Tom Ross: The purity of the turn

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

Editor's note: This is an edited version of a column that originally published in January 2007

When you think about it, the modern history of skiing is a great deal like the history of rock 'n' roll. Most meaningful change is driven by rebellious youths who refuse to conform to societal norms.

If you happen to be a rebellious young person yourself, or if you just have a vague recollection of being a rebellious punk, I have a book for you.

Whether it was freestyle skiing in the late 1970s or snowboarding in the 1990s, young people who insisted on redefining snow sports for their own generation, and the culture that sprang up around it, moved the sport forward.

John Fry is no more youthful than I am, but he gets it anyway.

"Ski area operators looked at freestyle skiers and saw the long hair and the wet T-shirt contest in the bar afterward and they said, 'We're a family sport! We can't have this!'" Fry said.

Fry, the former editor-in-chief of SKI magazine, is the author of "The Story of Modern Skiing." The book describes the revolution in ski equipment, technique, resorts and competition after World War II. It contains many references to Carl Howelsen and Steamboat Springs.

Fry sees irony in the resistance to the freestyle skiing movement by the older generation.

"This was the same (older) generation that used to try to cheat ski area operators (with lift ticket scams) and make lunch out of the condiments in the cafeteria," Fry said.

After freestyle and "hot dog skiing" shook up the skiing world, snowboarding came along and there was more resistance on the part of the skiing establishment. However, snowboarding was about to bring even greater change to the ski resorts.

Snowboards can be credited with revolutionizing the design of Alpine skis. Fry knows what he's talking about. As a member of the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame, he launched NASTAR racing and the Graduated Length Method of teaching.

When snowboarding arrived on the slopes, he said, many ski area operators banned the new way of sliding down a snowy mountain.

"Things have changed," Fry said. "The big epiphany for me came with snowboarding. I had a long interview with (snowboarding pioneer) Jake Burton in Stowe (Vermont) for the book. Snowboarding got (ski area operators) to think, 'You've got a mountain, you've got snow on it, and you've got a lot of ways to slide on it.'"

Fry's message is to validate all forms of sliding down the hill. And clearly, he recognizes the innovations brought on by the dramatic sidecut and large surface area of snowboards.

I'll never forget a gondola ride I shared with Billy Kidd years ago. We were nearing the mid-point of Heavenly Daze when Kidd looked down at the slope to admire the technique of a snowboarder.

The precise arcs in the groomed snow told the story - this snowboarder knew what he was doing.

"That's the purest carved turn I've ever seen," Kidd said in a soft voice.

Keep in mind these words were uttered by a ski racer who achieved international fame in the 1960s. Yet, he didn't care about the equipment strapped to the snowboarder's boots as much as he cared about the purity of the turn.

Fry says snowboard design dragged skis into the modern era.

"With the skis of the 1970s and 1980s, you had to either pivot or skid (to some degree) to turn them. It's amazing it took so long (to redesign skis with greater sidecut). Snowboarding also led to the fat ski for powder."

Fry thinks the evolving equipment of different eras and technique adaptations dictated by the equipment don't reflect the heart of the athlete. Whether you're discussing the career of Toni Sailer in the 1950s, Billy Kidd and Jean-Claude Killy in the 1960s, or Lindsey Vonn in 2009, they are great athletes and products of their eras.

"The Story of Modern Skiing" is about a good deal more than changes in ski equipment. Fry writes authoritatively about the rise of ski trains that ferried thousands of New Yorkers to the ski areas of New England, the transition from improvised rope tows to highly-engineered chairlifts, and the role that veterans of the famed Tenth Mountain Division played in creating the giant resorts of the Rocky Mountains.

If you love the sport, seek out Fry's book. It will broaden and deepen your appreciation for the roots of Alpine skiing in North America.a

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