A thorough assessment provides the alchemy that turns curiosity into trust. (RealSkiers)
Last week’s Revelation, “Take the Leap of Faith” inspired some thoughtful critiques among the Realskiers faithful, both on our Facebook page and in one-on-one correspondence with yours truly. One perspicuous soul correctly observed that said essay was superficial, while another waxed eloquent on why the ski industry should adopt saner, customer-centric practices that mimicked regular shoe buying.
In my meandering reply to this critic, I noted that if the customer takes charge of the sale, then the person who has the least idea what he or she is doing is now running the show. This is rarely a formula for success. But if the customer is to surrender to the bootfitter’s care, there has to be a solid foundation of trust. That trust must be earned in the first five minutes. To address the concern of my other aforementioned gadfly, I want to explore the first five minutes of a boot sale in scrupulous detail. Some of the methods I’ll refer to below ought to be standard practice at any true specialty shop; other parts of my routine are techniques I’ve adopted over the years to better assess the skier sitting in front of me.
After greetings and introductions – let’s imagine our boot customer is named Andrea - I’ll pose a few basic questions that allow Andrea to describe herself as a skier. I’ll learn where she normally skis or intends to ski (Mt. Rose), what trail conditions she prefers (groomed) and her experience level (an infrequent skier until this season, when she’ll be skiing more (new relationship)).
While I continue down my litany of questions – what boots did she use before?, does she already have her season pass?, is that guy standing over there the one who’s going to be guiding your development? – I observe how Andrea sits, her posture, where her feet are pointing (slightly outwards) and generally how she moves. I ask what other sports or exercise are regular parts of her lifestyle. Turns out she does a bit of everything, including heavy doses of cycling. Now that we’re all relaxed and getting an understanding of the skier Andrea wishes to be, I’ll ask to see her bare feet, both of them, and if possible her bare legs up to and including her knees. This is a non-negotiable request.
Once I have Andrea’s bare feet before me, I ask to take control and do so, re-positioning her feet in a roughly 6-inch wide stance with her toes pointing at me. I’ll be looking for any red spots, calluses, signs of prior injury/surgery and, of course, examining her overall foot structure, ankle position and leg shaft angle, both straight-on and from the side. I’ll ask about any history of injury.
Now it’s time to get serious. First I swipe my bare hands over Andrea’s feet, starting at the heel and working forward. I’m feeling her bones, particularly the calcaneus, navicular, first cuneiform, styloid process and metatarsals. I’ll perform brief diagnostic tests of Andrea’s ankle range of motion, arch flexibility and forefoot plane. I’ll take an impression of the plantar surface to look in particular at her arches, anticipating what sort of underfoot support she’ll need.
I’ll measure both her feet with a metric measurement tool. Ski boots do not reason in American sizing and if metric (or mondopoint) sizing had equivalents in American sizes the two systems would be the same. So I don’t bother with American measurements and don’t usually measure the arch length, as I already know a lot about it, including its length relative to the total foot length. Where warranted, I’ll also measure the heel-instep perimeter (HIP). At this point, I’m pretty sure what boot, in what size and with what modifications I’m going to suggest for Andrea, but I’m not positive what flex is going to be optimal.
Bear in mind all the inspections I’ve done have taken practically no time. I swiped her feet in 30 seconds, did a R.O.M. test on her ankles and Windlass test on her arches in less than that. Measuring two feet doesn’t take long, nor does taking an impression on a plastic film. I’m in maybe four minutes and I know a lot about Andrea and what I don’t know I’m about to find out with her first boot, which is coming right up. But before I disappear into the boot stacks, I tell Andrea what I’ve just learned. This is the moment where curiosity turns into trust. What I’ll say goes something like this:
“My dear Andrea (for I feel I know her so well now), I can already tell you’re going to be a very good skier in very short order. You’re an active athlete – the calluses on your first met-heads and overall tension from your toes to your knees confirm your passion for cycling. Your arches aren’t particularly high, but they are tight and probably give you problems. You probably have a ¾ orthotic in your cycling shoes, don’t you? And your first cuneiform bone causes discomfort in some, but not all, of your footwear, both athletic and casual.
“Your skiing is about to take a giant leap forward for three main reasons: you are getting out of rental and second-hand boots that never fit you in the first place and into a boot that will help you maintain dynamic balance. To do this, we need to support that sometimes angry arch of yours with a custom insole to which I will make some modifications to relieve pressure from your first ray. And we need to shim behind your narrow calf so you stay forward into the front of the boot so you can learn proper steering, something you’ve yet to experience. “Most importantly, your ankles are so tight they have a somewhat limited range of motion. Nothing to get too excited about, but we do want to keep you pressed into the tongue so you get the benefit of what movement you do have. This is why I’m going to bring you two boots, one stiffer than the other, to see which will be better for you.” (I already know the answer to this, too, but I want Andrea to feel the difference and understand why I’m recommending the stiffer boot despite her current ability.)
Well, my five minutes are up and the boot sale isn’t over by any means, but I hope I’ve demonstrated both to Andrea and to you, Dear Reader, that’s it’s probably okay to trust me. I know exactly which boot will allow me to address all of Andrea’s needs, optimize her dynamic balance and produce an environment so comfortable she’ll never have to fuss with her buckles again. Oh, and the third reason Andrea is going to get good in a hurry is that guy over in the corner nodding his head and smiling. He’s planning on skiing a lot this year, and now he knows he’ll have someone beside him to share his passion.