Canmore Alchemist Puts the Crazy into Canuck Couture:
Dave Irwin's wife Lynne Harrison putting Crazy into Canuck Couture at Sunshine Village
When a creative colour alchemist turns her mountainscapes into fabric, the entire skiwear industry is disrupted. The prevailing palette of plain colours in today's brands - two-tone if you’re lucky and a preponderance of black, beige, plain red or navy - means that Lynne Harrison’s multi-hued, outsized prints stand out like flamboyant flowers at a funeral. 

Lynne Harrison, Alchemy of Ride
Wife of Crazy Canuck Olympian Dave IrwinHarrison has been running an eclectic art studio and creative clothing shop in her home town of Canmore, Alberta since May 2015. Starting with paintings, prints and postcards, she morphed her mountain motif into printed bike, running and watersports clothing first and then, this season, moved into the Alchemy of Ride range of ski jackets, pants, vests, one-piece Nordic outfits, and wickable underlayers for men and women. “It is about sharing colour and fun and happiness,” says Harrison. “Alchemy is the ancient process of turning base metal into gold and The Ride is a metaphor for life.”

The 57-year-old had been selling her artwork in Whistler for many years and turned to sports clothing design out of frustration with the market: “I couldn’t find anything to buy that I liked, so I started to think about how I could wear my art. I wasn’t sure how it would transfer to fabric at first but I loved the results.”

Her inspiration is vibrant colour, the Canmore area, and the breathtaking scenery of the Rocky Mountains in which she works, lives and recreates. She blends the shapes and contours of the stunning scenery with her own vivid hues, adding bold brightness to the slopes where these days the colours black and grey prevail. She says she can’t sleep when she has a new idea: “When I thought up Alchemy of Ride I was so inspired that I couldn’t sleep for six weeks with developing the concept.” After a year researching fabrics and manufacturers for skiwear, she launched the ski range this season. 

As well as Silver Tree Studio in Canmore’s gentrified Main Street, her whimsical work is available at stores in Lake Louise, Banff, Whistler and Scottsdale, Arizona. She has sales reps in BC and AB expanding her Canadian reach, and a new rep based from Boulder, CO serving the US market. Both her ski brand and her summer running/biking/watersports line are available online.

Always focused on helping others beleaguered by mental health issues (due to her famous husband’s brain injury and rehabilitation), Harrison donates a portion of her profits to her own Mental-Aid Foundation, to the Kelty Patrick Dennehey Foundation in Whistler, and Banff’s Mental Illness Stigma Support Group (MISS). As an integral part of the Canmore art scene, the artful alchemist shares her talents and insight, inviting artists and art enthusiasts to paint with her at her studio shop.

Ambitions include clothing the Canadian Winter Olympic team, expanding into China where the ski market is burgeoning, challenging the black-and-beige bias in the Alps, and designing “a jenny” for the Americas Cup. "I have designed jerseys for the Eric Beugnot team for 24 Hours of Lemans, France 2017," says Harrison. "I am also designing for the 2018 team and I will be competing in this event myself in August 2018." The self-taught artist is a keen sportswoman: "I love sports! I competed in gymnastics in Ontario till I got too tall, played competitive volleyball and skied since the age of seven when my 30 year old parents took it up in Quebec." She has also done Ironman Canada, the Racing the Planet Gobi Desert 7 day multi self supported foot race,Racing the Planet Sahara Desert 7 day multi self-supported foot race and various marathons, all raising money and awareness for brain injury. 

The multi-talented mountain maven also wrote a screenplay documenting her love story with Dave Irwin, his accident and recovery which she submitted to Charlize Theron's production company. "It got through the front door, the first round of cuts, the second round of cuts, then the third round of cuts and in the final analysis it was declined as the story was 'too Canadian'," Harrison laments.  

Dave Irwin in the Rocky Mountain Bagel Co,
This season the charismatic and very Canadian Canmore couple can be spotted stopping traffic in Harrison’s hectic hues atSunshine Village, Banff where other skiers can't resist commenting, asking where they got their riotous rainbow ski suits and taking their photos. Instagram is also starting to notice! Irwin, who occasionally helps out at the store, is a model for the men’s line, sporting the skiwear at the Rocky Mountain Bagel Company where he is a daily regular in winter, and rocking the bike and running range in summer.

Appetite whetted? Find out more by contacting Lynne Harrison at: 

Heads up - the Silver Tree Studio winter hours are 11:15am - 5:15pm.  

Yours truly with hubby, Simon Hudson sporting Alchemy of Ride
outside Lynne's Silver Tree Studio, Canmore 
Rossignol Reveries

Me in Les Trois Vallees in 1992
Back in the 90s I worked a season as a head rep for Crystal Ski in France. The resort was Mottaret – a purpose-built enclave perched on the slopes above Méribel and accessing one of the largest ski areas in Europe: Les Trois ValléesWith slopes and ski lifts right outside my apartment door, I used to ski to and from everything – whether it was to the bank to deposit all the money earned from Crystal clients’ liftpass purchases or to the bakery to buy a loaf of crusty French bread. I got remarkably adept at wielding ski poles and shopping bags on the chairlift!

My Crystal clients all rented their skis and boots from Monsieur C’s shop (I can’t remember the name and it has probably changed anyway) and so I was in and out of there all the time.  Like many older Frenchmen, Monsieur C was somewhat dour and undemonstrative, giving me no clue as to whether he liked me or the customers who gave him his lucrative living – he owned many different tourist establishments in town. However, with my Anglo-accented French I managed to win him round enough to get upgraded skis and boots for the season for myself.

These were Rossignols and I loved them. The skis were black – called Black Magic, I think, or at least that is what I dubbed them - and they carried me effortlessly over the pistes and backcountry around Méribel, Courchevel, Val Thorens, Les Menuires and the lesser-known territory of St Martin de Belleville. I used to go there to meet up with John, a brilliant skier who ran a private chalet for hand-picked, invitation only guests. He would take my friends and I on heady hikes in backcountry areas ending up in Michelin-starred restaurants after skiing through people’s backyards.

As they were high performance skis, I had to bring them back at peak periods of the season (Christmas and New Year holidays, February French holidays and British school half term) so that the shop would have enough high-end equipment for the crowds. However, as soon as there was a lull in visitor numbers, I was back to claim my Black Magics which always seemed especially effective after the ghastly old planks they gave me in between.

Ever since then I have loved Rossignol equipment and, when back in the UK again, I was able to wangle a cheap deal at a Rossi wholesalers on boots, poles, skis and matching bags. Although those skis, boots and even bags have been replaced, I still have the poles! I’m told by Calgary’s Rossignol rep, Ian Hunter that this year’s hottest Rossi skis are SOUL 7, followed by Experience and Temptation, so maybe I’ll get the chance to try them out this season. Ian runs a Rossignol Demo Day at nearby Nakiska kicking off Nov 30.

Back in my old Crystal rep days Rossignol hadn’t yet ventured into ski clothing. The company was started in 1907 in France by carpenter Abel Rossignol (hence the 1907 tag for its designer clothing lines). By 1937 his wooden skis were helping Emile Allais become triple world champion. The company went on to produce the world’s first all metal ski on which Jean Vuarnet won the downhill in the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. In 1964 they produced the first fiberglass ski. The world’s largest ski manufacturer by the 1970s, Rossignol skis went on to nab six of the ten gold medals for alpine events at the Calgary Olympics in 1988. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the company branched out into ski boots, bindings, snowboards and clothing.

Plain black ski suit at Powder Cowboy: photo Dave Silver

More recently Rossignol has partnered with top French couturiers like JC Castlebajac to add panache to the utility elements of its clothing construction. This year Mariouche of Harricana Fur has also helped produced a glamorous fur-trimmed collaboration line with Rossignol. And, for the first time in my 40 years on skis, I too have a rare Rossignol garment: a red/black/white Tracy ski jacket in a flame-looking print and figure-friendly shape from the 1314 collection designed by JC Castlebajac. I wanted a jacket that would stand out in a crowd and look good in photos against the white and tree-green background. 

Me, top row second left with CMH Chicks in the Chopper 
For the past five years I have melded into the forest in my boring black ski outfit. The flame print is a limited edition print but the Tracy style is also widely available in plain colours and a bluebird day sky blue print. With its white cloud-like patterns, this jacket and matching pants reminds me of an all-in-one ski suit I had in the 80s but more subtle. I’d love to wear the Tracy cloudy sky jacket with plain blue or white pants.

Silver Iridium Jacket
 While picking my new ski jacket out, I had the chance to see the whole collection and drool over the Silver Iridium Jacket. Trimmed with real fur, it looks like something a Bond girl would wear while tearing down the slopes of Cortina or St Moritz after the bad guys. Fabulous for photo opps, this luxurious metallic creation would work well at fancy Fairmonts like Jasper Park Lodge or Chateau Lake Louise and in the trendiest après ski bars of Aspen and Vail

Heidi Suit
The Heidi ski suit  is less vampy and more cute young thing with its black floral etchings on a white background. 

And there’s a gorgeous pink and black Diamond jacket, really stylish but waterproof, breathable and warm enough for expert skiers.
Diamond Jacket

With Rossignol’s hundred year history, you know you are getting thoroughly researched technology, decades of expertise and attention to detail, and, more recently, top French fashion fusion. These are high-tech and high visibility outfits, easy to spot on the slopes or in a crowded bar so you’ll never be a wallflower in any of these daring designs.

Rossignol launched the 2-13/14 season as the Official Ski Partner of Ski Vermont. “After spending more than 30 years headquartered in Vermont, Rossignol enjoys strong ties to eastern skiing and snowboarding still today,” said Jason Newell, Director of Marketing, Rossignol Group NA and Middlebury, VT resident.
Incidentally, Rossignol means nightingale in French.


With below zero temperatures for most of the season in many US, Canadian and European ski resorts, warm ski clothing is an important aspect of the sport.

Body contoured down jacket from Ski Cellar Snowboard

Goretex Orage Jacket 

Even in Europe where temperatures are marginally warmer, weatherproof clothing is vital. Over the years fabrics have been developed to address both warmth, wind and water-proofing. Down and Primaloft are the best insulations for warmth; Goretex and laminates of 10,000 mm or more are best for outer fabric. 

Breathable fabrics have also been invented to compensate for the changing conditions during a ski day. It can sometimes be below freezing in the morning and, if it is sunny, it can warm up by 10 degrees or more by the afternoon. We’ve all seen photos of bronzed European ski instructors and we know it is generally not from a tanning salon!

Layering is the key to a cozy, dry ski day. With layers, you can remove several garments if temperatures increase or if one layer gets wet. Sweating inside ski clothes is uncomfortable especially if it is very cold and the wet clothes start to turn to ice.

In the old days it was all about wearing cotton and wool next to the skin but new manmade sports fabrics have been created which work much better in keeping out the cold and wicking away sweat.  Socks, thermal underwear and facemasks are all “first layer” fabrics, according to Ski Cellar Snowboard’s owner, Jean Hunt. “The key for this layer is light weight, close fit to the skin and a natural or synthetic material that has wicking as well as insulating capabilities,” she says. She recommends merino wool, Louis Garneau or Hot Chilly’s fleece and the X-Bionic brand which compresses muscles enabling quick recovery at the end of the day. The best mid layer fabrics, she says, are smartwool or fleece.

Cosy sweater or mid-layer from Ski Cellar Snowboard, Calgary, Canada
Especially for beginners, who sometimes have to stand around in the cold, listening to instruction and waiting for others, it is really important to start the day out warm.

This is what you’ll need:

-  thermal and breathable underwear (leggings and long-sleeved shirt)
-  mid layers: longsleeved sweater or fleece top
-  sleeveless vest to keep torso warm (optional) or Patagonia’s new quilted underjacket
-  waterproof ski jacket
-  waterproof ski pants
-  warm and waterproof gloves (for example, heated Power Gloves by Therm-ic with integral lithium ion batteries)
 -  neck and face warmer or mask
 -  helmet (sometimes worn with a thin hat underneath for comfort and warmth)
POC goggles at Four Seasons, Vail, Colorado
 -  ski goggles (or wrap-around sunglasses)
 -  warm but sweatproof wool or synthetic ski socks (not too thick as ski boots have to be a tight fit)
 -  ski boots
 -  packets of toe and hand warmers just in case of plummeting temperatures

Some companies, such as Burton, Volcom and North Face also design battery-heated ski jackets. But Hunt particularly recommends heated gloves or mitts as well as boot heaters such as Hotronics for those with poor circulation. It’s a good idea to pick a vibrant, bright colour for your ski jacket or pants. That way you show up against the snow and will not get so easily lost on the hill.

Retro dress-up day at Banff Mt Norquay, Canada

Bright colors are very fashionable this season, with bold hues such as watermelon pink and lime green mixed and matched. Fur trim is always seen as an opulent trim on women’s ski jackets, in particular, and prevalent in the latest ski resort fashion shows. There are even leather trims available at Skea, a sophisticated sportswear range from Vail, Colorado. 

“Current trending in both ski and snowboard is going to be more fitted silhouettes, a return to feminine and masculine styling and fits that accentuate the body,” says Hunt. 

Colorful woolly hats great for apres-ski at Four Seasons, Vail, Colorado


Snowboarder clothing has evolved somewhat differently to ski clothing, some of it through fashion and other aspects through function. 

Backcountry riders in Whistler Blackcomb wear beacons inside their jackets and carry backpacks with safety gear including shovel and probe in case of avalanches
Right from the start, snowboarding was deemed a younger, trendier sport. Clothing was developed accordingly: as warm and as weatherproof as ski gear but honoring the more youthful nature of the activity.

Bright colors proliferate at the Davos ski school where snowboarders are trained in every type of trick, jump and aerial    

Low-slung, baggy snow pants were designed for freedom of movement during snowboarding Terrain Park stunts. At the time, fashionable jeans were being worn slung low, as baggy hipsters with underwear peeking out. So snowboarding echoed this trend. With snowboarding pants, the “Three Layer System” is the most effective to maintain thermal equilibrium during riding. The first layer (base layer) is the thermal underwear or leggings which should wick away moisture from the skin. The second layer - usually the lining of the snowboard pants - is the insulation to maintain warmth. And the top layer is the durable, windproof and water-resistant outer fabric of the pants, also known as the shell. Usually made from nylon or polyester mixes, the shell should be breathable to help wick away moisture and have sealed seams.

Brightly-clad snowboarders stand out against the pristine corduroy at Vail, Colorado    

Jackets have traditionally been longer and baggier for snowboarders, filling the gap left by the low-slung pants. There are many different types but most share some standard features. They should be lightweight, water resistant, windproof, have pockets, air vents, wrist gaiters and reinforced seams to prevent damage when a rider is carrying the snowboard at his side.

You will need:
-  breathable thermal underwear (leggings and longsleeved top)
-  mid layer
-  sleeveless vest to keep torso warm
-  warm and waterproof jacket (preferably with hood either external or inside collar)
-  waterproof snow pants
-  neckwarmer and face mask
-  helmet (often worn with slim-fit hat underneath)
-  goggles (or wrap-around sunglasses if going in spring)
-  heavy duty gloves
-  warm and breathable socks
-  snowboard boots
-  packets of hand and toe warmers

Jean Hunt, owner of Calgary’s Ski Cellar Snowboard stores says that layering is even more important for snowboarding than for skiing: “More snowboarders tend to want shells and then layer underneath but this also applies to anyone doing freeride, big mountain or back country skiing and riding,” she says. One of the main differences between ski and snowboard gear is in the pants. “A snowboarder doesn’t need a cordura scuff guard and they tend to wear their pants lower on the waist so leg bottoms are either cut up in the back or have draws to pull them up,” Hunt explains.

Gloves need to be heavy-duty as they get a lot of wear with all the sitting down, pushing back up and inevitable touch-downs during riding. Snowboarding gloves are different than ski gloves with a reinforced palm typically made from cordura or kevlar. However, as Hunt points out, there has been a recent trend towards leather again for both ski and snowboard gloves and mitts.

Many snowboarders stay loyal to the iconic snowboard brand, Burton, but there are several manufacturers who merge the lines between skiing and snowboard clothing. “Crossovers happen,” says Hunt - particularly with premium brands such as Oakley, Nomis and Orage

Pastels, stripes and brights at Whistler/Blackcomb


Skis and snowboards are kept on racks outside lodges during breaks

Today’s ski equipment is highly technical with many styles of skis, bindings and boots available to suit different abilities, skiing styles and terrain preferences.

It can be baffling to go into a ski shop and see the whole array of skis ranging from all-mountain, freeride, and rocker to specific functions such as slalom (shorter radius turns), GS (long carving turns), mogul skis, and specialized park and pipe skis - each available in junior, women’s and men’s versions. There are also ranges of cross country skis, touring and Telemark skis as well as small snow blades.

Colourful graphics at Ski Cellar Snowboard, Calgary, Canada

Metal and fibreglass were introduced to traditional wooden ski technology in the 1950s and 1960s. Plastic boots replaced the old-fashioned leather ones also in the 1960s. Fibreglass tortion-box skis were generally much longer than today’s shaped skis up to around 1990. It was the advent of snowboarding that re-inspired ski technology leading to the development of the parabolic or shaped ski. Next came the “rocker” design - a banana shape - and nowadays most skis combine both parabolic and rocker features, facilitating smooth carving in all snow conditions. Twin tip skis have enabled skiers to rival snowboarders in terrain parks and half pipes.

Nowadays, there are four main categories of skis, according to Peter Lane, owner Ski Cellar Snowboard, Calgary, Canada: All Mountain Skis, Freeride/Powder Skis, Park & Pipe, and Race Skis. For beginners, he recommends choosing from the All Mountain category. “It should be soft enough that the skier can flex it enough to allow for maximum edge control throughout the turn,” he advises. “If the ski is too stiff, a beginner skier would find it very difficult to control as pressure applied to the ski is a learned skill that is much less abrupt with a softer ski. I would also recommend a ski with adequate shape or side-cut to allow for easy turning and a ski that has a wide enough waist width to increase the skis stability, but enough shape to enable ease of turning.” 

All Mountain Skis have evolved in recent years to be wider in the waist. “We are seeing waist widths from 70 mm in the waist to 90 mm within this category,” says Lane. “The more side-cut they have, the greater the turning radius will be, and as they become wider, stability and floatation increases.” They are also morphing with Rocker technology in the tip and/or tail to increase float in softer snow as well as easy turn initiation and edge hold on harder packed snow. “Within this category, there are skis for all abilities,” Lane explains. “Generally speaking, the softer the ski, the more forgiving it is and better suited for a beginner- intermediate skier. A more advanced skier would  usually prefer a stiffer ski with more side-cut for increased turning radius capability.”

In order to determine the most appropriate length of a ski (whether you are buying or renting), there are three criteria to consider: skiers’ weight, ability, and boot size. This helps the ski technician choose the appropriate ski and also adjust the bindings to the right setting - called the DIN. The settings correspond to weight and height in relation to your ability and also the aggression and speed at which you will be skiing. A beginner would be naturally more tentative, ski on easier terrain, but would fall more often; and an advanced skier would be faster and heavier-impact on their equipment which would need to be hardy enough to perform well on steeper slopes and more difficult conditions. The bindings have to be set to eject when a skier falls in an awkward way in order to prevent broken bones.

Here are a few more category clarifications:

Groomed Performance: 60-67mm Waist, 100-110mm tip, 85-95mm tail, better on groomed runs, easy turn initiation, moderate speed - e.g. Dynastar Agyl's, Rossignol Cut 9.6.

All-mountain skis: all condition skis, 68-72 mm waist, 105-110mm tip, approx 95 mm tail, easy to handle - e.g. Blizzard Bushwacker.

Mid-fat skis: up to 80 mm waist, harder to ski due to quick response on initiation of turns - e.g. Nordica W8o.

Freeride/Powder skis: 100mm-130mm waist with less side-cut; wider still in tip and tail; maximum float in powder and backcountry with enough shape for groomers; advanced but user-friendly for intermediates- e.g. Atomic R:EX or M:EX, Bandit B3, B4, or XXX, or Volant Chubb.

Park & Pipe: 85mm-100mm waist; symmetrical  or close to  symmetrical shape (same tip and tail dimension); enhance spin tricks, riding rails, half pipe; enable skiing backwards (switch).

Ice ski: more side cut, and a lot of metal, stiffer flex will allow the ski to grip into the ice more effectively and avoid slipage - e.g. Viper X, Volant, or Volkl 5 Star.

Carver:112-120mm tips, 70-75mm waists, 95-105mm tails - responds quickly at higher speeds for shorter, quicker turns - e.g. Rossignol Attraxion 3S for women or Radical 7RSX

TwinTips: tip and tail is curved upwards to enable jumps with backwards take off and landing backwards and skiing backwards (switch) down a slope. Also known as free-ride skis, e.g. Nordica’s Velvet Ace.

Rocker: a reverse-camber (literally upside down) ski, offering more float in powder and ease of turning all over the mountain - e.g. Rossignol’s Temptation 88 for women or Experience 88 for men.

Race Skis:A lot narrower and stiffer than any of the above categories to . These skis are meant  for maximum carving ability and stability at speed with minimum drag that could be caused by a bigger/fatter ski. They are also meant to be skied on extremely hard-pack or icy slopes  for maximum speed.

Line snow blades lined up for Bumps for Boomers program at Aspen/Snowmass, Colorado


A Vail instructor leads his group to the next incline - only way to get there on foot    

When skiing was in a slump in the 1980s, it was snowboarding that revived the ailing industry and brought significant numbers of youthful advocates into wintersports.

Since the 1980s there has been a merging of ski and riding couture and technology, with skis emulating boards by becoming fatter and more shaped. Snowboards, too, have copied some of skiing’s technological break-throughs, adopting metal edges, layered construction and camber. Nowadays around one third of ski resort visitors are boarders and many of them ski as well or ride in mixed groups of skiers and snowboarders.

There are three distinctive styles of recreational (and professional) snowboarding known as free-ride, freestyle, and free-carve/race. Split-boarding is another, newer style, using a board which is split in half and joined by hinged bindings for downhill action. Removable skins are added to the base of the board for forward, backcountry travel and the board can easily be unconnected to function as cross country skis.
Here are a few terms from snowboarding’s distinctive dictionary:
Jibbing: freestyle snowboarding on any surface other than snow - metal rails and boxes in terrain parks and logs and rocks around the mountain. Requires flexible, short to medium twin-tip board with twin flex and outward stance.
Riders at Fernie, BC, Canada get a great view over the Elk Valley    
Free-riding: all mountain snowboarding - riding natural terrain on a ski hill, carving groomed runs, doing jumps and tricks. Stiffer boots are recommended as well as longer, directional snowboards with medium stiffness for stability.
An Aspen/Snowmass instructor teaches jibbing on a box 

Free-style: Trick snowboarding on manmade features - rails, jumps, boxes and halfpipes - requiring soft boots and shorter, softer, twin-tipped board (reversed camber or rocker) for balance and flexibility.

Free-carve: Less common, racing and slalom-focused style requiring carving turns on hard-packed snow. Just like race-skiing, free-carve equipment includes harder boots and stiff, directional snowboards for quick response turns.
There are now many different types of snowboards, varying in shape, stiffness and camber. Teagan Milaney, Equipment Manager for Calgary’s Ski Cellar Snowboard says that your choice should depend on the type of terrain you’re going to be riding and what type of snowboarder you are. The two main shapes are directional and twin. “A directional board will perform best when ridden in one direction and where the focus is more on free-riding,” says Milaney. “A twin shape allows the board to be ridden in either direction easily and this lends itself to free-style riding.”

Free-riding at Breckenridge, Colorado

She says a softer board is more forgiving and maneuverable and therefore great
for beginners and also for learning smaller, technical tricks. A stiff board is more suitable for powerful and stable riding at faster speed. Camber options include traditional - which is convex - and rocker with its concave profile. “Traditional camber is known for its edge hold, pop, and response while Rocker is associated with a looser, playful, forgiving feel,” Milaney explains. There are, however, several other versions, some with both camber and rocker (think the letter "w") and others with a completely flat profile. All-Mountain boards are popular choices as they are a blend of free-ride and free-style construction, slightly twinned (directional twin) with an even flex on each side of the board.

Renting equipment - either from resort shops or equipment outlets in town - can be the best way to get a feel for different brands of snowboards. If you go for “demo” or premium rentals, you will get higher-end equipment and newer models. “Renting is a cost-effective way of giving snowboarding a try,” says Milaney. But she warns that regular rental boards can all be pretty similar so it is better to go for a demo rental in order to try the high-performance boards. 

Snowboarders and Skiers riding together at Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

Custom Boots

Anyone who skis knows how painful and pleasure-destroying badly fitting boots can be. Even buying new boots can become a lengthy crusade with endless re-fits for tortured toes, circulation cut-off, and hellish heel spurs.

But, on my annual Fernie foray a couple of years ago, I discovered the solution to all foot problems! I had Nordica Dobermann Pro 130 boots dismantled and re-made with custom footbeds, foam-liners, new angulation and re-aligned soles by Donny Dion of Top Shelf Snowsports. At $1,449, they don’t come cheap but if you divvie that up by 500 days wear, it sounds very cost-effective. And, you can’t under-estimate the bliss of perfect fit, enhanced performance and not having to try on hundreds of pairs of ill-fitting boots.

Donnie Dion takes notes about my anatomical problems

You need to spend at least three or four days in Fernie to have custom boots built. I wouldn’t have minded spending longer there with all that wonderful post-Christmas powder. The procedure requires popping in and out of the store, spending a few hours each day there, regaling the guys with as much details as possible about your ski style, ability and terrain preferences as well as anatomical minutiae and trying out the boots in various phases of development on Fernie’s pistes, bowls, gullies and glades.

The first hurdle is finding Top Shelf. It’s almost buried underneath and behind the Griz Inn with an ill-directed sign vaguely showing the vicinity. You feel as if you are in on a secret – much like discovering an underground bar in a European city’s entertainment district. Next step is choosing the shell – and no picking it for the colour, logo or fancy buckles. Dion – with input from his partner Brian Campbell – professionally selects a boot from among their array of Nordica, Fischer  and Dolomite  brands. Their only concern – which shell most closely fits the volume and shape of your bare foot.

Women – besieged with foot, ankle and calf problems - make up 75 percent of Topshelf’s clientele. “So many women just can’t get a good fit out of the box,” explained Nordica rep, Rob Duncan. “Some of the more women-specific technology is helping but a lot of it is just cosmetic,” he added. Apparently - with my double E width, narrow heel, high insteps, supronation, bandy and low-muscled calves, and an recurring ankle bone spur – I would never find the perfect boot off the shelf and I was going to be a particular challenge even to Topshelf’s maestros.

When building a custom boot, the heel area is paramount: “The narrow part of your heel and ankle is the cockpit of the boot,” explained Dion, who as a Level 4 ski instructor knows from experience how bad boots can affect skiers’ performance and skill development. Apprenticed with Campbell in Whistler, Dion is an expert in foot dynamics, comfort and performance issues.

The boot builders then construct a footbed – like a more flexible orthotic – after casting your feet on a playdoh-textured moulding machine that exaggerates your fore-foot characteristics. The footbeds are heated and hardened with the base remaining curved for pivoting and swivelling capability. They are then shaped to fit the boot and glued down. Since the boot base is flat, foam is later injected into the gap so the footbed won’t rock inside the shell. For my wide double E feet, Dion used a heated boot press to stretch the width around the outer toe area. The heat caused the Nordica logo to rub off.

Donnie injects foam into my Nordica boots

Foaming the boots is agonizing! First your foot is fitted with pads to create pockets for problem areas. After putting on medium-weight Smart Wool merino socks, a cardboard toe cap, and a plastic bag, you have to stuff your bulky feet into incredibly tight boots with Dion devilishly cranking up the buckles. There are tubes going into the front and back of the boots through which foam is injected to fill all the gaps. The pain only subsides when your feet go numb, reminding you of similar situations on the slopes when you tightened your old boots to negotiate tough bumps or a steep descent only to find it cut off your circulation. You also have to press down all your weight into your feet, holding onto a metal frame, trying to remember to breathe. 

After the 45-minute ordeal, the boots set for 24 hours over night and – assuming your circulation ever returns - you get to try them out next day. So, I now had an hour or so’s skiing left before Fernie’s lifts closed. Dion sent me out skiing in my old boots with Top Shelf regular, Everyday Ted, to see if Ted could give some feedback on my ski style and level which would help with the boot building. As agile as someone 22 years his junior (ie me), the septenagarian skied expertly through Fernie’s undulating and changeable terrain. After wintering in Fernie for 18 years, the  retired engineering professor knew every quirk of the topography, choosing his routes by determining which would be the wind-free lifts and crowd-free runs. A collision with a snowboarder a few years back had resulted in him missing a few days skiing due to a dislocated shoulder, his only days off in 18 years. So, he is now somewhat wary of people and often opts to ski solo. But, apparently, my fluid skiing gave him confidence and he described me to Dion as a very controlled skier who he would ski with any time. Praise indeed!

Following day:

The next procedure was to straighten the angulation of my boots which were ‘verticalized’ to compensate for my large, low calf muscles which push me forward in any boot. Then it was time for an alignment check. This revealed a discrepancy between my right and left foot as well as supronation – the tendency to walk on the outer edge of your feet. Apparently I had been skiing on the wrong edge of my right foot for 36 years! It took Dion a while to devise angled wedges which he then taped to my boots for me to try out on snow. The new angles would mean that when I stand flat on my skis, my skis will actually be flat on the snow, as opposed to following the angle of my supronating feet. 

What I found when I skied was that I went faster in a schuss, turned more rhythmically right and left and was able to hold an edge on ice much better than ever before. As you can imagine, I was still very skeptical about all this. So far, the super boots felt painful and unforgiving and I couldn’t imagine my troublesome feet enjoying skiing in them. 

Next day:

I watched Dion shaving the instep area on the liner’s tongue so it could accommodate my foot and ankle shape. “The instep is an area of major blood flow,” explained Dion. “If it’s too tight it will restrict circulation and make your toes go numb.” Please, no more numb toes!
This time I had to put on ultra thin merino socks and then take a lesson in putting on my new boots which were super rigid. Assuming a most ungainly position, with legs akimbo, pressing on one inner thigh with the corresponding elbow, one hand under the boot buckles and the other thumb under the cuff, I managed to slide my foot in sideways. Then it was a matter of pulling up the liner via a back loop and unashamedly slamming my heel on the floor to settle my ankle in its concrete niche. Next, the top buckle should be done up first, tighter than ankle buckle. Then I had to fasten the ankle buckle and finally the toe buckles. I didn’t realize there could be such a science involved in donning boots!

Armed with warnings that I would try to use too much thigh strength and thereby over turn during my first ski, I approached Fernie’s phenomenal  pistes with caution. Unused to such support, I could barely walk in the snug boots and doubted my toes’ staying power in minus 20. But once attached to my skis, my boots entered their comfort zone. What was amazing to me was pain-free skiing despite my heels and ankles feeling like they were set in concrete. I had been skiing with varying degrees of ankle pain for the previous six years, before (and after) two surgeries to remove bone spurs.

I was enthralled by the new responsiveness of my skis to my tiniest foot movements and could see how easy it would be in future to ski with minimal effort – as Dion joked, “You sneeze and you’ll turn”. My new Nordica Olympia Victory skis had seemed a little too fast and aggressive for me with my old slipper-soft boots. Now I felt like I was finally in sync with them and could career through Fernie’s toughest blacks with relative abandon.

And, finally, how come my toes weren’t cold? I had no foot warmers in the boots, just the surprisingly thin, Smart Wool socks, it was minus 25 and all my ski buddies were complaining of frozen toes. Mine – which used to cut off at minus 20 max especially in new boots – were cosy. I still felt like I was skiing on wooden clogs but edging was amazing even on steep icy pitches.

Day 4:

Next day the boots were finally finished with the wedges removed and the soles planed to accommodate my stance. Now I just had to withstand the breaking-in period when gas trapped in the liner escapes gradually over a few days of skiing. I was excited to take them back to my home terrain in the Banff area and try them out on hours of vertical over familiar territory. I was also hoping that the perfect fit would mean my ankle spur stops enlarging. “Intermittent aggravation causes bone spurs to build up,” said Nordica rep, Rob Duncan who suffered from heel spurs himself before having Top Shelf’s customizing.

Campbell and Dion learned their techniques in Whistler in the 90s where Dion was also a ski instructor, testing out variations of boot customizing in the field. “Koflach, Dynafit and Dachstein all did foam in the 80s and 90s. Now with dedicated ski shops disappearing, the big box retailers are taking over, so it’s rare to find anyone of our experience doing this,” he said. 
Brian Campbell (left) and Donnie Dion (right)

With his instruction background, Dion is particularly concerned about beginners to skiing. Naturally, they would be reluctant to part with almost $1500 for their first pair of boots. But Dion thinks that beginners in particular can be put off the sport at the outset by poor equipment. So, Top Shelf has come up with “The New Rental Experience”, providing top boots, skis and snowboards for reasonable prices - $20 per day for $500 boots and $35 per day for topnotch skis and boards as well as advice on what they should buy. “Give them the best first experience and the equipment to match the terrain and boots that fit and maybe they’ll continue in the sport,” said Dion.

For more information on Top Shelf, call 250-423-7912. But, hurry – when their boot supply dwindles usually sometime in March they’re sure to be out enjoying Fernie’s fabulous powder with a “Gone Skiing” sign posted on the door!

Fernie Alpine Resort, Canada


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