At Squaw Valley during the Olympic ski races last year (above), thousands of spectators cheered their favorites as they shot down the mountain courses. But in that highly vocal crowd, no one could match the intense partisanship of a small group of ski-equipment representatives. They were men like Anton K√§stle from the famous K√§stle ski factory in Austria; Ed Scott, the ski pole specialist; Howard Head, whose Baltimore firm has just turned out its millionth ski. They came to the Olympics to root, not for a specific skier or country, but for a boot or a ski or a pole. Each representative knew exactly what equipment was being used, and a race was highly satisfying if a single item from his factory crossed the finish line on the back, foot or hand of a winner.
For these manufacturers' representatives, the Winter Olympics was an Equipment Olympics; the results are being used right now to push the sale of racing equipment like that used in the Games, of recreational adaptations of the racing gear or simply of brand names. It is a big business. Sales of ski equipment last year ($20 million) showed the largest percentage increase of all sporting goods. This year, thanks to the stimulus of the Olympics, ski shops report an advance sale 30% to 60% ahead of last year. The factory representatives had good reason to root loudly.
Any weekend skier getting ready to stock up for this season, however, should weigh the results of the Equipment Olympics carefully. For it is extremely important to distinguish between those Olympics results that mean something for the recreational skier and those that do not.
The Olympic racers wore Molitor Rogg, Hierling and Haderer in about equal proportions. But the hard, high-cut racing boots used at Squaw Valley are not for the recreational skier. These boots are built to give maximum support in high-speed, high-precision turns, and they are about as comfortable to wear as chain-gang shackles. The average skier does not need this kind of support. Instead he should look primarily for comfort. He should beware of boots that need breaking in—sometimes a boot will break in and sometimes it won't. After comfort, the next consideration is ankle support. Furthermore, the boot should keep the heel firmly down on the inside sole, and it is here that some recreational boots are not adequate. For the sad fact is that a softer boot may not hold the foot firmly. The recreational models of the boots worn at Squaw Valley do a good job but no better than others.
One recreational boot that gives excellent support is the Piberhofer, which this season has an outside ankle-strap arrangement in its top ($69.50) model. The strap (see drawing at left) tightens the boot's grip on the heel when a skier moves his weight forward, as he does going into a turn or over a drop-off. These are just the moments when a skier needs an increased grip, and Piberhofer gives it—but not at the price of discomfort.
The Allais 60, winner of the men's downhill, and the K√§stle Metall, fourth-and fifth-place finisher in the downhill, are both metal skis. These racing successes with metal skis, which never before had scored well in an Olympic or world championship, may have signaled the end of the era of the wood racing ski.
The changeover to metal skis has already occurred in the recreational field, where aluminum Heads and Harts have steadily replaced the high-priced wooden types. Whether the European Allais or K√§stle metal skis will now seriously challenge the domestic Head and Hart skis remains to be seen. The racing Allais 60 and the K√§stle Metall are too stiff for most skiers, but both companies are now exporting large numbers of recreational models to this country.
No matter how well these European metal skis sell during the coming season, Head and Hart still have a long lead in the over-all market. Moreover, both U.S. companies offer the best service and repair facilities in the world; they are able to match or repair or refinish a ski in two weeks. This obviously makes their skis more valuable to the recreational skier.
Despite the fact that most Olympic medalists wore Kneissl and K√§stle wooden skis, the beginner should not be tempted to buy them. Even the recreational wooden models of the K√§stle and Kneissl are too fast and stiff for the beginning skier.
There are, however, some new developments in wood and other materials which, although they were not used or tested at Squaw Valley, may be very useful to the recreational skier. The first of these is tonkin cane, used on the running surface of the Viking Valkyrie ($100). The Viking Co. is so confident of the strength of tonkin that it invites the buyer to chop the running surface with an axe. A sharp whack will leave only the tiniest of scratches.
Another new material is bamboo, used throughout in the construction of the Japanese Bamboo Industries' Victoria ski. The drawing on the preceding page shows the Victoria Combination ($69.50), together with a cross section of its laminated construction. H. G. Schwartz, the importer, claims that laminated bamboo is tougher than the best hickory.
The third and most exciting new material is reinforced fiber glass. Glass has been tried before, in combination with polyethylene, but the resultant skis were never successful. Now Toni Sailer, the hero of the 1956 Olympics, has helped design and test a new ski, the Sailer Fiberglaski ($135), made of fiber glass and epoxy with a wood filler (see drawing on preceding page). The combination is extremely tough and flexible. In fact, Sailer claims that reinforced fiber glass is the best material, bar none, for recreational skis. He also claims that the Sailer ski cannot be broken. If the Sailer ski proves all this good, the current struggle between wood and aluminum skimakers may eventually be replaced by a fight between aluminum and fiber glass.
One of the most striking trends at Squaw Valley, from the recreational skier's point of view, was the Olympic racers' almost universal reliance on safety toe bindings.
All but one of the bindings that took the 18 Alpine medals were release types. The fact that Bud Werner, America's best male skier, broke his leg in a training spill while wearing nonrelease bindings may have done a lot to break down the racers' previous reluctance to use safety bindings. Strangely enough, 30% of U.S. recreational skiers still do not use safety bindings. The Olympics should convince them that there is nothing unsporting or unchic about wearing release bindings.
The Marker toe binding ($9.95) took three of the gold medals and nine of the 12 silver and bronze medals. Racers prefer the Marker because it is simple, tough, won't freeze up and is not oversensitive, i.e., will not jar loose whenever the skier hits a bump but will release under the pressure of a strong twist.
The Marker binding also has a good following among fast recreational skiers whose requirements for a binding are the same as the racers'. Most skiers who use the Markers, however, do not yet have the small stopper attachment (50¢) shown in the drawing above. They should. It keeps the binding from swinging out of line as the boot is put into it.
Nearly all the Olympians used the long-thong heel plate. This device gives the racer strong ankle support and will allow his boot to turn safely out of the toe binding in a twist fall. One of the best of the long-thong plates is the Look Turntable ($12.50), winner of two gold medals. Unlike most other heel plates which have the thong attached to the tension springs, the Look's spring is independent of the thong (see drawing above). Hence, the binding will hold the boot tight even when the thong stretches.
But the skier who wears a heel plate depends entirely on his toe binding for release. In a head-over-tips fall, the kind that puts the worst strain on the Achilles' tendon, a toe binding like the Marker sometimes fails to release. Therefore, the recreational skier should disregard the thong plates and use a heel release, which will save his legs in this situation.
The Gunther Meergans Co. of Salem, Mass. has come out with just such a binding, a new form of heel release called the Wunder ($9.95). It has two very small safety catches located on the cable itself, one on each side of the boot. Under pressure, one or both of these catches pop out (see drawing above), easing tension on the cable and allowing the boot to come free. So far, the Wunder has undergone only preliminary testing; but if wide use bears out the early test results, the Wunder may be sensitive enough to let go when the ski is twisted at any angle. This could eliminate the need for a toe release altogether and thus cut the cost of safety bindings by 50%.
Another important trend at the Olympics—and one which can be adopted without reservation by recreational skiers—was the switch from heavy to light poles. The metals in the lightweight steel and aluminum are the same as in the old standard poles. However, by tapering the shafts more carefully and by using tougher alloys, the manufacturers have been able to build poles which weigh less and can be handled more easily but still are considerably stronger than the traditional heavy poles.
Four of the gold medal winners at Squaw Valley used the Persenico Bantam ($17.95), a steel pole that weighs only 9½ to 9¾ ounces as against 15 to 18 ounces for standard poles. Besides its excellent handling qualities, the Persenico has a small strap at the base of the grip which can be used to clip the poles together for convenience in traveling.
The entire U.S. team and some members of the European squads used the aluminum Scott. The Scott ($19.50) is slightly heavier over-all than the Bantam, but the lower part of the shaft is very light and the Scott has a simple rubber web basket that reduces the tip weight even further. This makes the Scott as easy to swing as the Bantam. The drawing below shows the lower portion of the pole and a cutaway of the basket with the thick, tight center section that holds it to the pole without the use of rivets or pins. The Scott is guaranteed for the life of the skier.
There is one more major development in ski equipment which has just come out. It has nothing to do with Olympic racing, but it may very well have a lot to do with the 95% of the sport concerned with pure fun. It is a tiny 2-foot 8-inch ski developed in all seriousness by Clifton Taylor of Brattleboro, Vt., whose main concern is to make skiing easier for skiers starting out.
The beginning skier has always been the stepchild of the sport. He is loaded down with 25 pounds of boots and skis, taken to the base of a mountain and told to start walking—if he can. After staggering around for a couple of mornings with these 7-foot slats he is finally allowed to go up the lift. The beginner who gets through his first run without three or four bone-jarring falls is a fair bet to keep on skiing. The rest, estimated at well over 50%, quit skiing for good.
Four years ago the ski school at Kitzb√ºhel, Austria tried to reduce the dropout rate among its pupils by starting them on a smaller ski—six to eight inches shorter than the standards. The Kitzb√ºhel instructors were delighted at the results.
Then, four years ago, some of the members of the outing club at Brattleboro, Vt. began to make short skis of their own. The idea was further developed by Taylor, a part-time ski instructor, who designed a 5-footer and had 350 pairs made.
Like the Kitzb√ºhel instructors, Taylor found that those pupils who tried the 5-foot skis were easier to teach and that they quickly developed through the novice and intermediate stages to join the ranks of the advanced skiers.
"This all started me thinking," said Taylor. "I wondered how short you could make a ski and still have it work. So I started experimenting."
By the time he was through experimenting last spring, Taylor had come up with the radical, short-short ski (see drawing at right), just 32 inches long which he called the Shortee Wedeln ($19.95). He passed several pairs out to friends. Suddenly, intermediates who had been unable to ski well even with the 5-foot model blossomed into advanced form. "You can do anything you want to with the short skis," says Taylor, "because they will turn with one-tenth the power needed to turn standard skis."
Eventually, the pupil acquires enough technique to want to ski faster. Then, of course, he must move up to the standard-length ski to get the stability needed to stay upright at higher speeds.
"We found," said Taylor, "that the skier can use the short ski to build up the correct form and the confidence to execute the advanced turns. Then he gets on the long skis, gets them going a little faster and they will do the same thing as the short skis were doing for him."
It sounds almost too good to be true, but Taylor insists that anyone—even a class A racer—can improve his skiing with a day on short skis.
"And beginners," said Taylor, "have never learned so fast. I found that most people are natural skiers if you give their feet a chance."
GIANT SLALOM RACER CARRIES SKI MANUFACTURER'S HOPES FOR OLYMPIC PRESTIGE
SAILER SKI (LEFT)
VICTORIA SKI (RIGHT)
STOP FOR MARKER BINDING
WUNDER HEEL RELEASE
SCOTT POLE BASKET AND CUTAWAY
SHORTEE WEDELN SKI