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.