February 14, 1905: “Went skeeing … Very fast on the steep hill. My idea of a skee now is … at least 5 1/2 inches [139 mm] wide. Today I cut my shoes because my feet project over the sides … I wonder what my idea will be a year from now!?!”
Fred Harris, ski pioneer and Dartmouth Outing Club founder, penned the above words in his diary after one of many ski trips. Even then ski width was an ambiguous issue; no doubt the cause of chewed pipe-stems, depleted Scotch, and a plenitude of hacked boot soles. These days pipes of the tobacco persuasion aren’t in style and boots are trimmer, but Scotch and scratch paper, when it comes to figuring ski width, are no doubt still consumed at a prodigious rate. Consider these pearls of orthodox wisdom I’ve seen printed over past decades: “A narrower ski requires less leverage to edge, and thus skis better with softer boots,” and “Wide skis are hard on your knees.”
Hmmmmmmmm. Let’s look at the history of skis designed for cutting turns, both free-heel and fixed-heel. In 1964 I outfitted at our town ski swap with a pair of metal edged wooden skis, along with cable bindings and lace boots. It was probably tackle of late ’50s circa. The boots were soft, but the skis were as wide as anything until ski waists began to grow in the 1990s. My “narrow” skis worked fine with the floppy boots; and I don’t recall any knee problems.
Next, a quick look at my antique ski collection here at WildSnow HQ: One Crested Butte miner’s ski from the late 1800’s (with a slat from a dynamite box used to repair a broken tip); a pair of metal edged wooden skis circa late 40’s; and a venerable pair of edgeless 225 centimeter planks with “Kandahar” style beartrap bindings — circa early 40’s and heavier than a pair of cement boots. The miner’s ski is 76 mm wide at the waist, the edged skis are 71 mm, and the venerable 225’s are 76 mm by a whopping 95 mm at the tip! All were skied with “soft” boots; indeed, the miner’s ski was probably strapped on a work boot (though not as much a tool for turns as the others.)
Now consider modern alpine skiing gear of the mid 1990s. Presently in 1996 the skis in my garage are mostly around 65 mm at the waist (other than fat sticks). Also, look at ski racing, where fortunes ride on split seconds. If narrow skis in “nordic” widths edge better with soft boots, if they get more “leverage,” it would follow that they’d be an advantage with hard boots as well. So, why are alpine boards (especially slalom comp skis) not 55 mm knives — or even the width of ice skate blades? Part of the answer is a ski must perform on varied densities of snow. Even on a rock-hard World Cup course, too narrow a ski would sink under the titanic pressure exerted by world class thighs. The advantages of a wider plank, such as strength, flotation, and boot edges not digging in during a turn, clearly outweigh any possible advantage in edge-hold or “leverage” that a skinny ski would give. Besides, if you need leverage you can always raise your foot up with spacers under your bindings, as many racers do.
Return to the backcountry. In the days of my collection relics virtually all skiing was done on natural snow. The only hardpack was frozen corn, boilerplate (the second reason why ski lodges installed bars and fireplaces), and tiny areas of snow packed by mobs of skiers. The boots were soft and skis were wide — and the system worked. The snow we ski in today’s backcountry is the same snow those pioneers enjoyed. Snowshoe Thompson and Otto Steiner pounded the Sierra on “wide” skis (Thompson’s were 84 mm at the waist, with 100 mm tips and tails!). Goldrush miners in Colorado and California raced over 80 mph on “wide” skis. Like carving a ripe tomato, Tony Matt and his cohorts sliced Tuckerman Ravine on “wide” skis. Early ski exploration in Canada’s Coast Mountains and Rockies was done on “wide” skis with soft boots. Hannes Schneider, who now sits at the right hand of Skade, carved the planet with “wide” skis and soft boots. The pioneer’s edges worked and apparently their knees did as well.
So why, when our forebears accomplished so much on wide skis, did 1960s and 1970s telemark downhill start the fad of using toothpicks for ski mountaineering? I think this was a brief North American blip, the result of peer pressure and media bias. The fad was ignited by a time in the 1960’s and 1970’s when most alpine skis were much heavier than newer fiberglass skinny skis. At the same time, labeling skis as “alpine” and “Nordic” limited our vision. Thus, many North American ski mountaineers of the ’60s never considered using alpine width skis for mountaineering. Skinny “touring” skis were for just that — and who cared if skiing downhill on them was a feat of neural mutation? Few paused to consider that skinny skis had their origins in track skiing, and that even the Norwegians often used fat skis in the backcountry, as they still do.
Also, skiers doing long traverses with little emphasis on making turns found the lightweight edged Nordic skis to be a good tool. That, along with rabid promotion by telemark heroes who used skinny skis as a badge of courage, was all it took to create the conventional wisdom that skinny was somehow better. (Keep in mind that we’re discussing ski width, not free-heel vs. fixed-heel).
Times change. Today you can obtain lightweight alpine-width skis — skinny boards don’t save much weight over those, and may actually use more energy if they sink while you’re breaking trail. Extreme skiers and AT skiers worldwide have shown that ski mountaineering is not the exclusive domain of the telemarker on Nordic skis. And snowboarders have shown us what’s best to do with convention: stick it where the sun don’t shine. So, if you use soft boots and all you ski is ice, perhaps skinny skis will help you. For everyone else, however; regular alpine width skis or wider (with any but the most wimpy boots), are a versatile and effective choice for backcountry turns — probably your best choice.
(A version of this article was originally published in Couloir Magazine, 1996.)