Ski Museum series: Shaped skis took backcountry skiing to another level
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
VAIL — The sport of skiing would undergo a period of refinement during the 1990s, while also ushering in the explosion and immense popularity of snowboarding. But perhaps the single biggest advance in ski equipment during the decade was the introduction of shaped skis. Shorter, fatter and easier to turn, shaped skis made everyone a better skier, seemingly overnight.
This revolution was born in the former Yugoslavia when a University of Ljubljana engineering graduate, Jurij Franko, joined the Elan ski company as a lab manager. He had an idea for a deep sidecut ski, and his colleague, Pavel Skofic, calculated a suitable flex pattern. They organized a project dubbed Sidecut Extreme and set out to build prototypes.
Other ski manufacturers began to take notice and experiment on their own. By 1997, the shaped ski revolution had exploded in seemingly every conceivable direction and straight skis were piled in clearance racks across the country.
SKIERS HEAD FOR THE WOODS
Beginner and intermediate skiers could now progress to an advanced level far more quickly and experts found that they could do even more than before. On groomed slopes, shaped carving skis allowed big, fast and stable turns at higher speeds with far more stability, while in powder and variable snow, shaped skis allowed better flotation and more reliable control.
Armed with their newfound ability to turn in any snow, skiers started heading for the woods, steeps and out of bounds of resorts across the nation in larger numbers. Some ski areas responded by opening glades and other previously closed terrain.
Others, as a result of changing laws, allowed access to out of bounds skiing, while some even began to tout it, resulting in the birth of “sidecountry” skiing and snowboarding. This lift-served, almost-but-not-quite form of backcountry skiing opened up a great deal of new terrain and made it relatively easy to access.
Improvements in equipment also allowed skiers accessing the backcountry via routes outside the resorts to gain more control and comfort without as much weight. By the turn of the millennium, the backcountry had become a new and viable option for a much larger number of people.
As Y2K uneventfully came and went, the 2000’s brought even more opportunities, along with more refinement for backcountry ski enthusiasts, as equipment continued to improve. New materials once again allowed for lighter equipment across the board.
Snowboarders started heading into the backcountry aided by splitboards that allowed access via climbing on two independent unlocked ski-like boards and descending on a single board that locked back together.
A fringe element of the overall snowboarding movement for years, as the lure of the backcountry became more mainstream, a number of splitboard manufacturers emerged that produced different shapes and sizes to suit a rider’s ability, style and size.
Around the same time, rocker technology, also known as reverse camber, was introduced to ski design. Borrowed from snowboards, skis with rocker are basically bent slightly upwards behind the tip to allow the ski to plane over the snow and turn more easily. Because of this innovation, soft snow conditions became much easier to handle.
LIGHTER TOURING EQUIPMENT
Alpine touring equipment exploded in popularity on two fronts. New binding technologies allowed sidecountry skiers to enjoy the reliability and safety of alpine equipment for descents, while still having a touring mode to allow skinning, rather than being forced to hike and carry their skis. Simultaneously, alpine touring equipment designed specifically for the backcountry, became much lighter.
Toward the end of the decade the question of whether to use alpine touring or beefy Nordic gear on backcountry steeps was no longer a matter of weight or comfort. Instead, it became more a question of which style of skiing you preferred.
The good news was that backcountry ski equipment of all types kept improving and the choices available today are much better than those of 20 years ago. The challenge is that all of these choices can often be confusing. If you were to listen to all of the manufacturers, you might well end up owning a dozen pair of skis.
But no matter how many pairs of skis you choose to call your own, better materials, better engineering and creative designs have given skiers amazing new tools. Skis designed for specific conditions or environments allow skiers to tailor their gear to a variety of particular skiing situations.
There has never been a better time to be or become a backcountry skier!
John Dakin is vice president of communications for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame.