Jim Honolka pretty well has it all figured out. He frames houses during the summer. Every day he packs his tools, pounds nails and fights the sweltering sun. It’s hard work, but Honolka doesn’t mind. “Unfortunately,” he says with an unabashed grin, “you can’t frame houses when it snows. And to be honest, it really doesn’t take a lot of snow to convince me that it is time to do something else.”
This year he plans on doing that “something else”—namely daylong ski trips to Solitude—at least 100 times. It’s up to Mother Nature to decide if that’s possible, he says. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, there wasn’t a hint of snow outside the Lift House, where Honolka was getting his boots adjusted. But he wasn’t worried. As he sat elevated above the rest of the customers in the Lift House, Ryan Davenport pumped the air out of a plastic bag around Honolka’s foot. The contraption Davenport held formed a mold of the framer’s foot that would ultimately give him the most comfortable-fitting ski boot imaginable. A fit that, reportedly, would make the boot respond perfectly to Honolka’s mid-mountain requests. At least that’s how Davenport sold him. When you ski 100 times a year, you probably don’t want to wait, even if it’s only a microsecond, to get your boots to move the way you direct them.
Now that snow has finally come, the conversations in local ski and snowboard shops can return to the other favorite topic toward which they invariably direct themselves: the Olympics. The most popular theory is that while bobsledders, ski jumpers and short-skirted beauties perform and compete to the delight of a cosmopolitan audience, local skiers and boarders will enjoy the tranquility of empty slopes and short lift lines, especially in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. (Though it is also easy to say the same thing with opposite implications). The cosmopolitan folks won’t be watching the events the entire time they stay here. And there are no rules saying they have to stay in Park City to spend their money and slide down the hills.
“The local hotel rooms will be filled with Olympic visitors,” says Dave Larsen, owner of the Lift House. “The people that usually come from out of town just to ski here won’t have any place to stay, and while that’s good for local skiers, the industry and the money we make from tourists will probably be down a little bit.”
It’s a phenomenon that John Bartlett, owner of Canyon Sports, says will even itself out. February may be slow for business, but before and after the Games, there doesn’t look to be any problem. “Hopefully, we’ll make it up even more with retail sales,” he says.
The industry adapts well, apparently. When snowboards started to invade a large portion of the retail and rental fleets of places like Canyon Sports and the Lift House, they adjusted appropriately. But snowboarding didn’t just change the products that those shops offered. Like attentive mariners watching big sails kick a little rowboat’s ass, ski engineers watched carefully as snowboarders learned their sport a lot quicker than skiers. Now, skis have taken the shape of snowboards with the widths of the tips and tails more exaggerated than before. The “shaped” skis are no longer interesting demos in the fleets of rental stores—everyone uses them.
“It’s a lot easier for people to have fun with the shaped skis. The learning curve is shorter. Everything is safer and more comfortable,” says Mark Gardener, owner of the Sports Den. Skiers could see snowboarders carve turns perfectly, and they just learned from that.”
The shaped skis even caught a die-hard skier like Honolka by surprise. “Once I skied on a shaped ski, I never went back. They were incredible.”
Larsen says he doesn’t know why it took ski engineers so long to catch on to the concept of shaped skis, it being such a simple and effective innovation. Regardless, he says it has dramatically changed the sport. An expert skier who once used 205-cm boards now can use a 190-cm length and still get the same performance and speed.
The same leaps and bounds in the technology of boots have also found their way into the rental fleets. The once dreaded “athletic calf” that stumped ski rental shops is now a thing of the past. People with rather large calf muscles used to have to face the embarrassment of watching a technician try to force their feet into a boot and hold it all together with a tight wrapping of duct tape.
“Boots are so much more comfortable now,” Gardener says. “People don’t complain about the boots near as much as they used to. That helps get more people excited about the sport and eventually benefits us all.”