Skiing used to be such a simple sport. You'd pay $50 for your own wooden skis, borrow your Uncle Lou's crude leather ski boots and off you went. Things have changed a bit. But assuming you have a working knowledge of molecular physics, then a little discussion of today's ski equipment shouldn't pose any problem.
Let's start with the ski.
The Hart Ski Co. trumpets one model with the words, "Graphite fiberglass torsional perfection shock absorption special core." Another model boasts, "Torsion stabilizer special wood core fiberglass/aluminum sintered racing base." The K2 company sells its KVC KV Comp model ski by touting its "Triaxial slalom kevlar reinforced three-dimensional fiber interlock."
Another ski manufacturer notes in a ski manual that "Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylenes cannot be transformed into a thin sheet by extrusion."
Like we didn't already know that.
There are tens of thousands of skiers in the San Fernando Valley, which seems by itself somewhat noteworthy, the Valley being essentially a desert. Each year about this time, when nighttime temperatures get chilly and daytime temperatures seldom rise above 90 degrees, most of those skiers head to sporting-goods stores to check out the new equipment.
What they find is nothing short of a manufacturing miracle, a display of 21st century high-tech knowledge all lined up in rows.
For those without diplomas from Caltech or MIT, it is a mind-boggling experience. And nine out of 10 consumers, by most estimates, don't care whether a ski is made out of Kevlar 49, rovinappe or polyurethane foam.
They buy skis because the color matches their ski pants.
"It's mainly cosmetic," said Gary Furoyama, an expert skier and a technical equipment wizard who works as a ski salesman for Oshman's in Canoga Park. "For example, one of our biggest selling skis for women is the K2 Comp RS. It's a great ski. It has all of the best qualities in design and material. But they buy it because it's pink. They say, 'I like those pink skis.' "
And who can blame them for taking the easy way out? If consumers spent the time necessary to fully analyze and research ski equipment before making a purchase, the winter would be long gone and they'd be at the beach, wondering why they didn't get a chance to go skiing last year.
Here is a sampling of what's out there:
Fischer's Cut Special. The word FREE is stamped in large letters near the tips of these skis. They are anything but. Figure about $130 for a pair. Made in Austria.
Fisher's Extralite, for about $110, or Fisher's Superlite, for $140. The Superlite, however, is "Design Ferch." Obviously you expect to pay a bit more for Ferch.
Hart's Graphite Equipe SR Racing. About $170, but these are the skis that feature Graphite fiberglass torsional perfection shock absorption special core. All of that is written on each ski. Even if you don't ski, this item is good reading material on those snowy winter days when you just want to stay by the fireplace and curl up with a good ski.
Hart's Sport Freestyle. About $195. This ski is made with Kevlar, the same material used to make bulletproof vests. A great ski if you're high in the air on a chairlift and someone on the slope below starts shooting at you.
Rossignol's 626 Sport model. Features bright red paint splattered liberally over the ski. It looks remarkably like what would happen if you skied nose-first into a tree. Made in Spain.
Rossignol's QS N707 Quantum with Fibrometal. This ski has a neat little clear window on the tip, which makes the tip of the ski lighter and allegedly makes turning easier. The window also makes it easy to get a good look at the guy you just knocked down and ran over on the slope. Made in France.
Rossignol's QS N 909, also made in France, is a real beauty. It looks too good to thrash around on snow, though. These cost about $300. For the same amount of money you can buy a pretty steep mountain in Wyoming or Montana.
K2's CSP Carbide, which has carbide-coated steel edges. Good ski to shave with.
K2's ELC Comp Giant Slalom, featuring Antistatic Electra 6000 Racing Base. A good bet if you like to operate a ham radio while skiing and don't want all the electrical interference regular skis create.
It goes on and on. Rossignol uses acrylonitrile butadien styrene to protect its skis from nicks and scratches. It also uses a "visco-elastic layer (polyisoprene) vulcanized to a constraint (zicral)" to give the ski better stability in turns.
"The average skier doesn't know what any of this means," said a ski salesman at SportMart in Northridge. "People come in and look at the color of the ski and the price tag mostly."
Moments later, a customer proved his theory correct. The consumer wore a Camp Beverly Hills T-shirt, white shorts and knee-length argyle socks. She admitted to being a novice skier.
"I'm just learning and I don't really know what to look for," she said. "There's so much stuff on the market. It has to feel right, I guess, and it definitely has to look good. I have to admit that's a big part of it. I have a certain price range and I have to find something I like in that range. But really, it's all so confusing."
As she spoke, one of the store's assistant managers interrupted the woman and sternly told a reporter, "I can't have you in here writing down prices or anything. And don't ask the customers any questions, OK?"
Darn. Now we'll never know how the woman felt about the longitudinal flex and torsional flex of the ski she might buy.
"A few customers, the expert skiers, ask about the ski itself," said Oshman's Furoyama, "but most of them, at least 90% of them, they look at the color and the price of the ski."
Furoyama told of a customer a few weeks ago who purchased a pair of red skis, red ski boots and red bindings. And then he bought several pieces of red ski clothing. If this guy falls down on the slope he'll look like a tomato truck accident on the Ventura Freeway.
Ski boots are just as complex as the skis. Different materials, different weights, different flex capabilities, different insulation. Some have battery-operated heaters. Prices range from $70 to $350.
"They buy boots by color, too," Furoyama said. "Women buy white or gray boots. Men buy red or black boots."
The bindings, as you might guess, also are complicated. Some have multi-directional heads, which allow you to fall out of your skis and onto your face from many different angles. Some have roller-pinser systems that lock the toe of the boot in. And others have sliding toe plates. And we all know how painful sliding toe plates can be.
Prices on bindings range from $50 to about $140.
And if the well-known ski equipment manufacturers don't have anything you like, lesser-known firms are trying to fill the void.
"The new thing now is designer skis," Furoyama said. "They cost as much as $800 or $900. Strictly for the guy who has nothing better to do with his money. They're good quality skis, but nothing special. It's all in the finish. When you put the two skis right together, it forms a picture or a scene. Like a two-piece puzzle. Someone's face or a mountain scene or something."
And if you forget what you're doing and try to actually ski with your designer skis together, you're likely to look down and see something else. Like a compound fracture of your leg.
Ski accessories have followed the basic equipment down the same road. Ski poles now have pop-off handles, exposing a canteen in each pole to hold a bit of liquid refreshment as you ski. "Booze, mostly," Furoyama said.
Other poles have spring-loaded handles so that your arms don't get jarred when you plant the pole in the snow. Ski goggles come with double lenses, with a layer of nonfogging gas sandwiched between each lens. And there are the heated ski boots, of course.
As Furoyama spoke, a woman approached and asked if the store carried "the new Dynaflex skis, the ones with the high-density base."
His theory on ski-equipment consumers appeared to be shot. He politely directed the woman to another Oshman's store, and off she went in search of the best that technology could offer.
"I heard they're great skis, with different edges that work in different snow conditions," said the consumer, Jacqueline Montana of Laguna Beach, a Colorado-born skier who moved to California two years ago.
"But they're also a great-looking ski, with a black and red triangular pattern on them. Let's face it, it's all appearance. You've got to look good out there. It wasn't like that when I grew up skiing in Colorado, but now, fashion is everything."
Montana said she expects to spend about $700 for skis, boots and bindings. She already has decided which make and model of each she will buy. Right down to the heated ski boots.
"I tried them in a store and they were great," she said. "I have weak ankles and I figure if I can keep them warm there's less chance of getting hurt. They really keep your feet warm.
"And they're really nice-looking."