Roger Marolt: Roger This
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
If it can be said of cooking and column writing that to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs, it can be said that in the evolution of skiing they had to break a few legs. In a sport that relies primarily on the production of adrenaline to satisfy its devotees, a few maimed inventors and testers along its course of research and development have been the natural byproducts. There will always be a soft spot in my head for the pioneers of the sport.
Modern ski gear looks simple enough, but underneath those cool graphics and between the lengths of its engineered sidewalls is the blood of determined experimentation that early aficionados poured into the gear until it morphed into the easy-turning, snow-carving implements of today. And yes, mistakes were made along the way. Since we could not have the good without the bad, I think it is appropriate to talk about some of the worst in what has become one the best sports on earth, or at the very least one of the most expensive.
In no particular order in degree of ineffectiveness, I will list some of the more ill-conceived innovations that have occurred in my lifetime, of which I have had firsthand experience with (yes, my lifetime and the products).
The first of the worst gear that comes to mind were the Kastle Asymmetric skis. These gems of the turning world were skis that had a giant slalom sidecut on one side and a slalom sidecut on the other. The idea was to give the skier options. If you got sick of big turns in the morning, you could simply switch your skis to the opposite feet and make slalom turns all afternoon. Now, I know what you’re thinking: How in the hell could this possibly work? Well, somebody thought it would, and they were persuasive enough to convince one of the largest ski manufacturers in the world, Austrian no less, to put the things into production. They, in turn, intrigued me enough to try a pair. The skis worked surprisingly well, as long as I skied on one foot at a time. Any other style resulted in frequent and swift body slams by skis that alternately turned away from each other in one mode and into each other when reversed. Ouch!
The next incredible gyration of skiing imagination was the Dolomite Secret Weapon. Advertised for months in advance as the boots that would revolutionize skiing, I waited in anticipation until the box containing these marvels arrived at my front door under the guarded care of the UPS man. Imagine my surprise to find seven-buckle ski boots that extended all the way to my kneecaps. Of course my idea of the best way to test them was to go directly to the top of S-1 on Aspen Mountain. I fell on the first turn because the boots made it impossible to set an edge in the steep slope and I tumbled most of the way down to Spar Gulch, far below. To the boots’ credit, I never felt that my ankles were at risk of injury, although my arthritic back still aches when brown trucks turn the corner into our neighborhood.
Then there were the Hexel Ice skis. The manufacturer took a page right out of the Gillette playbook (yes, I mean the razor and shaving cream company). This improvement consisted of double edges on each side of the ski, one even with the bases and the other a few millimeters up, embedded in the sidewalls. Did it work? Well, I have to say that you’d put them on edge and they’d stay right there. In fact, they put so much steel into the snow that skiing felt like wearing golf spikes on shag carpet. Every time you tried to make a turn the skis would get hung up and bring you to a drastic halt, face first into (you guessed it) the ice.
And who could forget the Burt retractable binding? This was what they called a “plate binding” when it was first conceived in the ’70s. The inventors of the plate binding thought that it would be more convenient for people to attach a flat apparatus with all the springs, hinges, and release mechanisms of the binding (the “plate”) to their boots in the comfort of their condominiums that would then clamp onto a few simple bolts in the skis once they got to the slopes. In fact, skis were easier to carry, but walking was a lot more difficult with all the extra weight and bulk pre-attached to the boots. Nonetheless, inebriated Texans could oftentimes be spotted in slope-side bars at midnight dancing with them on their feet.
At any rate, Burt one-upped the flawed concept by installing what was basically a spring-loaded cable into the back of the plate that was anchored to the ski at the other end. The idea was that, if you fell and your binding released, the spring-loaded cable would pull your ski right back and click it onto your boot automatically. A skier could take a hellatious crash, loose both skis, have them automatically snap right back into place within milliseconds, and the skier could recover and continue on without anyone noticing the gaff, such were the skiing styles of the day.
The recoiling mechanism worked well, but the trade-off was that the binding worked poorly. The result was lots of releases with skis snapping back in place before crashes were finished, providing several chances of breaking a leg in every fall, or the opportunity to break a single leg multiple times in a crash. The Burt Company later dissolved and, I think, reorganized as the Aspen Orthopedics Associates.
I would be remiss in not mentioning Scott ski boots in this list of on-slope disasters. They looked like high-top sneakers, were as light as bedroom slippers, and fell to pieces like an Irishman singing ‘Oh Danny Boy’ over green beer every time you needed a little support. Likewise the Allsop Spring-Grip poles are worth noting for their wet-noodle feel in the bumps. I did a lot of face plants over those, trying to figure out where the tips were actually planted. And usually that face was already fried because back then every skier’s fanny pack contained a bottle of Hawaiian Tropics Deep Tanning oil, which left your face resembling basted turkey at the end of the day.
I could go on about collectors’ items like rear-entry boots, stovepipe stretch pants, and split-tail skis, but I won’t. All of this reminiscing makes me overly contemplative. I don’t want to think too much about what’s next, or whether it’s too late to learn golf.
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