Our spring job at SKI is to test the tools and toys you'll be reading about in this Buyer's Guide and throughout the season. It's our duty to evaluate whatever new inventions the equipment wizards have created. Not long ago snowboarding came along and eclipsed all innovation in the ski world. Shaped skis have since brought the sun back to skiing, but already the industry is looking for a new Messiah: something that will invigorate the double planker image, yet be accessible to the masses. There are preliminary reports that our saviors have arrived...and man are they ever short.
I'm talking about the in-line skates of the ski world, the "New School" skis that are barely half the size of my real skis and were designed chiefly to entice a new generation of non-skiers to the slopes. You may have seen them under their brand names-Snow Blades, Big Feet, Twin Tips, Micro Skis. You may have seen young shredders catching big air on them or skiers ripping through the trees in the powder. You may have thought they were cute. Or, like me, you may not have taken these oddities seriously. But now they're playing for keeps, with an official name-Skiboards-and an official association, the National Skiboard Coalition.
After checking out all that's new and high tech in skis last spring at our Beaver Creek, Colo., ski test, I traveled to Mt. Bachelor, Ore., to help out at boot camp-only to learn that my feet were too misshapen to test the available models. That's how I ended up becoming the official Skiboard tester.
My only previous experience with the shorties was an abbreviated half-run rumble with Sled Dogs in which I became painfully acquainted with their precarious balance point. Afterwards I convinced myself that I was simply too good for these junior achievers. Elitism comes all too easily in our sport.
But duty called, as did that nagging pretense of keeping an open mind. Before setting out, amid severe heckling from the other testers, I got all kinds of warnings and free advice: Stay on the groomed, don't lean too far back, avoid digging in your toes, keep your feet together, and most important, go somewhere private. To avoid the staring, the laughing and the impending Napoleonic complex, I did just that. I found a secluded run and gave them a spin, which quite literally was all I could manage since even the slightest knee pressure initiates a never-ending spiral of 360s. Taking a break halfway down my third run, I prepared for the shaky homestretch, convinced that if I wasn't too good for these things, I was definitely too old for them.
That's when I ran into Skunk Man. He was fortyish, tall and lanky, wearing utilitarian Northwest ski clothing basics-dark colors accented with lots of duct tape, pants that were once waterproof and a backpack, presumably filled with lunch and more duct tape. To top off the ensemble he wore a furry skunk hat-the type that makes children want to disown their parents. I was immediately curious because when he looked at me he did not laugh. He was, in fact, staring enviously at my feet. Skunk Man, I soon learned, skis on Big Feet exclusively, and has for the past seven years. To him, my gear represented a quantum leap in short ski technology. His wife and two children rested nearby, and they too were on primitive versions of Skiboards. I sensed the presence of a master and plied him for words of wisdom:
"Constant balance adjustment," was his only advice.
So I quizzed him on the limitations.
"You just can't go fast on these things, right?"
"The faster the better."
"Where can you take them?"
"Even in powder?"
"Especially in powder."
"And if you hit something and your tips dig in and your foot is suddenly behind your ear, hypothetically?" I asked, grimacing from a newly pulled groin.
"That's where constant balance adjustment comes in," he instructed.
Though Skunk Man was the closest thing to an authority on the subject, doubt overtook me as I watched him skkate off, looking alarmingly like the mono-ski man of the Eighties. But I trusted him and went to the powder, despite the receding yelp of his daughter far uphill, who was apparently still mastering her father's craft of "constant balance adjustment." Running on blind faith, I gained enough speed to be momentarily impressed, then dug my toes into the first snow chunk. What followed is best described as an impromptu gymnastics routine involving a front flip.
Skunk Man must have gone for cover in the woods, because I lapped him, cursing the skis and their inability to fit my ingrained performance expectations. But as I watched him smiling and laughing with his family, it occurred to me that this anachronism was perhaps ahead of his time. He had figured out how to have old-fashioned fun in a high-tech environment. Milking at least a half-hour out of each run, he was not struggling to carve the perfect turn or barking technical advice to his wife. His day seemed closer to the relaxing and rejuvenating ski experience of our dreams-where fresh air and good company are the primary goal, where technology and technique are the means, not the end.
Skunk Man had been on 2-foot skis for so long that our time and speed perceptions were on a different scale, and his scale was far more attainable. He was getting a speed fix merely from the sensation of sliding on inexpensive equipment that will fit in the glove compartment. If it weren't for the little skis, Skunk Man would not have even been at the mountain; he surely would have defected to simpler recreation. He would not, with his duct-taped everything, be out there on the latest, greatest parabolic lifted gear. And yet there he was, a devotee to winter in the mountains.
My own resistance to Skiboards was the typical defensive reaction that surly old-timers feel toward anything new. Sound familiar? With snowboarding, it took years of "us vs. them" to reach detente, to decide that we really could share-and even learn-from each other. Now, our new skis carve killer arcs, and their clothes are getting snugger. People on shaped skis are no longer called cheaters, and even old school heli-guides have fat skis in their quivers. In most places, all the sliding species coexist quite easily. It took too long with snowboarders, but maybe we can get along with this New School group right from the start.
No question about it-the little skis are not for me. At the end of the day, I needed a few screaming runs on my 210s to set me straight. But thanks to Skunk Man, I'm willing to cut a deal with the marketers. If they leave a few runs open where I can go full throttle, then I'll be kind to Skiboarders, Sled Doggers, mono men and their skunk-headed friends. It's their mountain too.