Musings from the Pontiff of Powder: Vol. 1

The Greatest Boondoggle Ever: A Three-Part Story Told in One Breathless Burst
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By: The Pontiff of Powder

In the early 1990’s, two large and growing French enterprises sat atop the ski makers’ world: venerable Rossignol, who had ruled the ski roost for what seemed like forever, and upstart Salomon, whose new line of Monocoque skis threatened to tip the ski world upside down. (Sure enough, within the span of two seasons anyone trying to sell a square-sidewall ski was customer-free. Austrian brands couldn’t give their sticks away. K2 had to retool their entire line in one year or risk oblivion. But I digress.) To truly appreciate the situation, one should know that Salomon was still guided by its founder, Georges Salomon, and Rossignol was owned by Laurent Boix-Vives, who also held title to Lange, Dynastar, Caber, Kerma and the better part of Courchevel. Their rivalry was intensified by proximity – Rossi was based in Voiron, in the Savoie, with Salomon not far away in Annecy, the Haute Savoie – and an undercurrent of class warfare between the aristocratic Boix-Vives and arriviste Salomon.

And so the two brands dueled over everything. If Rossignol was going into tennis, then Salomon would buy its way into golf. If Salomon was going to be a boot brand, then Rossignol would buy Caber and from its ashes create a Rossi boot. So when Salomon launched their new skis by inviting virtually every living member of the international ski press to Val Thorens for an on-snow intro in 1989, replete with Champagne and amuse-bouches at every turn, one could almost feel the angoise emanating from the Rossi chateau. They would not be outdone, certainly not by Salomon and certainly not in their own backyard. They had a new plant coming online at Voiron that would make skis as quickly and cleverly as Salomon made boots, and on said boot front they also had a new baby nearly ready to debut. When their time came, Rossi did not miss their opportunity.

Rossi invited every member of the US ski press they could unearth, including publishers, ad reps and anyone who had ever written a word about a ski or boot, coherent or otherwise. Our most motley of crews flew into Geneva, took a bus to Albertville for a lovely Savoyard lunch (during which I discovered that if you drink all the little cognac bottles they have in tourist class your brain will shrink two sizes) then onto Val d’Isère. There a young and eager lad from upstate New York named George Couperthwait – later to be immortalized as inspiration for, and first winner of, the George Award – was given the assignment of taking sufficient care of me that I would make it to the ski test the next day.

Here’s what we were supposed to do: ski their new 7S, made from an injected foam core, a thin sheath of glass and a large dollop of prayer. Here’s what we did, it being a powder day and all: grabbed 207cm 7X’s (real GS race skis, thank the Lord), our guide and our celebrity host, Andy Mill (still married at this time to Chris Evert) and headed straight for the lift. (Our fourth was Seth Masia, then the ski test guru of SKI.) Our guide turned out to be the kind I like, one who cuts under the rope. It was nearly a white-out and the snow was as thick as fondue, but we were in Val d’Isère, there wasn’t a track in front of us and when later we skied into a slopeside cabin for casse-croûte our clothes were drenched from wet snow and sweat.

After a leisurely lunch we were whisked off the hill, wrung out, rinsed off and subjected to a tour of the factory that had made the skis we had avoided skiing on that morning. Basically, Rossi was trying to make high-end performance skis using the same technology used primarily to make toddlers’ skis, then and now: squirt in the core, allow to cure about as long as it takes to make toast and another pair of wretched, un-skiable planks is ripped from the mold and foisted on an unsuspecting public.

At this point I nearly blacked out, probably because we were being fed foie gras every time we paused and I still wasn’t quite dried out from the morning’s sweat-fest. Not to worry, we were special guests that evening at the Boix-Vives’ pied-à-terre in Grenoble, where in order to show their extravagant wealth, our hosts had turned the apartment’s temperature to something approximating the surface of Mercury’s. The smell of wet wool rose and mixed with that of Gauloises, Camembert and the Chartreuse fumes that I exhaled, the local liqueur being my cure of choice for the chills that were ravaging me.

Somehow we were smuggled to a local airport where we boarded a chartered plane that I’m reasonably certain the Swiss would not have certified to fly. Luckily for Rossi we were in provincial France, where the code of conduct is cultural, not technical. As long as the pilot can pronounce his route correctly he is competent to fly. Once on-board whatever shreds of decorum that might have prevailed among more civilized tribes were abandoned. We played “pigs” in the aisle in the back of the constantly-wind-buffeted plane while up front the perpetually whacked-out ski boot editor from some lackluster rag decided that it would be non-stop hilarity if he stole the seat cushion out from under Jacques Rodet, the insufferably pompous Rossi chief in the US, any time he stood up to either pontificate or attempt to restore order, both of which were met with eurotrash indifference now that our collective blood/alcohol ratio had permanently reversed itself.

Our destination was the Venice airport, where a brief, but not unwarranted, fascination some professional dogs held for the whacked-out boot editor passed (whew) without international incident, allowing us to make our way to Montebelluna from whence almost every ski boot in Christendom issued. We were served a dinner of impeccable presentation, extravagant flavors and opulent abundance, some nine courses, at the close of which M. Rodet and I exchanged long, over-dramatized jokes at the other’s expense. More cognac led to more toasting which led to grappa. The next day we had to learn how a boot was manufactured (George C was relieved to be explaining boots instead of straining to keep me under rein) before being dispatched to Treviso to conduct an experiment that asked the important, lunch-related question, “Can the human liver explode under the proper conditions?”

We had eaten, I think twenty-six courses before the raft of whole ducks arrived, at which time most of us hid behind the mountain of artichoke hearts served two food tsunamis earlier and bolted for the street and freedom. That’s when M. Rodet asked me, with typical Gallic aplomb, who the little (charming French expletive deleted) was seated across from him at this epic lunch? I did not say, “The publisher of a major US ski rag that YOU supposedly invited here!” For one thing, I almost never speak with exclamation points. Nor did I say, “How can you pay, what, $10,000 a head, to bring all these buffoons to France, then Italy (and we weren’t done yet), and not have a clue who they are?” No, I mocked the man in question as a mere cipher, knowing that as long as my French was impeccable anything I said would sail by unchallenged. Jacques and I enjoyed a derisive chuckle at the publisher’s expense as we walked towards the bus that would take us back to the Venice airport and thence to Paris.

We continued to be fed as though the French fascination with liver-enhancement had moved on from geese and was now fixated on the human variety. At a boisterous, second-floor bistro we were served shellfish presented in cascading fountains that rivaled anything along the Parisian boulevards that unfurled below us. After gorging on shrimp and Chablis most of our senses were sated into an opiumesque stupor, but Rossi was not done yet. Remember, this was the aristocracy taking you on tour, not some rubes who imagine Americans will be content as long as they eat goat cheese and slurp Beaujolais. And how does a gentleman finish his evening in Paris? Why, he goes to the Crazy Horse Saloon, of course, fine cognac and cigars all around and before your eyeballs - if you can keep them open after a five-day bacchanal that would kill lesser souls – some of the most exquisitely arranged flesh imaginable, just as God created it.

It was only six days, but we aged in dog years as we learned how to slur “Sure, I’ll have another” in French and Italian. We did not know it then – we barely knew our names after this exercise in extreme dehydration – but we had hit the apogee of ski industry press junkets. Like Icarus, we flew too close to the sun, in this case the sun of total indulgence. Some of my perspicacious readers will wonder, “Didn’t all this pasha-quality pampering cause the new Rossignol boots or skis to receive more favorable press than they deserved or would have otherwise received without this pander-fest?” Not really. The foam core skis did not hold up well in head-to-head ski test competition, nor did the market embrace them. The flagship Rossi race boot (yellow, remember?) was so stiff it took legs of steel to displace the cuff one millimeter. Sure, there was some love spread around, but nothing commensurate with the largesse Rossi laid out for America’s ink-stained ski scribes.