Words by David Steele
Even from the small window of my jacket hood, the wind is a savagery as it pours off the glacier. Visibility has dropped to 30 feet in half as many minutes and, roped up, we're marching up the hill in search of the bulk of Mount Saint Nicholas that should soon appear on the left. April flakes careen out of the sky, stinging my nose and making their patter felt, even through the fabric of my coat. Another posse, which had been breaking trail, stopped to regroup among the onslaught in which we now trudge.
And in the middle of this—the classic middle-of-a-ping-pong-ball, low-vis, exposed to the elements on a Canadian glacier with no trees for miles to slow down the torrent of the wind—I realize with a smile that I'm not the slightest bit uncomfortable. Which is to say: When it comes to ski gear in 2018, we've never had it better.
"We've never been better equipped to forget what we're wearing, or what we're skiing on, as we disappear into the narrow slice of a moment."
As skiers, we can look at nearly anything—from lift ticket prices, to parking, to the number of folks in a given backcountry zone on a weekend—and see that times were once easier, cheaper, and tinged with a rosy glow.
Gear is a different story, where history shows there was certainly room for improvement. Montanan Don Scharfe has skied through that evolution for the last five decades. Forty-two years of shop ownership, ski touring at home and abroad, and a couple decades of tele skiing informed his answer when I asked if anything had been lost along the way to better gear: "I wouldn't go back," he said.
"Wilderness skiing, where you're dealing with everything from breakable crust to frozen ice to actual powder snow, is leaps and bounds easier than on our old gear. It's hard to imagine, but in 1990, when Tua released the Excalibur at 72 millimeters underfoot, the addition of 8 millimeters of width made such a difference. The shovel on that thing was 90 millimeters."
Scharfe remembers purchasing Dynafit and Mammut direct from Europe before they gained North American distribution, but perhaps his most telling comment on how gear has advanced lies here: "I ski better now, at 66, than I did in my late 20s."
Improvement is one part, but gear has become a mainstay of our winter economy as well. Snowsports Industries America (SIA) estimates that retail gear sales reached $4.3 billion for the winter of 2016-17, a fraction of the $20.3 billion skiing and snowboarding contribute to the U.S. economy, according to the climate advocacy nonprofit Protect Our Winters. The things we buy and wear and destroy in our quests to ski make an impact. SIA notes that small retailers continue to gain ground on the big box stores, meaning that our dollars spent are more likely to stay local.
Though, it's not the dollars that a skier's memory is tuned to. Instead, it's the sparkle, the deep turns, the moments where joy shines so bright that it burns into the retina of the mind. And are those moments defined solely by good gear? No. But they happen when everything is working perfectly—when the current crop of gear that moves, breathes, and charges better than anything that's come before. We've never been better equipped to forget what we're wearing, or what we're skiing on, as we disappear into the narrow slice of a moment.
And so, as winter nears, the snow might not fall the way we want. The traffic might be terrible. The prices will certainly be higher. Perhaps, though, in the midst of everything we'd choose to wind back, we can stand grateful for all our bobbles and knickknacks, these pieces of cloth and plastic and carbon that conform easily and simply to the shapes of our grins.
David Steele is a skier, climber, guide, and poet based in Whitefish, Montana.
This story originally appeared in the September 2018 (47.1) issue of POWDER. To have great opinion stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.