The Evolution Of Skis: What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been –
The snow on the High Sierra was 16 feet deep. Cabin fever was the most common ailment among the miners in the high country around Lake Tahoe. Any time of year the mining camps of California and Nevada seemed to be worlds away from the civilization of the eastern seaboard, but in the throes of the wet winters during the late 1800s, the distance from the rest of the world seemed to multiply. The nights were long, the days were cold and the loneliness intense.
Snowshoe Thompson brought the outside world to the mining camps. From Sacramento he would carry the mail to the miners in sun, rain, wind, sleet, hail or snow. The mode of transportation he chose to cross the Sierras with mail on his back in the winter was a pair of skis. In those days, if a person wanted to ski, he would cut and shape his own skis. The material of choice was hickory a hardwood with superior durability. Resilient hickory offered a superb snap that provided a high energy kick when climbing on the long planks. Skiing was around 95% uphill and 50% downhill during those pre-lift days. The bases of the skis were impregnated with pine tar to slide over the snow without much stick. The pine tar would grip to a pair of seal skins firmly laced to the tip and tail of the skis for the uphill climbs. A leather toe strap secured the boot to the ski. The boots used were a high-topped, mink oil-treated hiking boot. The skiers of Thompson’s day would use a long pole for balance and propulsion. Animal skin jackets and hats provided warmth against the cold winter weather.
While the Americans labored uphill and bashed down without a turn, Austrian Mathias Zadarski was developing techniques to maneuver on a pair of skis. With turning and downhill control, skiing began to progress into a recreational sport. With the twentieth century the Brits founded ski clubs in Switzerland and Austria that became popular winter getaways. When boys play they invent better toys. Soon the bindings had straps that wrapped around the heels of the boots. These new devices incorporated levers to secure the heel. Toe irons replaced die leather toe strap providing a better connection to the ski and superior torsional hold. To be more compatible with the evolving ski bindings, hiking boots were modified, marking the birth of boots made specifically for skiing. Grooves were ground into the back of the heel lugs on the boots for the binding straps to fit into. The toe was lengthened and squared in shape to fit into toe irons.
World War I ended and skiing grew. A man by the name of George Salomon in Annecy, France, who thought that skiing was great fun in the nearby Alps, had a metal working shop. People in Chamonix were taking long runs down the Aguille de Midi. When the snow became packed, it was difficult to control one’s speed and direction with the wooden planks of the day. So George Salomon began stamping out metal edges which could be screwed to the bases of the hickory planks, greatly improving skier control and finesse. One of the services offered in ski shops well into the 1950s was routing a slot for edges and screwing those edges onto skis.
Soon metal cables cradled the boots into the binding systems. Springs woven into the cables then pinned to a lever provided tension. The lever on the back of the heel pulled against the tension of the spring and latched the binding closed with a snap. There was no release from this system without unlatching the lever so they gained the nickname of “bear traps.” As these systems developed, metal guides were added to the side wall of the skis so the binding cables could be secured for downhill control. For uphill trekking the cable could be removed from the guide allowing the heel to be lifted in stride.
Straps with belt buckles were added over the instep area on the square-toed ski boots of the ’30s to improve security of the heel in the boot. Bamboo ski poles with big leather baskets and metal tips were employed to help push in the uphill treks. Baggy ski pants and cable knit sweaters were the fashion of the day Ski areas in New Hampshire and Vermont were fed by ski trains from the Atlantic coastal cities while Lowell Thomas filmed movies of a new ski area in Idaho named Sun Valley Where old-time miners in Aspen had once competed in annual races on the long planks, a boat tow a large toboggan pulled by a cable, was canying skiers up the slopes. The City of Denver founded a “Winter Park” on the train line just west of the Moffat Tunnel.
World War II made the government the major purchaser of skis. A camouflaging white coat of enamel added a finished sheen to the skis of the Army’s mountain troops. Front throw bindings with levers in front of the toe pieces allowed a more fluid stride on the ski and were easier to latch. And after the war surplus skis were snapped up by groups of sportsmen and women taking to the slopes. Laminated wood skis were offering better edge hold. Ebonite base material proved to slide faster and added durability to the bases of the skis.
Double boots featuring separate laceable inner boots and a second lacing over the outer boot provided better support and more insulation. Natural rubber soles improved walking traction and did not hold snow like leather soles. Aircraft grade aluminum poles were lighter and stronger than their bamboo predecessors. Soon Willy Bogner brought the sexy look of stretch pants to the sport. With this fashion note, skiing began to boom. The demand for safety improvements propelled the popularization of releasable ski bindings. Ski Free, Northland, Tyrolia, Look and Marker came up with releasing clamps.
About the time that Ernie Blake developed Taos Ski Valley, aerospace engineer Howard Head was concocting methods of using aluminum in ski construction. The metal Head skis added superior edge hold and stability to the wooden skis. Racers were using turntable heel plate bindings with long leather thongs to add support and control to their ski boots.
With the start of the’60s, plastics were finding lots of incarnations. One of those brainstorms was base material for skis. Polyethylene ski bases slid across the snow much faster than the compounds used before. At first they were called waxless bases. Soon it was found that they slid even better when waxed. They were easily repaired with plastic candles.
Vail was in its infancy in 1962 when Bob Lange was shaping his first boots out of thermal plastic sheets. Henke of Switzerland was asking, “Are you still lacing while others are racing?” to introduce their new buckle boots. Synthetic top sheets made skis look prettier If you were cool and didn’t have a pair of those black Heads or Harts, you were probably on a pair of Kneissl White Stars.
As the ‘60s progressed, fiberglass became the fascination. While Jean Claude Killy’s nemesis Karl Schranlz was holding on with his metal Fischer Alus, Killy was romping on his Dynamic fiberglass wet wrap skis. Salomon revolutionized ski bindings with the convenience of “stepins.” The combination of plastic ski boots and fiberglass skis brought life to ski gear The new found energy in these materials ricocheted skiers out of the turn. The “jet turn” was honored first with “jet sticks,” supports up the back of the leg. Soon the plastic boots had spoilers reaching uptoward the back of the knees.
Along came the ‘70s, and hot dog skiing. Innovation was running rampant. New technology bindings appeared from Spademan without a toe piece; Allsop with a pin under the forefoot; Besser Gertsch, and Americana with plates under the boot. All of these bindings were approaches to eliminating the friction between boot and binding. Gordon Lipe designed the Lipe Sliden the first antifriction device between boot and ski. Recognizing that the release function was not just in the binding, but also in the boot configuration, the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and the International Standards Organization (ISO) developed a standardized configuration for ski boot soles. Teflon materials were added to interfaces on the ski bindings. Dramatic decreases in leg fracture statistics soon followed. Skis got short and boots got tall.
Custom boot fit systems using foam injection and putty-like flow materials appeared. Plastic ski bases became harder and faster. Machine treatments for ski base tuning dramatically improved the glide characteristics of skis and quality of ski base repair Rear entry ski boots brought convenience and comfort to the plastic torture chambers of the later ’70s. Boot fitting became a science borrowing from podiatry to innovate tools and fit materials. Skiing was definitely high tech!
During the ’80s, processes andmaterials were refined and tuned. Damping materials and systems were added to make skis more predictable. Materials and construction refinements improved ski durability Rear entry boots became the norm during the ’80s. Gadgets and dials as broad as the imagination were added to boots while mechanisms in ski bindings became more sophisticated. Improved binding release was blended with methods of retarding inadvertent prerelease. Plastic hinged gates replaced bamboo in the race course, making it safer for recreational racing.
Off in the periphery of the sport, Jake Burton and some surfer/skateboarder types were sliding down the hills on single planks. In a 1984 James Bond film snowboarding was featured. A new branch of the sport was forming. By the end of the decade, snowboarding was on its own and on a roll.
Around 1980, telemark skiing appeared as a reaction to the high tech world of alpine skiing. At first it was comprised of young wild ones going downhill on cross country gear. Soon the boots became heftier for better support. By 1990, manufacturers were adding plastic bucket parts to the cuffs of the boots for support, followed by plastic components and more complex buckling systems. Full plastic telemark boots are now state of the art. Many tele skiers are riding on top-of-the-line alpine shaped skis with tele bindings while releasable tele bindings are becoming widely accepted.
By 1990, front closure ski boots had been improved to the point that the rear closure systems were losing ground. Front entry boots offered better sensitivity to the ski, better grip on the foot, and more resilient flex. Orthotic-type footbeds became widely used and accepted in ski boots, improving comfort, balance and performance.
In the early ’90s, ski designers started putting more sidecut shape on the skis used in giant slalom racing. The more radical shapes allowed racers to carve cleaner arced turns and carry more speed through a race course. Simultaneously in 1993, a ski instructor named Ivan Petkov in Aspen and Elan ski company both took this increased sidecut to an extreme in recreational skis. Carving a turn was a lot easier. Within two years, shaped skis became the norm and older straighter sidecuts were obsolete. The shaped ski revolution has dramatically reduced the time involved in learning to ski. Spurred by the new carving frenzy stance alignment has become more important. Canting under the ski binding has become a service offered by technical shops.
Snowboarding has burgeoned. By the end of this past season almost 40% of the tickets sold were going to snowboarders. Like ski gear, the boarding equipment has become higher tech. Boots are becoming firmer and more adaptable. Stepin snowboard bindings are becoming commonplace.
Where is it all going? From many indications, it appears that the lure of extreme skiing and the ease of the new shaped skis are bringing a resurgence to alpine skiing. Snowboarding is strong with a dramatic growth in participation among all age groups in the past two years. Telemark and backcountry skiing have gone through steady growth. Sharp minds are looking at ways to build crossover ski and snowboard products. There is talk among boot companies about redesigning and reintroducing rear entry boot systems. The shaped skis are going through significant refinements as companies better understand their performance characteristics.
What fun it is to be in this sport while it evolves…
— Bob Gleason is one of the leading experts on ski gear in the U.S., having trained more bootfitters than anyone in the world. He currently operates The Boot Doctors in Taos Ski Valley and Telluride, Colorado, and is the director of curriculum for the Master Fit University.
This article appeared on page 27 of the 1998-99 edition of SkiCountry.