Gouged skis are the norm this year. With a dismal start to the season in terms of snowfall in Utah, my ski bases look like they’ve been plowed by a farm tiller and are ready for seed. As I write this in mid-January, the Wasatch is drier than a Mormon sacrament meeting. Rocks are more prevalent than powder, and I have the core shots to prove it. My only comfort while hearing that jaw-clenching scrape when skis hit stone is that I’ve been making turns on a decade-old pair that have been demoted to “early season” detail. They’re getting hammered. So I was dumbfounded when my buddy Sean posted a photo on social media of himself breaking in shiny new sticks. He took the picture on a run with a base depth of only 25 inches. I transformed into a Jewish mother and scolded him. “Watch out for rocks, Sean, you don’t want to ruin your new skis now do you?”
His response was terse. “Tools not jewels.”
Sean was absolutely right, and his words changed the way I think about my skis.
I have a problem with gear worship, maybe because I have no religion. Growing up, mom dragged my sister and me through a buffet of beliefs. We sampled Catholics, tasted Episcopalians, took a small bite from hands-in-the-air-praise-Jesus fundamentalism, and even gorged ourselves on a few long years as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Tired of playing musical churches, I rejected religion altogether and the outdoors became my chapel. Gear became sacred. And nothing was more precious to me than a pair of new skis.
My childhood may have been rich in religion, but poor in dollars. New skis are expensive, so my placing of them on a pedestal was one part veneration, another part just being practical. I also considered topsheets works of art. I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to base my purchasing decisions not on a ski’s performance, but on whether or not I wanted to stare down at them while riding chairlifts.
I would bring new skis home with the delicacy of carrying a newborn baby. Careful not to scratch them on a door jamb or coffee table corner, I might lay them softly on the carpet and stand on them with sock feet. I’ve even been known to hang recently purchased skis on the wall, still in the plastic, to admire the topsheet design before allowing some shop butcher to deface my beloved art with binding drill holes.
At resorts, I would devour double black diamond runs with abandon while on old skis. But nothing would destroy my skiing ability as fully as clicking into new ones, for fear of wrecking them. The backseat became my safe zone. Sidestepping over every rock my signature in the snow.
Such anxiety started in my freshman year of high school, when I saved all summer for a pair of neon-colored K2 Extremes. First day on the mountain that winter, with fanny pack and headband firmly in place, I hit a jump and landed on my skis’ tails, which came down on rocks under the snow. My stomach contents nearly sprayed the snowpack when I saw those bent edges, delaminated topsheets, and core materials splintering out like a torn matchbook from a 70s-era dive bar.
Since that day, deciding on the right time of season to switch from rock skis to new skis was a mathematic and philosophical conundrum. Do I wait until resorts report a minimum 100-inch base before daring to click into virgin bindings? Should I let the winter solstice be my celestial alarm clock? Or do I go by experience and make the trade if I backcountry ski above tree line without hitting a single rock?
Along with a penchant for gear worship, my other problem is impatience. This year, I was downright pissed about being on rock skis in January. So I took Sean’s advice to heart and dusted off my brand new, paid-full-price skis. A recent storm dropped around 15 inches the night before. I was pumped. But a moderate plastering of fresh snow didn’t bury the minefield of rocks. It wasn’t enough for skis to float above sharp granite without making them look like they took a ride through a gauntlet of saws in a high school woodshop. The entire mountain was like a mystery hidden-object board game.
As nervous as Donald Trump in a Mexican gay bar, I picked my way down the run chanting, “tools not jewels.” So of course I chanced upon a big rock on my second lap. Core shot. Three inches long. Based on the expletives that issued from my mouth, you’d have thought I lost a diamond wedding ring down a flushing toilet. Jewels indeed.
But you know what? Next lap I skied that same run like a boss. Now that my skis were damaged, I simply didn’t care anymore. Just that quick, the skis lost their luster. Hitting that rock set me free. These days I ski on my new boards every time I tour, despite conditions.
My takeaway from all this? Ski on the skis you want to ski. Don’t sweat scuffs and gouges. Ski shops exist and are staffed with friendly professionals who will make them look like new. This is especially true for backcountry skis, because in early season it’s not like we can stick to the groomers.
Of course I type this column on my computer while a web-browser window is open. It taunts me with new skis from an outdoor retail site. I’m so very tempted to click the purchase button. See, despite my “tools not jewels” epiphany, I think it’s time to add to the backcountry quiver. Now that my good skis are ruined, they’re ready for rock-ski duty. And there’s no way I’ll use my future new skis early-season. Those topsheets are too damn pretty.