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|February 26-March 4, 2009
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Top of the line
Antiques preserve the experience of the world’s first skiers
by Dave Philipps
Skiing has its own version of inflation that goes something like this: When skis get better, skiers get better. When skiers get better, they ski harder terrain. When skiers ski harder terrain, they demand better skis, so the whole cycle begins again.
Follow the pattern and eventually guys in dual-density plastic boots are carving on supershaped, superwide, carbon fiber skis, and almost all the newest slopes in Colorado are blacks or double blacks.
That’s where we are today.
But you don’t have to go far to find out what skiing was like 50 years ago, when runs were short and black diamonds were rare.
In fact, you have to go only as far as Richard Allen’s garage.
The veteran Aspen, Colo., ski bum has one of the largest collections of antique ski equipment in the world, and unlike other collectors, who often coddle their collections like curators, he likes to take gear out on the snow.
“These were the top of the line — beautiful skis,” Allen said on a recent morning as he parted the clutter in his Carbondale garage to reveal a shiny red pair of 1960 Fischer skis — narrow, wooden, straight as a post and rising about a foot over his head.
Allen, who runs a company called Vintage Ski World out of his house, has organized antique-ski races at Aspen for years. He provides retro ski coats, and gear as props for commercials and chichi corporate theme parties. When I called to ask if I could see his collection, he suggested, instead, that we step into some antique wooden planks so I could get a glimpse of what skiing used to be.
“Don’t expect it to be like the skiing you’re used to,” he said as he dug a 7-foot-long pair of 1960 Austrian Blizzards from a wall of hundreds of skis and handed them to me with a pair of low, leather boots.
“What should I expect?” I asked.
“Expect to fall on your ass.”
Allen’s collection — which includes thousands of skis, boots, poles, posters, patches, pins, hats, mitts and goggles that fill his house, his triple garage and five or six self-storage units — started with his grandfather’s skis.
Not much changed in ski technology between the oldest skis yet discovered (crude planks dating back 8,000 years) and Allen’s first.
They were all handmade from wood, had a leather binding, and could handle only the gentlest hills. But since then, skis have evolved at a feverish pace.
Allen has specimens from every era.
Once friends knew he was saving his family’s old skis, they began offering their old gear.
By 1990, he was buying out old ski shops with back rooms full of ancient gear. Now people come to him with stuff by the truckload.
He sells antique skis, posters and patches on his website, Vintageskiworld.com — mostly to fund his appetite for more skis.
“The handcrafted beauty of these old skis — the elegance!” he said as he sorted through boxes, pulling out jackets and wool pants that would match the 1960 skis he picked for me. “That’s why I fell in love. It’s become a bit of an addiction. In every old ski you can feel the essence, the history, the beautiful energy of the skier who owned it”
He pulled a baggy red White Stag anorak over my head, handed me a baggy pair of wool knickers, stood back, assessed how it looked with the skis, and said, “We should get you a turtleneck dickey to go with that.”
In a way, Allen’s collection is a record of ideas that didn’t work: aluminum skis, zinc skis and bindings that had a nasty habit of snapping bones.
“Those early skis were tough,” said Mark Miller, a Park City, Utah, ski instructor who has an antique-ski collection to rival Allen’s. “The new skis are so much more maneuverable, and the bindings are safer.”
Miller, who specializes in solid wood skis from before 1950, has 3,000 pairs. He has not skied a single one.
“That would be like trying to take an old Ford Model A out on the highway. It just wouldn’t be very safe,” he said.
That doesn’t bother Allen. He has a new pair of high-tech Volkl AC3s for powder days, but also loves donning a pin-covered
Austrian hat and antique goggles to play around on boards from the Eisenhower administration.
He’s one of a small gang of antique-ski aficionados who break out the woodies a few times a winter. There are even antique-ski races, though the only one in Colorado, held at Aspen, has not happened in years.
We drove up to Sunlight Mountain, west of Glenwood Springs, and hoisted our 7-foot skis over our shoulders.
“Which way to the rope tow?” he asked a young lift operator.
The kid, in baggy pants and mirrored goggles, shrugged as if thinking, “When is this old dude going to throw away those skis?” and said, “Uh, we don’t have one of those.”
On the way up the lift, Allen gave some advice: There is no high plastic boot to hold you up, so bend forward at the ankle over the ski if you don’t want to end up on the ground.
“You know those old ski posters with the guys leaning way forward? That’s what you have to do or these skis won’t turn.”
Allen’s prediction from the morning was right. Two turns down the bunny hill, I tumbled backward. My leather boots sprang loose from the old cable “bear trap” bindings, and the skis clattered to the ground.
On the second try, though, the skis started to feel more natural. There was no hourglass shape to make turns effortless. There was no camber to help spring into the next turn.
You wouldn’t want to try these boards on an epic day at Aspen Highlands, but in the gentle schuss from edge to edge, flying down a green run on a sunny day, it was easy to see why skiing caught on as a sport 60 years ago.
Allen shot past with a grin on his face.
“Hey, you’re starting to get it,” he said.
Then a man called down from the chairlift, “Are those old Fischers?”
He skied down to meet Allen.
“Those are the ’57 Chevy of skis!” said the man, who had gray hair and a new pair of Atomics.
He said he had skied on the same skis as a kid.
Allen told him he had a brand-new pair just like them for sale.
“You should try them sometime,” Allen said.
“No,” the man said, looking down at the long, straight skis. “I’m kinda glad I’m living in the 21st century.”
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