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What's New Is Old


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In the movie Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox plays a teenager stuck in the past, desperately struggling to convince people that he knows what will happen 30 years later.

I’m working on the script of a ski movie, Something Old Is the New Thing. In it, Michael J. Fox tries to convince modern skiers that what they think is new is not. In the first scene, the camera zooms in on Fox circa 1930. He’s in a crowd of shaggy folks in plus-four pants making telemark turns. After watching the skiers lift their heels and scissor their turns, the actor leaps into a nearby sports car. It vaporizes, transporting him 40 years forward in time.

Now the camera presents a long shot of Fox eating granola with a shaggy group of baggy-panted skiers. They’re ecstatic because they’ve invented a new sport: telemarking. “But it isn’t new,” the actor protests. “I just arrived from 1930 when I saw guys doing the same turn!”

It’s remarkable. The skiing community so often trumpets events and inventions that aren’t, well, to be historically precise, new. I mean, the sport does have a past. When you hear skiers talking about something breathtakingly cutting-edge, be wary: Chances are good that the innovation had a prior incarnation.

One example is Skiercross, a hot new form of racing that’s increasingly popular on television. Four or five guys simultaneously start down a course, head-to-head. They battle for position, one racer cutting in front of the other. Collisions threaten to happen at every moment. First guy to the finish line wins the money in what’s called a “bash for cash.”

New? A century ago, before someone had the safe, boring idea of dispatching racers down the mountain one at a time in order to avoid collisions, every race was run this way. It was called a geschmozzle start. All the competitors hurled their bodies simultaneously downhill in a fight to the finish. In fact, it was 19th-century California gold miners in the Sierra mountains, competing for hundreds of dollars in prizes, who invented the idea of a bash for cash.

My guess is that Skiercross will succeed as public interest in traditional ski racing continues to decline. The reason is obvious: In Skiercross, as in the old geschmozzle, you can watch the lead change hands among the racers. As they rocket over table-top jumps and around banked turns, you don’t need a videotape analysis by a panel of coaches to discover at what miniscule point the race is won or lost.

The daring stunts performed by today’s aerial freestyle competitors evolved from hotdog skiing in the early Seventies. Hotdoggers at the time heralded the inverted aerials as a new form of skiing. But in 1916, a Norwegian exchange student, Gus Poulsen, showed Dartmouth ski team members how to somersault off the Vale of Temp jump at Hanover, N.H. Thereafter, soaring Dartmouth skiers regularly performed flips, and a photo sequence of Poulsen’s inverted aerial was featured in a 1922 issue of National Geographic.

Short skis are another outstanding example of back-to-futurism. Ski length over the years has gone up and down as often as women’s hemlines. Today, short is hot! Kids are whistling down the hill on fat “skiboards.” New? They’re the same length as the Shortees, which GLM pioneer Clif Taylor sold to thousands of skiers 40 years ago. After ski lengths dropped in the Seventies, Jean-Claude Killy advised good skiers to return to 200-centimeter skis. The Frenchman’s advice was short-lived. World Cup racers are now on slalom skis three-quarters the length of skis used in competition only a couple of winters ago. Alarmed, the International Ski Federation (FIS) has voted to ban skis under 155 centimeters in slalom, 183 in giant slalom.

Retro repeats, though, and I haven’t the least doubt that one day advanced recreational skiers will return to the comfortable, Cadillac glide of longer skis. Long skis even look better. A debate, apocryphal perhaps, is alleged to have once taken place between Clif Tayloor and Howard Head over ski length. When Taylor seemed to be getting the better of the argument, Head, who himself was 6 feet, 4 inches tall with a gleaming bald head, brandished a 7-foot black Head Vector metal ski. “The trouble with your ski, Clif,” Head reportedly said, “is that it has penis envy.”

Today we live in the much heralded “Shaped Ski Revolution.” But 120 years ago Norwegians were making skis with shaped sides or “sidecuts.” Admittedly today’s shapes are more exaggerated. The 19th-century models had the natural turning radius of a glacial cirque. The idea that you can lay a shaped ski on its edge and carve a turn on it isn’t new either. Forty-two years ago I edited an instruction article by Ernie McCulloch, the brilliant chief examiner of the Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance. McCulloch noted that if a skier places the curved edge of his ski on the snow and pressures it, the ski will turn by itself. “With proper edging, and the aid of the side camber or curve built into the ski,” he wrote in 1958, “a turn may be started with very little (upper-body) movement.” Recently, the ski industry has been conglomerating itself. Big companies owning multiple ski areas, it’s reasoned, can raise capital more readily for expensive automated snowmaking, high-speed gondolas and fancy base villages. Conglomerates can spread the scarce talents of their best managers over several resorts. On paper, it’s a terrific idea. But it ain’t new. Just before World War II, brewery scion Fred Pabst had the idea of buying up a dozen or more ropetow operations in New England, the Midwest and Quebec’s Laurentians. He believed the areas could be run more efficiently and profitably under one ownership. Pabst lost his loden shirt trying the idea. Sixty years later, like Pabst, investors and lenders in at least two conglomerated ski area companies have watched their fortunes dwindle.

Perhaps ski resorts might find it profitable to revive ideas not yet retro’d. Today’s ski fashion designers, for instance, could do worse than put us all back in the gorgeous, tailored parkas, pants and suits of the late Sixties. Nothing before or since has ever looked so good on the slopes.

Resort owners struggling to attract skiers might also rebuild the old convivial inns, which don’t isolate guests the way impersonal condominium buildings do. Or they might ask their instructors to have a gluhwein with skiers after class, as they did in the Fifties when Hans and Putzi sat in front of the fireplace yodeling, after reviewing a student’s need to rid his skiing of the dreaded abstem. But the return to the telemark turn is a dubious achievement. When I was a kid, it was difficult to make a parallel turn. The binding didn’t hold your heel down. To get through deep, partially broken snow, in particular, I had to learn how to make a telemark. When downpull bindings arrived, riveting the boot heel to the ski, I gladly gave up telemarking. At last, there was a better, and easier, way to turn!

So why, you might ask, have enthusiasts returned to telemarking? I don’t know. Perhaps, like the people in Thorsten Veblen’s Leisure Class, they want to impress us by doing that which is useless. I know one thing, though. These guys are going to hate my movie.