Tony Vagneur: Thankfully, we’ve put the brakes on skis becoming dangerous missiles
It’s the old “how did we get here” story. A group of us fifth-graders, out on Aspen Mountain enjoying the Red Brick school’s always-popular Wednesday Afternoon Activities Club, had just started down the Ridge of Bell. Whoever our leader was that day has probably gone up in a swath of cold smoke.
Stopping just behind the leader, I looked up to see a flurry of activity followed by the haunting yell of days gone by on the mountain: “Ski! Ski!”
When safety straps failed for one reason or another (like not being decisively buckled), there was nothing to hold the ski to the foot in case of a binding release, and the ski was suddenly turned into a deadly missile, soaring down the slope, out of control. People have died or been severely injured by such flying skis, and everyone took it seriously when it occurred.
But this was different. Coming toward me, skipping off the top of the bumps, was a definitely loose ski topped off with a securely strapped-in ski boot. Visions like that are outside the realm of believability, but youth knows no safety bounds in an emergency and I managed to trap the fast-moving missile, stopping it dead in its tracks.
The girl who owned the unusual ski/boot apparatus was not very happy as we got her put back together and started the long trek to the bottom of the mountain, her wet foot and chagrined attitude slowing things down. The next week, she was no longer in our class. Since then, I’ve seen a similar scenario a couple of times.
You can’t talk about safety straps without talking about long thongs, those long leather lengths that held our boots to our bindings (about 3 feet long). In the early days, there were no safety bindings and our ski boot toes were held in place by two steel plates, one on each side of the ski. Long thongs were pulled tight against the heel of our boots, making sure the toe couldn’t come loose at an inopportune time.
We pulled those long thongs very tight and no one ever came out of the ski binding, let alone the boot. There were several ways of wrapping the leather straps around boots, creating a visible pattern on the back of the boot, but practically all of them in Aspen were done in the same way, simply because we were fashion-conscious, I reckon.
When safety bindings came along, mainly in the form of Marker toes (at least to us), long thongs were still essential to keep your boot solidly against the Marker toe. Marker also had a spring latch that was snapped shut over the heel to keep the boot securely fastened. No safety release on the heel.
When you fell at a high rate of speed and your new Marker safety toe released, one or both skis would be freed from your feet, but would still be attached to you by the long thongs. The skis would flail around in all directions as the straps unraveled, hitting your body, sometimes gashing your head or shins. If you were lucky, you didn’t get hurt by the gnashing of the ski edges and got up and put yourself together again. Such falls were aptly described as “egg beaters,” only in reality they were body beaters.
Many different models of safety release bindings were developed over the years, but the one remaining issue was that of “safety straps” or “long thongs.” Until, one bright and glorious day, “wop stops” appeared on the Aspen scene. Via radio, Robin Perry sent me out of the patrol room one day to stop a skier getting off Lift No. 3 — he said the skier had no safety straps.
Said skier was chagrined to be stopped for such a violation, and after showing and describing the invention beneath his ski boot, a spring-loaded device that dug into the snow when the ski was released from the boot, we were convinced of its effectiveness in stopping runaway skis, although company policy had to be changed to allow such things on the mountain (1976).
Wop stops (name origination long forgotten) soon appeared within the patrol room, being mounted on everything except powder skis, the reasoning of which should be clear. If a ski is attached to you during a fall in deep powder, it’s much easier to find.
It should be said that wop stops were referred to as such until political correctness overtook the world of public discourse. They are now an integral part of every alpine downhill binding manufactured, albeit now denoted as “ski brakes.” We have unfortunately lost our sense of irreverence.
We’ve come a long way, baby, and we’re not done yet.
Tony Vagneur remembers who lost the ski and boot on the Ridge, but he ain’t talking. Tony writes here every Saturday and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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