telemark and stem Christie turns which form the foundation for downhill turning technique both sprang from Norway. The sidecut, or shape of a ski to aid turning may have been invented by Telemark pioneer Sondre Norheim, and was certainly espoused by him.

When skiing left Scandinavia and made its way to the steep slopes of the Alps, among other mountains, skiers still practiced the skills of crossing country, but the downhills looked like a much more serious threat and the uphills looked like something requiring ropes and climbing gear. The Alpine ski began to evolve into what we know today. Progress was slow in Silicon Valley terms, but very rapid compared to thousands of years of Scandinavian winter travel.

Nordic ski evolution has also leaped ahead in the last few decades. Interestingly, the innovations that launched downhill skiing in the second half of the 19th century also marked a period of nordic development that jazzed up cross country skiing a lot compared to the straightforward shuffle skiers had used with toestrap bindings and straight-sided skis. As skiing spread, skiers devised skis suited to the specific area and type of skiing. That’s still true today, leading to an inviting array of ski shapes and sizes. Wood still lurks inside many modern skis. So do more exotic materials.

Think of it. Recreational cross-country skiing, particularly racing, took an element of daily winter life, the ski, and turned it into a piece of sporting equipment. The equipment itself developed, fed by the interest in competition. It’s a story as old as the hills or as new as the automobile. Can you say “NASCAR?”

We’ll never know for sure who first decided to make a snowshoe long and skinny, with a pointy, upturned tip and a smooth running base. We owe a huge debt to that visionary, though. Skiing has joined the host of traditions native to one land and people that have been shared with the rest of the world, so that many of us can join the evolution, pay tribute to its past and enjoy its future.

Just open up a can of pine tar and listen to the people as young as their early forties who say, “Wow, that brings back memories.”

Pine tar is used to protect the bases of wooden skis. This was true of both alpine and nordic skis until other materials replaced wood, beginning in 1947 for alpine skis, with the Head aluminum ski. Other materials soon followed. By the 1960s, fiberglass and related materials dominated downhill ski construction. But nordic skis lagged, probably held by a sense of tradition and the time-tested ability to build a ski that both grips and glides using a material far older than skiing itself – wood. Thus many school racers as late as the early 1970s would have used wooden skis.

Pine tar probably ranks second to klister in the list of cross-country ski demons. Yet both pine tar and klister become harmless servants with careful handling. They present none of the problems of nuclear waste, or even four quarts of used crankcase oil, for instance.

Wooden skis tie nordic skiing to its roots even today. On the best of winter days, with a green or blue kick wax, a well-built wooden ski bounds over the snow delightfully. The old Bonnas I picked up have a shape to rival any mid-width touring ski today, and they’ll lay down a fine Telemark turn in soft snow. I don’t beat them up, preferring to save them for those sacramental, soul-skiing days, but I know I could get a lot out of them if I pushed.

Heat modern ski substances, base materials or waxes, and you get a smell not unlike oil dripped on the exhaust manifold of your car. I suppose there’s a certain romance there, but of a modern, gritty sort. It’s something of Mad Max or Days of Thunder. Heat a wooden ski with pine tar on it and a smell of old sailing ships fills the air. It takes you back to the Age of Discovery.

Admittedly, discoveries are still being made, astounding ones in faraway lands like Antarctica or out in space, and nearby in labs and field studies in an ecosystem near you. But the time when people set out more or less blindly, on foot over land or in windships at the mercy of nature still ranks as the time when journeys into the unknown were more convenient to more people, because so much was still unknown.

It’s easy to believe that the world is small and lacks mystery because you can see a television show about just about anything. But how much have you seen for yourself? I don’t mean Borneo and Chile, cover stories in Outsider-Than-Thou magazine. I mean within one, five, 20 or 100 miles of you.
Wooden skis are getting hard to find. They require special care. You don’t need them to launch your own age of discovery. Just remember that the past touches the future at all times.

Sometimes this interface is a sharp juncture, like the time when synthetic skis finally surpassed wooden ones. Then the watershed is an event in itself. You date yourself a bit by how close you were or are to that event. Some people are still tying memories to pine tar. It’s not the pervading smell in a ski shop anymore, but whiffs mingle with the modern atmosphere. For some the smell is new, a mystery. For others it summons a time when that smell meant skiing, was inseparable from it. At the moment, it’s where a long past touches an immeasurable future.

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