It’s the Bindings, Stupid!

X-Ray of a Broken LegToni Matt was a victim of the most common skiing injury during the early days of organized skiing. Granted Matt’s was a severe case, but broken legs were a common occurrence. Before World War II, it is estimated that the injury rate was ten skiers per thousand skier-days and greater than 50% of those injuries were broken legs. In 1953 the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol would report a rate of four leg fractures per thousand skier-days. That’s a slight improvement over the earlier estimates, but still broken legs were the most common serious injury. Famous skiers such as Toni Sailer, Buddy Werner, and Jean Claude Killy all suffered broken legs during their careers. Chances are if you started skiing in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s, you have a broken leg story of your own.

Hvoom with Hvam“It’s the bindings, stupid!” While that may not be exactly what Hjalmar Hvam said, it summarizes his revelation while recovering from, you guessed it, a broken leg. Hvam was a Norwegian immigrant living in Oregon and is credited with designing and selling the first release binding in 1939, the Saf-Ski.

Jump ahead to the 1950s. In 1950 Frenchman Jean Beyl would introduce the Look Nevada toe piece. It was the first of what I would consider the modern ski bindings. It had adjustable release tension and anti-shock capability. Hannes Marker would introduce his Duplex toe in 1952 and then the Simplex in 1953. The latter had adjustable release tension. Countless other toe pieces designed to release in some fashion entered the market in the early 1950s. I had a Ski-Free and I see there was even a toe piece called the Stowe Flexible! But despite the proliferation of release bindings, broken legs were still the most common skiing injury.

In 1952 Mitch Cubberley would design a toe piece that would literally release in all directions. Then in 1955 Cubberley added the first step-in heel to become what we recognize as the Cubco binding. Cubberley was ahead of his time, but his ugly design delayed acceptance of his ideas.

One person who did recognize that Cubberley was heading in the right direction was a skier and product designer named Gordon Lipe. Lipe would work with Cubberley and they would identify friction as the enemy of the release binding. Cubberley had tried to get around it with metal boot attachments, but plastic boots made that difficult. Lipe would invent the Lipe Slider, an anti-friction device that went on the ski under the boot. Almost every binding today has some similar anti-friction surfaces.

Lipe Release CheckLipe also observed that many bindings featured adjustable release tension, but there wasn’t a way to gauge a proper setting except trial and error. So he designed a simple device to associate a value with the force required to release the binding at a particular tension setting. Through experiments Lipe was able to associate the values with a skier’s weight and ability. This was the predecessor of the DIN values used today to set binding release tension. The Lipe Release Check would be used by ski shops to more accurately set binding release tension for skiers. There was also an inexpensive consumer version that skiers could buy for home use. I still have mine.

Lipe Release Check InstructionsLipe Release Chart

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 12

Who invented the Release Check?

Posted in Trivia | 4 Comments

Carroll Reed Ski Shops and Toni Matt

Last week I wrote about how an injury motivated Carroll Reed to establish a ski school. But most people associate the Carroll Reed name with ski shops and clothing.

It turns out that during his recovery from the broken back, Reed came up with two skiing-related business ideas. In 1936 while Reed was in New York City negotiating to get Benno Rybizka into the United States, he also met with Saks Fifth Avenue management and proposed opening a branch in Jackson, New Hampshire. Saks was already planning a shop at the new Sun Valley ski resort so they gave Reed approval to open one in Jackson.

For the 1936-37 ski season Carroll Reed would run the Eastern Slope Ski School and the Saks shop in Jackson. The following season Saks decided not to continue the Jackson location, but Reed bought up the inventory and the shop became the first Carroll Reed Ski Shop. That same season Reed would open his second shop at Cranmore in conjunction with the second location for his ski school.

As mentioned last week, for the 1938-39 season Harvey Dow Gibson would buy Reed’s ski school in preparation for Hannes Schneider’s arrival. Reed used the proceeds from that sale to start a mail order catalog business for his ski shops. With Harvey Dow Gibson’s help, he secured a location right on the main street of North Conway for his anchor store.

Carroll Reed LabelThe Carroll Reed name became synonymous with quality, not just for skiing-related clothing and equipment, but for durable year-round fashion. Reed would open new shops as the brand’s popularity grew. Eventually there were 50 Carroll Reed shops just in New Hampshire. The Ski Industries of America (SIA) would name Carroll Reed “Ski Retailers of the Year” for 1966-67.

For those of us who grew up in the Conway area, the anchor store right in the center of North Conway was the combination of a tourist attraction and a locals’ resource. I remember as a kid going downstairs in the shop with my father to find a pair of used ski boots for me. I also bought my first pair of completely new ski boots there. They were a pair of Nordica leather buckle boots and I got a great deal!

Toni Matt

Photo courtesy of New England Ski Museum

You could also run into local skiing stars who worked at Carroll Reed’s. One such notable was Toni Matt who had come over from Austria in 1938 at age 19 to teach in the ski school. A racer, he quickly made his mark in the United States. In that first season he would win the Eastern Downhill and Slalom Championships held here on Mount Mansfield, the Sun Valley Open Downhill, and the National Downhill held in Oregon.

Matt’s most-remembered accomplishment was winning the third Inferno race on Mount Washington held on April 16, 1939. The Inferno was a ski race from the summit of Washington to Pinkham Notch.

The course ran right through Tuckerman Ravine and the most challenging section involved negotiating the lip and headwall of the ravine. The accepted strategy was to check speed above the lip, carefully pick your way into the ravine, and then schuss from as high up in the ravine as you dared.  However Matt was unfamiliar with the terrain and by the time he realized he was at the lip, it was too late to check his speed. He schussed over the lip into the ravine which is sort of like dropping into an eight-hundred-foot-deep hole!

Somehow Matt stayed on his skis, reaching speeds in excess of 80 miles-per-hour. He would win the race in a time of 6 minutes 29.2 seconds, more than a minute faster than famous American skier Dick Durrance who was second. By the way, Durrance won the second Inferno held in 1934 with a time of 12 minutes 35 seconds so both skiers almost cut the previous record in half.

Once again Gary Tomlinson all the way from Fernie, British Columbia was the first to identify Toni Matt. Gary says that The Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana has a trail named after Toni Matt. Matt spent time there as an instructor and racer after World War II before returning back east.

Frank Kinslow now of Punta Gorda, Florida grew up in the Conway area and was also quick with the right answer. His aunt worked at Carroll Reed’s as did Toni Matt and she introduced Frank to Toni. I remember Frank doing a Toni Matt imitation off a jump at the bottom of Tuckerman Ravine!

Other correct answers came from Stowe Host Bob Stewart, Facebook friend Marc Cousineau, and Stowe instructor Bob Dimario.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 11

Tuckerman Ravine

Tuckerman Ravine

What Carroll Reed employee was the first to schuss the Tuckerman Headwall and win the 1939 Inferno race?

Posted in Trivia | 5 Comments

Carroll Reed

In the early 1930s the Eastern Slope region of New Hampshire was seeing the same growing interest in skiing as Stowe. And also similar to Stowe, skiing accidents would inspire organizations that would stand the test of time.

Carroll ReedCarroll Reed worked for the John Hancock Insurance Company in Boston. He got hooked on skiing thanks to weekend trips to the White Mountains. In 1933 he and some friends founded the White Mountain Ski Runners ski club (aka the “White Mules”) which still exists today. The members would stay in Jackson, New Hampshire and ski on CCC-built trails in Pinkham Notch.

On April 21, 1934, Reed was taking a late afternoon run down the Wildcat Trail. The spring corn snow was beginning to set-up making for a faster descent than planned. Reed skied out of control, hit a tree, and broke his back resulting in partial paralysis of his lower body. Fellow skiers improvised a rescue and got him to the Memorial Hospital in North Conway that night. A Massachusetts neurosurgeon was called in and operated on Reed. Reed would be in the hospital for nineteen weeks during which time feeling gradually returned to his lower body. It would be another year-and-a-half before Reed could resume normal activity.

During his long recuperation Reed had plenty of time to read and make plans. He read about the Hannes Schneider ski school in St. Anton, Austria, and its organized approach to teaching skiing. Reed thought that it would be good to start a ski school in Jackson so that people could learn to ski and avoid accidents like his. No more John Hancock, Carroll Reed was about to become a skiing entrepreneur.

Eastern Slope Ski School PosterCarroll Reed started the Eastern Slope Ski School in 1936. To help finance his efforts he solicited $1 per room from local inn owners in exchange for lesson discounts for their guests. He arranged for Austrian Benno Rybizka, a disciple of Hannes Schneider, to come to the United States and head up the school.

Submitting his answer from Facebook, Marc Cousineau was the first to identify Carroll Reed. Stowe Host Bob Simeone who spent his early years skiing in North Conway and Jackson provided the correct answer as well.

Mike Leach of the Mount Mansfield Ski Club also named Carroll Reed. He mentioned that an article he’s reviewing for Jeff Leich and the New England Ski Museum tells how Roland Palmedo offered Reed $5000 for his contract with Rybizka. This only convinced Reed that he had made the right choice! Mike went on to say “The Stowe community was much better off with Sepp (Ruschp) in the end, as Rybizka was a bit of a difficult character.”

Benno RybizkaBack to 1936: Rybizka arrived in Jackson in December and began training some local young men to be instructors. The winter of 1936-37 was short on snow so in Reed’s words they were “skiing on light snow and sheep manure.” However the ski school still gave 6000 lessons in that first season. The local innkeepers were delighted with the added business the ski school had brought them.

For the next season, the Eastern Slope Ski School expanded to a second location. Harvey Dow Gibson was starting the Cranmore ski area in North Conway and paid Reed to open a ski school there. Between the two locations Reed’s ski schools gave 12,000 lessons that winter.

In the summer of 1938 Harvey Dow Gibson began negotiations that would bring Hannes Schneider to the United States and North Conway. Schneider was in a Nazi prison at the time. Part of Gibson’s plan was to buy Reed’s ski school so he could give it to Schneider to run. Reed was surprised by the offer, but decided it would be in everyone’s best interest to sell. Plus Reed would be able to concentrate on his ski shop and clothing business. On February 11, 1939 Hannes Schneider arrived in North Conway to take over the Eastern Slope Ski School which would be renamed the Hannes Schneider Ski School.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 10

Who broke his back on the Wildcat trail in New Hampshire and then started the Eastern Slope Ski School to help others avoid such accidents? That ski school would later become the Hannes Schneider Ski School.

Posted in Trivia | 2 Comments

Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole

Organized skiing in the United States began in the 1930s. Here in Stowe that was driven by Roland Palmedo and the Amateur Ski Club of New York. As I wrote last week, falling in those days was an integral part of skiing and inevitably some falls resulted in injury. As the number of skiers increased, Palmedo became very concerned about insuring their safety.

Mt Mansfield Ski PatrolWhile skiing at Parsenne Switzerland, Palmedo was impressed with the Swiss Army Ski Rescue Unit that looked out for skier’s safety. So when the Mount Mansfield Ski Club was incorporated on January 16, 1934, Palmedo made sure it included a committee responsible for the safety of its members. This was the start of the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol, the oldest, still-operating ski patrol in the United States.

Charles Minot DoleCharles Minot Dole whose friends called him “Minnie” was a New York insurance broker and member of the Amateur Ski Club of New York. On New Year’s 1936 Dole, his friend Franklin Edson and their wives came to Stowe to ski. January 2nd was a drizzly day, but the two couples started up Toll Road anyway. As soon as they started down, Dole fell and broke his ankle. While there was a Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol, it did not include organized patrol activities to spot accidents. There were usually some volunteers around who, if notified, would help an injured party. The two wives set off to find some help.

It was literally hours before the women returned with a couple of volunteers and a piece of corrugated tin roofing to be used as a toboggan. The roofing was not long enough to support all of Dole’s body so they used it to support the broken leg while Minnie dragged his butt in the snow. It was after dark before they got down to where he could be transported to the hospital.

Minnie Dole would be laid up for 15 weeks recovering from the break. During that time his friend Franklin Edson would enter the Quadrangle Downhill Race held on the Ghost and Shadow trails near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Edson would go off the course and hit a tree suffering a broken arm, fractured ribs, and a punctured lung. Well-meaning volunteers helped him off the mountain and to the hospital, but Edson would die the following day from his injuries. He was 28 years old.

These two incidents would drive Minnie Dole’s interest in improving safety for skiers both in terms of better response time to an injured skier and also better quality care for the injured.

1938 National Ski Championship PosterIn March of 1938 Stowe was hosting the National Downhill and Slalom races. The Mount Mansfield Ski Club asked Minnie Dole to coordinate the safety efforts for the races along with the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol. They developed a system of stations with toboggans and scheduled volunteers. President of the National Ski Association Roger Langley was so impressed with the system that he asked Dole to become chairman of a National Ski Patrol Committee. Dole said “sure” and according to Dole they sealed the deal with drink of Vat 69!

The National Ski Patrol started in 1938 with Roger Langley as Patrolman #1, Palmedo as #2, and Dole as #3. Despite being #3 Dole would become the head of the National Ski Patrol, a post he would hold until 1950. Today there are approximately 28,000 members of the National Ski Patrol serving over 650 patrols.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 9

National Ski Patrol ShieldWhose broken leg on the slopes of Mt. Mansfield led to the founding of the National Ski Patrol?

Posted in Trivia | 3 Comments

The Disappearing Sitzmark!

“Know the Code!” Around most ski areas today you’ll see signs that define a Code of Conduct for skiers and riders. But even before there was lift-served skiing there was a Code of Conduct for skiers. Some of the elements of the original code are still present in today’s code such as “the person ahead of you has the right-of-way”. However one item in the old code that’s no longer with us is “always fill in your sitzmark!”

Skier in a "sitzmark"It’s probably obvious, but a “sitzmark” is the German/Austrian term for the hole or depression you make in the snow when you fall. Or maybe I should say when you fall in soft snow!

Sitzmarks take us back to a time when there were few skiers and lots of snow! A fall could make a large crater in the snow. If not repaired, the next skier along could have their skis dive into the hole producing another fall which might result in injury, broken skis, or an even bigger sitzmark. The equipment and ski-technique of that era did not provide enough control to avoid such hazards.

Correct answers for last week’s trivia came from several sources. On my blog Joan Laundon was the first although she had a typo in the spelling. Lyndall Heyer provided the correct spelling. Roger Mason, Frank Kinslow, and Glen Findholt responded via Facebook. Ken Duclos and Art Lloyd provided their answers in person.

Sitzmarks in actionHere in the United States early skiers also referred to sitzmarks as “bathtubs.” That seemed to be the popular term here in Stowe. Frank Springer-Miller in an early-1940s letter to Sepp Ruschp recommended adding signage on the single chair lift towers which would include “Fell in Someone’s Bathtub. Think I’ll Fix Mine From Now On!” Other documents from the early days mention that “bathtubs” on the Nosedive remain a problem – we’ll talk more about that later.


But first, whatever happened to sitzmarks and bathtubs? Grooming, snowmaking, and heavy skier traffic have produced a surface that is pretty much impervious to sitzmarks. Falling today on the slopes rarely dents the surface. However it may leave a dent in you! So now a sitzmark is probably that black-and-blue bruise on your hip from falling on Nosedive!

Going back to those early days before lift-served skiing, skiers used intentional falls to avoid worse situations. As I mentioned, equipment and technique had not advanced to allow the control we have today. Trails were narrow and contained Skiers on old Nosedivesharp turns. Throwing yourself down into soft snow was far better than taking on a maple tree. Some skiers used this technique for the seven turns on the old Nosedive much to the consternation of better skiers. Hence the concern about too many bathtubs on the Nosedive. Another sign Frank Springer-Miller suggested was “Do I Really Belong on the Nosedive?”

Falling is a part of skiing. That first time you put on skis there’s the fear of falling. You click into your bindings and ka-thump – well, that wasn’t too bad after all. Usually during the learning process there are a lot of falls, but few injuries, and the fear subsides. Next is the counting-falls stage where how many times you fall in a day becomes a measure of progress. We’ve all heard the proud cries of “I only fell twice today!” Then there’s the rationalization stage: “If you’re not falling, you’re not advancing.”

For those who persevere and become expert skiers, falls become rare, but they still occur. One thing I have noticed as a “mature” expert skier who doesn’t fall often is that some of that fear of falling creeps back in. When I get in dicey situations, I feel myself tensing up just like those beginners. I have to force myself to stay loose and handle the situation. For those who witnessed my bad fall earlier this season, I didn’t have time to tense up which was probably a good thing!

Spectacular FallAnother aspect of falls or near-falls is that they provide the memorable moments that we can re-live at après-ski or even years later. We may not remember the perfect turn we executed on the early morning corduroy, but we remember the yard sale under the Warm Springs lift at Sun Valley.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 8

From the old Skiers Code of Etiquette complete the following phrase:

“Please fill in your __________________”

Posted in Trivia | 3 Comments