On nearly every winter weekend, my father and his family used to brave Highway 40 into the Sierra Mountains, to where the snowplow quit around Cisco Grove. There, as I'm often reminded, he hiked for his turns, hauling stiff wooden planks, "waxed" with orange shellac, on his shoulder. A pair of my grandfather's relics stands in our garage, a towering memorial to the deprivations of skiing in the early 20th century. The 220-cm beauties, adorned with a frighteningly rudimentary smattering of hardware and boasting all the sidecut of barn siding, soar defiantly over the many younger, suppler skis stacked along the wall.
Old-timers wax nostalgic about the sheer amount of work it used to take to get to the hill, up the hill and-with unyielding hickory sticks-down the hill. Even so, ourfamily's vintage snapshots depict suntanned faces flashing perfect smiles, giving the impression that life couldn't have been any better. I've always wondered, "How hard was it, really?"
I'm offered the chance to find out at this year's ski test, thanks to a selection of vintage gear loaned by the Colorado Ski Museum. When SKI first broached the idea of borrowing-and actually skiing on-gear from the museum's collection, curator Justin Henderson was...well, frankly, he was skeptical. Museum curators are famously nervous about watching their prized collections walk out the front door-never mind watching them strapped to the feet of pedal-to-the-metal ski testers and run through the snow at Beaver Creek. In the end, though, Henderson succumbs. One day after lunch, he ambles over, unabashedly lining up an array of old-school equipment in the test corral, where it sits proudly-if absurdly-among the latest and greatest. A close-cropped view of the vintage gear against the weathered wooden fence makes for a charmingly nostalgic scene, but when I imagine myself actually skiing on these relics, a twinge of dread enters the picture.
First stop for the old-school testers-myself and three other brave souls-is wardrobe, specifically a couple of cardboard boxes brimming with assorted vintage sweaters, pants and leather boots. Nicole Pelletier instinctively pulls together a stylish Aspen look. She grew up literally on the slopes of Buttermilk. She and fellow tester Doug Lewis both sport in-the-boot stretch pants, and despite the fact that Doug's apparently once belonged to someone of considerably greater girth, they look fabulous. With the right jut of the jaw and uphill gaze, they could have been the "It" couple of 1956.
My husband, Chan Morgan, and I go for-OK, end up with-a look that predates the stylish innovations of Klaus Obermeyer and Maria Bogner. Ironically, wool is now touted as the "new" wonder fiber. But we're not wearing the light, soft, stretchy wool of today. This is coarse, scratchy, you'll-smell-like-your-dog-if-it-rains wool. We're shooting for 10th Mountain Division functionality, though I suspect Chan is cheating. His fur-accented expedition sweater looks far too fetching to rest beneath a canvas tent.
Next, we each pick the gear that best fits our look. Considering that the earliest skis date back some 4,500 years, our selection is comparatively modern, starting with some jumping skis from the late 1800s with nothing but leather thongs for bindings. More than a century ago, miners reportedly reached speeds in excess of 80 mph on skis like these, with little sense and, one suspects, much liquid encouragement. Nicole grabs them momentarily, gazing up at their distant tips. "That's a whole lot of wood," she says finally, replacing them in the corral, where they'll remain untouched all day.
Chan and I opt for gear used by the 10th Mountain Division from 1942-45: hickory Northland skis with cable "beartrap" bindings and screw-in metal edges. Mine are 182 cm, only slightly longer than what I ski on today. Chan's are 210s, which wouldn't have looked out of place 10 years ago but are preposterous by today's standards.eather boots and bamboo poles with baskets the size of salad plates complete our setups. Doug and Nicole grab 204-cm Head Standards and 186-cm Head 360s, respectively. The Standard, introduced in 1949, was the breakthrough of its day-a metal-laminate ski with integrated metal edges and plastic bases. The postwar couple further benefits from aluminum poles.
Modern liability concerns preclude us from riding the chairlift, so the test achieves another layer of authenticity as we hoist our skis and start walking. At the top, it takes more than a little while to come to grips with our cable bindings, adjust them to our boots, fit them in the proper groove behind the heel, clamp the front piece down, and attach the leather safety straps to rings on our boots. Step-in bindings didn't make the scene until 1950. Chan and I look on enviously as Nicole deftly pulls up her shiny Marker Rotomat heelpiece. One final boot tightening and we're off.
The advantage of plastic bases, invented by the Swiss in 1946, immediately becomes abundantly clear. My wooden bases offer virtually no glide until I'm well down the pitch. I feel like a prisoner of friction, my skis gripped from below until I literally kick them free. Gradually I gather speed, and the prospect of turning looms. Turning, as it happens, is a generous term to describe the act of changing course on these skis. As early as 1890, ski designs incorporated sidecut, so I figure I've got some to work with. Apparently, it's not enough. I can't rely on the shape of the ski, the flex of the ski or really any aspect of the ski to help. I feel like I'm riding sandbags, or at best fence slats, down the hill. The fact that this equipment was used-successfully, mind you-by people hauling 90-pound backpacks in rough mountain terrain makes me feel especially incompetent.
I think about pictures I've seen: Zeno Colo at the 1950 World Championships in Aspen, looking downright fluid in a GS turn; Dick Durrance, 6 feet in the air, perfectly posed with skis together and tipped jauntily toward the camera. How did they do that? The tip and turn method, the subtle ankle pressure we so blithely advocate today has no place. There is no nuance here, just big decisive moves that recruit every body part to the cause. Think Arlberg Technique. Think stem Christie as being the zenith of my capabilities. "You look like Betty Woolsey!" Chan yells by way of encouragement. As captain of the first women's U.S. Olympic Team in 1936, Woolsey was likely more graceful than this. Chan is also struggling, but has at least discovered a side benefit of wooden bases: The complete absence of glide allows him to ski back up the hill as well.
Doug and Nicole manage some synchronized turns after a few runs, but they aren't exactly cruising. Doug spent his World Cup downhill career on 225s and, in general, appreciates the feel of a heavy, stable ski. Not these. "I felt like I was headed over a bridge and into the river with cement blocks on my feet," he says. After trying techniques he describes variously as "the grunt," "the rotate" and "the old-man-with-legs-Velcroed-together-gritting-teeth," he too resorts to the stem Christie. Ironically, when Head introduced the Standard, the skis were so much more supple, light and fast than their hickory predecessors that they were called "cheater skis," the same derisive moniker applied to shaped skis just a few years ago. This felt nothing like cheating.
In the end, though, like any ski day, this day isn't really about the quality of equipment or technique or conditions. It's about the whole experience. Laughing, alternately at each other and with each other, we all have irrepressible permagrins, and in this way at least we replicate my family's old snapshots perfectly. We hike back up for another run and another, until we're summoned back to the present. Returning to modern testing, I step into my bindings with a reassuring whump. I push off with my graphite poles and glide effortlessly to a landing pad where a detachable quad scoops me up for an eight-minute, 1,800-vertical -foot ascent. All of this takes less time than it took to put on my vintage skis for that first run.
That night I call my father, thinking we'll swap stories, commiserate a little about the gear from the "good old days." From his hospital bed where he's recovering from a broken leg sustained at a masters ski race, he brushes quickly past my description of the day and turns the conversation to his primary concern. "What I really need you to find out is this," he says. "Should I go with the classic GS ski or a supercross sidecut for next season?" The stories, the snapshots, the day of experimenting and my dad's response all point to a timeless lesson. You can shift a skier back in time, but you can't take him out of the moment. The best gear is whatever gets you out there. effortlessly to a landing pad where a detachable quad scoops me up for an eight-minute, 1,800-vertical -foot ascent. All of this takes less time than it took to put on my vintage skis for that first run.
That night I call my father, thinking we'll swap stories, commiserate a little about the gear from the "good old days." From his hospital bed where he's recovering from a broken leg sustained at a masters ski race, he brushes quickly past my description of the day and turns the conversation to his primary concern. "What I really need you to find out is this," he says. "Should I go with the classic GS ski or a supercross sidecut for next season?" The stories, the snapshots, the day of experimenting and my dad's response all point to a timeless lesson. You can shift a skier back in time, but you can't take him out of the moment. The best gear is whatever gets you out there.