We are liv­ing in the Golden Age of ski gear

Powder - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - David Steele is a skier, climber, guide, and poet based in White­fish, Mon­tana. By David Steele

Even from the small win­dow of my jacket hood, the wind is a sav­agery as it pours off the glacier. Vis­i­bil­ity has dropped to 30 feet in half as many min­utes and, roped up, we’re march­ing up the hill in search of the bulk of Mount Saint Ni­cholas that should soon ap­pear on the left. April flakes ca­reen out of the sky, sting­ing my nose and mak­ing their pat­ter felt, even through the fab­ric of my coat. An­other posse, which had been break­ing trail, stopped to re­group among the on­slaught in which we now trudge.

And in the mid­dle of this—the classic mid­dle-ofa-ping-pong-ball, low-vis, ex­posed to the el­e­ments on a Cana­dian glacier with no trees for miles to slow down the tor­rent of the wind—i re­al­ize with a smile that I’m not the slight­est bit un­com­fort­able. Which is to say: When it comes to ski gear in 2018, we’ve never had it bet­ter.

As skiers, we can look at nearly any­thing—from lift ticket prices, to park­ing, to the num­ber of folks in a given backcountry zone on a week­end—and see that times were once eas­ier, cheaper, and tinged with a rosy glow.

Gear is a dif­fer­ent story, where his­tory shows there was cer­tainly room for im­prove­ment. Mon­tanan Don Scharfe has skied through that evo­lu­tion for the last five decades. Forty-two years of shop own­er­ship, ski tour­ing at home and abroad, and a cou­ple decades of tele ski­ing in­formed his answer when I asked if any­thing had been lost along the way to bet­ter gear: “I wouldn’t go back,” he said.

“Wilder­ness ski­ing, where you’re deal­ing with ev­ery­thing from break­able crust to frozen ice to ac­tual pow­der snow, is leaps and bounds eas­ier than on our old gear. It’s hard to imag­ine, but in 1990, when Tua re­leased the Ex­cal­ibur at 72 mil­lime­ters un­der­foot, the ad­di­tion of 8 mil­lime­ters of width made such a dif­fer­ence. The shovel on that thing was 90 mil­lime­ters.”

Scharfe re­mem­bers pur­chas­ing Dy­nafit and Mam­mut di­rect from Europe be­fore they gained North Amer­i­can dis­tri­bu­tion, but per­haps his most telling com­ment on how gear has ad­vanced lies here: “I ski bet­ter now, at 66, than I did in my late 20s.”

Im­prove­ment is one part, but gear has be­come a main­stay of our win­ter econ­omy as well. Snows­ports In­dus­tries Amer­ica (SIA) es­ti­mates that re­tail gear sales reached $4.3 bil­lion for the win­ter of 2016-17, a frac­tion of the $20.3 bil­lion ski­ing and snow­board­ing con­trib­ute to the U.S. econ­omy, ac­cord­ing to the cli­mate ad­vo­cacy non­profit Pro­tect Our Win­ters. The things we buy and wear and de­stroy in our quests to ski make an im­pact. SIA notes that small re­tail­ers con­tinue to gain ground on the big box stores, mean­ing that our dol­lars spent are more likely to stay lo­cal.

Though, it’s not the dol­lars that a skier’s mem­ory is tuned to. In­stead, it’s the sparkle, the deep turns, the mo­ments where joy shines so bright that it burns into the retina of the mind. And are those mo­ments de­fined solely by good gear? No. But they hap­pen when ev­ery­thing is work­ing per­fectly—when the cur­rent crop of gear that moves, breathes, and charges bet­ter than any­thing that’s come be­fore. We’ve never been bet­ter equipped to for­get what we’re wear­ing, or what we’re ski­ing on, as we dis­ap­pear into the nar­row slice of a mo­ment.

And so, as win­ter nears, the snow might not fall the way we want. The traf­fic might be ter­ri­ble. The prices will cer­tainly be higher. Per­haps, though, in the midst of ev­ery­thing we’d choose to wind back, we can stand grate­ful for all our bob­bles and knick­knacks, these pieces of cloth and plas­tic and car­bon that con­form eas­ily and sim­ply to the shapes of our grins.

“We’ve never been bet­ter equipped to for­get what we’re wear­ing, or what we’re ski­ing on, as we dis­ap­pear into the nar­row slice of a mo­ment.”

Photo: Mikko Lampinen

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