Time for a tune-up

Wax makes the difference for smooth skiing experience

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Imagine standing at the top of Storm Peak looking down on the freshies and out over the Yampa Valley.

You have checked all your gear before heading out on the snow boots, poles, hat and gloves. But have you looked on the bottom of your skis? Did you forget to wax?

Soon enough you'll know if you forgot because you won't go anywhere very fast or very gracefully.

Todd Fellows, gear consultant at Ski Haus International, said waxing is not only for the speed racer but also for the skier or snowboarder who understands the art of carving.

"It's an art and a science," said Fellows, who has been in the ski business for about 15 years. "Waxing isn't just for speed but it allows you to turn easier through the snow."

As Matt Janzen stood in the Ski Haus shop room waxing, scraping and brushing skis for the postponed opening of the Steamboat Ski Area, Fellows made a point to clarify between the two waxes: glide and grip or kick wax.

Glide wax, the type of hydrocarbon wax used on most alpine skis, snowboards and skate skis, is temperature and heat sensitive.

Kick wax, used for skiing up hill, mostly is dependent on snow temperature. The wax is not heated but spread on the ski base for grip in climbing hills on prepared tracks.

Using the appropriate tools for waxing is just as important as your technique in applying the wax, Fellows said.

"Using a clothes iron will make the thing smoke like crazy but we used it for years," Fellows said. "If you're into it, pick tools that are job specific."

The base of a ski is porous. As wax is melted (with an iron on the lowest temperature) an excess of wax will form on top of the base.

"Wax acts like a lotion to the skin," Fellows said. "You're trying to impregnate the ski base with wax."

Melting the wax allows it to find the base pores and absorb, Fellows said.

Using a plastic scraper after the wax has cooled, scrape the excess wax from the base leaving a smooth surface.

After the excess has been scraped, Fellows said a dense brush will help structure the ski base, or take off the little bits of wax still left on the base to expose the pores.

"You're really not gliding on snow but a microscopic thin layer of water that is produced when skis slide over snow," Fellows said. "You really can't wax or brush your skis too much."

Fellows said he waxed his skis every day he went to the mountain about five or six years ago. But as those days lessened, so did his energy to wax.

Make sure to always work from the tip to the tail of the ski or snowboard. Winter Sports Club Alpine Director Tony Nunnikhoven said because the ski base is made of polyethylene millions of micro fibers stick up from the base.

"If you work from tip to tail, you're pushing all the micro fibers in the same direction as travel. You don't want to have 150 million micro fibers going in the direction against travel. That would slow you down," Nunnikhoven said.

Virgin waxers are likely to end up with 10 times the wax they really need, Fellows said. But, he said, practice makes perfect in the waxing game.

Wax temperature is crucial to skiing performance. Fellows said Ski Haus adjusts the temperature of wax to the air temperature. As the air temperature gets colder, the wax gets harder.

"If it was zero degrees and you used a 20-degree wax, your skis wouldn't move," Fellows said.

But Nunnikhoven said using a broad temperature ski wax is fine for Steamboat Springs and for recreational skiers.

"The reason you wax is to diminish friction," Nunnikhoven said.

Some components of friction that may affect wax temperature include crystals of snow, age of snow, latent water content, air humidity, air temperature, snow temperature and amount of dirt and contaminants.

Before many races, Nunnikhoven will bring out his snow formation directory that guides him to use a certain temperature wax for his racers.

"It's like a physical and chemical chess game. It's a game for some people," Nunnikhoven said.

Who would have thought that standing on a snowy hill with two wooden sticks strapped to your feet would become a sporting event where hundredths of a second would decide who was the best in the world? And who would have thought about adding hydrocarbons or fluorocarbons to paraffin to create a smoother and faster glide down that snowy hill?

Michael Paul, one of the longest-standing Ski Haus employees, said he thinks people began waxing skis sometime in the 1800s.

Paul joked that Steamboat locals in the 1800s probably used bear wax.

Nunnikhoven said he didn't think wax changed much for 60 years. But in the past 15 years, he said waxing companies began testing fluorocarbons with paraffin to create a faster speed.

Nunnikhoven said ski racers spend hundreds of dollars on wax for the optimum speed. Racers use a preparatory wax, a race wax, speed additives and a final layer of fluorocarbons to their skis before a race.

If skiers and snowboarders were to walk into a local ski shop to wax their own equipment, Nunnikhoven said they would probably spend anywhere from $10 to about $30.

But Nunnikhoven said a pound of hydrocarbon costs $4. A pound of fluorocarbon is $400.

"You could spend $100 on a wax job and it won't be there when you get to the bottom," Nunnikhoven said.

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