Spring 2002
ski equipment vs.
ski technique

a historical view
of how we got here
  It’s a commonplace that changes in equipment have changed the way we ski. It’s less obvious, but equally true, that equipment design is influenced in turn by new ways of moving over snow—the inspired improvisations and variations on accepted ski technique that a handful of the most gifted ski athletes come up with every generation.
Equipment and technique. Technique and equipment. Inextricably linked, chasing each other toward a snowy future. This pas de deux, this double dance of technological innovation and athletic inspiration has defined what we call skiing today, is creating what we will call skiing tomorrow.

Let’s skip the prehistory of skiing and stick with the last fifty years, give or take a decade. Consider these major milestones in the development of ski equipment: laminated wooden skis instead of solid hickory skis; metal edges; plastic ski bases; sandwich-construction metal skis; ski boots with buckles instead of laces; stiffer ski boots with softer inner boots; the first plastic ski boots; fiberglass skis; release bindings that really released when you needed them to; foam core skis; skis with vibration dampening systems; “cap” skis of fiberglass and metal; and finally, skis with exaggerated deep sidecuts, today’s shaped skis. What happened to skiing with the advent of each of these novelties?

When skis changed from solid wood to laminated construction, manufacturers could control their their flex for the first time; in particular they could control a ski’s camber in order to distribute a skier’s weight evenly over the snow. Racers were more than interested, even weight distribution meant better gliding, faster times, better results. About the same time, metal edges opened the door to performance skiing on hardpacked and icy slopes, more and more common as more people began to ski. Then ski technique had to evolve to cope with these better gripping skis, so skiers learned to “unweight”—popping up like a jack-in-the-box to loosen their skis grip on the snow so that they could twist and pivot their skis in a new direction. This single idea—make your skis light in order to turn them more easily—was to dominate skiing for decades.

From the 50s on, bindings finally held skiers heels down effectively, although racers used to add about five feet of leather strapping just to make sure. In the eastern Alps Austrian, German and Swiss skiers took advantage of this new connection between heel and ski to turn with “heel thrust” (or Fersenschub). They were really twisting their trunks one way, while pushing their feet out in the opposite direction. We Americans, profoundly influenced by a generation of imported Austrian ski pros, called it counter rotation.… On the western side of the Alps, the ever eccentric French did the exact opposite, and got away with it. They rotated their upper bodies powerfully in the direction they wanted to turn, and their skis followed. But underneath these technique wars, lay an unsuspected unity: everybody used the mass, weight and momentum of their upper bodies to turn their skis. And boots were still so flexible that only a small part of this upper-body oomphing was ever transmitted to the skis...

Meanwhile, skis were becoming less stubborn every year. Howard Head made a ski-shaped sandwich of aluminum sheets and wood, softer flexing than laminated wooden skis, a beauty in powder. Emile Allais and the Rossignol factory beefed this idea up and created the Allais 60 ski that dominated the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. But metal was soon challenged by fiberglass: first fiberglass sandwich construction, then fiberglass wrapped skis. These new materials were all inherently more robust than wood; skis didn’t need to be so stiff, little by little they began to bend, and carve....

Buckle boots were first introduced for convenience not for performance. Henke ads asked: “Are you still lacing while others are racing?.” But the powerful leverage of a metal buckle soon allowed skiers to tighten ever stiffer boots around their ankles. An American, Bob Lange, created the first really successful all-plastic boot. And immediately Lange boots were adopted by top racers who found that they didn’t have to move as vigorously to control their skis. Less effort meant better balance, meant less skidding and more medals. By the 70s the best skiers were all skiing with lower body action; upper body rotation and counter-rotation had both disappeared.

The pace of innovation in ski design picked up in the 70s and 80s but, curiously, this innovation always tended to follow the same path. Year by year, skis lost much of their stiff camber, became easier to flex, while remaining stiff in torsion. For more than twenty years this was the biggest engineering challenge for ski makers. Torsional stiffness is necessary for ski edges to bite and hold, whereas flex is important to let skis bend and carve. Earlier skis had to be stiff overall in order to hold an edge—no longer. The age of carved turns was dawning. This development was certainly racer driven. At higher speeds racers had more energy to bend their skis, and were the first to do so. Racers who carved a more perfect arc won more races. So engineers burned the midnight oil to give their factory-sponsored athletes skis that would carve ever cleaner arcs.

Naturally there were false starts and pointless detours in this saga of technical and technique innovation. Some great skis—hollow-core fiberglass models in particular—proved too expensive to build at a profit. And occasionally the eccentric, personal style of a great champion like Frenchman Patrick Russell sent both skiers and equipment designers off on a false path: sitting back on the tails of their skis, rear-waisted skis, boots with absurdly high rear “spoilers” to help skiers sit back.… Yoiks! Eventually, of course, the double pendulum would swing back to center.

In recent times, much equipment innovation has been driven by the desire to rationalize and simplify the manufacturing process, and thus maintain profits in an increasingly competitive world equipment market. Foam cores replaced wood in the hearts of many skis, primarily because they saved money. Cap skis too, were initially an attempt to simplify a complex manufacturing process. Luckily, these new technologies offered some performance pluses too.
And the boot industry was totally revitalized by the high-tech cottage plastics industry of one small Italian town in the Dolomites, Montebelluno—a town that today has a near monopoly on the production of all ski boots. In its tiny workshops, boots could be designed, prototyped and molded for production in a few months instead of years. Down at the foot level, the revolution was virtually over by the start of the 90s. A totally responsive connection between foot and ski became an everyday reality. Once again the best skiers simplified their movements: subtle foot action was all they needed for total control over their skis.

And of course, there’s a last chapter in our story to date. I’m talking about the development of shaped or super-sidecut skis. Here the Slovenian company Elan deserves a lot of initial credit. Somebody at Elan was convinced that deep sidecuts were the the ski geometry of the future, and they kept turning out wasp-waisted, hour-glass-shaped skis, even when most experts dismissed them as little more than toys. Shaped skis, by the nature of their geometry, are short; and short skis bounce, tremble and vibrate. The final ski design challenge of recent times was to damp out the vibrations that made super-sidecut skis squirrelly. Mission accomplished! Deep sidecuts are now mainstream, and once again skiers are adapting their technique to their new tools. Classical big-mountain skiing has becoming simpler, less physical, more effortless than ever. While at the same time, athletic innovators are pushing these new skis into new subworlds of skiing: extreme carving, “freecarving,” the addictive mystique of leaving lines on corduroy... It’s a brave new world. And it’s the same world. But everything works better....

It’s been a great story—50-odd years of steady evolution. Equipment and technique. Technique and equipment. Was it all just a happy accident? Or is there a pattern? I think there is.

Taken together most of the changes in ski design share a common goal: to allow our skis to bend more when turning. You see, a straight stiff ski can only change direction when it is twisted to a new angle, and then skids and scrapes over the snow, until finally it bites in and tracks in a new direction. True: multiple improvements in ski design made it possible for relatively stiff skis to skid along a more-or-less curved path. But a straight ski still has to change direction by skidding. Yet if the ski itself were curved—if it were more like the proverbial barrel stave—then if could slice a curved path through the surface of the snow, a true carved turn. That’s where ski design has been heading for a long, long time. That’s where we are today.

And in the case of boots and bindings, I also see a similar common pattern: boot/binding evolution has always tended to make the connection between foot and ski a more solid and responsive link. This has meant that the focus and arena of a skier’s physical effort, has moved lower and lower and lower, from massive movements of the trunk and upper body, to subtler movements of the hips and pelvis, to still subtler movements of the legs and knees, to today’s focus of action: the feet. A small movement of the foot in a modern boot sends a big signal to our skis. The skis perform their subtle magic on the snow. And half a century of innovations in equipment and technique ends up painting a big grin across our face.

[this story is adapted from a piece I wrote for Skiing magazine a few years ago]

 Spring 2002
Photos sequences at top of page:
filmed by Edgar Boyles
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.