Friday, April 16, 2010

Equipment 1947, and the freedom of skiing


I've come to the conclusion that complaining doesn't get a person anywhere, unless the person you are complaining to can do something about your complaints. And no one can make my broken back heal any faster!

When your "get-up-and-go" moves into the "lay-down-and-sleep" mode, it is time to try and do something about it. Normally this time of the year I would slip into a pair of release bindings that are screwed onto a pair of skis. Skis have seen incredible evolution during my lifetime.

A few years ago when I was making ski movies, as I did for 55 years, I had three extreme skiers sitting around at lunch. We were talking about the advance in ski design and manufacturing. Before long I had a bet going that as good as those skiers were, they would have a hard time turning a pair of 1947 top-of-the-line Northland skis with bear trap bindings, very little camber and almost no side cut.

The skis were made out of laminated hickory and sold for $23.95 in better ski shops. We managed to round up three pair of these vintage skis, adjusted the bindings and set out to film how those extreme skiers would handle them on a modest slope—almost a flat slope would be the better description.

The snow was hard-packed granular and the edges were not offset. Skier No. 1 started across the hill in a long traverse and never could make the first turn, but ran out of ski slope and onto the gravel road that led to the maintenance shed.

< He did a step turn that took about 10 steps until he was headed back towards my camera. About three feet below where he had left 10 minutes before, he finally arrived—one angry, sweating, frustrated, extreme skier of the 1990s.

Almost the same thing happened to the next two extreme skiers. It must have taken them 30 minutes each. They experimented with every ski technique they had ever read about before they could finally turn the skis. They all fell back onto 1940 Arlberg with a lot of French exaggerated rotation, while in a wide stem position called "slice of pizza" today. An hour later, I was able to finally run my camera and document these extreme skiers on 1947 ski gear, as they struggled down the hill at 4 or 5 miles an hour.

This exercise did not prove anything except this: Thanks to the ski manufacturers and the millions of dollars in research and development, the sport is so much more user friendly. Is it easier? I don't know. All I know is that all of the time it took a person to learn how to ski 50 years ago is now spent earning the extra money to go skiing.

In 1948, the only year I spent as a ski racer, my skis were Northland "seconds" because they had a knot in the wood near the tip and cost me $22.95, instead of $24.95. My ski boots were the top-of-the-line soft leather and were $19.95. I think the formula to translate all of these numbers into 2010 is to add a zero or two to everything and then you come up with a realistic figure for the cost of skiing in today's dollars.

For a first-time skier to turn today's skis, it's still not easy. Skiing has been defined as being too far away, too cold, too dangerous and too expensive. Once a person can overcome all of those reasons for not trying skiing, the rest is easy. Find a friend who owns a condo somewhere, hitch a weekend ride with them and your life will be changed forever.

I can ask anyone who learned to ski after the age of 4 if they can remember their first day on skis and they get a glazed look in their eye as they remember where they skied, whom with, how they got there, what they had for lunch and what the weather was like. They can remember everything about that first day on skis because it was their first day of total freedom. The only thing that held them back was their amount of courage as they were in the middle of their first turn and governed only by gravity. They had freedom for the first time in their lives.

My first day of freedom was in 1937 on corn snow on Mt. Waterman, 50 miles from where I lived in Hollywood, Calif., at the time. Since then, I have turned my skis and filmed other skiers on mountains from Zermatt, Switzerland, to New Zealand and from Alaska to Chile and everything in between.

It has been an incredible trip so far, and I have been lucky enough to have never had a ski-related injury until just this season. So, as soon as I get well from my broken back, my ski journey will continue. And with any luck, my ski equipment will keep getting better to compensate for my advancing years!

This is the final column of the 2009-10 winter for Miller, who lives in Montana in the winter and also in the San Juan Islands.

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