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This Common Medical Procedure is the Most Medieval Part of Skiing

The smacking of tender feet against reinforced polyurethane will piss off every one of the 74,000 nerve endings betwixt toes and heel

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This article first appeared in print in 2002. Ski boot technology has come along since then. Wearing (most of) them is still agony.

For Mr. Big—a telemarker of my acquaintance who skis on Dynastar Bigs—skiing with foot pain is the second hardest thing he’s had to do on a mountain. The first hardest thing: skiing down to the emergency room with blood pooling in his eye sockets after he biffed on boilerplate and, in the unique manner of free-heeled skiers, ripped a hole in his upper cheek with his ski tip.

But Mr. Big doesn’t dread stabbing his face with his skis (indeed, he finds that girls like to touch his scar). No, Big fears the agony that accompanies a misfit boot. Says Big: “Boot pain is sick pain. Along with the flu, it’s one of the only things that will keep you inside on a powder day.”

Now that ski season is upon us, it’s once again time to stuff our soft, fleshy appendages (feet! I’m talking about feet here!) into unforgiving plastic chambers that bear zero resemblance to normal shoes. The ski industry, bless it, has tried to humanize the wearing of ski boots. A few years ago it gave us footwear with distinct ski and walk modes so we wouldn’t lurch about like Frankenstein. And it recently introduced “soft” boots that wrap our fragile paws in leather and closed-cell foam, relying on a mere plastic skeleton for stiffness. But let’s face it, from a podiatrist’s point of view, strapping on ski boots every winter makes no more sense than padding through summer with cinderblocks strapped to your sneakers.

If you’ve never irritated your pedal extremities by skiing, consider yourself and all your little piggies lucky. As for me, my illusions of boot comfort were shattered at age 14 when I received a gift of Hanson rear entries-widely considered the worst boots in ski history. Hanson (a company that died a justifiably quick death) supplied a WD-40-like spray just to help you enter the sticky rubber liner. The instructions went something like this: (1) Open (universally reviled) rear-entry mechanism. (2) Spray feet and liner with liquid normally reserved for pulling rusted screws out of sheet metal. (3) Inhale fluorocarbons, sucker!

Boot companies have made quantum improvements since the Hanson days. But the smacking of tender feet against reinforced polyurethane will still piss off every one of the 74,000 nerve endings betwixt toes and heel. Consider what happens if your outer metatarsal gets pinched. You start breaking into pharmacies and stealing Vicodin (unless you’re Canadian, in which case you receive inexpensive pain relief from a perfectly rational health care system).

Then you prevail upon your local boot fitter for help. He says you have a problem with a bone spur on the outside of the foot, which he calls your “sixth toe.”

If you’re a veteran skier, you nod and ask him to blow out the shell by heating it with a glorified blow-dryer and placing the shell on a boot punch. But great googly moogly! Shouldn’t the phrase “sixth toe” raise a few red flags? Is this the message the industry really wants to send? Come skiing, America, and become a circus freak!

The best remedy for a sixth toe or any foot pain is to get your boots custom-fit by a professional and to ski with a footbed. For Joe Sagona, a boot fitter of my acquaintance, the mere thought of a wayward foot is repulsive. He shudders at skiers who jam their feet willy-nilly into a boot. A former freestyle competitor, he knows how cruelly moguls behave toward improperly positioned feet.

The worst of all maladies, of course, is swollen toe. With each pulse, pain messages fire through your nervous system, sending you after all possible remedies with the desperation of a drugstore cowboy. As mentioned before, Vicodin helps. But even a smug, ensconced-in-the-warm-bosom-of-a-compassionate-government Canadian will admit that Vicodin only masks the pain. Epsom salts can reduce the swelling a bit but fail to remove it. This brings us to a ritual so ugly, most ski magazines avoid mentioning it. Doctors refer to this procedure—which is only marginally less medieval than bleeding with leeches—as “lancing.” Me, I prefer to call it Jamming a Hot Needle Through Your Toenail, or JHNTYT.

Beginners have no use for the JHNTYT because they rent mushy boots a size too big and then spend happy, performance-free days swimming in said boots. But experts ski in tight boots on ungroomed terrain, which can cause them to occasionally rock back on their heels, jamming their big toes into cold plastic. The result is a pooling of fluid beneath the toenail that, in simple terms, reduces your world to a searing red tunnel of pain. Sure, the swelling abates if you avoid the mountain for a week. If you want to ski, though, you gotta lance.

First, choose an instrument. Because the swelling occurs directly beneath the toenail, you must drill through the toenail to pop the bubble of hurt. Not under or around. Through. So choose a sharp, strong tool. Mr. Big says his initial JHNTYT took seven tries. “I tried pins at first, and they kept bending. Finally, I realized I’d need a good sewing needle to penetrate my toenail.” Sagona prefers a small-diameter drill bit, which he rubs between his hands like the Tom Hanks character rolling fire-making sticks in Cast Away.

Why a hot needle? To sterilize it, and because there’s an overly optimistic belief that hot metal can cut through 20 years of calcified toenail fungus easier than cold metal can. At any rate, heating makes for a nice stalling tactic because once you poise the tool above the middle of the toenail, you must shove and twist it inexorably downward, contravening all pain-avoidance instincts. Mr. Big’s toenail was virtually impenetrable: “Eventually I had to grip the needle with pliers and kind of chisel it through.”

I’ve only done the JHNTYT once—enough to know that time stands still between the moment you start poking at the surface and the moment you puncture through to something gooey. Am I through the nail yet? Will the needle enter toe meat and keep going? Am I really drilling for pus?

Relief is instantaneous. In my case, the JHNTYT released a slow stream of white blood cells, but one Crested Beautician I know tells of a buddy doing the JHNTYT on a dashboard while they were driving to the lifts. Splash! The discharge splattered the windshield so heavily they had to pull over and mop it up.

After a lancing, you can once again jam your feet into tight plastic boots. Not that you’re done with the grotesqueries. As Mr. Big puts it, “You still have to deal with dead flesh; you’ll have to peel your toenail off in two weeks, sooner if you take a lot of hot tubs.”

Sometimes I think stiff race boots should be called to The Hague and put on trial for war crimes against feet. I wonder if I should snowboard more than four or five times a year. It might be nice to slide down snow in footwear so soft it seems made of overripe fruit and puppy fur.

But now that I’ve willingly jammed a hot needle into my talons, I take no small pride in foot pain and blackened toenails. Between winces, I laugh knowingly at the bumper sticker that says, If it was easy, it’d be called snowboarding! I’m a skier, by God. I’ll leave snowboarding to the wimps with five toes.