Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Freebie that's Actually Worth It

I have hated the "free hot wax with purchase of new skis" for many years. In its original form I still do. One quickie ironed-in layer is a waste of everyone's time.

We've entered a new era. At Nordic Skier we now offer school ski team racers who purchase new skis a free hotbox treatment.

Hotboxing takes the place of the time-consuming multi-layer prep jobs we used to sell. A hotbox more effectively heats the ski over a period of hours to soak the prep wax deeper into the base. The procedure actually takes MORE of my time than a singler ironed-on layer, but I feel like it doesn't WASTE my time, so it doesn't bother me at all.

The issue with me was never the time. It was the illusion that we had actually done something and the impression we created that glide waxing was some trivial thing that could be thrown in. Too often, that token splash of wax was all that ski ever saw for the rest of its life.

Even if the recipient of a free hotbox treatment never does any more to the bases, at least we know that a respectable amount of wax went in on that first day. Anyone who does not develop good waxing habits is being wantonly wasteful of their investment in gear. To encourage skiers to take up better waxing habits, the hotboxed ski will reward them with better glide. You absolutely cannot say the same for the one that got the token rub with an iron and a block of whatever was handy.

School team members who already purchased their skis somewhere else can still bring them to Nordic Skier for a $5 discount on any of the hotbox treatments the shop offers.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Binding Placement

For a few years, Salomon and other authorities have been recommending mounting their bindings on high performance skis a centimeter behind the balance line regardless of whether it's on a skating or classical ski.

Folk wisdom had held that skate skis should be mounted neutral or tip light. Classical skis should be mounted neutral or with a slight tip drop.

As usual, it turns out to be more folked-up than you thought.

If you look around for advice on placement you get a range from dead on the balance to 1.5 centimeters back. You'd think that 1.5 cm back would make the tips thud to the snow, but that placement still makes them light at the tip.

It turns out that the weight of the binding plate has always overcome the inherent balance of the ski. The only way to make any ski tip heavy would be to mount the binding far enough back to overbalance the weight distribution of the binding itself. This generally shows up around two centimeters. We've been skiing tip light all along.

Experts advise moving the binding back to improve gliding performance. The amount is negligible, but supposedly quite noticeable. At the most, it probably won't do any harm to fudge a half or a whole centimeter back.

The only advantage to the NNN NIS plate is that neurotic or phenomenally sensitive skiers can tweak the binding forward or back to suit snow conditions and their mood. The overwhelming disadvantage, of course, is that the plate requires an NNN binding.

How about a universal plate to return binding choice to the marketplace? That way we can return to the freedom to mix and match brands instead of getting trapped in yet another monopolistic product line.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Looking Forward to Next Year

I'm in no hurry, but when next ski season finally gets here I look forward to exploring the great trail improvements that went in at Wolfeboro Cross-Country while I was working out of town for the past nine winters.

Wolfeboro Cross Country works hard to maintain a fun, family-oriented trail network with something for everybody. Much of their 30 kilometer system is well-suited to the beginner and intermediate skier, but provides an easy route for someone trying to develop more skills. Unlike some areas that only offer windswept open fields or one basic valley-floor option for skiers who don't want to tackle long, steep climbs and possibly gripping descents, the Wolfeboro facility has a little bit of everything, and easy access to a quaint town with multiple options for lodging, dining and grocery shopping.

Wolfeboro is also conveniently close to the Seacoast and the central and southern regions of New Hampshire, not to mention Maine and Massachusetts. It is located between the corridors of Route 16 and Interstate 93, which makes it handy to get to, but not hectic and overbuilt like a tired roadside attraction. It's a place to unwind and re-energize without taking a long trip from home.

Tired of big, corporate ski areas that don't take care of cross-country skiers? Tired of elitist, race-oriented Nordic areas that only use the tourist and day skier as a source of cash to support their competitive egos? Come to Wolfeboro and just have fun.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Last Day

Today the trails closed at Jackson Ski Touring for the 2008-'09 season. I will no longer qualify for or need the season pass badge.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shutting it down

As the snow retreats to the higher elevations and the broken bikes call from the south, it's time to button up the seasonal outpost at Jackson Ski Touring for the last time.

Unless Saturday morning dishes up unexpectedly delightful conditions my last outing on Jackson trails will have been a grind in sticky snow on skating skis. The next-to-last outing, however, was another matter. Caught the good frozen stuff for the dead opposite of sticky on a nice blast out the Ellis. I got lucky on a couple of those before the weather tilted more firmly toward the thaw.

Break it down, pack it up, put it behind you. Don't look back at it for few months, or maybe ever. Watch the spaces, not the trees. All images and impressions must be suspect except for the pure honesty of the skiing itself.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Speaking of Yellow Klister

After two days of great skating I needed a change of pace. George was just coming slowly back from his bout with the Jack Plague. That meant both of us went out on klistered classic skis on Sunday.

George launched earlier in the day, as the temperature crossed from the upper 20s to the mid 30s. He used Swix Silver Universal and some KR40 Violet klister to meet the granular early snow changing to the first moist patches where the strong sun worked on it.

By the time I went out, the temperature in the open was leaping past 40. Out on the Ellis, shaded areas might easily remain dry and firm. To meet that possibility I mixed some of the Silver Uni with KR70 Swamp klister. They don't call it swamp klister, they call it "Aqua."

George returned all smiles. His wax had worked well for his convalescent outing.

I had an excellent time on the Swamp 'n' Silver. In the growing slushy areas, nothing would glide extremely well. Other than that, though, the kick was bomb-proof, so I could propel a strong glide. Untrustworthy kick actually makes you slower. As usually happens, I steadily overtook everyone on the trail in front of me just with careful technique. No one's going to make a video of me, but I get around. It's fun to build the trip one stride at a time.

With good kick you have a solid launching pad for each glide.

Back at the shop, I didn't want to de-klister my skis when the forecast indicates I might want exactly that wax job again. To keep the skis safely away from anything that might get snared by the klister, I put some grid-wall hooks all the way up on grids on either side of one of the backshop windows. George and I laid our skis on this rack, safely above any clutter or traffic.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Nordic Tar and Feathers

When cross-country skiers run someone out of town, they cover them with yellow klister and beech leaves and carry them out on a pair of beat-up old touring skis.

Couldn't Resist

Customized this Fischer banner during a quiet moment the other day.

More Great Backshop Work from Elsewhere

These skis came in for waxing. No mention of the hack job someone did installing the bindings. This is the sort of thing that happens with NNN's pointlessly adjustable steering plate. Because the shop grunt drilled wrong and did not have the wit to re-drill, he had to glue the rear section down with Gorilla Glue and hope it stays long enough for the customer to go far, far away and forget where he bought them.

The skis had no stickers, but they had ski straps with the logo of a shop called Skinny Skis, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The customers brought two pairs for waxing, one with Salomon Pilot step-in bindings. Both sets had matching ski straps. But they could have gotten the skis themselves from anywhere and bought the straps as a souvenir on a trip to Jackson Hole.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Days You Wait For

Slipped away this afternoon, spanning mid-day, really, to wander up the back mountain and rip a few runs through the logging cuts and glades.

It's not as secluded as it used to be. People who had a cabin up and to the right are building a castle now. It's completely off-grid and supposedly still just for seasonal and occasional use, but it's huge and not as high up the mountain. The original cabin sat in a hollow near a stream. This monster sits on a ridge. It's screened by trees, more or less, but that just makes it easier to stumble on. I don't know how workers are getting there with all this snow, but I hear them every time I go out. Today was no exception.

I'd stayed to my right going up, in the cover of woods beside a recent cut. This took me near the top of some hemlock glades I hadn't visited in a while. That's when I heard the radio and realized I'd strayed close to the Tyvek cliff. The house blends in amazingly well. Suddenly you notice not only that it's there, but that it's gigantic. I cut left and dropped into a nice line. Once I had the curve of the hill between me and the building I angled up and left.

Playing the contours I traversed toward a drainage with more conifer glades. I didn't plan to reach it, but got there before I knew it. Rather than get drawn into the longer runs (and longer climbs back out) I turned back toward Lower Bobcat Rocks, where we'd seen some scat at the end of last winter. The sun hit the pinkish granite alluringly. It looked like a good place to bask.

The slope, the spaces and the snow encouraged long, angling runs back toward the rocks. The rocks themselves didn't offer a place to perch. No matter. I would drop a little through the trees, stop and look around, drop a little further. The sky turned a high-altitude navy blue through my polarized sunglasses if I tilted my head just right.

The older cuts are growing up in saplings now. In a narrow stance I could cut through at a steady speed. Any attempt to turn harder or stop short would have ended in a foolish heap. The snow was sticky in the sun, too. Once you get moving in snow like that you want to keep moving. So after every halt to enjoy the peace and sunshine I had to kick start the next section.

You do your time the rest of the winter to get to March. I do my time on the groomies to be in shape for the better getaways to places untracked. This was just a taste, but high grade. Sunny days in March are the brightest we see all year, with light from above and below. Premium stuff.

OMG, what?

The truth always turns out to be just one notch weirder than anything you could make up.

Jackson Ski Touring!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Shop Grunt's Lament

As I walked out on Main Street in Jackson
As I walked out in Jackson one day
I spied a poor shop grunt all dressed in old Gore Tex
with a weird sense of humor and hair turning gray.

I saw by his outfit he'd been a tree hugger
with wide skis and big boots and poor classic form.
He'd tried to fit in, but sadly had blundered --
for years his reception had been less than warm.

He said to me, "Stranger, if you'd work in Jackson
keep quiet until you are told what to think.
Because if you boldly express your opinion
you'll blow it and your reputation will stink.

"I gave it a shot but I spoke out too quickly.
My brash overconfidence caused me to fail.
I had to say something and laid on too thickly,
so now I'm being run out of town on a rail."

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation Retail Challenge

Northeastern Nordic skiing powerhouse Jackson Ski Touring is looking for a new retailer to provide products and services inside the touring center. This is extremely challenging because of Jackson's unique business structure and customer demographics.

Jackson Ski Touring is a bit like a religious institution. It isn't simply a large-scale commercial Nordic touring operation. It has some direct roots that extend as far back as the beginning of New England skiing, which is to say as far back as skiing in the United States. Yet it also has tributary streams that spring from each freshening of skiing interest.

The real nuts and bolts operation that exists today descends fairly directly from the founding in 1972 of the non-profit organization that oversees it. But some of the people involved at the time go way back. Just as the founding of the first organized Christian churches came decades (maybe centuries) after the death of the individual for whom the faith was named, so did the founding of JSTF merely pull together a number of threads in the skiing faith. And those original saints and martyrs, or their descendants, still live around there. This is hardly obvious to someone who might be a competent skier and technically capable, but who was raised an agnostic skier, without heroes, devils, or much supporting mythology.

The founders and their families represent just one group in the complex clientele. The customer population sorts out along many lines: skiing ability, financial status, resident, non-resident, seasonal resident, visiting tourist, visiting racer, visiting sport skier, and many more. Most local enthusiasts have favorite shops already, where they can shop before November and after April, when the touring center retail location cannot operate.

For the Jackson touring center shop, the bulk of the revenue comes from visiting skiers. These are mostly beginners and intermediates. Some are buying their first gear. Others are upgrading. Most Nordic ski customers tend to hold onto their equipment for a long time. Thirty years is not out of the question. Ten or fifteen years is common.

A small portion of income comes from sales of top-end performance gear. High performance skiers tend to like a lot of technical wizardry around their purchases, so they are easily discouraged from buying at any shop where they have the faintest notion that the person helping them is beneath them. Upgrading intermediates, however, are often happy to have a simpler summary of technical points, even if they're moving up to their first really expensive ski. They want to know how it works, often in detail, but they don't drop a lot of insider tidbits like code numbers for specific Fischer ski cores and flexes. They don't really care of you pull out the super-zoot ski flex tester and convince them the ski is tailored to them to the nearest gram.

Whoever works the floor in the Jackson touring center retail shop needs to be ready to deal with this entire range of customers as well as ringing up hundreds of sales of hats, lip balm, gloves and hand and toe warmers.

Because the retail provider is an outside contractor, whoever ends up managing the outpost will find him (or her) self squarely between the Foundation management, his own shop management, and those among the locals who like to try to call the shots whether they're in the chain of command or not. In various ways these secret shoppers can insert themselves into JSTF's decision making process in ways that may not be readily visible to the field commander. You soon find out that a lot of decisions are made well above your security clearance level.

Jackson faces the daunting task of finding a shop that reflects the image they are trying to project, of the most formidable cross-country ski center in the northeast United States. They've negotiated with some large names in outdoor retail. But a place like L.L. Bean, for instance, is going to want to put its stamp on the operation in a big way. This threatens to eclipse the independent greatness and heritage of Jackson Ski Touring itself.

Jackson might prefer to use a retailer with strong roots in the Mount Washington Valley, because the Valley has its own reputation in American skiing. Unfortunately, the most popular Nordic shop in Mount Washington Valley is barely in the valley at all. It sits at the bottom of the Mount Washington Auto Road, at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center. It is staffed by a crew of likable locals headlined by Nate and Eli, two really nice dudes who are also really great skiers. They've been with Great Glen from the beginning, as I understand it. Did I mention they're really nice dudes? However, they don't own their shop

For Great Glen to open a branch at Jackson Ski Touring would put both places at risk of losing their independent identities. Sure as fate, the word would start to get around that Great Glen was part of Jackson or Jackson had been taken over by Great Glen. Along with all the other things that are hard to explain about JSTF and how it all works, this would have to be added. No one really NEEDS to know, but curious people would WANT to know. The confusion could create unnecessary turbulence for both parties. Whose name goes on top? Who pays what to whom? And who gets custody of Nate and Eli?

Other contenders, like Reliable Racing or Gorham Bike and Ski, would have to see considerable advantage to themselves to be willing to undertake the hassle of setting up a shop that has to completely disappear no later than the second week of April, only to be painstakingly rebuilt the following November. Mount Washington Valley-based staff would be ideal, but how do you assure their allegiance to the home office and keep their quality control at a level that reflects well on the home office's image?

Valley-based staff for Jackson Ski Touring's retail shop would be able to take advantage of their local connections. They'd have a short commute, helping them arrive punctually and refreshed. On the down side, all outdoor sports are somewhat competitive, and Nordic skiing actually includes racing, so your local talent might have a few detractors as well as friends. Anyone who hires them inherits the bad with the good. In a little fish bowl like The Valley, some people have long memories and not a lot of forgiveness. So your retailer from away might accidentally hire someone who interviewed well but who had serious issues with some key people in the customer base or Jackson management.

On the subject of unforgivable transgressions, let's also mention in passing that a perfectly well-meaning boob might fatally wound a shop's chances with a few tactless remarks in the wrong place. These things can happen, believe it or not. It's less likely with likable local dudes like Nate and Eli, but that package comes with its own difficulties as detailed earlier. Any outside concern might blunder during the early period of growing pains. Open lines of communication not only between the two businesses, JSTF and retail but also up and down the chains of command in both businesses will be vital to creating a truly productive working relationship for them.

I've been aware of their dilemma since 2004, and acutely aware of it since the fall of 2005. I've even been sympathetic to it, but as long as no one was going to approach me to discuss it, I wasn't going to bring it up. I observed various potential candidates, such as the short-lived Hurricane Mountain Multisport shop. I figured them for a shoo-in, but it never happened. If JSTF had been smart about it they would have thrown that guy the bone, even if one of the local deep pockets had to bankroll him for a while and coach him on management and customer relations.

A local deep pocket could try to buy Nate and Eli away from Great Glen, but they would have to arrange summer employment, either by setting up Nate and Eli in their own shop or just by putting them on some sort of summer retainer. Buying the boys away from Great Glen would probably start some sort of ugliness between regional power players, so that's probably not a good option.

One solution could be for Great Glen to move the headquarters of its retail operations to the valley floor and run both the Great Glen Trails shop and a theoretical Jackson Ski Touring shop as satellites. That sounds expensive and complicated for Great Glen, with debatable gains. The only business they would gain that they don't already have is the transient trade at Jackson. Would that offset the expense required to obtain it? With three retail outlets under the Great Glen banner, it would be like three separate doors to one giant shop. We're starting to get into some big business economics now. This might be the seed of a regional or national venture. In for a million, in for a billion, I always say.

As you can see, someone faces a considerable challenge in sorting through all this. No retail provider is perfect. The powerful ones pose a threat to Jackson's own brand in the marketplace. Any lesser shop runs the risk of looking too dinky or like an upstart to the people who are really in the know up there. As always in business, are the risks worth the gains? A really big outfit like Bean or REI risks a much smaller percentage of their capital to extend a small feeler into what is actually quite a tight retail space. A smaller shop stands much more exposed financially for what could be proportionally greater gains, but also greater wounds in case of a bad snow year or other setbacks.

Whatever happens, Jackson will go on. Ultimately, for the people who really love it, Jackson is about the skiing, not the shopping. They do the skiing better than anyone in the region. Maintaining that alone is an exhausting job. The rest of the stuff has to be there because that's part of the Big Touring Center experience. Jackson Ski Touring started in the back room of a shop and now has a shop in the back room. Putting together the right blend of businesses and a level of services that not only looks impressive but actually works economically is not a simple task.

We wait to see what the next solution looks like.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Jackson Ski Touring was like Nordic Graduate School

In 2000, when I first arrived at the Jackson Ski Touring complex, I knew a lot more about dodging trees and skiing with various kinds of load on my shoulders than I did about the laboratory-perfect skating and striding a facility of that caliber allows.

Faced with the need to serve a varied and as-yet-unknown clientele, I knew I would have to get up to speed in a hurry. I had enough familiarity with a broad range of Nordic technique and technology to get started. The touring center itself provided the depth.

Thrown in at the deep end with a variety of stressors, I also had a number of resources to draw on. These included a ready supply of gear and a trail network that ran right by the door. Convenience like that is hard to beat. In addition, the facility had some highly knowledgeable and accessible people on the staff or among the regular clientele.

The popular term for my learning style is "autodidact." This is a nice way of saying "stubborn jerk who doesn't do well in structured learning situations." I speak only for myself, not for the respectable body of admirable autodidacts out there. Given the wealth of experience and knowledge trailside at Jackson I was able to glean knowledge and perform my experiments in a continuous thread throughout each ski season.

In every case I try to share what I have learned unstintingly with anyone who hasn't encountered it yet. I don't care if they admire me for knowing it. I don't care if they even know my name. I just want them to know what I know so they know it themselves and can take advantage of it. So from that standpoint, Jackson was a banquet of experience translated into shared knowledge.

It was always about the skiing. Exposed on the sales floor it was also like improvisational theater. Under the spotlights, before a live audience, play your heart out. Many customers thanked me or members of my staff for the full, complete and honest presentation. We matched up a lot of skiers with carefully chosen gear. A number of them continue to seek us out. Sometimes this involved staying well after closing time. Our schedule hardly rivals the grueling days of the center's executive director or the brute labors of the patrol, especially in lean snow years that require a lot of shoveling, but in terms of hours awake and time spent thinking about how to make it work the job very soon expanded to consume a lot of life outside of official business hours.

In the spirit of cooperative enterprise, retail staff would often have to answer questions about the facility when Foundation staff were either overwhelmed by other customers or momentarily absent. It's like working in Walt Disney World: everyone has to know the layout of the park and the location of the nearest restrooms or snack bars. We did this without being asked.

Mind you I only lasted one summer at Disney World. I prefer my rides less structured and predictable.

I can be pretty blunt when sharing my opinions. Try as I might to be informative and entertaining, I have to face the fact that I also just piss some people off. Thrown on stage in a setting like Jackson, where the business structure can be confusing even to those somewhat familiar with it, let alone visitors from away, when I stepped on someone's toes it had a disconcerting way of echoing across miles and miles of New England, sometimes even rattling windows lightly as far away as LL Bean headquarters. I never did get used to that. Who really could? Even stranger, I often would not hear a sound until months later when I was knocked off my feet by a shock wave.

None of that has a single thing to do with skiing. When I found I could not control it, I ignored it, concentrating on what I could do instead. I remember a friend in college, a graduate student in French, telling me hair raising tales of departmental intrigue, politics and hostility. People get caught up in the importance of their own little universe and start playing all kinds of games with each other's heads. One grad student in that program committed suicide. Things that start out centered on something that's supposed to be light hearted can turn surprisingly poisonous.

Any season could have been the last. Because of that I always tried to value the experience of skiing there and experience it as often as possible. It's simple on the snow. Just ski.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Great Trails. Difficult People.

I had to seriously revise this post. Some idiot thought it was about parking. Still, I like the raw frustration in it. And hey: no one has objected directly to me about it, just talked to someone else. Par for the course.

Working with the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation is like getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl: it seems like it should be fun, but long before the ride is over you're ready to puke and just want it to end.

All Nordic areas, particularly in the eastern USA, labor under various handicaps.

Corporately-owed areas like Bretton Woods and other networks attached to alpine areas often find themselves treated like useless appendages or even hemorrhoids by their corporate owners. Nordic never turns impressive dollars compared to lift-served sports, golf and land rape.

Small private areas hope they can find the right size for their niche to allow them to survive the stresses any small business faces, compounded by the similarity between operating a touring center and operating a small farm. You need the weather to cooperate so you can produce the crop. Then you need people hungry for it to show up and consume it before it shrivels.

In Jackson's case, the particular handicap is the management of the non-profit corporation by a board of directors, and the relationship the touring center has with the town from which it takes its name. They're big, with the appetite of any large organism, but held together by tenuous agreements and a never-ending battle against encroaching development as well as the usual whims of weather and fitness fads.

As a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, the Foundation can only derive income from limited sources. In order to preserve its delicate balance with local business owners, it also has to be careful about how it introduces competitors into the local economy. Yet, as a big-time cross-country ski area it wants to be able to offer a high level of skier services to the vacationers and day trippers it ceaselessly trolls for with its marketing campaigns and relentless attempts to get inserted into the news hole of various print media.

Because a private service provider like the retail concessionaire has to be a separate entity, the Foundation has to coexist with an entirely independent business under its roof. We're all in the fun business. We all want to keep the sport of Nordic skiing alive and well, if not growing. But the diverse and secretive board, filtering its wishes through the persona of the executive director, has a great deal of difficulty managing this symbiosis.

As the retailer there for the past nine years, the shop I work for has operated under the critical observation of many sets of eyes. Because the board seems to relish its anonymity, they do not share with us who might be active on it from year to year. Only individual members of it might mention their status to qualify for a discount. In fact, I can find no readily accessible published list of the board. There's no easy link from their website, nor is it published in a sidebar in the newsletters piled on the front counter, as other non-profits frequently do.

If the foundation and its board dealt openly and cooperatively with their retail contractor, the touring center could be a great place to work. Instead, their management displayed a competitive and condescending attitude toward us from the outset. Whoever tries to fulfill the retail role will face the same critical scrutiny as they try to run their business in an enclosure reminiscent of a pony ride at a spoiled little girl's birthday party. In spite of this I personally did not start out with a negative attitude toward them. I'd heard stories over the years, but I was going to wait and see. Others in my organization either lost their patience early or never had any to begin with.

Jackson Ski Touring does a lot of things well. Unfortunately, this gives some in the organization and among its supporters the misconception that they can do no wrong. Only others can do wrong. These wrongs will usually not be pointed out in a constructive fashion.

A large number of extremely cool people ski at the facility. It's just the small number of whiners, snobs and stuffed shirts who make a poisonous atmosphere in which to work. Of course there are always difficult people among the transient visitors during any season as well, but that just goes with running an amusement park. Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth! (smiley face). It's the local sneaks and snakes who create the insurmountable difficulty of unrealistic expectations.

This was my gut reaction to the news that The Board had finally decided to sever our retail arrangement. People can take it in a bad way as an affront and an attack or they can step back and analyze what they might be doing to inspire such feelings. Whether they intended it or not, some of their tactics amounted to psychological warfare. In the best psychological manipulation, the manipulator preserves deniability and the victim can never be sure what's intentional. That's what makes it effective. But it could also just be a lack of social and business skills on the part of the people originating it, in this case known and unknown players in Jackson.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Waxing Analytical

One major reason cross-country skiing has been in decline since the late 1980s is that it involves five or six different forms of three different substances that do two different jobs, all called "wax."

All Nordic skis require, or at least benefit from, applications of one or more of these substances. The entire study of techniques related to selecting the right ones and applying them is referred to generically as "waxing."

Snowshoeing, anyone? All you do is strap those on and go.

Those who love Nordic skiing love it in their own way, with all the complexities, not to say flaws, their chosen form brings with it. Some people learn a little about the world of waxing. A few learn to tell them all apart and can use each one appropriately. A smaller number than that gets really deep into the tweaky aspects of it, spending up to $180 an ounce on some waxes.

Outdoor recreation industries all make the same mistake when presented with a boom. They act as if the good times will roll forever. The inevitable decline always takes them by surprise. It happened to bicycling twice, coming out of the 1970s road bike boom and again when the 1990s mountain bike boom crashed. It happened to backpacking in the 1980s, too, when all the major manufacturers of quality gear became clothing companies that had gear lines on the side.

Nordic skiing faces an additional handicap by depending on natural snow. First you have to get it. Then you have to be able to wax for it. When all skis needed grip wax, skiers learned a whole lot in a hurry about how different one batch of white stuff might be from another, and how it changed further from day to day. This led to the invention of the "fish scale" or "no-wax" ski. All well and good, but if there's no snow those skis look like a waste of money. Learning to care for them and operate them is a waste of time.

All booms end. They usually leave behind a number of new participants who become loyal and dedicated to the activity in question, but the small number of survivors going forward can never support the kind of commerce the fashionable frenzy did.

In non-boom times, activities attract a small, steady number of recruits. As numbers fluctuate from year to year, any survivors among the businesses that formed around the boom lean eagerly forward, waiting for the frenzy to begin again. To amuse the regulars and entice curious outsiders, companies fiddle with the equipment. Rather than creating silly-looking ski shapes or fragile, complicated bindings, how about coming up with catchy, distinctive, memorable and DIFFERENT names for all the things currently called WAX?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Pilot vs 666

Friday we tested skating skis equipped with the two competing systems, Salomon Pilot and Rottefella NNN. It was not the NNN triumph our Fischer rep had hoped to achieve.

We put the boots on at least four people. Only one thought they had potential to become comfortable on his foot. He also liked the ride on the skis with NNN, but has not skated extensively on any technique-specific equipment. Anything would feel more precise than pushing himself around on 200+ cm classic skis with low-topped, soft racing classic boots.

In the rigid-soled boots, on that strange, flared binding plate, I felt isolated from the ski and the snow. The boot didn't hurt as much as I thought it might. It would have hurt if I'd skied a long time, but we wanted to compare the two systems back-to-back to get the sharpest impression.

NNN suffers from the inherent handicap of any single-bar binding for skating. The boot is rigid and the binding has those wings on it to make up for the tenuous connection provided by only a single bar. If they have to stick to a single bar, perhaps they could place it farther back under the foot to limit lift and maintain sole contact to increase lateral control. It would not have to be more than a couple of centimeters to achieve this effect. On the down side, the strain on that bar would be considerably greater than on anything currently in use. But hey: that's what engineers are for. Figure it out. Helpful hint to start you off: the boot sole would have to be a bit springy to enhance the spring of the binding itself. This flex would also increase the comfort of the boot.

To the laboratory! Quickly!

Skiing the Salomon felt as supple and sweet as ever. Until the Rotten Fellas get a better act together I know where I'll be. Unless I'm somewhere else entirely.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Comparing Skating Boots

The Fischer rep dropped off pairs of skate skis with Pilot bindings and NNN for us to compare. Because we don't sell No!No!No! boots, he had to leave us those to try as well.

In my experience, Fischer has been incredibly consistent with their boots. Every pair I have ever tried on has been hideously uncomfortable. That record remains unblemished.

I haven't had a chance to ski on this equipment yet. I anticipate distracting levels of pain from my feet while I'm skiing the 666 stuff.
The Fischer/Rottefella alliance is just one more move in the Nordic game of world domination. It's made worse by the new NIS (SIN spelled upside down) plate that only accepts 666 bindings.

The heavy, rigid, uncompromising boot on my foot gave me an idea. It wasn't comfortable to stand in. It wasn't comfortable to walk in. But maybe, just maybe...


It felt very solid and commanding when I goose-stepped in it. Kicking those space-age jackboots high like a fascist thug felt just right.

By contrast, my Salomon boots made gentle, knowing love to my feet. They felt as soft as slippers, but held me in a firm embrace. For skiing motions they felt reassuringly supportive. When I tried to goose-step they made me look like a wobbling idiot. Rather anti-fascist.

Vive la France. I'm sticking with the Resistance.

The Magic Land of Winter

Yesterday I blasted myself out of the sludge of fatigue and distraction to go for an hour up the mountain out back.

After a long time neglecting this convenient resource I am always surprised at how much it has to offer. I used to drive four hours to get to stuff like this. Now I ignore it right outside my back door.

The snow was three feet deeper at its height last year than it is now. That peak hit late in February or early in March. We had quite a bit of thawing between storms last year, so it was amazing that the storms brought snow every time and that it held up as well as it did.

There's just enough snow to cover the worst reefs out there. The powder has settled. The weather has been solidly cold for weeks.

On the climb I came across a tree carved with two names and a date.

Who were these people?

I like skiing alone because it gives me an excuse to go as slowly and cautiously as I like. The dense powder held my skis back on surprisingly steep slopes so I was able to sweep majestically through the trees on the way down.

The slope faces south. It makes a great place to bask as winter matures under strengthening sun. Late in the winter it loses snow quickly. For now, it's a great option because it is warm and well-lighted late into the afternoon.

Now snow falls in what is supposed to be a big storm. At some point the possibility becomes a certainty, so a couple of feet of freshies seems more likely than not. We'll see if the winter continues to build the way it did last year.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hotbox or Hot Air?

Reading the explanation on one ski shop's website advocating hotboxing of skis to enhance wax penetration, I can't help wondering if this is yet another lucky rabbit's foot to help people feel faster.

According to a Peltonen tech rep at a ski tech seminar several years ago at Great Glen Trails in New Hampshire, under the best of circumstances wax only penetrates about two THOUSANDTHS of an inch into sintered base material. Maybe three, but what's an extra thousandth of an inch among friends?

The hotbox promo goes like this: heat your ski to 55C (131F) for 6-8 hours with a warm wax on there, then do a coat or two of something rated for a skiing temperature of 10-21F and it's equivalent to 25 waxings! The unit cost for this service is much less than if you had the friendly wax grunt actually do 25 waxings. It is slightly less than we charge for a new ski prep using iron, scraper and brushes.

Why not just blow some Swix CH10 or BP99 on your own skis and then lean them up by your furnace for a couple of days?

Racing is such a neurotic activity. How many of the processes related to it have sprung up just because someone with a pack a day habit and a shop apron figured out how to exploit that? A confident racer is a happy racer. A happy racer is a fast racer. At least you want any anger and aggression to be directed up and away from the racer's equipment and support staff. Assure them they're on The Good Stuff and then tell them what that other racer just said about them. Arrgh! I'm a stone ground, hotboxed killin' machine!

Hard waxes for cold conditions melt at higher temperatures than soft waxes for warmer ones. Thus they do not penetrate as easily into the base. But their job is to condition the running surface of the ski to withstand the drag and abrasion of icy conditions in wicked low temperatures. As such they're more of a surface treatment than the softer waxes, which need to saturate the base material more to assure that free water is excluded. Those soft ones melt readily under a moderate iron temperature. You may realize some gain by stuffing your skis in a hot crevice for a few hours, but is it worth what the tech wizards need to charge you to pay for their time and the loan they took out to pay for the box?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nordic Skiing Caught in a Bind

Once skiing became recreation instead of Scandinavian transportation, it became a relationship between professionals and the leisure classes in the the countries to which it spread. As such, the ski industry was basically a shady enterprise designed to separate wealthy fools from their money so the professionals could pay for their own skiing lifestyle.

When skiing was re-democratized in its purely downhill form in the 1960s as family fun, the relationship between industry and customers was already established. The middle- and working-class skiers just represented another pool of chumps to exploit.

Industry ski bums envision spending a great deal of time on the snow. For a time it was true. For the most part, we professionals do get to spend a lot more time skiing than most of the customers ever will. Even the leisure classes spread their time among many gratifications. Only those dedicated to competition spend more time on snow than the lucky grunts living their hand-to-mouth existence for the sake of skiing.

Unfortunately for the ski bums, once large amounts of money come into play, the industries harvesting those dollars need more foot soldiers. The machine provides less time to ski while demanding more real business acumen and ruthlessness.

Cross-country skiing threw a twist into the ski industry business model by opening the sport to many new participants of even lesser means and by opening thousands of square miles of terrain to the floppy-shod masses looking for a place to shuffle. No longer did one need to work as an indentured servant to the corporate ski industry to get cheap skiing. You just had to master the deceptively simple equipment.

And so cross-country skiing nearly died. Touring centers worked on better and better grooming. Manufacturers worked on equipment that was easier to master. The public worked on clogged arteries and butts big enough to show drive-in movies on. The alpine ski industry embraced snowboards. Alpine skiers accepted $50, $60 and $70 dollar lift tickets. Anything was better than trudging around in funny little shoes on funny little skis up and over boring terrain while gasping for oxygen.

Even the Telemark revival movement of the early 1980s has gravitated back to fat, heavy boards and monster boots after initially trying to showcase the possibilities of only moderately heavy Nordic touring gear.

The crux of the biscuit is the binding.

The Nordic boom traveled in flexible shoes with duck-bill toes clamped to long skis by snap-down toe pieces. These evolved in a variety of widths, most commonly 75 millimeters across the toe, with 50 millimeter models used on skinny racing skis. The boot soles twisted under hard turning forces, leading to things like the wedge heel plate that fit into a v-groove in the boot heel, and a variety of wicked teeth and spikes on flat heel plates, as well as more drastic devices to secure the heel when the foot was flat on the ski.

By the mid 1980s many companies were trying to eliminate the duck-billed boot entirely and replace it with much more modern-looking contraptions. Out of that bizarre world of mutants emerged Rottefella's first New Nordic Norm binding, with a steering plate behind the toe piece and a rubber flexor to provide springiness, and Salomon's Profil system, which improved greatly on what Rottefella began.

Salomon used a flexor and a big, single steering ridge that ran the full length of the boot sole. The system used a fixed-length jig, so there could be no mistake in drilling the holes for mounting. Rottefella insists to this day on maintaining an adjustable-length plate which makes things more complicated to no advantage for the skier.

Now as the 21st Century no longer seems shiny and new, Salomon has moved on to more complicated attachment systems and Rottefella continues to put out annoyingly fragile bindings in a variety of pretty colors from a large number of licensed vendors. Imagine being buried in an avalanche of cheesy children's toys. They're cute, but you're still being crushed to death.

Snowshoeing is booming. Nordic is technologizing itself to death the way mountain biking did. For the dedicated addict, many of the new devices are really neat and desirable. For the average poor slob who gets to ski four or five times in a good year, eternally reliable 75-millimeter mediocrity would probably have been fine.

For the addicts to get their high-grade goodies, lots of other people have to buy up the rest of the production run. Otherwise the equipment manufacturers can't afford to stay in business to service the addicts' needs. This relies on a steady supply of incoming participants or old participants upgrading their equipment. Newbies will accept simplified explanations for the most part, but upgrading intermediates want things explained in more depth. Here's where it gets difficult. A shop employee has to explain the fine points of the new gear without overloading the mental circuitry of the customer.

To jazz up high-performance Nordic, some shops try to offer stone-ground bases and special hot boxes to cook the wax into the base material. Will this usher in a new age of Nordic participation? It's doubtful. The up-front cost for facilities like this requires a large clientele to pay it off. These shops have to use the Internet to farm customers from all over the country to try to recoup the investment. Meanwhile, you still have to get on the skis and exert yourself to make them go. How much was that lift ticket again? Doesn't sound so bad, now. Later we'll go snowshoein'.

Two days ago I was out on my classic skis in a heavy snowstorm, sliding past everyone, including a little convoy of the touring center's regulars. Back in the building, one of them asked me what I had used for wax. On the glide zones I was using stuff a full grade colder than the range we were in, because I'd put it on two days earlier and hadn't had time to change. For kick I had Start Terva Green we don't even carry anymore because the only Start wax anyone wanted to buy was Start Green glide wax. Do I hotbox my skis? No. Have they ever been stone ground? No. Would I do either one? I don't know. Probably not. Wax often. Wax carefully. Always handle your own skis.

I don't see Nordic racing becoming a big money category in the United States before the next North American ice age. There are too many more reliable ways to get your exercise and your competitive ya-yas. And you're not likely to talk anyone but a racer or a dedicated and well-funded poser into getting regular stone grinds. You are chewing base material off each time you get them ground. It makes your Nordic addiction that much more expensive, and, therefore, hard to sustain.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Improvements, Some Boring Consistencies

The trail network at Jackson Ski Touring is in great shape this year. The improvements on the homologated race course have added fun and exciting options to trails that were fun already. The grooming staff is doing a first-rate job. The executive director continues to show drive and energy that has kept the place going for more than three decades now.

When this director is gone, the operation may not survive. For all of his annoying quirks, it takes a personality as big as his to drag together all the other players and their egos to get anything to happen at all. He has sacrificed much, even with what he has gained from his position here. It would be nearly impossible to groom a successor when what exists today owes so much to the character of the dominant creator of it. He and it have grown together in indigenous symbiosis. It's not like a normal job. It has a life of its own, made up of the lives woven together throughout its history.

Last year, Big Time Nordic was a bit of a bad joke. The incompetent grooming staff made a mockery of the advertising. One guy was a one-pass wonder who produced sloppy tracks and a lot of death cookies. The other one just had a screw loose. It's hard to get good help. But this year a veteran artist of the Pisten Bully has returned full time, and the trainee under his guidance is actually learning, and learning fast. The winter is colder, so the snow is better than last year, even though there's less of it, so far.

In good years and bad, the inmates of The Village amuse themselves with various intrigues the day skier or vacationer from away would probably never notice. They grow tiresome to those not inclined to play such games, but they have their endless secret life having nothing whatever to do with skiing. But then business has nothing to do with skiing. Even the ski business has only a tangential relationship to the sport it exploits, particularly at the high corporate level. Nordic divisions of downhill-oriented companies are minuscule appendages dangling precariously from large octopi.

A six-foot, five-inch chuckling alpine blowhard put it in a nutshell today when he picked up a Nordic racing ski from the rack.

"Don't they make these in adult sizes?" he asked his weasel-like companion. Still laughing at the pencil-necked pipsqueaks conversing in the lodge, they ambled out the front door.

Nordic is just a joke and an afterthought in the world of skiing. That world owes its existence to Nordic skiing, but the majority of gravity-propelled, grease-fed heroes of the lift-served area will never know it.

Within the little world of American cross-country skiing, those who fancy themselves major players treat it like a game of world domination. Standing in the center of it they can squint and imagine that it extends beyond the farthest horizon. It is clearly worth all the stress they dump on anyone who does not express it in the way those self-anointed powers see fit.

That has become extremely tiresome.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tough Drive to Work

The XIMS thermometer does not lie. Next to the passenger door of the car I was driving this morning, the temperature was about ten degrees below zero. It warmed to somewhat below minus four by the time I arrived. My fingertips were frozen. My feet were painfully cold. Frost was forming on the inside of the windshield and side windows. Cold air blew out of the dashboard vents, even though the engine temperature gauge showed it had warmed to the normal mid-range.

I've been warmer on Cannon Mountain ski lifts on a windy day. The drive to work was a lot longer than most lift rides.

Here at the touring center the temperature has crawled up to about +7F. That's probably as good as we're going to get.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It's a cliche, but

Cross-country skiing is as much fun as sex, and most people look as bad doing it.

Like sex, cross-country skiing causes a lot of bodily secretions to flow. They just mostly come out of different openings. So cross-country skiers perform their exertions coated with glistening moisture. They grunt. They sweat. They breathe hard. Afterward they're suffused with a glow of satisfaction, or perhaps frustrated by an inadequate performance. Usually you feel better than when you started.

You'll see occasional beautiful people and professionally competent-looking performers. You have to wonder if it feels as good to those show ponies, or if it's just a job. Some of them do seem to know arcane secrets of ecstasy beyond the powers of the average grunt. Is it worth it? What if it isn't really any better, just strenuously kinkier? You never know until you try. But you increase the odds of hurting yourself when you try to get to those advanced levels. You could drown in the hot tub or fall from the trapeze or asphyxiate because you didn't get the scarf untied fast enough-- I mean you could hit a tree on the way down a steep trail you weren't ready for, or pull a muscle.

Go for it. Have fun. I, for one, won't be watching too closely.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

NNN Doing What NNN Does

Yet another broken plate on an NNN binding. Note also the annoying flared wings on the plate, added in recent years to increase lateral control by compensating for several design elements that decrease it. Those wings also keep the skis from fitting securely on many backshop fixtures used to support the ski during such routine processes as cleaning and waxing.

Several kilometers from the shop the other day I met a man and a woman making their way along the trail toward the touring center. The woman slid along as best she could while carrying one of her husband's skis in her hand. The man scooted himself down the track as best he could with a ski on one foot and a bare boot on the other.

Thinking this was just a typical iced-up NNN binding that wouldn't let him re-enter after he'd stepped off his skis for some errand or other, I stopped to see if I could help him get back on two planks. They showed me that it wasn't so simple.

The sole of his new Alpina boot had pulled completely off. It was still engaged in the binding. I gave them some cord I had, so they could try lashing the boot together enough to make slithering a little easier. On my way back to base about 20 minutes later, I passed them. Because of the configuration of the failed Alpina boot, they had been unable to secure a lashing that would hold his foot for even the most rudimentary shuffle.

NNN sole separation is a legendary problem. If it isn't, it should be. Since NNN-BC was the first back-country system binding, the many sole failures I saw with that helped convince me that system bindings have no place on a real back-country excursion. I know Vegard Ulvang used the first version of Salomon's BC system to ski across Greenland, but that was really just a long but straightforward tour.

Number One Reason Why Ski Tails Delaminate

Friday, January 02, 2009

Solidly in Stage 5

The fatigue that develops when serving the vacationing public for a protracted period comes on in distinct stages. I passed stage 4 yesterday morning, aided by a late night on New Year's Eve. This was after resolving to ignore celebration and get to bed before midnight. After a sociable dinner with friends and the drive home it was only ten minutes before midnight when I hit the pillow. This after a 9-hour workday with an hour of driving at either end. I'd been up since just after 5 a.m., and the alarm was set to wake me at the same time on January 1.

The Stages:

Stage 1: tired but hyper efficient. This generally lasts a day or less. Soon degenerates into going through the motions, doing the absolute minimum necessary to get the latest goon out of your face.

Stage 2: increasing impatience with idiots and their bullshit.

Stage 3: Temporal detachment: You don't know what day it is and it doesn't matter anyway. You've been at work forever and will be there for all eternity.

Stage 4: Short term memory loss.Whole sections of your day, particularly driving, will disappear from your mind as you do them. Combines nicely with Stage 3 to create a drifty feeling drugs only wish they could match. In Stage 4 you could kill an idiot and go back to eating your lunch as if nothing had happened. You would be able to deny it while hooked to a polygraph without showing the slightest distress. Not only wouldn't you remember doing it, you wouldn't be sorry when you found out you had.

Stage 5: Staring. In Stage 5 you'll find yourself enjoying the diamond-like fire of morning sunlight hitting the scratches in the glass counter top. You'll stare into it until the sun moves far enough to cast a shadow over it or the next dripping vulgarian lurches into the counter and drops a puddle of mucus on it while firing questions at you. After dispensing with the idiot in ways you will never remember, you will shift your gaze to the far windows of the lodge. This helps you in two ways: you get snow blindness and avoid eye contact with customers.

Caffeine or a good night's sleep will fool you into thinking you're back up to full strength. You'll start to act like you're in stage one until you lurch off the rails because you're going way too fast for your condition.

Two days to go. They're liable to be the busiest yet. When they're over, someone will have to tell me how I did.