Turns of the decade
10 things that pulled skiing from the cusp of suck
I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point over the past decade, skiing stopped being lame.
Ten winters ago, I was a freshman in college and I enrolled in a skiing PE class at Western Michigan University, not because I needed any more General Ed credits or that I wanted to learn anything about skiing, but because it gave me a super cheap pass to Timber Ridge Resort, a local hill just minutes outside of Kalamazoo, Mich.
The resort is still there and the best word to describe it is “small,” no scratch that …“stupid small.” Back then it had a “terrain park,” and similar to most parks at the time in the Midwest it consisted of one little-icy 10-foot jump complete with ruts and scattered bomb holes, a picnic table and a miniature 5-foot flat rail. Boarders were everywhere and the park almost never had any skiers in it. Well, I shouldn’t say that because there was almost always the occasional shlammered 40-year old skier in jeans and a Detroit Lions Starter jacket bombing off the jump and exploding at the bottom.
However, occasionally you’d spot a kid on twin tips and this rare sighting was more often than not coupled with boarders shouting things like, “Get out of the park you little sh*t!” Even ski racers made fun of freeskiers (as they rocked their Spyder jackets complete with Arsenio Hall shoulder pads). Shops carried a skimpy selection of twin tips and people were starting to realize that Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley was kind of a douche for trading on skiing to procure MTV hosting gigs.
For a lack of a better term, I’ll use the over-used cliché and say that skiing was at a crossroads. I don’t care how you choose to remember it, a decade ago the ski industry had more issues than MTV’s “16 and Pregnant.”
For one, the world’s media was embracing snowboarding as the hottest commercial marketing tool since light-skinned black guys. On top of that, skiing had a severe image problem; its head was up its own ass. Everybody was too uppity and everything was too overpriced, from tickets to gear.
No one realized it at the time, but the introduction of twin tip skis just a few years earlier would literally save the skiing industry. And now, everything has changed in the span of a decade.
My freshman year of college I would’ve said it was ridiculous, but somehow in 10 quick years, skiers went from being the “rollerbladers” of the snow sports world to the prime time showcase of the Winter X Games and now a long overdue berth in Winter Olympics half pipe. So how did this happen?
The purpose of this list is not to discuss the popular styles, trends, equipment or techniques that simply emerged in the ski industry over the past decade, but rather to highlight the most influential factors that not only put skiing where it is today but impacted the face of skiing for better or worse. After a slew of conversations with industry heads, pro-skiers, shop managers and non-stop arguments with Mammoth’s Freeride ski coaches, what follows is what I feel are the most important factors that changed the sport of skiing over the past decade:
10. Rising Cost of Travel
Lets get one thing straight, skiing’s never been cheap. But over the past 10 years, the ski industry has witnessed a few things that have dramatically affected whether or not people decide to take their family on a ski vacation.
The airline industry got blindsided by the rise of the internet and the consumer’s ability to more effectively comparison shop for bargains. In the past few years, however, they’ve regained their footing; they’re just sneakier about sticking it to you. Consider baggage fees. In 2010 alone, the airline industry made over $2.6 billion on bags. It’s now exponentially more annoying and expensive to travel.
Then there’s the cost of fuel. In 2008, crude oil prices hit almost $140 a barrel and the glory days of a $20 fill up are over (unless you plan on scootering to a ski town like Lloyd Christmas).
9. Boutique Ski Companies
In 1997 Salomon team riders JF Cusson, JP Auclair and Mike Douglas introduced to the world the first successfully marketed twin tip, the 1080. Ensuing years left other ski companies scrambling to design a ski, build a team and cash in on this new fad. The 1080 not only opened up a new market for the most recognizable companies in skiing, but more so for a new phenomenon that would emerge at the beginning of the decade; boutique ski companies.
The first Winter X games in 1998 introduced “snowblading” to the world. Throwing cab 900’s and misty 720’s, Jason Levinthal (riding on his garage made Line snowblades) earned a bronze medal and team rider Mike Nick took the gold. At that moment, Line Skis was born. In the next few months, Line became the first company to solely design and produce only twin tip skis, launching the Ostness Dragon, the first full length, symmetrical twin tip.
The birth of Line proved that a company with humble beginnings could change the industry and since then has inspired many skier owned boutique companies such as Armada, Corerupt, Bluehouse, 4FRNT and Ninthward just to name a few.
8. Red Bull
In the 2000s, the sport of skiing (and snowboarding) has witnessed no other action sports company pump in more money, push the sport harder, and grow exponentially faster than Red Bull. Surviving a decade plagued with seemingly endless criticism and tragedy (i.e. nonstop concerns of health risks, traces of cocaine in drinks and the untimely death of celebrated skier and base jumper Shane McConkey) Red Bull has emerged relatively unscathed.
The company currently holds a 65% market share in the energy drink business.
Red Bull currently sponsors skiing’s most influential figures including Tanner Hall, Daron Rahlves, Jon Olson and Grete Eliassen. Besides backing top athletes, no company spends more on marketing and sponsors more competitions. Because of its deep pockets (and willingness to spend) more people have been exposed to skiing and consequently athletes now earn more annual revenue than ever thanks to that lil’ bottle that gives you wings.
7. Natasha Richardson
When the first ski helmets arrived on the scene, people were not that thrilled. They were bulky, big and ugly. But more important, they made observers think that your only friends were your mom and the school nurse.
After heavy lobbying from safety advocates, ski helmets slowly started to make a dent in sales but by no means were they flying off the shelves, that is, not until the untimely death of actress Natasha Richardson.
On March 16, 2009, Richardson took a spill on a beginner’s run at Mt. Tremblant Resort, Canada. Feeling fine, she refused medical attention but died seven hours later after checking herself into a hospital, complaining of a headache. Richardson’s death created a panic in the ski community. Stores couldn’t stock enough as people were frantically buying ski helmets. Currently many resorts and even states are in the process of (or already have) implemented helmet laws.
6. Bode Miller
Before Bode Miller, ski racers were viewed as old, uppity rich dudes, who, when they weren’t skiing, were rocking fur coats and driving Ferraris (a la Alberto Tomba or Rudolph Garmisch in the film “Hot Dog”). Considered by many to be the greatest alpine skier of all time, Miller strolled into the world of ski racing like Matt Foley dives onto a living room coffee table.
Shattering records while pissing off the racing establishment, Miller has tallied a staggering 32 total FIS World Cup victories (including winning in all 5 disciplines), he’s a 2-time overall World Cup champion and he’s an Olympic and World Championship gold medalist. But you can’t just dominate a sport to qualify for this list. Miller’s biggest contribution to skiing (besides proving that you can be hung over and still ski a pretty good run or leaving the US Ski Team to form his own super squad called “Team America”) was his introduction to the world of skiing in the Junior Olympics where he was the first skier to utilize the new technology of sidecut skis. On a pair of short K2 4’s, Miller didn’t just kinda win…he won by seconds. After that, the ski world took a cold hard bitch slap to the face. You either loved Miller’s balls to the wall skiing approach or you hated it.
5. Nick Woodman
Who the hell is this guy? Well not long ago, if you wanted to watch a ski movie you had to fork out $25 bucks for a one hour long VHS, they only came out once a year and always featured footage from last season. We were OK with this for awhile. Then for about the same price DVDs emerged with higher quality footage and hip new menu screens … only a slight improvement. Around that same time if you wanted to watch something more immediate you had to spend an entire afternoon trying to load a two minute Quicktime video on your AOL browser. One thing was clear; it was expensive and annoying to follow skiing. However, things got a little better when YouTube finally jumped on the scene.
This immediate access to ski footage from all over the world was a huge plus, but it didn’t really take off until the advent of cheap digital camcorders. In 2002, surfer Nick Woodman created the first “invincible” camera; the Go Pro. The debut of this affordable, high definition, shockproof and waterproof camera changed the way we document almost every action sport. Now seeing someone on the hill with a little waterproof box mounted to their helmet is as commonplace as unnecessary pole plants. Ski footage is free and it’s everywhere. Because of the easy access to these cheap little cameras the ski and snowboard industry is currently scrambling to figure out how to produce and package ski films. Thanks to the Go Pro, you can now watch edits from your favorite skiers within days after they filmed it. I suppose the only down side to this is now you can find footage of almost every skier, every where (thanks to over zealous parents constantly filming their kids). I suppose it’s a fair trade off.
4. The New Canadian Air Force
In the 90s the restrictive rules and regulations of FIS (International Ski Federation) freestyle events were drastically slowing down the progression of skiing. They implemented rules like no inverted aerials in the moguls, limits on number of flips in aerial runs and had an overall lack of half pipe and slopestyle competitions. Thankfully a handful of skiers gave a stiff middle finger to the FIS and essentially created a movement of their own. This revolution was led by “The New Canadian Airforce,” consisting of Shane Szocs, Mike Douglass, JF Cusson, Vinnie Dorion, Marc McDonnell, JP Auclair and Darryl Hunt. By utilizing the Salomon 1080 and taking ski tricks to the “snowboard” park, they helped inspire influential skiers like “The 3 Phils,” Dave Crichton, Tanner Hall, CR Johnson, Candide Thovex, Sarah Burke, Pep Fujas and Jon Olson. These aforementioned skiers pushed skiing to unfathomable levels in the past 10 years. Without this grassroots movement to the park, we wouldn’t have the competitions we have today, we may never have witnessed Tanner Hall throw the first double in the pipe, CR Johnson land the first 1440 or Simon Dumont break the big air record on a quarter pipe.
3. Doug Waugh
Through most of the 90s half pipes were built with backhoes and a few sorry grunts with shovels. They were small, inconsistent and in their own way pretty damn gangster. But in the 1998 Winter Olympics, the Michigan born, turned Colorado organic farmer, Doug Waugh debuted his backyard invention; the Pipe Dragon. Inspired by the design of grain elevators, Waugh created a machine that could easily and consistently cut an elliptical half pipe wall, thus creating an industry standard for ski and snowboard half pipe riders. Since Waugh’s creation pipes around the world have gotten bigger, tricks have gotten crazier and skiers and snowboarders are now getting more and more amplitude off the walls. Waugh died in 2000 of cancer, but in the past 10 years no element of skiing or snowboarding has progressed faster than halfpipe thanks to the dreams of this organic farmer.
Though it may be hard for some skiers to admit, arguably nothing has changed skiing for the better more than the sport of snowboarding. The once annoying and brash enemy to “two-plankers” has emerged over the decade as the much needed brother and ally to the ski industry. To start with, one has to consider that snowboard design has undoubtedly helped inspire the creation and push development of twin tip skis. Without the persistence and rebellious nature of snowboarders at the beginning of the decade terrain parks would not be a staple at every resort in the world.
Snowboarding (perhaps unknowingly) “Mr. Miyagi‘d” freeskiing by creating a rubric for the labeling of tricks that skiers later adapted and made their own. They helped inspire skiers by emphasizing style (phasing out pencil 360s) and the importance of grabs. On a business note, snowboarding included and helped skiers create a successful model for organized competition series like USASA and the Dew Tour.
But most importantly, snowboarding’s biggest contribution to every type of skier in the world is the invention of sidecut. Thanks to snowboarders we now have “Shaped” or “Parabolic” skis as they were first called. And since the introduction of sidecut in the early 90s, skiing has been completely revolutionized. Thanks to sidecut, records have been shattered in ski racing, skiers now boost bigger than ever out of the half pipe and most importantly, the once impossible to learn sport of skiing is now more accessible than ever.
1. Shane McConkey
There’s always been something about McConkey. Besides getting a lifetime ban from Vail Mt. for throwing a nude backflip during a mogul comp, the skier, along with his alter ego, “Saucer Boy” did just about everything. No skier has reinvented themselves and subsequently reinvented the sport of skiing more than McConkey. He excelled at skier cross, mogul skiing, racing, backcountry, park, BASE jumping, wing suiting, saucering and most importantly ski design.
Arguably, McConkey’s biggest contribution to skiing was his consistent nagging over the past 12 years to create fatter skis. Before McConkey, powder skis were somewhere in the mid 80s under foot. So fed up with toothpick powder skis, McConkey became relentless in his efforts. He collected signatures from pros and industry heads, he filmed video
segments with ski bindings mounted to snowboards and skied huge Alaskan lines on water skis. Finally in 2001, McConkey got his way and Volant created the first ever reverse camber, reverse sidecut ski, the Spatula. Though the ski had a small cult following, Volant failed to properly market it and ultimately dropped the concept in 2003.
Undiscouraged, McConkey took the idea to K2 who proudly debuted the Pontoon. Now every almost ski is fat under foot. Park skis are now fatter than powder skis 10 years ago, and people who once said, “I only snowboard on powder days” are coming back to skiing.
Tragically McConkey died on March 26, 2009 performing a ski BASE stunt in Italy. But because of McConkey, the skiing and snowboarding industries have dramatically changed the way they now look at overall design and construction. Thank you, Shane.
I like this article, you have exponentially increased my knowledge of skiing. True, I didn’t know a lot, but now I know something. And knowing is half the battle.
Not everyone snowboards…not everyone wants to. I can’t stand to read most of the things you write and this has to be one of the worst. If anything is on the “cusp of suck” it’s this newspaper for actually publishing the stuff you write.
Thanks for the constructive feedback Jenny. But I don’t understand your comment. The story is about skiing, written by a skier. Did you read the story? What do you mean by not everyone snowboards or wants to? I’m confused. Anyways, I’m glad you read the Sheet! -Colin
Thank you for including the dreams of Doug Waugh in your article.
Enjoyed reading this Colin! Keep it up….some good stuff. Couldn’t agree more about McConkey. The fatter the better!
Jenny… Question: What does snowboarding have to do with the way that The Wolf writes? I don’t understand the correlation between snowboarding and writing ability. Is this article even about snowboarding in the first place? I think not. The opening sentence plainly states that skiing used to be a sport that was just mediocre and now is actually popular. I mean, seriously, who really wants to watch someone slowly slide down a mountain with two planks attached to his or her feet… isn’t it more entertaining and exhilarating to watch that person on two planks face near-death by traveling as fast as you would on the freeway? We live in a society where the masses want to see the limits broken, so before you click the next Facebook post that catches your eye, walk away from this article feeling satisfied that you learned a thing or two. Colin Wolf obviously wrote this article to say that skiing is pretty damn awesome… take his research, interviews and knowledge of the sport and put it to some good use!
I’m and old man skiing for 45+ years and nothing has changed my skiing for the better than going from 205 stiff straight boards to 183 fatties. I’m young again! I thought they’d be for powder and crud, but find they’re fine in bumps, off-piste, pretty much everywhere, all the time. What I thought was marketing hype turned out to be the future.