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Essay: Rebooting

Fall Line

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I hate buying new ski boots. When I finally get a pair to feel right, I’m loath to part with them. Ever. And I’m not alone. Legendary World Champion Marc Girardelli was so notoriously devoted to his rear-entry Salomons that he welded and riveted his boots to keep them usable until they resembled a mad science project.

I’m with Marc. The prospect of replacing my ski boots fills me with such dread that I begin emotionally preparing myself several years in advance of the actual purchase. My latest pre-sales priming began in 1997, the first time I saw a display for custom-made Strolz boots in Lech, Austria.

Founded in Lech in 1921 to repair shoes for local dairy farmers, Strolz was making ski boots by the early Thirties. “We are the only one of the old traditional European ski boot makers still in the same family,” says Hannes Strolz, 37, the third generation to run the business. What the Mayflower is to American bloodlines, the Strolz boot is to alpine feet. Founder Ambros Strolz recognized the need for quality ski boots. His son Martin became a top racer in the Fifties and helped make the boot a staple of the Austrian team. Today, only about 14,000 pairs are sold annually worldwide.

Strolz’s combination of old-world craftsmanship and new-world technology proves irresistible to many skiers. I’ve spoken to scores of people who swear by their Strolzes, some with a reverence bordering on kinky. One woman in Aspen claimed she slept in hers the first few nights she owned them. So when it became clear last winter that my beloved 7-year-old Rossi boots were beyond what medicine calls “heroic measures,” I promised myself a pilgrimage to the legendary Strolz store in Lech.

The Strolz Sports shop is one of the most beautiful ski retailers in the world, complete with a glass elevator and a bar. Patrick Ortlieb, Lech native and 1992 Olympic downhill gold medalist, raced in Strolz bladders until he retired last year, and occasionally stops by the shop just to hang out.

I walked in and placed my size 13s in the hands of Dietmar Hurnaus, an 11-year boot-fitting veteran. First he mapped my feet with a device similar to a giant fingerprinting machine. Then I was fitted for an orthotic footbed, integral to any custom boot. The boots come in six models and cost about $550 in Lech, $800 in the U.S. As often happens, I was between sizes (13 and 13 1/2). So when I returned the next day to have the bladders injected, I was installed in a size 13 Ferrari-red shell (molded in Italy and assembled at the Strolz plant in Langen) that had been custom-stretched for me.

The foam injection process-even refined by Strolz-feels like a truck has parked on your feet. This 60-minute torture gave me time to observe the stream of boot-buyers to the shop. Some had specific problems, such as fused ankles or screws in their feet. One woman told me that Strolz technicians had been working with her for a week and had made it possible for her to ski again for the first time in years. In Austria, where skiing is religion, this is akin to being resurrected from the dead.

The next day I put my boots on in the shop, walked to the nearby Ruefikopf cablecar and was deep in the Lechtaler Alps before it occurred to me that if the boots didn’t work I was an unwise distance from the village. But over the next several hours I climbed and skied in 2 feet of powder, never raising a hot spot or even needing to unbuckle. As I stood on the famed Osthang run peering down on Lech, I realized Strolz boots were custom-made for my needs: They fit my feet like a second skin-and I could delay buying new ski boots again for many, many years.

Strolz boots are available in the U.S. through distributor George Donovan at (603) 431-2110; website: