Not Nearly New Enough

Dueling Editors: Neil Stebbins' rebuttle that ski design has a long way to go

Dueling Editors: Has ski design gone too far? Or do the innovations need to keep coming? In the September 2015 issue (44.1) and on Powder.com, former POWDER Editor John Stifter argues the former. Shortly after the magazine landed on newsstands, the edit staff received an email from another former POWDER editor, Neil Stebbins (who led the magazine from 1975-1986), stating that Stifter was the one to go too far. The following is Stebbins’ rebuttal.

Illustration by Kelly Halpin

I like John Stifter. He has a terrific smile and a great sense of humor. So when he writes an opinion piece saying current ski gear designers have gone too far, I can only conclude one of two things: Either his admirable ski racing mindset has fogged his goggles or he is having fun with the rest of us who think he is actually serious.

Let’s talk about “state-of-the-art” design.

My first skis were state-of-the-art rented metal Head Standards about an inch wide and 12 feet long. The bindings were “cable” with something called a long-thong—which had nothing to do with swimwear. The boots were environmentally friendly leather. As John seems to prefer, you could ski like Stein with gear like this. In fact, you had to. Until you broke your femurs.

To say all our new gear makes skiing easier is certainly true. I just don’t see that as a drawback.

For a young guy, John’s surprisingly old school. To bemoan the loss of the “proper turn” is to forget the proper turn used to be knees and skis locked together, reverse shoulder, while singing the Austrian national anthem. To say all our new gear makes skiing easier is certainly true. I just don’t see that as a drawback.

Where John and I disagree most is his contention that today’s unfettered gear designers are running amok with wild ideas that may not advance the sport.

Let me tell you about designers.

In the 50s and 60s, before Endless Summer, there were lots of homemade surf movies you could go see. High school auditoriums filled with rowdy surfers who cheered when the grainy 16mm films showed the first big waves ridden in Hawaii. The fact that they were being ridden on heavy, 10-foot “Malibu” boards with no rocker, round rails, and large boxy single-fins did not seem odd or idiotic to anyone.

Not to world-class shapers, designers, or the best surfers alive.

But even with the limited materials and technology of the ’60s, anyone back then could have made a board exactly like the best boards pro surfers are riding today—all by themselves outside in their crappy 1960’s garage.

But nobody did. For nearly two decades! Kinda like those ski decades when your virility was questioned if you skied anything less than a 205. So much for progressive designers.

Open the new POWDER Buyer’s Guide and be honest. Don’t all skis look the same? All boots? I feel sorry for marketing trolls who have NOTHING new to talk about every year.

I contend that 15 years from now skiers will fall down laughing when they see what our best designers have given us to ski on today. Open the new POWDER Buyer’s Guide and be honest. Don’t all skis look the same? All boots? I feel sorry for marketing trolls who have NOTHING new to talk about every year. “One centimeter more rocker this year! Tip and tail!” Cowabunga!

Consider this:

Your brand new 2015 ski boots have a sole that is 72mm wide. Why? Because that’s how wide skis were—a thousand years ago!

Can you control the length and compression rates of your ski poles with a trigger in the grip? Does the basket size vary automatically depending on the rebound stiffness you select?

Why are ski bases entirely flat?

Why are skis symmetrical?

Why should your inside and outside sidecuts be the same?

Why do ski boots have a limited flex range?

Why should boots weigh 60 pounds—each?!

Who said bindings must be mechanical?

Why should buying all new ski gear cost you a month’s rent?

Why should skiwear be layered and bulky? Why can’t you control your body temperature with a dial and sensors?

Why do goggles need different lenses for different conditions?

Why can’t groomer skis adjust their flex and torsion for waist-deep powder and hard-core racing?

Why can’t bindings let you dial in camber? And rocker?

Why can’t you buy something to control your speed on steep terrain besides skis? Varying your wind-resistance profile should be easy.

Afraid of avalanches? How about a mini-drone with a ballistic launcher? Fire that puppy off, let it hover until things settle, then have it locate you and release a bright-colored dye pack.

How about an instant binding-release button? Maybe next to the helmet temperature and music selectors on your glove cuff.

What about a Fart Alarm in gondolas and lilac-scented masks that drop down from the ceiling?

Or a KO Alert if you hit a tree and nobody’s near enough to notice you aren’t just taking a nap.

Shouldn’t trams serve beer… or have bartenders?

Why can’t we ski at night with small powerful light-arrays?

Doesn’t anyone think boot buckles are Medieval?

And who thinks knees are well-designed for skiing? (Sorry, God.) Wouldn’t everyone be happier strapping on a pair of light, adjustable Robo-Knees?

I want ski poles I can use as Tasers for bears and pretentious locals.

Then there’s optics. With drones, cameras, satellites… shouldn’t we be able to see what’s ahead regardless of weather or “blind drops” or… well… anything?

Personally, I’d like a hands-free radio/phone inside my helmet so I can convince my ski buddies to come looking for me instead of “Yeah, he’s probably dead. That was a big one. Let’s go get lunch.”

To be fair, what bothers Mr. Stifter most is not the latest gear so much as how people use it.

So I ask you…

Is there any reason designers couldn’t build everything I’ve mentioned so far and skiers still couldn’t ski like Stein… or dorks? Just because some brands offer dubious new-tech doesn’t mean you have to buy it. (Although marketers will pee themselves with delight if even half my suggestions are put into production.)

Truly, I don’t wish to poop on John’s admiration for older, tougher, more classic styles of slope sliding, but, seriously, hasn’t John seen what the best World Cup slalom racers are skiing on these days? Surely there will always be a thriving market for super-narrow 210s that flex like railroad ties and boots you have to unbuckle after every run because they hurt like a root canal.

But what’s the deal with separate jackets and pants for deep powder? Do you really want to risk having your midsection amputated due to frostbite?

Do you realize how hard it is to properly amputate a midsection?

Howard Head knew that. Back in the ’40s when he experimented with ski constructions that became the Head Standard in 1951. A ski known as “The Cheater” because “it allowed beginners to turn like pros.”

If you think future skiers will roll around on the floor laughing at our avant-garde skis and boots, can you imagine what they will think of our baggy boring skiwear?

I look forward to designers everywhere admitting their latest skis and boots look and function the same as everyone else’s.

I look forward to lightweight skiwear that doesn’t cost a Honda.

I can’t wait to see what our best and brightest designers do once some smart company decides to market significantly different ski gear.

Do I have affordable salable ideas for that? Ideas that, given the materials and technologies we have now, gear-makers could produce tomorrow? You bet I do. Give me a call!

Say, isn’t there an old Chinese saying…

If everyone is doing the same things, there lies opportunity.

Howard Head knew that. Back in the ’40s when he experimented with ski constructions that became the Head Standard in 1951. A ski known as “The Cheater” because “it allowed beginners to turn like pros”.

A classic case of one of those damn designers ruining the sport.

“Hell’s bells, Howard! Ain’t nobody never told ya? If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it!”

Does ski design have a long ways to go? Decide for yourself with the 2016 Buyer’s Guide.