We did it.

Against long odds, we, the community of American Alpine skiers, pulled off a very respectable version of a ski season in the first few months of 2021.  Wherever local restrictions allowed lift-assisted skiing, we not only showed up, we behaved.

I don’t want you to get all misty-eyed over our collective wonderfulness just yet, as I want you to be able to read my glowing prose through clear lenses. But it is worth noting how well skiers rolled with the punches, adjusting to whatever new rules were applied as resorts felt their way forward. Gradually, lift-line protocols emerged that allowed for more riders per chair, bringing uphill capacity closer to normal. Based on what I’ve seen since lifts began spinning this season, aside from the omnipresence of masks, lift lines and lift loading are back to pre-pandemic norms.

2021 was a rough year for ski suppliers, despite a U.S. sales season that rebounded nicely after a preseason where the dominant mood was gloom and doom.  Once the pandemic hit, sales forecasts were slashed to the bone, as cascading order cancellations bulldozed every budget.  While the U.S. market would later recover its footing, in Europe, travel restrictions bludgeoned any hope of healthy equipment sales, a shortfall for which the American recovery couldn’t compensate. This fall, continuing wrinkles in the supply chain has crimped suppliers’ ability to restock shelves in those markets where snow has stimulated a ravenous demand.

Adjusting to the New Normal

Considering the financial storm the global ski market has had to weather, it’s remarkable how well many manufacturers have been able to keep their R&D departments humming along.  There’s little doubt some plans made three years ago have been postponed, but most projects that were well on their way to completion pre-pandemic are still on track to debut later this winter. 

One irksome consequence of the current clog in the supply chain is that American retailers will have to assemble their 2022 preseason orders earlier than usual.  Naturally, shops would love to postpone any future commitments until they know how the current season will conclude, but that fairy tale is unlikely to come true this year.  Figuring out how  to prepare for the coming year will be more of a crapshoot than ever, at a time when taking greater risk seems imprudent.

Coming into last season, one of the major obstacles the ski trade had to navigate was how to manage the intimate interaction between skier and bootfitter.  The first skirmishes in the mask-mandate war were not particularly pleasant. There were many “I’ll never shop here again!” fulminations by freedom-loving shoppers as they harrumphed out the door.

But in due course, the anti-everything crowd thinned out, leaving behind a community eager to comply with a few inconveniences.  The new normal of mask-wearing, social distancing and generous applications of hand sanitizer allowed bootfitters to apply their craft without fearing for their health.

While several pandemic-inspired protocols seem likely to become the new de facto standard, not all such suggested practices have proven to be necessary. Bootfitting appointments, for example, aren’t generally required.  Shops with a history of preferring appointments will continue their routine, but the practice is unlikely to become universal.

One new mandate that I pray to God remains standard operating procedure is the requirement to use new socks for any bootfitting. The news that they’re buying new socks along with boots still stuns the occasional customer, but most accept the idea as part of the new rules of engagement.  Frankly, why anyone would want to slip on a sock that has been worn by who- knows-how-many others, is beyond me.  So-called “fit socks” are, in a word, fetid.  If the idea of procuring a new sock is objectionable, bring a clean pair of your own, but be advised the bootfitter may overrule your selection.

One avantgarde development I’ve lost track of is the proliferation of foot-scanning devices. I’m sure that more American specialty shops have one on the premises than was the case pre-pandemic, but whether they’ve been completely integrated into those shops’ standard practices, I’ve no idea. I’ll have a better notion of the status quo after I interview a healthy cross-section of shop owners next month.

There are a couple of trends that were in full swing before we all learned the word, “coronavirus,” that continue to be growing markets. Paramount among all rising trends is the surge in backcountry skiing.  Everybody is heading out of bounds, which is wonderful, of course, but still concerning. Backcountry skiers depend on each other to follow the rules, but it’s all self-policed. Last year, a dubious record was set for backcountry fatalities in America.  With so much pent up demand heading for what is in reality a relatively small slice of real estate, casualties are inevitable.  Let’s hope all our new off-trail participants get the education, the equipment and the knowledgeable support they need to be safe. 

The other major trend that is unlikely to be blunted anytime soon is shopping for gear on the Internet. I make my living by vending advice on the Net, but part of my counsel is to take what you learn and apply it at your favorite specialty shop.  (If you don’t have a favorite, check out Jackson’s List for a specialty shop near where you live or ski. 

The reason I’m a die-hard supporter of specialty shops is that they are any and all skiers’ only hope of getting properly fit in boots, and without properly fit boots, you may be able to go skiing, but you’ll never be able to ski. Do not, even for one second, imagine that some self-styled “expert” can fit you in boots over the Internet.  Anyone who thinks they can do so has already disqualified himself or herself from any consideration as an “expert.”

We all need help to make it through this crazy existence, and bootfitting is one area where you need to accept the fact that you won’t be able to do it alone. Nor can you do it in collaboration with someone who can’t touch your bare feet or see your stance. Skiing is an individual sport, but it is also a sport that nurtures community and support for one another, support that is best supplied face to face.

In the year ahead, I hope that the attitude of mutual support and cooperation that has enabled us to continue to ski while confronting the most challenging conditions we have ever faced, will continue to provide the spiritual substrate in which our beloved sport can grow.