It’s the boots, stupid!
If the ski boot fits... it’s because a bootfitter spent some time making it resemble your foot. Three of the best in the business work in Whistler.
By G.D. Maxwell
To say skiers are a breed unto themselves — weird ducks as those less generous may say — is to state the obvious. At a time when most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is beating a path to some black lava beach in Hawaii, a steamy Costa Rican jungle, or haunting the mean streets of Margaritaville somewhere in the Caribbean, skiers are greeting the news of a killer winter storm dumping three feet of fresh snow on the cusp of the vernal equinox with shouts of glee and plans to play hooky.
As if that’s not weird enough, as a group we buck the flow of late 20th century culture in a more profound way. In an age where personal responsibility has spent the last 20 years on the endangered species list, where, if there isn’t someone handy around to blame for whatever miscreant behaviour we’re prone to backsliding into, we get our medical community to identify a new syndrome to blame it on, skiers have it all backwards. We blame ourselves for our failures. What’s with that?
We read and reread the same old "tips" in ski magazines we’ve read for years. We place our fates in the hands of instructors whose form and style on the slopes can best be described as flowing water, while ours are best described as demolition derby. We blame ourselves and salve our savaged egos with equal doses of hot tubs, alcohol and rich dinners. We are failures — but we have fun failing.
Well, guess what? Maybe it’s not completely our fault. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something else we can pin this one on. Why should skiers be alone in shouldering blame for our shortcomings?
It’s the boots, stupid!
Yeah, yeah, it’s a poor workman who blames his tools. But it’s an even poorer workman who rounds off nuts with a Vise-grip because he doesn’t have the right wrench, who thinks a screwdriver is a good substitute for a chisel, and who thinks a bigger hammer will make the job go faster.
Ski boots are the single most important link in the chain that begins with a gleam in a skier’s eye and ends with an edge carving a turn. Extraordinary balance, natural athletic grace, and the strength of a bull all come in handy to varying degrees, but all are hamstrung if they’re poured into ill-fitting boots. Besides, this is supposed to be a fun sport, not a complete personal makeover. You’re probably not going to develop much more balance, athletic grace and strength than you currently possess. So why not make the most of what you have?
When a modern ski boot is clamped around the foot and lower leg of a skier, it becomes a part of who they are. It is no more a foreign object of foam and plastic than the skier’s foot is just a bag of pulp and bone. If it fits the skier’s foot right, if it aligns their lower leg just so, if it helps place their centre of gravity where it needs to be, if it flexes the way it should and if it lets their skis ride flat on the snow, they just might have a chance to develop into a good skier, natural abilities permitting. If it doesn’t do all those things correctly, they may become relatively good skiers who suffer needlessly from foot and joint pain, but more likely they are doomed to mediocrity. They are the legions of skiers, painfully visible from chairlifts, who skid their way around every turn, stand on their skis in a posture more suggestive of La-Z-Boy than Rossignol, and lever their skis through turns using their hips and legs because their feet and knees aren’t free to do the job.
The first piece of ski equipment I bought when I took up the sport and was reasonably convinced I was going to enjoy it, was boots. Rental skis gave me no pause. But rental boots had all the appeal of used condoms. They didn’t fit right and I couldn’t be sure where they’d been before I stuck my foot into them. So call me squeamish.
I bought those first boots at a large sports store in Toronto. Mistakes number one and two. Buy boots where you ski and never, never, never buy them at a store that also sells badminton racquets. The young man who sold me the boots shared at least one thing in common with me. Neither of us knew diddly about fitting ski boots. He might as well have been selling me golf shoes, which, of course, he also sold.
Yes, they were rear entry. Yes, they didn’t fit. Yes, they hampered my development if not my love of skiing. Yes, it took me several seasons to find someone to "fit" them if that’s not a complete oxymoron when we’re talking about rear entry boots. Yes, I finally saw the light. Yes, they make nice flower pots today. Yes, it is their highest and best use. Who says confession is good for the soul?
I’m not about to embarrass myself by proving the depth of my ignorance about all the elements of proper bootfitting. I don’t know enough about cant to make a meaningful sentence containing the word. Ramp angles sound vaguely like they have something to do with trucks and loading docks. Pronation and supination were two of the battling countries in Orwell’s 1984, weren’t they?
But I know bootfitting is an important enough topic that Warren Witherell and David Evrard in their book The Athletic Skier spend just over the first quarter of the book discussing nothing but boots and their proper fit. And I understand the complex simplicity of their 80/20 - 20/80 rule. "The first 80 percent (of proper fit) provides a 20 percent gain in performance. The last 20 percent... provides an 80 percent gain." In other words, a little bit out of balance is still out of balance.
And most important of all, I know Whistler is blessed with a number of good bootfitters. How could it be otherwise? If you spend any time in an après ski kind of mood, in a place where locals tend to hang out, and you innocently say something like, "Know any good bootfitters?" you get some interesting responses. After the arguments subside and everyone agrees another beer is the only way to settle the disputes, three names keep popping up time after time: George McConkey, Ernie Tysowski, and John Colpitts.
George McConkey is the rarest of ducks in the bootfitting world. He doesn’t sell ski boots. With partner Jeff Coombs, George owns McCoo’s and McCoo’s Too. The stores are chock full of outerwear, sunglasses, goggles, helmets, poles, gloves and just about everything a skier or boarder needs except skis, boots and boards. "Jeff and I organized the shop 11 years ago as a clothing and accessory store," George explained. "When you take the cost of inventory and space into consideration, we can’t make money selling boots, but when you fit peoples’ boots for them, they love you forever. They buy everything from you."
They’ve been buying everything from George since 1979 when he left Sacramento, where he grew up, and came to Whistler to work in his father’s store at Creekside. The ski business was in his blood and even then he couldn’t imagine "working at anything better in the world." Outgoing and affable, he got his early tips on boot fitting from Dave MacPhail, a local legend and Steve Podborski’s much heralded bootfitter. "He got me going on fitting boots and looking at them in a different perspective. Instead of trying to fit symptoms, I started looking at why problems were happening, what the foot’s trying to do when you’re skiing, where the weight’s supposed to be."
Not being a boot seller gives George a freedom to speak his mind where others with closer ties to the industry may hesitate. It’s a freedom he exercises liberally. "Manufacturers don’t want a bunch of retailers getting together and coming up with a school to train people to fit a pair of boots," he opines. "If you fit a pair of boots right, they should last 15 years, you just change the liners. Boot companies have a vested interest in poorly fitted boots; they want you to buy new boots every couple of seasons."
Most days, you can find George in the far corner of his shop in the Delta, at the base of Whistler Mountain, hunched over the aching feet and hopeful gazes of people suffering from greater or lesser bootfitting sins, people who have just about given up on a good fit. Virtually all of them have been referred to George by ski instructors who have been perceptive enough to realize their skiing problems start with their boots, not with their inability to learn the basics of carving turns.
What happens next often horrifies them. "I look at their feet, their calves, how they stand and in about 10 minutes have a pretty good picture of what needs to be done," says George. "Then I go to work." "Work" for George, often means tearing what look like perfectly good boots apart and rebuilding them from the ground up. Cuffs with limited or no adjustment are popped off, toe boxes are punched and ground, liners are sliced, diced, thinned and padded, whatever is necessary.
On a snowy day earlier this month, Sharon, vacationing from the United Kingdom, was perched on the bench in the back of the store. An intermediate skier, Sharon had purchased a pair of mid-range boots during a holiday in Banff a couple of years back. Even though she’d missed falling into the trap of buying boots at a sporting goods store miles from a ski slope, she’d suffered a poor fit right from the start.
Sharon’s main problem was the size of her calves relative to the cuff of the boot. Or, as her boyfriend — soon to be ex-boyfriend — put it from safely beyond her earshot, "They’re not so much calves as steers, wouldn’t’cha say?" To make the sale and buy some time, the store who sold the boots heated the cuff and deformed it, giving it the illusion of comfort. A second fitter in Banff used various bits of plastic to raise the ramp in order to lift Sharon’s foot, hoping that would allow the cuff more room around her slightly more tapered lower leg.
All their efforts had managed to do was exacerbate an already bad situation. By ramping up the heel, they’d thrown Sharon’s centre of gravity forward, forcing her into a position that had her leaning out over the front of her skis. The boot’s cuffs, which had never been aligned to begin with, pushed against the inside of her calves and forced her onto her outer edges — carving was out of the question.
"No wonder she’s having troubles," George sympathized. "She can’t stand straight without a lot of pain, she can’t get her skis on the inside edge, and she’s having to turn by levering her hips and knees and physically turning the skis."
For the next several minutes, George dug various pieces of plastic out of the boots. Grinding off the pop rivets holding the cuffs, he realigned them to fit Sharon’s legs when she stood flat-footed in her shells. Marking the proper spot on the side of the boot, George drilled new mounting holes for the cuffs and repositioned them. To get the boots with their realigned cuffs to buckle snugly without cutting off circulation, George moved the top buckle in by half an inch.
When he replaced the liners, got her back into her boots and levered the final buckle, Sharon’s face took on the countenance of the converted. For the first time since she tried her boots on, she could stand upright in them. The back of her heel fit snugly in the cup of the liner and she was standing flat instead of rocking up on the outside of her foot.
Before she walked out the door, George flashed a smile and warned her, "When you go out today, do an easy run and work on getting the feel of skiing. "It’s going to seem like a completely different sport." After she’d left, he mused on how she’d probably be back, maybe next year, for the Intuition liners he wanted to install in order to do what he considered a "thorough" job.
That’s the nature of his business — people come back.
People have been coming back and coming to Wild Willie’s to see Ernie Tysowski for years now. When you’re located outside of the main village, when you’re an independent operator in a retail milieu dominated by corporate stores, when you’re good enough to win one of Ski Magazine’s Gold Medals, there are generally a lot of good reasons for your success. Ernie’s bootfitting skills and his efforts to pass them along to the rest of the store’s staff are undoubtedly big factors in explaining that success and the absolute chaos that Wild Willie’s becomes most afternoons in the après hours and early evening.
As he tells the story, Ernie got into bootfitting in the early ’70s out of a sense of frustration and personal quest. "I bought a pair of boots one year and they didn’t fit very well. I bought another the next year and they didn’t fit well either. When I took them back and told the store owner, ‘You promised me these boots would fit way better than the ones you sold me last year,’ he took a bit of offence and said, ‘Well, if you can do a better job, there’s the boot bench.’ So I did."
From that beginning, Ernie’s worked with good shops in Edmonton and Banff, owned stores in Port Alberni and Nanaimo, acted as industry rep, racer chaser and bootfitter to several national team racers, and taught scores of bootfitters the finer points of comfort and performance. With Bill Lamond — Wild Willie hisself — he was technical editor for Ski Canada and ran that magazine’s equipment testing program for several years. He’s taken his show on the road and conducted thousands of hours of fitting seminars, funded by some of the biggest names in ski boot manufacturing.
His experience has made Ernie a big believer in high quality, custom footbeds. "You can’t build a house on a shaky foundation," might be a hand-stitched sampler hanging somewhere in his mental den. But unlike so many other bootfitters whose skills begin and end at footbeds — more one might suspect as a simple adjunct to their selling effort rather than any real fitting philosophy — Ernie sees them going hand in hand with a well-fit shell as a basis around which the rest of a good fit can be achieved.
One afternoon recently, I watched Ernie shift his attention seamlessly between troubleshooting the fit on a new pair of boots, selling boots to a woman who had never had a pair that fit properly, and working on some overly snug snowboard boots.
Ray Barciak and his new boots were visiting Whistler for the first time from his home in New Jersey. On the receiving end of a bizarre motorcycle accident several years ago, Ray spent the better part of 18 months unable to walk and has confounded his surgeons by somehow getting his feet back into ski boots and himself back on the mountain. He’d purchased the boots shortly before his trip to Whistler but had the foresight to bring along his old, tired boots because he expected a struggle.
"Ray had a lot of callusing along the bottom and side of his big toe, some hot spots on both ankles and a load of discomfort," Ernie summarized quickly. "I stabilized the foot to stop the rolling motion inside and then punched out the ankles to sort of create a garage for the extra bone mass that had built up over the years." In a fine dance, Ernie worked with the shell, then the liner, and back to the shell of Ray’s boots, creeping up on the final shape and volume he believed would spell relief.
Referred to Willie’s, and Ernie specifically, by an instructor who had the option of sending them to any number of shops in the village, Ray and his buddy had made the bus ride to Nesters on the assurance Ernie could "work wonders." For 45 minutes Ernie worked on Ray’s boots, one after the other, creating in the foam and plastic the shape he saw on Ray’s feet. For another half hour or so, Ray sat around, walked around, with the boots buckled on his feet, joking and watching the parade of people pass through. When he was ready to render a verdict, a big grin crossed his face, "They feel like they were custom made." And so they were.
Meanwhile, back on the bench, Mary from Nova Scotia couldn’t believe her ears. "How can that be?" she exclaimed when told the reason she was "swimming" in her boots was because, well, she was swimming in her boots. They were two sizes bigger than her feet. She’d bought the boots at home and skied on them a few times at the big mountains Down East.
Ernie explained, "It’s easy to sell a boot that’s too big. When you tell somebody whose toes are jammed into a ski boot, almost doubled up, ‘don’t worry, this is going to fit just fine,’ they look at you like you’re crazy." Too many boot sellers, as it turns out, will stick someone in a bigger boot to stop their squealing and make them happy while they’re in the store. Unfortunately, while a good bootfitter can work wonders with a tight boot, there’s not much the best of them can do with one that’s too big. Size counts.
"This man, THIS MAN, saved my vacation," shouted the obviously joyful woman suddenly striding into the store. "I’ve been telling people everywhere about THIS MAN." I don’t know if Ernie was blushing because I couldn’t see his face. The woman singing his praises, a tourist from Toronto, had hobbled into the shop three days earlier with rental boots that were both too stiff and poorly fitted to her very flat, very pronated feet. Near closing time, Ernie spent the better part of an hour troubleshooting her case and fitting her in a pair of demo boots that wouldn’t twist her lower leg and recreate her nightmare of pain. In a civilized world, a bootfitter who can salvage a ski vacation with a little science, a little art and a bit of magic would be king.
And if that were the case, Whistler’s Bootfitter King might just be John Colpitts. A fixture at Whistler Mountain’s Creekside shop for as long as the collective memory permits, John sneaks into the conversation whenever bootfitting is the topic. John and George have worked together, John and Ernie have worked together, John and just about everyone who fits boots in Whistler have worked together at some point. And he seems like such a young guy, doesn’t he?
"I was 11 when I arrived in Whistler in 1976 and went to work for Jim McConkey," he lied through his teeth. "I taught hotdog skiing for Jim when I first came here and got into bootfitting because I was skiing 150 days a year and developed these huge, huge growths on my feet and figured there had to be a better way. I started working in the shop, selling boots, and met Dave MacPhail, who exposed me to some of his whacked-out ideas, like that boots were supposed to fit right."
In the early ’80s, working with Roy Gardiner at Blackcomb Sports, John met the developers and designers of Superfeet and "saw the light" of fitting boots by understanding the biomechanics of foot function. "Learn what the foot does and doesn’t do, learn different foot shapes, how they work and how to stabilize them," he explained. "This was a radical departure from punching boots out, grinding them, using wedges, arch supports and foam pads to compensate for what you didn’t have to begin with, a stable foot." As one of two shops in the country making footbeds the first year — other than the custom footbeds crafted by MacPhail — they sold probably 300.
After a prolonged stint travelling the country teaching other bootfitters how to build footbeds, John collaborated with Dave Steers to develop and teach a boot tech program for Capilano College. This led to a couple of years where he and Dave worked as the equipment editors for Ski Canada writing the yearly Buyer’s Guide and conducting the ski tests until "we ran out of adjectives to describe forward-lean, forward-flex adjustments," he joked. Since the early ’90s, John’s been rooted at the Creek.
If you peruse the ever-growing Whistler-Blackcomb internal telephone listing, you’ll find John listed simply as "bootfitter." Manager of the Creekside retail shop, it’s not his "official" title, but then, what else would you call him? These days, with his other duties, it’s harder and harder to find him actually fitting boots, unless, of course, you fall into that exclusive — but not too exclusive — class of customers he jokingly refers to as his potential future ex-wife. But the afternoon hours are still punctuated with customers and customers who have become friends asking for him and him alone.
On a recent afternoon, Kent Wills strolled through the door, boots in one hand, malt beverage in the other. Bootfitters after all are historically known to rise to certain stimuli like trout to mayflies. In 1995, Kent pulled on a slippery speed suit, aerodynamic spoilers and a Buck Rogers helmet and pointed his skis down a buffed course. Somewhere further down the slope, he was clocked at 204 kilometres per hour (that’s a little over 120 mph for our American friends) and became the World Champion Speed Skier. Today, his boots pinch.
As John was piecing together a Lego-like Superfit shell expander, Kent explained, "I have a low-volume foot so to get any support, I have to buy a really snug boot. This Lange is great but for some reason they and all the other boot manufacturers seem to think toes come to a point." As John coaxed the hydraulic cylinder of the expander, the working end deformed the toebox of Kent’s boot into something approximating the shape of the front end of a foot. "It’s a very nifty device," John said. "A little heat, let it cool overnight and your cares are over."
Not so, unfortunately, the outsized gent sitting on the fitting bench. Having arrived 20 minutes earlier asking specifically for John, whom he’d never met but who his cousin assured him he wanted to, he was destined to leave without new boots. His ageing, cable-over, rear-entry boots had "blown up" that day. His size 12 feet, while perfectly proportioned to the rest of his body, weren’t shaped like any of the couple of size 12 boots left at the Creek. One pair was too soft, one too stiff, one didn’t have nearly enough width to accommodate a foot that definitely didn’t need a swim fin to generate considerable speed in a pool.
"The only thing I could do in good conscience was send him over to one of the other stores," John explained. "I might have been able to work enough with the Lange to make a good fit but you have to remember, he’s coming out of a rear-entry boot, and any good four-buckle boot is going to be a major adjustment as far as how it feels to him. He’s a big, strong boy who can generate a lot of leverage and strength over the length of that body, and he needs something that fits closer to start with." The lesson, applicable to more than just those whose consciousness rises to the height of door jambs, is this: Buy your boots early in the season, there’s better selection and you’ll get to enjoy them all year.
I left John puzzling over what to try next with a frustrating, perplexing bootfitting puzzle. A young racer suffering from anterior tibial tendonitis. "No hot, young racer wants to be told to stay off their skis for six weeks," he sighed. "So we’ve worked with the shell and tried some different liners. Between the modifications and some anti-inflammatories, she’s stayed on her skis, but it’s a hard case." And just the kind of thing to drag a guy whose self-proclaimed only goal in life was to become the best bootfitter on the planet out of his office and back to the bench.
Watching John and Ernie and George work, I’ve marvelled at what some people actually manage to put up with in order to ski. Admittedly, I’ve never understood how someone can drop a few grand to fly to Whistler for a week to ski and fail to see the logic of spending another one or two hundred dollars to get their boots properly fitted. They can’t ski worth a damn in ill-fitting boots and they winge and moan on the hill and in the bar about how much their feet hurt to the point of being boring. But then, like I said, skiers are weird ducks.