By: Jackson Hogen
Published: October 9, 2018
Aging is a bitch.
Nothing and no one is immune from its predations. I mention this not to impress you with the depth of my insights (the likes of which are unavailable elsewhere), but because we humans have a tendency to hope some things will last forever, or if not forever, at least as long as we will.
A corollary to this inescapable reality is that some of the stuff we own is quite a bit older than we imagine. For reasons science has yet to explain, this phenomenon is common among skiers. Ski salespeople are routinely told that a customer’s current gear is “5 to 7 years old” only to discover the model in question has been out of production for 15. So part of the problem with older equipment is it tends to be older than you think.
This trio of oldies but no longer goodies all appear to have some life left in them.
Wait a minute, I hear some of my perspicacious readers protest, it’s not the years you’ve owned your gear, it’s how often you ski it. Good point: the pro patrol who are working on the hill over 100 days a season are running through their gear’s life expectancy at a much faster clip than the weekend warrior who plans to ski 50 days a year and ends up skiing parts of 25. But ten years down the road, the patrolman will have replaced his boots five times over, while the civilian will still have the same pair and darned if they don’t still look pretty good.
And that’s another part of the problem with aging plastics: they may not show their age, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t degrading. Discoloration is relatively uncommon today because boot makers now add UV stabilizers to the mix, but UV is still weakening the polymer chain, or in the lovely argot of chemists, UV degradation can produce “cleavage of the polymer backbone.” Who says science isn’t sexy?
Upon further review, the Scott and Lange have non-standard soles while the Salomon SX92’s is beyond repair. If used, the Scott would probably fracture while the Lange shell might remain intact for all eternity.
If the sun won’t silently snuff out your gear, maybe water will. Polyurethanes and polyamides – the principal materials in most of the high-end boots good skiers seek – don’t like humidity, particularly when accompanied by heat. So modern boots incorporate hydrolysis stabilizers to the PU or PA so casual exposure to water won’t have any effect, but since we have no published data on how boot materials age, we don’t really know how long UV or hydrolysis stabilizers are effective.
So ski boots don’t like UV and H2O; what else is on their enemies list? Basically, anything that can affect the elasticity of the plastic it’s made of, including extreme cold, chemical solvents, and, of course, aging.
Despite an abundance of knowledge about the chemical properties of thermoplastic polyurethane, polyamides (such as nylon), polypropylene and polyethylene (in conjunction with various additives) we don’t know much about their properties after, say, 15 years of use, because “until now, no data have been reported in the literature regarding the effect of aging on impact resistance of ski-boots.” (Citation from Materials, Designs and Standards Used in Ski-Boots for Alpine Skiing, Colonna et al., 2013.)
Which isn’t to say that nobody tests for aging issues; in fact, every major boot and binding manufacturer subjects all products to durability testing. This can be as simple as the “roof test” – throw it on the roof, pick it up 18 months later and test it – or as sophisticated as a machine designed to cycle the product through thousands of repetitive actions under a variety of environmental conditions and contaminant exposures.
But just as a blood test can only detect what it’s asked to detect, manufacturers may not think of everything to test for. Back in the 1980’s, they didn’t think UV would be so intense at high-altitude resorts that it would compromise the integrity of both polyurethanes and polyamides. At one time, kids’ bindings couldn’t handle intense cold because the engineers didn’t imagine anyone would take their little tykes out to ski in such weather. Wrong on both counts.
Just because everyone has wised up to the dangers of UV and hydrolysis, doesn’t mean your boots are going to last forever. Plastics fatigue with use and once they lose their elasticity, they’re toast.
Predicting when this will happen to your boots is dependent on many factors, most notably how they’re cared for. Keep them clean, buckled and store them where temperature is more or less constant. Never use solvents to clean them and monitor cuts and abrasion as the former can lead to breakage and the latter can affect binding performance.
As regards bindings, their plastic components are subject to the same degradation as the plastics in boots. But bindings and boots are very different in one respect: there are standardized shop practices designed to identify an improperly functioning boot/binding system and each manufacturer limits how long they will indemnify shops for working on older bindings, essentially culling “likely to fail” models out of the user population before they can die in action.
Unfortunately, many skiers have learned that if they bring Old Betsy into a shop, no one will work on the bindings, so they solve the problem by avoiding the inspection process all together. Keeping that binding on the secondary market isn’t doing anyone any favors.
You may think it an act of charity to bestow your 20-odd-year old set-up on a friend or relative, or hope to dispose of it at the next ski swap. All I can say is, please don’t. If you can’t bear to part with Old Betsy, I remind you that tired skis make excellent furniture.
While we’re on the subject of aging, what about skis? How do they handle the ravages of time? Assuming they’re well taken care of, skis will hold together a long, long time. But the zip in the skis you bought won’t last forever. Once the fiberglass has its memory pounded out of it, it’s off the rack character will be kaput, but that’s doesn’t mean it can’t be skied. I’ve done “flashback” ski tests on pairs over 30 years old, and aside from them not being all that much fun, no harm done.
I can’t let you go, Dear Reader, without raising a final red flag regarding a current issue with boot/binding compatibility. The International Standards Organization (ISO) is working as fast as the standard process allows to compose a new binding standard to handle a treaded sole on an Alpine boot (as opposed to backcountry soles, which have their own standard). The new standard will probably coalesce around the current GripWalk design, but until clear standards are in place, there is a very real possibility of mixing and matching older bindings with newer boots that will create a dysfunctional system. (BTW, this can also be true with some new bindings.) Please consult with your local specialty shop before mating any boot with tread on its sole with any binding you intend to use. All ski/boot/binding systems should be mechanically tested and visually inspected for compatibility, as it’s possible for a ski/boot/binding system to pass standard shop testing and still not perform as expected.
Here’s the biggest problem with deteriorating gear: life is short, too short to spend a precious ski day on borderline crap. Over the last five years, skis and boots have achieved new benchmarks in fit and performance. Your old spare pair ain’t what she used to be. So treat yourself to new gear this year.
You’ll be glad you did.