Learning something from old-school boots
I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently evaluating the state of telemark skiing. Not just idle daydreams, my ruminations have to do with the fact that, since last season, I’ve been researching and writing a series of articles on the evolution of this snowsport sub-genre. I thought I’d milked this vein of stories for all it’s worth, but then, last week, I wandered into a local mountaineering shop and found a pair of Merrell Super Comp tele boots in the consignment section, $60, nearly new my exact size.Just in case you haven’t followed tele gear trends in recent years, the Super Comps were top-of-the-line boots that went out of production a few years ago when plastic prevailed. The Super Comps melded the best of the old and new tele worlds together, with a sweet-flexing leather toe box and high, stiff plastic uppers for torsional stiffness and support.I skied a pair of Super Comps for many years, until the liners fell apart and the leather grew soft and supple. Reluctantly, I retired the boots and shelled out a few hundred bucks for some Scarpa T2s, thinking about how much warmer they would be and how nice it would be to walk through a muddy parking lot without getting wet feet.So my heart skipped a beat when I saw the Merrells. Being a retro kind of guy with a huge nostalgic soft spot, I bought them on the spot, thinking I would use them mainly for mellow backcountry touring in rolling terrain, where their natural flex is a distinct advantage. Hey, you can hardly go wrong for 60 bucks, especially considering that the Super Comps and other top-end tele boots retail for around $400.I took them up to Copper Mountain for a test ride the very next day. After a few seasons of skiing plastic boots, I was pretty sure it would feel a bit unstable, and indeed, my first few runs were shaky, even on mellow intermediate terrain. Where plastic boots offer consistent pressure to the ski through every phase of the turn, the leather boots resist, up to a point, and then break over all at once. That means you better be ready to weight the ball of your foot and ride the ski, baby, otherwise you’re going over the handlebars.And therein lies the big difference between the old leather and the new plastic boots. The plastic does make it easier to maintain pressure on the trailing ski once you’ve bent your leg into the 90-degree angle that signifies the genuflecting tele position. And the argument has been made by some top tele experts that pressure is pressure, whether it’s applied with the toe or the ball of the foot.But after making a few more runs, the realization hit full-force. Plastic boots just don’t allow the foot to flex in a natural pattern. Bio-mechanically, there is no way you can get the ball of your foot flat on the ski even though new, improved materials, design and engineering are being applied to tele boots every year.With a leather boot, telemark skiing is simply an extension of walking. You’re using your body the way nature intended, flexing the hip, knee, ankle and the ball of the foot, then pushing off the big toe to move forward.I’m certainly no skiing Luddite, and I don’t plan on turning in my plastic boots any time soon. In fact, I think they will help preserve my knees for many more years of skiing. But at the same time, I recognize that, as I become more comfortable in my plastic tele boots, I find myself paralleling as often as not. Making a tele turn in them feels a bit forced, like using a hammer to kill a mosquito. And I wonder why it is that in our headlong rush toward newer and better, we don’t have room to bring along some of the old.Bob Berwyn is a freelance writer in Silverthorne. Check out http://www.coloradoskiwriter.com for archived columns and other articles.
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