Written by Ted Kerasote
When the English writer Eric Newby set out to go mountaineering in Afghanistan, he couldn’t find a pair of boots in all of England that would fit him. He had a pair specially made in Brescia, and upon seeing Newby’s feet, the Italian bootmaker remarked, as Newby relates in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, “Sir, these are not the feet of a man, but of a monkey.” When I first read those lines, I thought the bootmaker was speaking of me.
From an early age my feet were so wide that I had to wear custom shoes. They only got wider. As one orthopedic surgeon diplomatically put it after taking off my left bunion, “You have poor foot architecture.” What he meant was, “You have the feet of a monkey.” My twelve-year-old niece, prone to hyperbole, was more graphic. “Uncle Ted,” she said, “your feet make me want to vomit.”
None of this stopped me from skiing, of course, and over the years, I stretched, punched out, melted, and otherwise modified more ski boots than could fit in the Wing of Tortured Feet at Chamonix’s Musée Alpin. Matters came to a head this winter after three long ascents of peaks in Grand Teton National Park. My remaining right bunion developed bursitis, swelled to almost the size of a golf ball, and an open blister formed on top of it. The pain was so acute, I couldn’t ski: not uphill, not downhill; I couldn’t even get my foot into my ski boot.
Whimpering, I went to see Matt Haviland, the master boot fitter at Hoback Sports in Jackson, who has worked on my boots for years. He warned me that my old Scarpa Spirit 3’s would probably not stand another punch. I said, “Try.” He did; they cracked; he patched them; they were still a chamber of horrors. He said, “You need new boots.” I tried nine, including Salomon’s alpine touring model, with its heat moldable shell. I spent three sessions at Hoback Sports, totaling five hours, trying to fit the Salomons. They remained so painful after skiing them that amputation began to seem a reasonable option.
At this point, I called Lou Dawson, the founder of WildSnow and a very old friend who has known me and my bad feet for many decades. Lou and I worked together at Outward Bound; we skied off the summit of Holy Cross when he was on his quest to ski all of Colorado’s Fourteeners; and we did one of the most gratifying ski traverses I’ve ever completed in the European Alps, the Silvretta, just the two of us, crisscrossing the Swiss-Austrian border, bagging peaks, and skiing gorgeous powder and corn. He said, “Stop fighting it. Cut a hole in the side of your boot.”
And so Matt Haviland did, covering the opening with two Gear Aid Tenacious Tape GORE-TEX Fabric Patches. I took my old boots out to Teton Pass and 3,000 vertical feet later I had an idiotic smile of happiness on my face. There was no pain, none, nada. What a concept: enough room for a big volume foot; not a performance fit, but a skiing-without-pain fit. And though the fit of my boot is looser, I’m skiing better. I suspect I’m not alone in my wide-foot struggles, and that thousands of other skiers would profit from taking a saw to their boots and making them roomier in this radical way.
Ted Kerasote has written for more than sixty periodicals, including Outside, Powder, The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, and Slate. He’s the author of seven books, including the national best seller Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog. He can be reached at www.kerasote.com.