Cutting Edge By William McCawley

Cutting Edge
Or how steel edges created modern skiing.

Widely taken for granted, the invention and evolution of steel edges played a pivotal role in the growth of skiing. Without edges we would find ourselves sliding aimlessly and dangerously all over the mountain.  With them, we can guide the ski where we choose with accuracy and purpose.

Skis haven’t always had steel edges. In the early 20th century, skiing pioneers understood the need for the ski to bend to accommodate changing terrain.  Softer woods like poplar, ash and even pine were the solution to allow them to bend. However, changing the skis direction was another challenge.  As early skiers traversed the hill, the ski had a nasty habit of sliding uncontrollably sideways, instead of tracking forward.  In 1917, as the result of a near fatal slide-for-life, Austrian inventor Rudolf Lettner came up with the solution to give the rounded edge of his wooden skis some grip. He fashioned a sliver of steel and screwed it to the base of his skis. Not only was he able to grip the mountain, but he also found the skis easier to turn. Lettner’s invention was largely dismissed for many years until Austrian racers created a sensation in the 1930 Winter Games winning handily, making razor-sharp turns.

Fast forward to the mid 1940’s, Howard Head’s early prototype skis were missing a key ingredient: steel edges. Head had focused on the problem of the skis weight and flexibility, not grip.  After initial failures, he returned to Stowe, VT in the late 1940’s with an aluminum/wood core laminated ski that included a steel edge routed in the sides. They were an instant success.  The skis were nicknamed “Cheaters” and by the mid 1950’s, the Head Standard accounted for 50% of all skis sold in the world.

Why are steel edges so important, you ask…?

The mere fact that one of the skills in the Skills Concept is named for the radical design change speaks to the significance of steel edges. A skiers inability to balance on the stable platform an edged ski provides makes fore/aft, foot to foot pressure movements, rotary movements and, of course, edging movements, infinitely more difficult to master.

There is no argument that the changes in ski bend, plastic bases, the sidecut revolution or early rise have advanced our sport.  But we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of those developments without the skis ability to track forward and grip the slope on those marvelous slivers of steel.


How do I master my edges, you ask…?


Skate everywhere. On the flats, side hill, uphill and especially downhill. Feel the ski bend and the edges grip as you push off.  I can’t think of a better edging exercise than skating. Well, except for the other ones listed below.

Traverse with purpose and accuracy, no meandering. Perfect carved uphill arcs and guided uphill arcs. Tip the skis with ankle rolls, balancing on their edges. Control the degree of edge angle by feathering the ski from a high angle to a low angle. Know and feel the difference.

Rail Road Tracks.  You need to get good at these. Leave pencil thin lines in the snow, two of them. And when you think you’ve mastered two skis, do one footed rail road tracks. Get really, really good at these.  The bend of the ski and its side cut aren’t enough: we need that sliver of steel to slice through the snow to keep the ski tracking forward. By perfecting one footed rail road tracks you will master balancing on the thin little edge. You are well on your way to redefining your skiing.

The steel edge Rudolf Lettner invented provides skiers a stable platform to stand on and the ability to direct the ski with accuracy.  Without a steel edge, the side cut revolution probably would have been moot. Without a steel edge we would still be throwing them sideways, hoping and praying.  Ignore edging skills at your peril.


Ref:  International Skiing History Association, John Fry




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