The scene plays out after every podium ceremony: clad in sprayed-on, sponsor-wrapped speed suits, winners hold up skis in glowing pride, declaring that without them, they couldn’t stay glued to the gleaming, pocked tundra of the mountain.
But somewhere off camera — probably off the mountain in a weakly-lit room — toils the most critical connection between skier and mountain, molding their next win.
Ski boots aren’t ready-made for the wearer; quite literally, they come as mere shells of a solution.
Peek into any boot shop’s work stall, and you might think you stepped onto the set of a “Saw” sequel. Vice grips dangle above scabby, stained wooden benches brandishing collections of pneumatic presses, hand-held grinders, heat guns, and an armory of seemingly crude, utilitarian contrivances. To the layman, the hardware looks as applicable to Craigslist-level organ removal as it does for something as vital to the industry as boot customization. Yet, in the hands of an experienced fitter, the tools become instruments of precision, and even healing.
But bootfitting is about much more than mechanics and materials. There has to be a skier’s story behind it. What has the buyer experienced with previous boots? Where do they want their skill level to go next? It’s the bootfitter’s job to reveal the “why” and “how.”
Julia Bjorkman graduated from Sugar Bowl Academy in 2014 and now coaches U12 racers at Northstar.
“I’ve been in a race boot my entire life and I am so uncomfortable,” Bjorkman said. “But race boots have to be super tight; you’re not given any options.”
She sits up straight on the bench at Truckee’s Start Haus, which puts her hip, knee, and ankle in consecutive 90-degree angles, critical to ensuring her foot is nestled accurately in the eponymous Brannock Device, where bootfitting and ongoing adjustment begins and ends.
“I’m now looking for something comfortable, something to allow me keep up with my kids, but not bother me when I have to stand around all day,” she said.
THE BOOT MARKET
Devin Gill, who coached skiing for 10 years at Sugar Bowl Academy before retiring to Start Haus to help owner Jim Shaffner fit customers, chats with Bjorkman about flex index numbers, to measure a boot’s ability to flex forward in use. A “soft” flex starts at 50, for example, and goes up from there — the higher the flex rating, the more rigid the boot.
However, the industry hasn’t agreed on a way to standardize rigidity, so a 130 from Lange might feel different than Nordica’s 130. Moreover, retail business models have drifted into automatically overlapping flex ratings with skill level, a myth Shaffner, who was once that guy toiling away in a dark room — his garage, actually — isn’t comfortable perpetuating.
“It’s not as simple as matching a beginner, intermediate, or advanced skier with a soft, medium, or stiff boot,” Shaffner said. “A beginner may have an ankle range-of-motion issue that demands a stiff boot. Finding the right boot can’t be a generalized process, it has to be individualized.”
Anne Kim from Oakland has skied most of her life, and now is at about 10 to 15 days a season.
“When you walk into most shops, you see boots on the shelf that look pretty, and recognize what you know from shopping online and go in that direction,” she said.
However, Kim felt improperly fitted boots have limited her growth as a skier.
“That buying approach has screwed me over, so I decided to leave it to an expert. I’ve had too many bad days, and too many bad boots,” she said.
Shaffner scoffs at the idea of off-the-shelf boot buying, going so far as to not even present them in his shop, betraying basic rules on ski merchandising. A library of upright boot boxes surrounds a two-sided bench. This encourages customers to focus first on fit, second on brand and looks.
There’s no real barrier between customers and the workshop where gleaming, magazine cover-ready boots are heated, frozen, twisted, tweaked, and wrenched on to the point of overlapping seamlessly with the customer’s skiing style.
“The foot is a puzzle,” said Shaffner. “Bootfitters look at a problem, ponder a solution, and see if a piece fits.”
Bjorkman’s new left boot had to be slightly longer, a process that involves heating, stretching on a toe-punch, and then cooling to encourage a slight retraction. Her bunions (which, with good humor, she allowed to become subject to this article) were also an issue. In Bjorkman’s defense, bunions are a common reason for uncomfortable boots at all levels of skiing. The result of this adjustment is a prominent protrusion on the boot shell.
Shaffner remembers when custom bootfitting was taboo; brands didn’t want it known their products weren’t perfect. Fitters used model paint to cover up evidence. But now, he says the boot room is the engine of a ski shop, and encourages people to peer under the hood.
“It’s total transparency. We want people to understand how important boots are to having fun on the hill,” he said.
And to the person standing on the podium.