Friday, November 2, 2012

Ski Gear - go Big or......

With the first storm of the season comes the eager anticipation of the imminent ski season, and as always there's the annual buzz about gear.  Lately I've had a few folks ask me about boots - and over the last few years I've been thinking way too much about ski boots - and it reminded me of some of the weird paradoxes I feel are inherent in the backcountry ski community's purchasing decisions. 

Fundamentally, my questions are thus: 
1. Why do the best skiers need the biggest, burliest gear? 
2. Why is it the fittest folks have all the lightest gear? 

I think it's fairly safe to say that much of the growth in the backcountry ski market has come from resort skiers venturing into the backcountry.  Therefore, it stands to reason that they are already at least decent skiers, and - at least here in the Wasatch - most of the backcountry skiing is in untracked snow on 30-35 degree slopes; ie - really easy, sublime, and "effortless" skiing.  My very scientific validation for this is that when it's been high pressure and hasn't snowed a flake for a week, the skiing is a mixture of sun crusts, wind crusts, and old tracks, there's almost no one out skiing until that next dump.  And then, ironically, despite the fact that people LOVE super deep powder, they get really fat skis that don't actually get down into that DEEP powder!  (Confucious say: “if Grasshopper want deeper powder, Grasshopper get skinnier sticks”)

Therefore, this is what is/has been happening:
·        skiers ski at resorts
·        skiers get good
·        skiers decide to get into backcountry skiing to ski more untracked powder
·        skiers buy phat skis, near-alpine boots, and big bindings that collectively weigh over 20 pounds (no exaggeration:  4.5 lb boots, 5 pound skis, and 3 lb bindings – per leg - = 24 pounds) even though they don't have much fitness and they will be skiing (most often) mellower terrain and better snow. 

Theoretically, a good, resort-bred skier should only "need" pencil sticks and floppy boots to ski in the backcountry and  - if indeed they have spent/do spend most of their time running cables - actually do "need" light gear to enable them to shuffle up the skin track at a reasonable rate.  However, as we all know, the opposite happens:  the "best" skiers have the biggest gear.  And many times it's the newbies who are on the lighter, less-performance-oriented gear, even though theoretically they need the most "help" from their gear.  And interestingly, it seems like the only folks who have the lightest gear – the “racers” – are also the fittest!  It’s totally backwards:  fit guys have light gear, unfit resort guys have heavy gear! 

For sure, there are a couple of different segments:  the dramatically-increasing slackcountry/out of bounds folks who really don’t do much hiking and are more resort than backcountry, and then the backcountry regulars who plop themselves in the middle:  medium-weight boots, medium-fat skis (relative to the monsters at the resorts) and  - their ode to “lightweight” -  Dynafit bindings.   But having dabbled a little in the really lightweight ski arena, I am pretty convinced of a couple of things:
  • The lightweight gear today skis surprisingly well
  • If people were willing to try it, they’d be very surprised at how good the stuff skis. 
  • If they were willing to try it, they’d be absolutely stunned at how fast they can go uphill. 
 Although we “go skiing” as opposed to “going skinning”, the truth is that over a typical 6 hour day we might optimistically get 5 runs in that take maybe 3 mins each, which adds up to 15, maybe 20 minutes of total descending per day.  That’s 4-5%.    However, for sure skiing doesn’t have to be logical or sensible; it just needs to be awesome. But many of use pay for that extra bit of sublimity in that 4-5% by limiting our ski-time, vertical,  and number of runs because we are overkilling it on our gear:

this shot that Andrew McLean got (or maybe Bruce Tremper; both were there that fateful day!) of a fellow enthusiast doesn't necessarily represent my point all that well, but it's such a sweet shot that I couldn't resist!

And here’s the rub: I think that if we all skied by ourselves – without our partners around for us to measure our turning ability against, or without our own perception that our friends (or even the other people out there whom we see but don’t know) are critiquing our style/ability and actually care how well we ski – our priorities would change and we wouldn’t buy the bigger gear that assures us of good ski-ability.  We’d buy lighter gear to simply do more and not have the peer pressure of looking good affect us.  But instead we get lured in to extending the ski version of The Arms Race. 

I think it’s fair to say that we ski for the excitement of the activity.  There are lots of other reasons to be sure, but “excitement” is almost always a component of skiing.  And even though big skis and big boots enable one to ski fast - which of course is exciting - I can vouch for the fact that skiing really fast on skinny sticks is a heckuva lot more “exciting” than skiing on big phatties!  And more challenging, which is part of the fun and enjoyment.  If skiing weren’t challenging to master it’d be called snowboarding, but it’d also be not as fulfilling.  So why are we endeavoring to take some of the challenge out of it by annually making it easier vis’ a vis our phat new gear? 

Choose your weapon!  It may be hard to believe, but them skis on the right actually ski nice powder - and corn, and crust, and steeps - quite well. 

It’s true that most of the time I fall squarely in that middlin’ category with my standard rig being medium-weight boots, biggish skis, and Dynafit bindings. And I like to ski fast; faster than I do on my little skis and certainly a LOT faster than I did with my leather teles on 205 hippystix back in the day.  But the truth is that if all my ski partners had lighter boots with better range of motion, and thinner, shorter, foam-cored or carbon skis……we’d all ski a lot more.  And more is better, in my notso humble opinion.  But apparently, for the broader backcountry ski community, “better” is better, and that supercedes “more”. 

But don’t get me wrong; burly backcountry ski gear isn’t all bad:  if people are hauling around 20+ lbs on their feet, another 4 lbs on their FlyLow pants, (and wearing their sweaty-ass $540 Arcteryx Gore-Tex Jacket and bibs, and ski helmet, and goggles on a long, south-facing skin track)…..they probably aren’t spending a lot of time “out there”, either in terms of time or distance from the trailhead….and therefore not poachin’ my future lines! 

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