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Homemade skis take kids into backcountry

John Colson
Vail, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen TimesVolunteer Austin Weiss measures skis made by a student to mount telemark bindings.
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ASPEN ” “Dude, we’re screwed,” said the young snowboarder, while working in the Aspen High School shop on a ski-building project. “We’re gonna hit a tree.”

But on further reflection, the snowboarder, sophomore Sam Fightlin, admitted he wasn’t really scared, just a little apprehensive about taking his first backcountry ski trip with 10 other students as their Experiential Education trip for the year.

Ex-Ed, as it is known, is a program that allows students out of regular classes for about a week to travel to other parts of the U.S. or the world for an educational experience that goes far beyond books and lectures.



The programs, which can change from year to year, range from rafting down the Colorado River through parts of the Grand Canyon, to riding on horseback and camping through the wilds of the West, to spending a week volunteering in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter in New York City.

This group, by now, should have reached a cabin high above the village of Marble. They were scheduled to begin April 17 with assistant principal Brad Bates on skis they built themselves. The cabin, which Bates said is a little over two miles above Beaver Lake in Marble, is on the way to Lead King Basin and belongs to Bates’ father.



The teens have all spent the last couple of months creating the very skis they’ll be traveling on, from scratch, using materials they ordered after downloading instructions on how to build skis from the Web site http://www.skibuilders.com.

They’ve been using specialized frames made of iron T-beams, supplied by Rocky Gabossi of Pitkin Iron in Glenwood Springs, and stout wooden beams fashioned with the help of the school’s shop teacher, John Fisher, to form the camber of the skis and glue the different pieces together.

The frames are complemented by specially designed and outfitted high-pressure air hoses, strung between the wood press and the skis, to keep pressure on the glued parts.



Besides selecting the shapes of their skis, the kind of binding used (cross-country, telemark or ski mountaineering), the students also chose their own designs for the tops of the skis. Some used pictures, such as one of the rock star Kurt Cobain; others designed fanciful lettering to spell out certain hip phrases or words.

Bates, who came to the school two years ago and led his first Ex-Ed trip on rafts through Cataract Canyon in the Canyonlands National Park in Utah, said the idea for this trip came from his own interests.

“I’ve always wanted to make skis,” he said, “so I threw it out there as a trip to see if any kids would sign up.”

He said his original intention was to make traditional cross country skis entirely from wood. But when the Web site described how to make more modern skis out of a wood core and Petex the group decided to “go for it,” Bates said.

One benefit of the ski-making project, Bates said, is that “we’re one of the cheapest trips, and they walk away with a pair of skis.”

He said the trip cost is $300 per student, which is well below what some of the others cost.

The 10 who signed up are from four grade levels at Aspen High, and for several this was to be their first voyage into the backcountry. Senior Eric Angus, for example, has snowshoed into the backcountry and gone snowboarding, but has never skied in and out.

When Fightlin predicted that they were in trouble, Angus replied that they were not, because, “We’re not going to be doing anything too gnarly.”

One participant, sophomore Alex Owen, said he would not be traveling on the skis he made, because he plans to mount them with regular downhill bindings for the 2007-2008 season.

“I want to take them skiing next year,” he said, and “I just don’t want to put more than one set of holes in them, because then they might fall apart.”

Two of the students had tested out their skis on Aspen Highlands, one on the last day of the season and the other by skinning up the following day.

Brandon Greenbert, a freshman who took his new skis out Sunday, reported Monday that “they were fairly decent … they turned really good for not being sharpened.” That was an oversight he planned to correct that day.

And they did not chatter on hard pack, “even in the morning when it was on groomers,” he said.

He was surprised by his success and is looking forward to the trip even though “this was my last choice.” His first requested trip, he said, was to do Cataract Canyon.

“I guess this is better,” he said, “having something to hold on to rather than just a memory ” knowing that you made something.”


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