Gear is fundamental to ski success
January 6, 2004
At the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC), the instructors’ philosophy about becoming a better skier is that it’s not going to happen overnight. Getting your mind and body on the same page and finding a technique that works for you is often a lifelong process, and physical fitness, proper nutrition and a healthy dose of confidence all have to be thrown into the mix to make it work.
Of course, you can’t just ski naked. You need gear, and you need it to enhance all the work you’ve put into getting your technique dialed in and your fitness level up to snuff.
Ski equipment, in many ways, drives the ski industry. Some people absolutely love it – love buying it, love talking about it, love trying out new stuff. Others would rather pull out the neon-colored Atomic 195s they bought back in 1992 and enjoy a day on the slopes without all the hassle of knowing what terms like “sidecut,” “binding mounting systems” and “twin-tip” mean.
Love it or hate it, either way, the folks at NASTC believe that only by getting their students into the proper equipment, and having that equipment aligned to fit each individual’s skiing, will their students see the rapid improvements that they are looking to make.
Jim Schaffner, a world-class boot fitter who consults at most of the NASTC clinics, put it better than I:
“The bottom line is if you are not properly aligned over your skis, there are certain physical limitations you just can’t overcome … Chris, the director of NASTC, has a philosophy that has three components to helping people’s skiing. Most people go to lessons or clinics to get technical coaching or tactical coaching, and that’s your typical one-hour lesson with a ski instructor. But you could work with people year in and year out, and let’s imagine that their alignment is way off, it doesn’t matter what you tell them. At a certain point they can’t make the physical gains because there are physical limitations and movement patterns that they can’t make if they’re not balanced … So there’s physical fitness, there’s technical and tactical coaching, and then there is the actual equipment and the alignment of the equipment. All of those things, when working together, lead to big gains in improvement.”
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Schaffner got his start in the ski industry as a racer, and grew up with a coach who had a deep understanding of equipment setup and boot fitting, alignment and canting. After his racing days were over, Schaffner took a job with Salomon helping to ensure that the company’s sponsored athletes were skiing well on the equipment they were given.
Three years ago he retired from his job at Salomon and set up shop in his own basement, at first tuning skis and aligning boots for friends and young racers. But word started to spread quickly that there was someone in Tahoe who really understood boot fitting and technical issues like canting and alignment, and now Schaffner has more business than he can handle.
“This time of year I’m probably working 100 hours per week… I might have about five (clients) a day, averaging say two hours, so that’s 10 hours in just face time. But the problem is, in a lot of cases, I don’t finish the work while the person is here. So what happens is, when I’m done with the face time, I go into the shop and I finish up all the work that I left behind,” Schaffner said. “On average for the last month I’ve probably been doing seven days a week, no days off, and finishing up with clients somewhere between nine and 10 p.m. So that leaves me with six hours of work back here (in his workshop).”
What differentiates Schaffner from your ordinary ski-store boot fitter is the process he goes through in evaluating a skier’s needs. Perhaps what makes his relationship with NASTC work so well is that he takes a holistic approach to equipment issues while they take a holistic approach to ski instruction, leaving their common clients with a total package addressing all of their needs.
Schaffner’s process is involved. Often it begins on the hill at a clinic, where sometimes he or one of the other instructors can identify problems with people’s equipment just by watching their skiing.
That was the case with Sabrina Kay, a fellow student in the Jumpstart clinic I was enrolled in at Sugarbowl ski resort. Kay was having a difficult time getting into an aggressive enough stance to make the kinds of turns that instructor Mike Hafer wanted to see out of her. So when Schaffner came in and gave an apres ski “tech talk” about boot fitting after day two, Hafer had Kay bring her boots along.
After a quick shell fitting, in which the boot’s liner was removed and the shell of the boot was checked for size compared to Kay’s foot, Hafer and Schaffner determined that Kay’s boots were almost two sizes too large for her, a problem that turns out to be pretty common throughout the industry.
“The downside to this business, and kind of what helps me stay in business, is that in the ski shops, a lot of people get missized. And it’s not necessarily always the shop guy’s fault, a lot of the shop guys are trained pretty well. But it’s the guy buying the boot or the girl buying the boot will put the boot on and say ‘hey, it’s too tight.’ And the boots can be too firm and too tight in the shop when it’s brand new… but boots never shrink, they only grow because you pack the material out. And more fit problems and performance problems in the boot are caused by the boot being too big than the boot actually being too small.”
The problems with Kay’s boots were serious enough that Schaffner went with her to a local ski shop to pick out new boots which were then adjusted to keep Kay perfectly aligned over the center of the boots. Though Kay was aligned naturally, may skiers require their boot soles to be canted – ground so that there is an angle built into the boot’s sole – before they are perfectly aligned and balanced over the centers of their boots.
Indeed, speaking with my fellow students in the NASTC clinic, over half of the 12 others in the group had been to Schaffner for a boot fitting and adjustment, and all who had now swear by his services.
“I think the big draw for Jim is that the traditional boot shop doesn’t have the time to spend to get the boot fit perfect. Jim is in the business of doing that and he does it really well, and he’ll spend as much time as he needs to to get that fit where it needs to be,” said Eric Connors, who also made the trip to Schaffner’s place during the course of the Jumpstart clinic.
“I went from probably three of four trips to the boot shop, and still not being happy with my boots, to a few hours in Jim’s shop, and I would never have gotten that much direct attention in a boot shop. And now I skied all day today and I don’t have any boot problems,” Connors said.
Getting everybody in the clinic’s gear set up right was a priority for trainers Chris and Mike during the first two days of the clinic. Adjustments were made to people’s boots and people tried out different skis, all while repeating a series of drills designed to help us get the feel of making proper turns. Personally, I found out that my skis were too long and rigid to allow me to make the smooth turns the instructors wanted to see me make, and after trying a pair of shorter, softer-flexing skis everything became much easier.
Throughout the last three days of the five-day clinic, we fine-tuned our technique and equipment setup, all while pushing the boundaries of our confidence. After the first two days of tumultuous conditions, the weather stayed cold and dry, leaving us with three days of mostly sunny skies and packed-powder snow conditions.
And when it was all over, we were ready to go home. Five days had been enough instruction even for the real ski school devotees among the group. Everyone felt that they had made progress toward their ultimate goals, and most agreed that they would be back for future NASTC courses.
Sabrina Kay was one of those who was already thinking about her next course. “I think the biggest take-home value for me, since this was a first course, was getting my boots fitted and getting the right equipment setup and doing the drills. And I feel that this is just the beginning. I feel that I can come back next time and go to the second level instead of starting again as an intermediate skier going into advanced,” Kay said.
Others, such as Allan Brookes and Wayne Goodman, appreciated the lessons they got in the powder and the terrain we have in California.
We all reminisced about which drills we thought made us look the silliest and which we thought really improved our skiing. And to our dismay we recognized that they turned out to be the same set.
As I thought about my first ski lesson ever, I realized that it had been a great time. I had learned more than I was expecting to. I got to ski a little bit of everything – rain, powder, overcast days and bluebird skies – all with a diverse group of characters. And I had gotten paid to ski, always a lifelong goal of mine.
As I walked back to my car for the last time I couldn’t help thinking: ‘I wonder if the Sierra Sun needs me to cover NASTC’s Steep and Deep clinic in La Grave, France later this year?’
This is the final article in a series of four stories about the author’s experience in NASTC’s five-day Jumpstart Your Season clinic at Sugar Bowl ski resort. For more information on NASTC’s programs, see their Web site at http://www.skiNASTC.com or call (530) 582-4772. For more information about Jim Schaffner’s services call (530) 582-5781.