Legends & Legacies: Ski camber, an Aspen child’s interpretation
Myriad equipment choices in a ski shop easily overwhelm any skier. Flat skis, skis with camber and a new choice — skis with negative camber — set my legs and mind tingling with glee. When I was a kid I swooshed down the slopes on skis with negative camber, both ends warped upward. The camber did not ensure mastery of powder but it did help convince my parents I needed new skis.
The International Ski History Association offers detailed research into the history and origin of skis. According to them, Norwegians first made cambered skis, which “made possible a thinner lighter ski and made it easier on downhill skis.” The innovation took place long before my father made his own first pair of skis during the 1920s. He valued camber less than wood strength as he built and broke several skis. At that time people carved and shaped their own skis from wood. To curl the tips, they applied steam and arm strength.
As did most of the early Aspen Ski Club members, my father purchased his first “manufactured” skis during the 1930s from Thor Groswold. A Denver-based entrepreneur, Groswold invested early on in Highland Bavarian’s attempt to develop Ashcroft as a ski area.
By the time I set off in the sport, the skis of my father’s generation had been relegated to the garage. Skis with metal edges took primacy. From the viewpoint of a history of equipment, the change looks like any other technological transformation. But there was more to it. During the 1930s, my parents largely skied the backcountry. They climbed Aspen Mountain or their favorite ridge between Castle Peak and Mt. Hayden and then skied downhill freeform. They flew through miles of powder and soft snow and encountered neither ice nor hardpack. They seldom needed metal edges and ski camber, even if the skis they used had been fashioned with such unnecessary features.
Except for the few eldest kids of Aspen’s extended families, my generation skied on hand-me-down runners. As the youngest in my family, I envied those who received even relatively new skis. Reverse camber plagued one pair of mine — they warped in the wrong direction. The metal edge screws of another pair worked their way out on a regular schedule. One ski terminated its own sorry life when an edge dislodged and disappeared into the snow.
Most of the time my sister and I skied on Northlands. These wood skis bore no paint except for the manufacturer’s name, which wore off before we inherited them. Our parents, aunts and uncles who aided our pursuit of the sport used length as the sole qualifying criteria for new skis. “You grew 4 inches over the summer, you need longer skis,” they would say. Traditional bear-trap bindings remained attached to the skis until they fell off or were discarded with the skis.
A kid can dream, and new skis topped my “must have” list. As I lived in the Cowenhoven Building, no more than a couple blocks from all of Aspen’s ski shops, I spent hours ogling the merchandise. Store clerks arranged racks of adult skis by brand name but they placed children’s skis in a separate section. Knowing I was not going to get a new pair, I paid most attention to the adult skis. No matter the brand, the layers of colorful paint made all skis look equally wonderful to me. They even smelled great.
Like most boys with the gear gene I wanted to learn the lingo. I would listen to the salespeople pitch different brands. That is how I learned about camber, the key to buying the best skis. A salesperson would pull two skis from the rack, check to make sure the serial numbers matched a pair, and then place them bottom-to-bottom. That would show the extent of camber—more was better, so your eyes would evaluate the gap at the center along the length of the ski. Then the salesperson would ask the customer to squeeze the skis at the gap to feel how much force it took to push them together and detect the spring as the gap rebounded. Finally, the customer would sight down the edges to note whether they were warped and then squeeze the gap closed again to test whether the camber was consistent.
Most skiers did not ski well enough to detect whether their skis matched. You learned matching mattered when you broke a ski and returned to the store to buy just one. (Ha ha, you silly fool! You can’t do that.) Although the lingo could not satisfy material needs, it served a social purpose. Cavalier use of words like “camber” impressed others that you skied expertly enough to discern the benefits of superior equipment.
I have skied for many years. Reverse camber is not as important to me as an all-mountain experience, so I need only one pair of skis. After working my way through many skis over a lifetime, I have to say my most exciting pair arrived when I was in sixth grade, as a Christmas present. Resplendent with a thick coat of powder-blue paint, the skis were framed with sharp metal edges screwed tightly in place.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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