snarke (snarke) wrote,

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Happy: Skis for Less

Eric and I went skiing last Tuesday for the first time in two years. We have no intention of letting that much time go by before the next trip, believe me! In fact, before we went skiing, we bought new ski equipment. Having our own ski gear will pay for itself after 12-25 trips. (12 if we rent at the slopes, closer to 25 if we rented them from the sports store at the mall, but then we have to go pick up the gear the day before and take it back the day after, so it's not really as cheap as it seems just based on $s.) Plus we will have boots that fit exactly right, and don't have to waste time at the ski resort standing in the rental line. I especially appreciate having boots that fit. I ended up having to run all over town before I got my gear together, but it worked out really well in the end.

The story starts at "Bob's Ski 'n Bike", formerly All About Bike & Ski, an independent dealer in the U District that we rented from a couple years ago. He was nice and helpful and had a good selection this year, and was even having a sale. I'll give away a bit of the ending of the story: Eric bought used skis and boots from him; equipment that they had been renting. The deal was that Eric could rent it for our Tuesday trip, and if he liked it, then the rental applied toward purchase. That's a great deal, because especially with boots, it's very hard to tell just trying them on how they'll feel after a few hours of skiing. Including poles, Eric's equipment came to about $500.

I wasn't so lucky. My feet are about one size bigger than Eric's and he didn't have used boots that fit me. Also, he only had one pair of used skis in our length (Eric and I both ski on ~170cm long skis). He did have some new boots that fit pretty well. New boots cost more, of course. I need new boots because my old ones literally shattered two years ago when I took them skiing in Colorado.The plastic had become old and brittle, and couldn't take the strain. If you click on the pictures, you can see very clearly where the front of each boot has only a ragged edge. The plastic used to reach up to just below where the liner ends.

I didn't take my skis to Colorado. My old skis (made by Fischer) I bought used at a ski swap in 1988 when I was in college; and they were old then! Although the skis looked like they'd been around a bit, they had what appeared to be perfectly good bindings on them. Some nice shiny all-metal ones, as a matter of fact. The binding's job is to hold your skis on your feet most of the time, but let go of your boots if there's too much pressure, so that you don't break a leg or twist a knee if you fall while skiing. How much pressure is 'too much' depends on your height, your weight, and your general skiing ability. (If you're jumping from mogul to mogul down a black diamond "most difficult" run, then you want the bindings to hold on pretty tightly, even though that increases the chance you'll hurt something before they release if you fall. After all, you're almost guaranteed to wreck if a ski comes off before you fall!)

After buying the Fischers, I took them to a ski shop to get them tuned and waxed and whatnot, and they figured that I should ski with bindings set to "4". The all-metal bindings could be set from 4 to 10, so that should have been OK, except that, when they set them to 4 and tested them, the pressure required to get the bindings to release was actually closer to "6," because the steel springs in the bindings had crystallized, making them stiffer. So while they were safe to ski on in general, they weren't safe for me to ski on. The shop let me trade those bindings in for a discount on some new ones. Not only did I have to buy new bindings, but these replacement bindings weren't even all metal. Parts of them were plastic. It felt like a distinct step down at the time.

Although my boots had self-destructed, my skis hadn't. I could still be skiing on them, I suppose. I'm not a good enough skiier that the subtle differences in models of skis are particularly obvious. Modern skis are not subtly different than my old ones, though. The Fischers are basically straight. They turn up at the tip, and they're slightly arched, but the sides are parallel, and they're just under 200cm long. They're designed to go very quickly, but not so much for turning. Just a few years after I bought these, a brand-new idea in skis appeared. 'Parabolic' skis are shaped like an hourglass, and are much shorter and more flexible. This makes it far easier to turn in them, and I definitely value control over speed. If I want to go faster, I can just ski on a steeper slope. The Fischers would be better for terrorizing beginners on the bunny slopes, whipping past them at blinding speeds on a nearly-level slope. Wheee.

Although time has probably helped erode my old skis even further, wear and tear, not so much. There were many years after graduating that I didn't ski at all, and even when I did, it was usually only once or twice per year. I just haven't put a whole lot of mileage on either the skis or the bindings. When we started shopping, I had every intention of keeping my purchased-new part-plastic bindings, and using them on a new pair of skis.

Unfortunately, ski bindings have also changed. They used to drill holes into the ski, and screw the binding in place. In just the last year or two, most manufacturers have switched over to a kind of a track mounted permanently on the ski, with the bindings locking into the track. Although my old bindings were still in perfectly good shape, they can't be installed on a newer track-style ski. Grumble.

After we'd checked out Bob's, we went to some other places on the list. I had some great luck at "Joe's Sports," a big chain store. They were also having a sale: 40% all 2007 ski gear, and 75% off 2006. And, hooray, the "2006" pile included a pair of 167cm parabolic K2 skis! New skis run around $600-$700 retail; on sale I was seeing around $300. These were $75. Even better, they did not have binding tracks! They were old-style skis, so my old-style bindings could be installed on them. "Well, unless they're Atomic, Elan, or Tyrolia" the ski tech told me. "We're not certified for those brands." I couldn't remember; they were some kind of European sounding name. Maybe Tyrolia. Maybe Rossignol, maybe Salomon. I didn't remember. But REI, downtown, could do Tyrolia, I was told.

When I got home, I pulled out the old skis to find out. No surprise: I had Tyrolia 470 bindings. Naturally.

That shopping was on a Friday. On Saturday, we had a "Behind the Scenes" tour of the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum scheduled. One of the benefits of being a member, and a lot of fun, too. Going to EMP meant going just a few blocks from REI, so we stopped on the way back. I found some boots that fit remarkably well, although they were a bit more expensive. Also, I was using the very last notch in the latches, and the latches weren't adjustable, so if any slack appeared from, say, the liner packing down after I'd had them a while, there wasn't much I could do to tighten the boots any further. The boots at Bob's had latches that were significantly more adjustable, and I'd only used about half of the possible distance to close them anyway, so I decided that I'd probably be happier with the Salomon boots at Bob's.

I had also been clever enough to actually bring one of my old Fischer skis along with us to ask them about the binding.

Alas, the fact that REI was certified to work on Tyrolia bindings didn't help. It turns out that the binding manufacturers indemnify the certified tech outlets. If somebody has a spectactular accident and sues the people who mounted his binding to his skis, the manufacturer helps out with the legal fees. If, and only if, said binding is on The Special List. Tyrolia would not indemnify work on any binding made before 1997. My bindings were Too Old. Oh, and I'm sure the manufacturers have nothing but my well-being in mind. What's important is keeping me safe, right? It's not about selling more bindings. No, of course not. Grr.

REI did have some new bolt-on Salomon bindings for $50. List price on new bindings is closer to $300. I hadn't thought to check what Joe's was charging for bindings. If Joe's had a better deal, I could always return these, so I bought them, although it made me rather sad. Why? Well, it wasn't so much the idea that I had to spend $50 when I had some perfectly good bindings. It's because my 470s' release mechanism worked differently from, and far better than, 'normal' bindings.

All the rental ski bindings I'd had in the past couple of years work like this: you push down with your pole on the lever in the back while lifting up the heel of your foot. That's kind of tricky, and not at all a natural movement. You have to lean back a bit to apply enough pressure on the pole to pop the latch, but you have to lean back while not putting your weight on the back of your foot. And not falling over.

The 470s release by pulling up on the lever. Even better, I don't have to actually reach down with my hand and pull up, which would be a tricky maneuver with my feet and calves locked in an upright position by the boots. Instead, I put the tip of my pole in the socket on the binding, and push the top of the pole forward. This worked as a huge lever, rotating the back of the binding upward and popping it loose. In practice, I drop my pole in the socket and walk forward. The same motion that lifts my heel also moves the pole forward, levering the binding upward and releasing the boot. Piece of cake! Way, way easier than leaning back and pushing down while lifting up and not falling over.

If only I could get the Tyrolia bindings on the new K2 skis. Oh, well.
Back to Joe's to buy the skis (they'd set them aside for me) and have them install the new Salomon bindings.

Except for one small detail I'd overlooked. I'd decided to get the Salomon boots at Bob's after trying the other boots at REI, but I hadn't bought them yet. I'd planned to do that on Sunday when I went back to Bob's to pick up Eric's rented equipment for our Tuesday trip. (Bob's was going to be closed on Monday.) But the tech at Joe's pointed out that he needed to have the boots in order to know where to mount the bindings. Oops! And the tech was not scheduled to work on Sunday, although he was willing to come in anyway to mount my bindings.

I felt bad about making him do that, so I went zooming over to Bob's (in U Village) to buy my boots so I could take them back to Joe's (in Northgate) so he could work on them before they closed that Saturday. When I got to Bob's I showed him my old Fischers and my 470 bindings, and told him my story of woe. He then pointed out two more features of the 470 I hadn't noticed.

Most bindings just pop "upward" away from the ski. My 470s also have Tyrolia's Diagonal Heel release, which, in their words "follow every movement and release directly in the direction of the fall. This means less load on knees and ligaments." He also pointed out that the 470's ski brakes swung way up and tucked completely out of the way, much further up than most bindings. He obviously considered both of these characteristics to be significant advantages over the standard binding.


Then he made what would turn out to be a fateful comment. "Well, if you're going to remount the bindings yourself, let me loan you a special drill bit for making the holes."

Er, what? Mount them myself?

It hadn't even occured to me that I could mount the bindings myself! I guess I'd just assumed that it involved, oh, laser ski alignment focus-izers, or a hydraulic binding smooshilator or some other kind of exotic gizmo. I took a closer look at the 470s, and discovered that, indeed, the front and back parts were each held in place with four screws. I asked the ski guy if I could borrow his screwdriver ("sure"), and took one of the bindings off. There were eight ordinary looking holes in the ski.

Then I looked at the special bit. What made it special was a collar that made it hard to drill all the way through the ski and out the bottom. He had his bit in a hand drill, so he could just pick up the drill, pull the trigger, and stop when the bit's collar went "bonk" against the ski.

Ah, but I'd learned at REI, or maybe Joe's, that it was also critical that the boot be located at the correct position on the ski. Too far forward or back, and it would be hard to control. But what's this? On my new skis (but not on my old Fischers), there was a tiny line with the words "Mid-sole point" next to them. And on the bottom of the boot, another small line molded in the plastic, marked "A."

"Does this line on my boot marked "A" indicate the mid-sole point?" I asked.

"Yep," was the reply.

Well. So the boot and ski would show me exactly where, front to back, the boot should go. The holes just needed to be centered side to side. That's not very hard to figure out. And I had to not drill too deep, which would be very easy to do if I drilled the holes on my little drill press. The drill press has a clamp which I can set that stops the drill from descending past the point I set it at.

"This isn't nearly as complicated as I'd assumed."

"Well, it kind of has to be easy, or the big ski shops couldn't rely on 18-year-olds behind the counter to mount the bindings."

So while it would take me, oh, 45 minutes to an hour to (carefully) do what the ski shop could do in about five minutes with their special drill bits and hole guides, I could, in fact, remount the bindings myself, confident I was not risking my health by doing so. The only thing I couldn't check at home would be if the binding springs had crystallized and thrown off the release calibration.

So there I was, facing another step down in binding quality, again having to spend money on something that seemed like less than what I already had. But unlike that first set of bindings, I knew the entire history of the 470s, I knew I was losing a lot more than just "ooh, shiny metal" with this drop, and I just hadn't used the 470s enough to feel like they were ready for retirement. Although it did make me a little nervous, I decided that this was an occasion that warranted Bending Reality To My Will.

"Well, if you've got a couple minutes, I'd feel better if you let me just drill your skis here in the shop, rather than you doing them at home," the ski guy offered. (I'd call him Bob, but I don't actually know that he's named Bob. Yes, it's "Bob's Ski & Bike" store now, and he sure talked and acted like he was the owner, but I don't know for sure.) Well, that sounded even better. I'd be happy to just screw them together at home if he did what would be the really time-consuming part for me: correctly drilling the holes.

In the end, what he did was tell me "OK, so I'm warning you that you probably don't want to put those 'old,' 'junk' bindings on your 'shiny,' 'new' skis. This is me warning you that that's a Bad Idea, and You'll Be Sorry, and You Were Warned," and explain that, if he did mount them and test them, he'd have to write "Failed" on the report. Yup, I understood that he would indeed have to shake his head at this foolish customer who insisted on having 'antique' bindings installed, and the paper trail would certainly support that I'd had them mounted despite his (or rather, the manufacturer's) advice. Then I left both pairs of skis with him and went home.

On Sunday, I picked up my boots, my new skis with the 470s in place, and Eric's rental kit, and settled the bill. The 470s tension setting goes from 3 to 8, not 4 to 10 like those other bindings, so even if they'd also gotten stiffer, there was at least a little bit of room to adjust them downward. Except they didn't need it; when set to release at "4", the pressure level that they popped loose at was . . . 4. Oh, they're clearly not new bindings. The white plastic shell has yellowed slightly. I'm sure one of these days I'll put a pole in the socket to release them, and instead the back of the socket will crack loose. But beneath that plastic shell, all the working parts are, in fact, metal, and there's no evidence that those parts are any less safe today than they were back in college. On Tuesday, all the various parts worked just like they ought'a.

Some aggressive shopping and a certain amount of stubbornness means I saved money and get to ski on the equipment I really like. I saved so much money that we spent almost exactly the same amount on my gear as we did on Eric's, even though I have new skis and boots, and his are used.

Dear Reality (and Tyrolia): Guess what? I win again.
Tags: ski binding alpine

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