Peter Shelton

Special Trick Shoes

Posted in Ski evolution, Ski history by pshelton on June 6, 2016

At first I missed my Buddhist poet. He’d been with me on the slopes for the last five years. Inked in silver and black on the topsheet of my old Völkl Mantras, he walked, bearded and imperturbable, from the left ski to the right (two vertical, cloud-shrouded panels) up a mountain path toward a temple on the right ski tip. He was my Zen perspective on skiing as discipline, quest, mystery, obsession.

But last year Völkl axed the long-running Asian-art theme on one of its most popular ski models and replaced it with a severely geometric, red, white, and black graphic that spells out VOLKL, or parts of the word, multiple times, in various densities and overlays. The letters spill diagonally beyond the edges of the frame – straight lines not quite contained on the non-linear, ever-curving shape. (Skis are really shaped more like a water droplet than a sheet of graph paper.)

I had sent my poet skis back to the distributor in New Hampshire. They’d developed cracks in their steel edges, something I’d never seen before. The VP for marketing had never seen it either, but there was nothing he could do for me; the warranty had long expired. So, I ordered a new pair with the new graphic and a few other subtle but significant design changes.

The brilliance of the new topsheet is that the order implied, the engineering rigor, coexists with the liquid curves. This is the way the new Mantras ski, too. Power and order leading to expression outside the box. The old Mantras were super strong, super precise – “doublewide GS [race] skis,” as they were described in a Ski Magazine test review a decade ago. With their tip-to-tail camber and time-honored structural simplicity (a wood core sandwiched between stiff titanium sheets), they were an early attempt to marry the capabilities of a hard-snow carving ski and a wider powder board. An attempt that succeeded, with caveats. The compromise always leaned in the direction of a carved turn rather than a free-floating one. Carving takes advanced balance and edging skills. The old Mantra could punish an inexpert driver.

These new beauties are just as grippy as their predecessors, just as sharply steadfast through an arc. But now they’ve got something else, thanks to “full rocker,” a radical shift in hull design. Like a McKenzie River drift boat, the new Mantra has a rockered bottom. Stem-to-stern rocker gives a dory the ability to spin around its center, to be maneuvered easily in shifting, three-dimensional whitewater. Rocker does the same for the Mantra, its bottom bowed slightly from stem to stern. The new skis “spin” or drift sideways more easily than the old ones. But more importantly, they are pre-flexed for turning. They fit into their own arcs the way a shoehorn slips a foot into a shoe.

I’m calling my new Mantras my “special trick shoes.” Because that’s how they feel. Like high-performance shoes. Shoes that fit so well they practically disappear. Shoes so tuned to their purpose, you feel nimble, gifted. As if you might, for brief moments anyway, channel Fred Astaire’s weightless grace.

(This phrase, “special trick shoes,” comes from the radio-comedy group Firesign Theatre. On their album “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” a character fashioned after the stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel is about to leap into an apparently bottomless meteor crater.

Newsman Pat Hat: “Aren’t you scared, Reebus?”

Daredemon Reebus Canneebus: “I’m not as scared as you are, Pat. I’ve got the best equipment. I’ve got special trick shoes and a reverse drag ‘chute . . .”

It’s a spoof of Knievel’s attempt to jump his rocket-powered SkyCycle X-2 across Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in 1974. I’m serious, though. I do have the best equipment. And at times on the mountain I feel almost ridiculously empowered.)

Norwegian immigrants introduced skiing to America in the mid-19th century. To differentiate their gliding “snow shoes” from the non-slip, racket-style snowshoes used by Native Americans and French trappers, they called them skees.

These early planks were hardly easy to maneuver. But I have always liked the notion of skees as an extension of the foot, as highly specialized shoes. One of my favorite ski teachers, Lito Tejada-Flores, in his series “Breakthrough On Skis,” talks about “walking” down a mountain – one foot, one step, one turn after another.

Another mentor instructed me thus: “Stand on your feet. Go down the hill.” Deceptively simple advice. Stripped to the essence. Has there ever been a more perfect skier’s mantra?

This has always been the dream, hasn’t it? You see film of the gods – Killy, Doug Coombs, erect and relaxed – and it looks as if their skis are no more than comfy shoes that let them slide around on whatever snow surface they happen to be on. The genius of the new skis, as they get more and more sophisticated, is how they let us mortals approach, and occasionally touch, that facility. My new rockered Mantras do that.

Yes, they are “just” a tool. They can’t save me any more than Reebus’s special trick shoes can save him. When I fail to “stand on my feet,” when I’m leaning over too far to effectively weight the center of the ski, I am no longer driving; I’m a helpless passenger, which is not the best feeling.

But when I do pressure the ski in the right way at the right time, I can draw lines in space unlike any I’ve felt before. The ski’s extraordinary capabilities confer an instant understanding of fluid dynamics, the physics of all that flows.

It’s the Völkl engineers’ gift to me. I don’t really understand physics. I’m just the grateful recipient. More like my poet, wending his way, one turn at a time, toward enlightenment.


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