About Skiing History

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Ski width realism

Last week I spent a day skiing at Snowmass with an old friend. I won’t say how old, but roughly my age. Kathy grew up skiing Vermont, has been skiing regularly ever since, has stayed in shape and has skills. Real high-speed cruise, carve-on-ice skill, achieved in the era of 68mm straight skis.

She brought her own boots and poles but was in the market for new skis, so she rented demos. If Kathy liked the ski, the shop would apply the rental fee to the purchase price. The shop recommended an 88mm waist.

Up on the Burn, Kathy skied easily, in fine balance and every bit as elegant as she was in her 20s. What she couldn’t do was to set and hold an edge. Every turn was a nice smooth speed-control skid from top to finish, and she couldn’t reach the speed she liked without straightlining.

I explained that she needed a narrower ski, so as to engage the edge earlier in the turn and hold it though the full arc. She grasped the mechanics – a narrow ski rolls onto its edge more easily and, more important, more quickly. The carving edge cuts early in the turn, before forces begin to build up. Then, it’s easier to hold the narrower ski on edge and balance on it through the turn.

The problem with a wider ski is that the delay coming up on edge means the skid starts early in the turn, and once started, it’s almost impossible to turn a skid into a carve mid-turn, no matter how high you roll on edge. Regardless of your skills, too much width is a handicap, not an aid.

I recommended she try a ski narrower than 80mm.

So we went back to the demo shop. What do you know – they had nothing in stock under 82mm – nothing for adults, anyway. And the staff, to the last employee, was skeptical. You could see the wheels turning: what kind of crackpot wants a narrow ski?

This is a mystery. Every single instructor in our ski school skis daily, and teaches daily, on race skis or performance skis under 78mm. Yes, in powder, too. But the shop personnel seemed convinced that no civilian could possibly survive on a narrow ski.

Eventually, we found a cheap lightweight 76mm ski from another brand. Kathy tried it for a day and wasn’t thrilled. “It worked better in the bumps and I could carve a turn,” she reported. But the ski felt unstable at the speed she liked.

The following day, in another store, Kathy found a Blizzard Black Pearl 78. Eureka! She loved the ski. It carved, it cruised, it bumped.  But they didn’t have it in her length. She found out that an online retailer had her length in stock. So the Aspen stores lost the sale.

Does this tale have a moral? Yes, but whether you’re a good recreational skier or ski shop buyer, I shouldn’t have to explain it further.

March 2018 clinic

Sam, Seth, Tim, Bernie and Staffan.

Bernie D writes: Loved skiing with Seth, and would definitely do again next year.  I learned more in these two days than ever before. The continuity of having same instructor, very small class size (key!), and such a skilled teacher was phenomenal.

Seth has a great ability to break down more complex actions into small parts, teaching one at a time.  Great teacher.

Enjoyed meeting you all! Once you know available dates let me know please.

The February clinic

February’s clinic was great fun, and we moved steadily from basic exercises on easy groomed terrain to groomed blacks and easy bumps and powder. The ladies in the group wanted to be able to keep up with their families. Here’s what Joan wrote a couple of days later, about skiing with her husband and teenage daughter:
To my husband’s surprise, I insisted on skiing with him and our daughter on Friday. Normally, I do not like to ski five consecutive full days, and we never thought I would even make it through all three days of your program, particularly following the prior day of skiing (and getting exhausted and discouraged) with them. But I was raring to go the following day, to see if I would maintain what I learned when under pressure from my two hot dogs. With the exception of some moments of discomfort on steep deep bumps such as Little Ollie (which I handled way better, physically and psychologically, than before your lessons), I was totally confident. I kept up much better than before. In fact, on one bump slope, my husband said he could not keep up with me, because he was so exhausted from the three days skiing alone with our daughter. I told him maybe he could learn some energy-economy tips from your class. Even my daughter admitted I was skiing much better.
When I signed up for the program, I figured either I would buy myself a little more time skiing, or, more likely, I would know that it was time to give up skiing (or at least anything that isn’t groomed). Now I’d say I’m good for more years. The three days in your class, plus the following day with my family, were truly the most confident, strong, and–most importantly–enjoyable days skiing I’ve ever experienced. Thanks!
We have plenty of room for the next session,  March 8-9-10. And of course early March is absolutely the best time to ski at Vail!

Returning to Snow

A few weeks ago I worked with two 60-something skiers, who came to class with dramatically different needs. Both had been away from the sport for a few years – “Andy” because he’d smashed an ankle in a mountain biking crash, and “Bill” because his business demanded all his time. Now they both wanted to resume skiing often – as in 30 days or so each winter.

Despite the weak and deformed ankle, Andy was in good shape. In rehabbing after surgery, he got used to cycling about 15 miles a day, all week long. Bill had turned into an office drone, carrying more weight than was healthy for him. And he enjoyed his cocktails. On the first day of class, Bill had to quit after lunch, while Andy was eager to ski until the lifts closed. That night, Bill downed a couple of tequilas and didn’t get much sleep. On the second day, Bill quit skiing before lunch; Andy and I went on to ski moguls until 3:15pm. The third day we had powder. Bill floundered, and quit after two hours. Andy got in 30,000 vertical feet and went home confident that he could safely ski any terrain on the mountain.

The difference was preparation. If you contemplate a return to snow, a little forethought will make the transition much smoother.

First, make a physical assessment. What kind of shape are you in? Some of us are in better shape now than when we worked 40 hours a week, because we spend more time now on the bicycle, or hiking in the hills.  But many of us deal with new challenges – old injuries, less muscle mass, conditions affecting our lungs or circulatory systems.

Even if your health is great, thin air can be punishing. If you live at sea level, don’t expect to vacation at high elevation without experiencing shortness of breath. So prepare for skiing some months ahead of time with a training program. Cycling is an ideal exercise for skiing – it improves aerobic capacity and leg strength, but it also reacquaints us with certain balance skills and comfort with speed. If you’ve spent your days staring at a computer screen, cycling can even improve your depth perception and peripheral vision.

Plan to stay hydrated, and eat bananas. Your muscles need water and potassium to process oxygen in the thin air. Lay off the alcohol. A glass of wine with dinner is fine, but remember that at 8,000 feet elevation, beer, wine and liquor have two or three times their sea-level effect.

Buy new boots. The boots sitting in the back of the closet for 20 years no longer fit properly simply because your feet have changed. The foam padding has stiffened or turned to dust. The shell plastic and rubbery water seals have grown brittle; if the shell doesn’t crack, the toe dam will certainly leak.

Find a good bootfitter and spend the time necessary to get the fit just right, including attention to alignment. That means the boot cuff and insole should be adjusted so that when you assume a relaxed athletic stance, pressure under the boot soles is distributed evenly side-to-side. Good alignment is a key element in balance, timing and edge control on skis. Tell your bootfitter about any old injuries or other health issues.

Plan to rent skis for your first few days back on the snow. Ski design has changed profoundly over the past 25 years, and continues to improve. Because your first runs will involve practicing on groomed terrain, rent skis designed for groomers and firm snow – skis the shop clerk might call “front-side” skis (as opposed to “back bowl” skis). This means skis with a waist width of 80mm or less – wider skis work better in powder but require more strength when edging on groomed snow. I recommend starting with a traditional-camber ski (as opposed to “early rise” or “rocker” designs). The time to experiment with wider skis and reverse camber will be after you have your timing and balance back.

Take a lesson. Call ahead and ask the ski school to place you with an instructor who understands your needs – someone used to working with older skiers who arrive with ancient skills.

And have fun!

Shape and flex pattern

Here’s a history lesson: When Norwegian farmers began running across snowy meadows on planks of wood, they quickly discovered that where the snow drifted deep, the plank flexed. When you jumped on the middle of the plank, it bowed downward into the snow. This meant that in order to push the ski forward, you had to push it up out of the hole it had made in the snow. That took a lot of work.

Some bright soul figured out that if you steamed the plank and bent it into a gentle arch (what we call camber), the skier’s weight would spread more evenly across the surface of the snow, and the skier’s weight would straighten out the camber instead of sinking into the snow. The loaded ski now made a more-or-less straight beam and could be pushed straight ahead. Running got a lot easier. If the camber were made high enough, you could carve the tip and tail a lot thinner, making the ends lighter and more supple. The ski became even easier to run on, and floated nicely over uneven snow.

By about 1840, in the Telemark region, local woodcarvers had figured out sidecut. Making the ski narrower in the middle helped the ski turn with better agility. But the narrower waist tended to sink deeper into the snow, so to avoid the original problem of the center sinking, the middle of the ski had to be made a bit thicker and the camber a bit higher. Thus, by trial and error, ski-makers learned the art of balancing flex pattern against sidecut and camber. Change any one element and you had to change the other two.

One more element entered into the balance: torsional stiffness. In a ski meant for running across uneven natural snow, you wanted a supple tip to float over and conform to the surface. But you needed strength, too — if the tip were too thin and soft it would break. As long as a ski was made from a single piece of wood, a clever solution was the ridge-top shape, carved with a central reinforcing rib standing above the top surface. The rib reinforced the ski’s beam flex (its stiffness in bending) but allowed it to twist a bit to absorb the impact of sastrugi, suncups, and the like.

After 1935, quality skis were laminated from a variety of tough hardwoods and lighter softwoods. As I mentioned yesterday, all alpine skis were still more or less the same shape, so the adjustable elements were flex and weight. Now, by choosing and aligning the laminates, a skimaker could adjust the torsional stiffness more-or-less independently of the beam flex. The ability to do this took a quantum leap with the adoption of aluminum and fiberglass structures.

It became clear that racers wanted higher torsional stiffness than recreational skiers. For grip on ice, race skis were engineered with torsional stiffness around 1.9 newton-meters per degree. This proved to be a practical limit: if the torque went much higher (some metal skis went to 2.5 nm/deg) they felt harsh and hooky, and had to be edge-bevelled pretty aggressively. Most recreational slaloms — bump skis, for instance — torqued at about 1.7 nm/deg. At 1.5 nm/deg and below you had forgiving intermediate skis. And a balance had to be found between torsion and beam flex: at K2, where I worked at the time, we  called this the “torflex ratio.” A stiff beam flex, for a stronger, more precise skier, could use a stiffer torsion.

When “shaped” or deep-sidecut skis first appeared, it took a couple of years for engineers to figure out new flex patterns and torque ratios. Early shaped skis had a tendency to “hinge” in front of the binding, so they sort of plowed in deep snow — it was the original sinking-plank problem all over again. Compared to straight skis, it was found that shaped skis needed a longer stiff section in the middle and softer ends, and the progression of flex distribution had to be matched to the exaggeration of the sidecut. Similarly, torsion had to be softened a bit at the ends to soften the edge bite. Otherwise, the new wide shovels had a tendency to climb up the sides of moguls, and the new wide tails were reluctant to release at the end of the turn.

Balancing flex and torsion to sidecut is an art. It requires skill in adjusting core thickness, and clever choice of core laminates. Getting it wrong isn’t a disaster — a ski that feels a little harsh at the ends can usually be fixed with some smart tuning. But it’s so much more satisfying to get it right.

For more detail on sidecut see Evolution of Ski Shape.

Seth Masia
Aspen/Snowmass Ski School

Boots, and time to wax the skis

Jimmy Lillstrom stopped by over the weekend, in the course of his daily loop on the bicycle. Jim is a veteran ski industry marketing guy, a relic of the days when Head’s factory ruled North Boulder. He’s still a lean, mean cycling machine, carrying about 1% body fat.

But he doesn’t ski much anymore. A cycling crash years ago put a hairline crack in his femur, and in fixing it the surgeon took 3cm off the leg length. Since then he hasn’t felt comfortable in his normal boot size — everything seems to cant to one side. When he does ski, he uses an oversize boot and sacrifices control.

This is something that can be fixed. There’s a lot that can be fixed by a smart bootfitter. What can’t be fixed is skiing with good control and finesse in an oversized boot. Half the problems I see on the hill are due to skiers slopping around in boots just one size too big. A boot that’s too big is, by definition, too stiff. You won’t know it, because you can feel the ankle flexing inside the shell, but the shell itself doesn’t flex much and there’s a long delay before your muscular input is translated into pressure on the ski.

A big boot isn’t even warm. You wind up compensating for the slop by overtightening the instep buckle. That squashes the veins on the top of the foot, cutting off the return of blood from the foot to the heart and lungs. Blood pools in the toes and cools. The toes then freeze.

The solution is to get into the smallest shell that will take the length of your foot, and then do the work necessary, on the inner boot and inside the shell, to make it comfortable. If the shell fits properly, you can ski with the buckles pretty loose — on the first notch most of the time. The boots flex comfortably, you get a sensitive feel of what the ski is doing, and instant response to edging and pressure changes.

Getting that snug, comfortable fit starts with the smallest shell, then depends on an accurately shaped footbed (not the flat foam product packaged with the boot) and, possibly, a good aftermarket innerboot.

The innerboot is, in fact, the single most important piece of ski equipment. I can put my innerboot into nearly any boot shell of the right length and ski comfortably. I use the Zipfit innerboot, but there are some other good ones out there.

I told Lillstrom to call Sven Coomer, the Mahatma of ski boot design, and talk over the problem of differential leg length. We’ll get him fixed up so we can ski together.

Today is Sept. 7. It’s supposed to snow the next four days in Vail. I received an invitation today to ski at Copper with the PSIA Demo Team in October.

Time to wax the skis.

The canny tennis pro

Old age and treachery will overcome youth and strength.

My dad was a superb semi-pro tennis player. It’s one of the reasons I became a skier.

The last time I tried to compete with him, he was about 50. I was 23.

I had speed and strength and endurance. He had wicked accuracy.

Dad could put his shots in the far corner from wherever I happened to be. I was forced to respond to each shot with some desperate defensive lob, aiming only roughly at the center of his court in hopes of saving the volley. Run ragged, I collapsed after the second set.

Dad, of course, didn’t have to run. His game was in his fingers and wrist. His expertise was subtle, and required relatively small movements of his forearm to guide the racquet. My game was gross, requiring that I heave 160 pounds of meat around the court.

Here’s the lesson for low-impact skiing: Use subtle moves inside the boot, and lateral gestures of the hands, to adjust the angle of the ski and thus the radius of the turn. Take advantage of terrain shape to guide your trajectory. You could waste a lot of energy lifting and throwing your body around, but why bother? The mountain will beat you after the second set.

Ski well forever . . .


Ski Younger Now!  Seth Masia

Ski Younger Now is a retraining program for older skiers, and skiers returning to the sport after recovering from an injury. Going into the 2022-23 season, I’m 74 years old. I retired from teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the following advice is as valid as ever:
The reason older instructors can ski smoothly, all day long, is that we learned years ago how to ski with low-impact, low-torque, efficient techniques in all kinds of terrain.
    For years my clientele has consisted mostly of skiers in their 60s and older, along with their kids and grandkids and spouses. Grandparents want to keep up with the younger folks and even teach them a thing or two. I help them do that.
     These over-the-hill jocks (of both genders) are fully committed to the sport and eager to be retrained so they can do it for another ten or twenty years.
      They now face a number of physical challenges: slowed reactions, weaker muscles, fragile joints, cataracts, inner-ear issues, numbed proprioceptors. To the extent possible I want them to ski smoothly, using ski shape in place of muscle to start turns, guide skis and control speed. A critical issue is to reduce the torque on knees, hips and lower back. This means we’re going to reduce the steering component and replace it very largely with edging. Happily, shaped skis encourage this.
       And we’re going to kill off up-unweighting, that ungraceful lifting of the entire body weight with each turn, in favor of energy-efficient lateral motions and, later, terrain unweighting.
      Each skier is unique, and exercises to achieve efficiency must be tailored to each skier’s goals, skills and needs. But very often the first key exercise is the patience turn. Skiers need to understand that it’s unnecessary (and counterproductive) to muscle the skis into a turn. All that’s needed with a shaped ski is to flatten it on the snow, and the tip will seek the fall line. And all it takes to flatten the ski is a very small upper body motion in the direction of the new turn. Good skiers do this by moving the hands toward the new pole plant. For nervous people, this move toward the valley may produce anxiety, so I ask for a simple turn signal: point the downhill hand in the direction you’re going to turn, as you would in signaling for a turn while riding a bike. This works like a charm, and this gesture will be the pole plant tomorrow. Point the hand and simply wait for the skis to begin turning. As you pass through the fall line, tip the skis a bit further onto the inside edges to complete the turn.
     You can see where this is going. The idea of simple lateral motions to flatten and edge the ski takes both the steering torque and the unweighting body-lift out of the equation, and saves a huge amount of muscle energy. It feels so easy and so natural, and because we’re not jerking the skis about, the turn quickly becomes a smooth continuous arc. There’s no need to pause or recover before floating into the next turn, or the next. It’s easy to link these turns.
     Next step is rhythmic turns in various tempi to learn about turn shape, with a funnel exercise to demonstrate full precise control. All of this can be done without breathing hard, even at 11,000 feet elevation.
     The technique is valid for people of any age after rehabbing from an injury, or when resuming skiing after a long absence from the sport.
I no longer offer Ski Younger Now through the Aspen-Snowmass Ski School. If you have questions,  email me. .
Photo by Tom Lippert: Seth skiing powder at Squaw Valley.
Ski Younger Now launched in 2011 at Vail and moved to Snowmass in 2018.
All contents of this website Copyright 2011-2022 by Seth Masia. All rights reserved. No reproduction without prior permission.