Fifty years ago this winter, a tall, opinionated 44-year-old ski shop owner in Sun Valley, Idaho, began to market a new kind of ski pole that made turning easier than anyone had ever imagined. His name was Ed Scott, and his invention—like its function—came with superb timing.
In the 1950s, the tempo of the ski turn began to quicken. The radical new wedeln technique required rapid-fire arm action to plant the pole in the snow in rhythm with the faster turn. Skiers were now setting their poles in a series of staccato pole plants to trigger the timing of turns down the hill. This new technique required a deft flicking of the wrist that was almost impossible with the standard steel ski pole of the time, which often had a heavy, untapered shaft and a bulky basket—not to mention the swing weight of a cast-iron golf club.
Scott went back to ground zero. He experimented with a new kind of pole shaft—made of thin-walled, bigger-diameter tapered aluminum tubing. Then, in a flash of inspiration, he decided to reduce the basket—and therefore the swing weight—to the size found on a child’s ski pole. Up on the skier-end of the pole, he integrated a hand strap with a comfortable rubber handle.
No pole had a nicer feel. But Scott still had to sell it. So he got in his car and drove around the country visiting ski shops. He’d ask the owner to show him the store’s best pole. “Invariably,” he once recalled, “it would be a nicely finished steel pole...that was as heavy as a croquet mallet. I’d ask him to hold two of my poles in one hand and the steel pole in the other and flick them back and forth. Their eyes would bug out.”
Within four years, Scott was selling a quarter-million dollars worth of poles. Racers instantly recognized their competitive advantage. At the 1962 World Alpine Ski Championships in Chamonix, France, 13 of the 18 medalists used
Scott poles. At the 1966 Championships, it was five of every six racers.
Scott, a toothy man with a red complexion and thick glasses, hated falsity and pretense. At a time when manufacturers commonly paid racers under the table to use their equipment, he stubbornly refused. “The payola being taken by racers for pretending to prefer products that are in many cases markedly inferior has two bad effects,” he once wrote. “It’s no way to prepare oneself for any later career, and it hoodwinks the ski public into thinking junk is racing-caliber equipment.”
Scott was fighting a losing battle, however. After competing manufacturers began duplicating his light, tapered shafts, racers took their money and ran. No longer could Scott claim that most of the world’s best racers won while planting
Chronically undercapitalized, Scott sold his business in 1971. He remained in Sun Valley, however, where he died in 1999 at the age of 85. In his lifetime, he transformed the clumsy ski pole into a light, sophisticated tool that fundamentally improved the ski turn, making the sport forever more enjoyable.