By Bob Irwin, 2007.
Exploring the sequential developments in ski equipment and techniques.
Borne out of necessity and then turned into a recreational pursuit, skiing is still an exciting and evolving industry. The evolution of ski teaching along with the manufacturing of equipment, is at times akin to a dog chasing it’s tail. In fact, there are instances of turning the full circle, for both technique and equipment. Some ideas were indeed well ahead of their time and others were destined for failure. How did we make it to where we are in the present day? Let’s follow the time line through this condensed study and see how things have evolved. Each chapter will endeavour to cover the skis, boots, binding and ski technique for that time line.
1900 – 1940
The first skis were made of varying types of wood, depending upon availability to the maker. Skis were long and stiff, so large upper-body movements were advocated to make succesful turns. From World War One onwards the blending of different timbers had started to be used. Once metal edges were introduced by Rudolf Lettner in the 1930s, icy and firm snow conditions could be skied with more ease.
The first ski boots were nothing more than high altitude hiking boots, used by local farmers and shepherds. These boots were modified to fit the rudimentary bindings of the time, usually just by cutting notches into the heel and toes of the boots. During the First World War Colonel Bilgeri was training Austrian alpine troops to ski, so military boots became more prevalent in skiing along with spats or other leggings.
Up until around 1889 the telemark binding was the predominant type in use. This system was modified with a rudimentary method of locking the heel down during descents. This was achieved mainly with the use of leather straps. As skiing developed the straps became longer and actually ‘bound’ and supported the skiers lower-legs.
During the First World War the French company Look had a prototype plate binding mounted inside the ski. It was intended to operate in a similar fashion to a door lock. It was scrapped due to the inability to securely hold the boot from twisting off the ski.
In 1933 Adolf Attenhofer introduced the all-metal binding. This offered considerable lateral stability, especially on hard packed snow.
The first organised mass instruction methodology can be credited to Matthais Zdarsky in the 1880s. He influenced Colonel Bilgeri, who trained Austrian troops during the First World War. The major difference was that Bilgeri decided that two poles were better than one. Unwittingly, this led to a very regimented and goal focused approach to ski teaching. As yet the development of ski equipment was slow and few changes to the technique evolved. Stemming and gross upper-body movements were the order of the day. This was to be not only a major focus for years to come, but would remain in (partial) use until recently.
Dr Reuel was a strong advocate of the entire body being used during the turn. His catch-cry was, “first the head, then the body and finally the legs”. This technique was obviously taxing on fitness and not very practical in difficult conditions or on steep terrain. Toni Seelos created a mild sensation by skiing in a parallel stance. Combined with a pronounced low and forward stance, resulted in a fast slalom technique.
During the 1930s there were a few revolutionary changes. Dr Arnold Fanck was a brilliant analyst and he convinced Hannes Schneider to ‘perform’ on film. Hannes Schneider was a talented ski teacher who tried to minimise upper-body movements and use more powerful leg movements. Fanck persuaded Schneider to ski in varying degrees of pitch and snow conditions. Together Schneider and Dr Fanck wrote the first ski book, followed by a film. Along with an ensemble local cast they developed a new method of bringing skiing to the masses. At this time Dr Fanck decided to ‘pan’ his movie camera to capture the ‘speed and thrill’ of Schneider’s skiing and jumps. It was a film industry world first! Schneider later fled Europe during the build up of the Nazi Party and teamed up with Otto Lang and other Europeans to develop ski teaching in the USA.
1940 – 1950
During the 1940s an American, Jimmy Madden (ex-Olympic figure skater) tried to introduce the first freestyle skis. Known as ‘Goon Skis’, with an average length of 150cm and turned up ski tails, they are believed to be the first in this type of ski.
After the Second World War, when the troops of the American 10th Mountain Division returned home, their surplus equipment became used extensively throughout the United States. This was the start of the mass popularity of skiing and the development of ski lifts.
Adapted for military use, the ‘Bear Trap’ binding became more popular. This was a spring-loaded device, that could release forwards, if enough pressure was applied. In 1954 Marker Bindings patented the first Safety Binding. This was followed closely by the French company Salomon and then Ramy. The basic principals used by Marker and Salomon retrospectively are still in use today. The safety strap was also introduced to prevent runaway skis.
As nearly all leather footwear was made to order, companies like Stroltz and Koflach in Austria and Nordica in Italy started to make specialised ski boots. It was normal to wear two pairs of socks, to aid waterproofing and warmth.
Post Second World War there was an obvious international rivalry, in both technique and the teaching methods. Frenchmen Emile Allais and Georges Joubert developed respective technical changes, although they still advocated the strong turn initiation of the upper-body, from an exaggerated backward lean. Archrivals to the French, Austrian Professors Kruckenhauser and Hopplicher (his son in law) moved that the turn should be initiated from the legs. Later Hopplicher and Joubert compared ‘notes’ and developed similar ideas. All of these men used analysis of international ski racers to develop new ideas, and Hopplicher was a strong advocate of watching young children skiing. His belief that children do things naturally and should be encouraged, lead a more flowing style of learning to ski.
In 1951, rival ski teaching nations met for the first time in Zurs, Austria. The goal was to discuss the virtues of their respective nations. These days, Interski has become an important congress, attended by many different nations. Slowly they came to the consensus that it is more economical to use the legs more than the upper-body. As a result strong hip angulation and very flexed ankles, was taught with more uniformity. The shoulders were often twisted, so as to face straight downhill. For a period of time the ‘opposite shoulder technique’ was taught. The shoulders were turned uphill in preparation for the next turn. It did not last very long. As skiers faced varying snow conditions with every run, ‘stemming’ was the most economical method for turn initiation.
1960 – 1970
Most skiers were still using skis over 200cm. If a parallel turn was desired then large vertical movements were needed. The term ‘wedeln’ was made popular by the Austrians. Wedeln literally means to wag a dog’s tail, so turns were made with a strong vertical movement, followed by a strong thrusting of the heels to wash off speed.
Ski lessons were still very regimented and it was still quite a difficult sport to learn. In an effort to attract more new skiers to the sport and American Cliff Taylor tried to introduce the Graduated Ski Length Method (GLM). Although a revolutionary idea it failed as skiers were required to change skis often. As rental bindings were fairly primitive, it was decided that too much time was lost. In this era, fiberglass started to replace wood as the core material used in skis.
As skiing became more popular with the advent of ski lifts, ski boots became more functional. Due largely to popular skiers like Stein Eriksen, Rudi Matt, Bernhard Russi and Jean-Claude Killy strong ankle flex was thought of as the key to good skiing. This was to shape the design of ski boots for decades to come. Metal buckles were attached to ski boots with both Henschke and Lange claiming rights to be the first to do so. Henschke’s boot was the only ever ‘side entry’ boot made, where the boot opened down the middle; and yes it did leak!
Bob Lange went one further and added plastic to his boots. Eventually Lange Boots were made entirely of plastic, paving the way for other brands to follow. Early plastic boots were only marginally higher than their leather predecessors. A young Italian racer, Gustav Thoeni, convinced Caber Ski Boots to build in a high rear spoiler. This changed the way racers completed their turns. Thoeni went on to successfully coach Alberto Tomba.
Patrick Vaurnet caused a mild sensation by tucking into a low ‘egg’ position during a downhill race and winning by a very large margin. Henceforth, skiing was taught with a more pronounced upper-body forward lean.
Higher capacity ski lifts and slope grooming were introduced to skiing, enhancing the turning of the skis. More skiers meant the introduction of mogul runs and new techniques to cope with these. Skidded turns were introduced to teaching methodology in an effort to ‘train’ people to have the correct stance at all times. ‘Jetting’ was the next big phase in skiing. This required an extremely low crouch as the edges were changed for the new turn. It was widely recognized that if you were Jetting correctly you would tear the seat out of your ski pants, on the heel of your bindings.
1970 – 1980
In the late 1960s Howard Head had introduced the all-metal ski. Ski design started to move away from the traditional molds. Shorter skis were encouraged for beginner skiers. Skis became wider and softer in flex and the Comfort Ski was sold in greater numbers. Ski technique was modified to accommodate this new type of ski.
Hart made the Javelin, which was a ‘Ballet’ ski and was made in shorter lengths. Skiers like Fuzzy Garhammer, Doug Pfeiffer and Tom Corcoran experimented with the mounting point on their skis, moving them forward to make skiing backwards easier. Olin Skis built the Mark IV, which were the first mass produced twin-tip ski.
There were also a few weird and wonderful ski designs to emerge in this period. Scorpion Skis made a very brief appearance on the scene. These skis were very wide at the tip (120mm) and tapered down to 80mm under foot. There was no ski behind the bindings. The top of the ski had a transparent section that was filled with used motor oil and ball bearings. The idea was that the oil and bearings would make the skis perform like traditional long skis, with less weight. The main results were minor ecological disasters when they broke apart, but it was the 70s so no harm done? Another short-lived idea came from a company called Fritzmeyer. Fritzmeyer skis were all made in 160cm length. If you wanted to ‘ski’ longer, you simply added more of the provided metal weights to the pods on the tip and tails. Thankfully, neither of these ski designs made an impact on the ski technique scene.
Further developments in plastics enabled ski boots to be made with different flex ratings, and a ‘hinged’ ankle. New ski boot manufacturers entered the market all trying to make the lightest boot possible. Stroltz developed the foam injection liner, offering the perfect fit for every customer. The advent of the ‘rear entry’ ski boots brought new brands like Hansen, Scott and Heinmen to the market. Neither of these brands remained on the market for long, and soon disappeared altogether. Dolomite introduced the knee-high ski boots, designed to reduce lower-leg fractures. Ski boots had to be adapted to be compatible with ski brakes.
The 1970s saw the introduction of the ski stopper, later known as a ski brake. Sold at first as an after market attachment and eventually integrated by the binding manufacturers. The first stoppers pointed forwards and had a tendency of catching or bending, with disastrous results.
This was also the era of the ‘plate binding’. Several forms hit the market, with three standing out. Burt bindings could (and did) release in all directions. The binding remained attached to the boot and was attached by high tensile cables. These would retract at high speed. Moog bindings would use the spring tension to ‘eject’ the ski in case of a fall. Spademan had no toe binding and required a metal butterfly plate to be screwed to the sole of the boots. Spectacular stunts were performed in restaurants and car parks. Step-in bindings were fitted with teflon anti-friction devices (AFD) on the front binding, to aid the release properties.
Although the European teaching nations still advocated a narrow stance and perfect form, North American methods strayed from this dictum. A wider stance and less rigid approach to the upper-body discipline were taught. European teaching nations remained fixated on sound (rigid) ‘form’. They strived to develop new ideas to teach edging and turn shape to students. ‘Hangaussgliech’ – the tilting of the shoulders to match the steepness of the slope – was introduced as soon as students could change direction.
Hot Dogging or Freestyle skiing became more popular. The ‘Wong Banger’ and the ‘Half Out, Half In Lincoln Thing’, made Wayne Wong and Ed Lincoln almost as popular as the ski racers. Warren Miller’s annual ski film releases, did a lot to popularize these new types of skiing. Most ski school directors kept at least one instructor on the payroll to teach the fundamentals of this new fad. Nobody expected it to last, let alone evolve to what it is today.
Along came the dual slalom Pro Race circuit and NASTAR. Soon ski schools were obliged to offer recreational racing lessons as well. Australian and New Zealand developed their own respective teaching methodology and governing bodies. There was no longer the need to rely upon overseas ski instructors.
1980 – 1990
Modern ski racing went through a major change, with the introduction of the ‘Rapid Gate’ in the early 80s. As these hinged slalom poles allowed the racers to take a straighter line, their technique also triggered a major change in the way skiing was taught. Racers like Pirman Zubriggen, Marc Giradelli and Peter Mueller successfully skied with the upper-body moving inside the line of the feet. Franz Klammer had of course already skied like this in the 1970s. Everyone at the time just thought he was out of control. This move away from the traditional balancing out past the outside ski soon made it’s way into teaching manuals.
Towards the end of the 80s ski manufacturers developed faster base materials. Salomon made a huge breakthrough in design with the Monocoque. This single top sheet wrap from edge to edge solved the vexing problem of ski flex. Finally a ski could be stiff through the longitudinal plane, while remaining soft torsionally. Lightweight foam cores were also introduced into ski design. Stiff skis were very unforgiving and soft skis could not handle firm snow conditions, so this new design changed the way skiing could be taught.
Snowboarding made it’s commercial presence felt. The ski industry went through a slump with sales dropping worldwide. Many companies merged and it became commonplace to have one brand name for skis, boots and bindings. Some ski factories were forced to close down. One Kneissl Ski factory worker, as a joke, designed a very short ski called the Big Foot. Only 70cm in length and shaped obviously like a foot. The name itself has a double meaning in Austria, but it was a success due to the pronounced (instep) sidecut. Kneissl then built the Ergo. Elan also introduced the parabolic ski and the modern carving skis were born. Then the main focus for ski manufacturers at this time was how to absorb external shocks through the ski without losing performance. As each company designed their own ski, it was gradually accepted to ski on shorter skis. New ski teaching methods were developed for the short skis. The average skier was able to ski with greater ability after a relatively short learning period.
As the rear entry boots started to be phased out of the market, other brands consolidated or were amalgamated with other brands. Ski companies started to make their own ski boots. Salomon became the first company to offer skis, boots and bindings, all under the same name. In order for different brand boots to be compatible with various bindings, everyone had to register and conform to DIN (Deutsche Industrial Norm). More fitting options were added to boots, in the form of after market ‘flow packs’. Velcro straps and orthodic foot beds came close to offering the optimal fit. Many well-known brands disappeared as further mergers and buy-outs took place. It became commonplace to have all ski equipment offered under the same brand name.
Binding manufacturers were striving to make bindings out of lighter and stronger materials. It was discovered that the bindings had a direct influence on the skis’ longitudinal flex properties. The larger the boot, the less the ski could bend. Up until now toe bindings had only a limited ‘return to center’ rate. Gradually this was increased to around 20mm, each side. The heel bindings were modified and given some ‘travel’ by being mounted on a track system. It was also discovered that when a ski flexed, the Din ratings increased momentarily. The focus was then diverted to developing multi-directional release systems.
Surprisingly, even though ski racing was taking a different technical path, ski teaching was slow to move on. Movements were still broken down and very sequential. Stepping, stemming and push-off movement patterns remained in all forms of ski teaching including advanced methodology. Shaped skis were now widely in use, although most ski instructors were reluctant to use them in short lengths.
1990 – Present
Carving skis were being developed in shorter lengths and varying radical sidecuts. Elan released the Arrow, with a 43mm waist and a wider than normal tip and tail. FIS banned this type of ski from competition and settled for an average under foot width of 65mm. Big Mountain skis, Powder skis, All Mountain and Race Carve skis were introduced with various combinations of under foot width and flex ranges. Skis around 140cm, combined with stacked bindings allowed skiers to incline so much that skiers without poles could brush the snow with their bodies and still maintain edge grip.
For the first time skis were purpose built for females and children. Skis for women, normally were slightly softer, shorter and in a colour that was thought to be appealing. Now they are built for varying types of skiers, with lighter/stronger materials, different binding mounting points and different sidecuts. Children as young as three years old can now enjoy using shaped skis like adults. Most children’s skis had obsolete design features, in other words, no sidecut but nice patterns on the top sheet.
The 1990s also marked a large focus on edging movements rather than the previous bias towards rotational movements. The rotational movements have often been over ‘schooled’ with the result that most skiers did not fully utilise the carving properties of their equipment.
In an effort to offer the perfect ski boot many brands offered even more fit options. Canting, forward lean and stiffness adjustments became standard on nearly all ski boots. Mid-entry and the walk/ski mode made their way into the intermediate and rental markets. Ski racers and coaches experimented with boot sole height, until FIS stepped in and standardised this. A few boot makers reintroduced race boot molds that had not been used for nearly 25 years. The only real difference is new developments in plastics. Incredibly they are just as successful today as they were before. Some European World Cup coaches and boot makers advocate that the shorter boot sole length is the key to perfecting athlete performances. This was another experimental rebirth of a 1980s boot, used primarily for the rental market.
With the advent of the shorter carving skis, binding riser plates were introduced. The principal was simple, by raising the skiers’ stand height a skier required less lateral movement to bring the skis onto an edge. Starting at 20mm and reaching it’s zenith of 120mm on Fun Carve Skis. Finally most manufacturers settled for an average stand height of 15mm for the binding plates.
Up until this point skiers were taught a series of set movement patterns in order to improve. Now skiers were encouraged to stand in a more relaxed and slightly more squared off position over their skis, rather than twisting to face straight down the fall line throughout the entire turn. Ski teaching practices also changed to take a more biomechanical and student focused approach. Most ski coaching organisations researched other sports and athlete studies, to develop a strong anatomical understanding for skiing. It was not long before the governing bodies of ski teaching nations followed suite, with most ski instructors trained in the fundamentals required to best help their students.
The body trajectory started to move laterally rather than vertically. The goal was to strive to make the edge change movements much faster. Even the deliberation over the width of skier stance has become less vocal. The most important issue that has been agreed upon is that it is more functional for skiers to have the same stance width, foot turning rate and the same edge angle, during every turn.
The developments in snowboarding enticed ski teaching nations to embrace the free ski/ride movement. Extreme skiing, Skier-X as well as Park and Pipe began to make more impact on the ski teaching market place. Even though few instructors would admit it, the two sports fed off each other in both materials and techniques.
It would seem as though the only article not yet modified or adapted for skiing is the human body? In fact, maybe not…
During the late 1970s and 1980s countries behind the ‘iron curtain’ ran experiments to find the ‘perfect body type’ for the various racing disciplines. Long scientific equations were written and were then attempted to be matched to typical body types. It was then decided that young ski racers (as young as eight years old), would undergo a rigid dietry and physical training programme. Conducted under close scrutiny and highly regimented, it had only limited international success. Roc Petrovic was one of only a few that had any FIS World Cup podium finishes.
So, where to from here and what does the future hold? Who really knows? Although it might pay to remain open minded. AND, when someone tries to convince you of a new development in either equipment or technique? Remember, it just might have already been tried before!