Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
A dear friend, a man who brings out the 210-cm Head Deep Powders on new-snow days and wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead on anything shorter than a 205, sent me an issue of a surfing magazine called “LongBoard.” It’s strictly for aficionados of the long surfboard and classic, old-style wave riding: noseriding, kneepaddling and those elegant, leisurely cutbacks of “Endless Summer” fame.
The note accompanying the mag said simply: “Short skis die!!” Bob knows I used to surf, and he knows I ski on a pair of 190-cm Atomic Beta Cruise 9.22s. For going on 25 years now, Bob and I have debated the merits of long-versus-short skis, their moral place in the universe, and the relative man- or womanhood of their riders.
When we first met, and I worked for the ski school in Bear Valley, Calif., there was no debate. All skis were long skis. Men rode either a 207-cm GS or a 205-cm slalom model; for the women acceptable lengths were around 195-200 cm. There we’d stand at morning ski school lineup, big Jon Reveal and little Bobby Rumbaugh, the one 6-feet-2, the other all of 5-feet-4, both with the same 207-cm racers. Reveal’s sticks looked like toys leaning on his shoulder, while the sight of Rumbaugh and his towering boards recalled those old photos of beach boys in the Thirties dwarfed by their 12-foot-tall, solid-redwood surfboards. Over the last quarter century, surfing has developed two quite different cultures, defined, in large part, by their equipment. The shortboard revolution, which actually began in the late Sixties, continues unabated, the cutting edge of aggro, new-school wave carving. Head-high and shorter boards are the performance equivalent of today’s radically cut, almost cartoonishly short shaped skis. The interesting thing is, longboards, 9-feet-long and up, never went away. They continued evolving in a parallel universe, the tool of choice in small waves and for old-school stylists.
Ski length, too, has come down over the generations. But the evolutionary road has been bumpier, more bedeviled by dogma and social dictates than that of the surfboard.
The first skiers in America, California gold miners of Scandinavian descent, raced each other straight downhill on boards 14 feet long. Directional stability was tremendous. Attempts at turning, early photos tell us, usually spilled into disaster.
At about the same time, across the pond, a carpenter/ski bum named Sondre Norheim rocked the skiing establishment in Christiania (Oslo) with his ability to turn and stop, to practically dance on snow. He had invented the sidecut, and his skis measured no more than 7 feet tip to tail.
That was the end of the really long ski era. But the limitations of the material, hickory mainly-not to mention the needs of pack-toting skiing soldiers fighting two world wars-dictated that skis remain long and stout. Even with lighter, more flexible materials in the Fifties and Sixties, ski size and shape stayed pretty much the same. As did the thinking on matching ski to skier. You went into the shop and they made you raise your hand as high as you could reach. The proper ski for you, by the mysterious math of the day, came up to your outstretched wrist.
In the Seventies, short skis gained some currency, though not for everyone and not for long. First GLM (for Graduated Length Method, with its 3-, 4- and 5-foot rental skis) became the hot teaching system. Then freestyle burst on the scene with its exuberant mix of ballet, aerials and quick wiggles in the bumps. The ski companies made traditional length sticks for racers and instructors, while selling the general public on the maneuverability and ease of short boards. I remember the joy my father experienced, the deftness he felt (after a lifetime spent wrestling 7-footers) on his 180-cm Kneissl Short Stars.
Some of these Seventies shorties were pretty sophisticated, forerunners of the current boom in shaped skis. When Head’s resident design genius, John Howe, introduuced the Yahoo in 1973, it was no GLM noodle. Engineered at 180 cm, it was meant for expert skiers who ripped all over the mountain. I recall it featured tip-waist-tail measurements of 90-70-80 mm, a radical sidecut for its day, which combined with the short length and torsional rigidity to deliver wonderful on-edge carving. The very opposite of recalcitrant, these skis wanted to turn. I know because I fell in love with the Yahoos just as short skis fell, hard, from grace. Choppy moguls were blamed on short skis when in fact they were and still are created by panicky turns made by panicky drivers. This was the era of SHORT SKIS SUCK bumper stickers and “Long Skis Only!” runs at many areas. Maybe it was a Puritan thing: easier must somehow be wicked. The big stick remained the expert’s red badge of courage, even if it took a purple heart to reach proficiency.
It was a prejudice bolstered by the fact that the gods of the sport, the racers, weren’t downsizing. Not yet. That’s what’s different about our present shaped ski “revolution.” Quantum changes in manufacturing-carbon and caps and computers-have created 180-cm skis that behave like 205s of old. No, they perform way better. And the lengths keep plummeting. World Cup winners in GS now typically ride 190s. Slalom specialists are experimenting with skis in the 160-cm to 180-cm range. France’s Florence Masnada took third place in last year’s World Championships combined on 168-cm Salomons. Most national team junior programs have converted entirely to the super shorties.
Last spring in Vail, I watched team after team tear through their passes at the World Alpine Synchronized Skiing Championships on 180-cm and 170-cm all-mountain carvers. These were instructors, mind you, those bastions of macho conservatism, gouging gorgeous, high-speed trenches on skis that barely came up to their armpits.
Naturally, there will be holdouts, as there were in surfing. And not just because they are curmudgeons, um, Robert, but because some people simply prefer the feel of a long, relatively straight ski slipping over and wrapping around the snow. So, perhaps skiing, too, has room for two equally vibrant if mildly chauvinistic cultures. Maybe someday Bob will be sending me a magazine called “LongSki.”
Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com.