How to service a pair of skis

Want to ski better? And save money on your ski gear? You could start by servicing your own equipment.

Tom Lewis, instructor with the Warren Smith Ski Academy, prepares to service a ski

Tom “Scouse” Lewis prepares a ski for servicing

Tom “Scouse” Lewis, from the Wirral, is an instructor with the Warren Smith Ski Academy. While training to become an instructor, he learned to service skis at a rental shop in Courchevel, a habit he has continued ever since.

This is what he says about servicing his own equipment:

“Many people would ski a lot better if only they serviced their skis more regularly. If your edges are blunt, you lose a lot of grip – especially on hard pack, even more so on ice.

“You can of course take them into a shop to be serviced, but you will save money in the long run by doing the job yourself. Ideally service your skis at least once a week; if you do the job thoroughly, a pair of skis will take about two hours.

Set of clamps for ski servicing

Set of clamps for ski servicing

“First, make sure the ski is dry. Then, clamp it to your work surface. Use special ski clamps: these come in sets of three, to secure the tip, middle and tail of the ski. Don’t ever try filing an edge holding the ski in your other hand – it’ll be a disaster.

“Get rid of any surface rust on the edges using a burr rubber; a cork from a wine bottle would do the same job.

“Then move onto the files. There are many different kinds, ranging from coarse or bastard files (aggressive) to World Cup chrome files (fine) and diamond files (good for finishing the edges).

“To use the files, you put them in a side edge file guide (for doing the side edge of the ski) or a precision base file (for the base edge). You can adjust the angles between 85-90 degrees for the side edge or 0.5-1.5 degrees for the base edge.

“Shops normally sharpen the side edges to 90 degrees, but you will get much more control and grip from your skis if you go for 88 degrees – though this can feel quite aggressive, possibly too much for a lower-level skier. Any sharper, and you would have to service your skis again after a very short time.

Tools for servicing skis, from left: burr rubber, fine file, coarse file, side edge file guide, cleaning brush

Ski servicing tools (from l.): burr rubber, fine file, coarse file, side edge file guide, cleaning brush

“Start with the coarse (bastard) file, but only if the skis are in a bad state; then move on to the chrome files and finish with the diamond for a quality finish. Whichever one you are using, run it carefully down the length of the ski, applying a steady pressure. Always work in the same direction. It is important to clean the files after use, to keep them sharp; an old toothbrush will do just fine for this.

“Next, fill any small holes in the base with P-tex (a thermoplastic used to fill gouges or gaps in snowboards and skis). The black version looks like a stick of liquorice; buy a colour that matches the base of your skis. Light the tip, wait for the flame to turn blue, and then drip the molten P-tex into the hole. When it’s dry, remove the surplus with a plastic scraper.

“You can’t P-tex a hole that has gone through to the core: moisture will get in and rot it. In that case you need a patch put in – it’s best to get a professional to do that.

Tom Lewis, instructor with the Warren Smith Ski Academy, waxes a ski

Tom “Scouse” Lewis waxes a ski

“Finally, wax the skis. When the skis come out of the factory, they have little grooves in the base designed to hold the wax. Choose your wax according to the temperature of the snow. Try skiing on winter wax on a glacier in the summer, and you’ll hardly move.

“Melt the wax by holding it against the base of an iron – it doesn’t have to be a purpose-made one, an old-school travel iron will do, as long as it does not have holes in the base.

“Drip wax all along the base of the ski, and then smooth it out with the iron, covering the ski from tip to tail and edge to edge to guarantee the smoothest glide. Never leave the iron standing on the ski, it’ll melt the base, just as it would burn a shirt – it’s plastic. Keep it moving. Don’t believe people who say you can use candle wax – it doesn’t work.

“Finally allow the wax to dry, and scrape the base smooth with a plastic scraper. These have a notch in one corner, so you can also scrape the ski edges free of wax. Finally, use a soft horsehair brush to rub the wax into the base of the ski.

Ski servicing tools (from l.): iron, wax, brush; scraper is below

Ski servicing tools, from left: iron, wax, brush; below, craper

“Take a final look at your skis: the edges should look and feel sharp and silvery. Run your fingernail along the base; it should make a mark in the wax. You’re done!

“Every four or five services, take the skis to a shop to have them put through a grinder to create a new ski base structure. These small lines running down the base help reduce drag, like the tread in a tyre. Your skis need to ride on a film of water produced from the friction of your base and edges cutting through the snow. Different base structures are used at different times of year, depending on the temperature of the snow.

“To buy the tools you need for all this, including the clamps, costs about CHF 400 – 450 (£240 to 275) to in Verbier. Having your skis serviced in a shop costs anything between CHF 35 and 70. So, buying the equipment is an investment well worth making – and you’ll find your skiing benefits as a result.”

Ski instructor course 9: The thrill of speed skiing

Meet Philippe May, a speed skier who has reached the truly terrifying velocity of 250 kilometres per hour.

Photo by Tracie Max Sachs

Picture yourself breaking the speed limit on the motorway. Now imagine doing double that speed on skis. Scary?

Such is the sport of speed skiing, practised on a specially prepared and extremely steep slope. Only five of its devotees worldwide have reached a speed of 250kph (155.34mph) – and one of them is Philippe May, who last season became director of the Swiss Ski School in Verbier.

Prospective students need not worry, however. “Sometimes when I am teaching clients they recognise me,” says Philippe, “and they say – ‘ooh, please don’t make us ski fast!’” He reassures them, though, that speed skiing isn’t on the syllabus.

Amateurs can, however, have a go at competing in the sport – on the same track that will stage the World Championship in 2011, as well as this season’s FIS World Cup Final (April 19-22, 2010), high on the glacier on Mont-Fort. The preceding weekend, April 17-18, members of the public are invited to enter the so-called Pop KL.

“Any good skier can do it,” says Philippe. “And people get addicted; it’s amazing to see how excited they get.” Some recreational skiers get as fast as 93mph (150kph) – “a very acceptable speed,” according to Philippe.

Philippe’s personal record, however, is precisely 250kph – only 1.4kph (less than 1mph) slower than the world record. He had the advantage of growing up in a village just down the mountain, taking to skis at the age of three. After a spell as a drummer, touring with a heavy metal band, and a career as a carpenter, Philippe devoted himself to speed skiing. In 2002 he became the FIS World Champion, and in 2007 Pro World Champion. Now 39 years old, the pony-tailed racer has remained in the top three for the past seven consecutive years.

What does speed skiing feel like? “It’s between skiing and flying,” says Philippe. “The air resistance is enormous. Think what it is like when you put your hand out of the car window when you are driving on the freeway at 120 [kph]. Then double the speed and take away the car.”

Photo by Tracie Max Sachs

Unlike Formula 1 cars, speed skiers are not allowed any aerodynamic gimmicks to keep them on the ground: “the only spoiler is your body,” says Philippe. However, speed skiers regularly take big air: even the most carefully groomed piste has undulations. “It’s not flat, it’s a mountain, and it’s alive – so the track feels as if it has waves.” A slight drop in pitch, says Philippe, can send you airborne for 70 metres.

At this speed, the slightest movement of air can have devastating consequences – as Philippe found out at an event at the Italian resort of Cervinia in 2003. “At high speed you don’t weigh anything,” says Philippe. A slight gust of wind blew him off the track. He shot through the netting – “I weigh 85kg, and when I went through the net at 160kph, it didn’t even slow me down” – and broke seven ribs and a shoulder blade. “It wasn’t nice,” says Philippe.

Breakages are not the commonest injury among speed skiers, however. When they fall, they usually just slide down the track. “The suits we wear are 100 per cent windproof, it’s like wearing a plastic bag – so you never slow down.” The result: third-degree burns, from friction with the snow.

Right now I have no intention of trying speed skiing. The reason I have met Philippe is because as part of my course to train as a ski instructor, I will spend the next few days “shadowing” classes of the Swiss Ski School in Verbier. My maximum speed is likely to be about 1 per cent of Philippe’s, as I snowplough alongside children on the beginner slopes.

In the meantime, we would-be instructors have continued with our personal technique training. My own group has a new instructor this week: Tom Goldney, who has us practising our carving, whizzing down the slopes leaving as clean and crisp a pair of parallel tracks as we can, like an indecisive railway line. It isn’t speed skiing, but it’s pretty much the technique you’d use in fast giant slalom; and the thrill of gliding over the slopes, swinging from one curve to the next, leaves a huge grin on our faces.

I am curious to test my speed, though, and after training one day tackle the Mini KL, a track with an automatic self-timer. It isn’t steep, but it’s a smooth run where you can get into a tuck, keep your skis as flat as you can, and enjoy the feeling of slicing through the air, the snow rushing past in a blur.

It feels enjoyably fast; at a push, I can imagine skiing at double the speed – on a brave day. I look at the electronic timer: it says 51.3kph. That’s one fifth of Philippe’s top speed. I make a mental note to sign up for the Pop KL – on the sidelines, as a volunteer.

Entry to the Pop KL costs CHF 100 per person per run; details at www.xspeedski.net.

Tart tart’s guide to Verbier

Laetitia Boumard, pastry chef at Chez Dany, with a raspberry tart and lemon tart

Chez Dany’s Laetitia Boumard with a raspberry tart and lemon tart

Indulging in a slice of slope-side cake is one of the great pleasures of a ski trip. Finding the best on offer is a quest to be taken seriously.

Some of us skiers will do anything for a quality cake. I’d say that the moment you decide, midway through a particularly satisfying run, that it is time to reward yourself with a slice of tarte at one of the mountain cafes is one of the happiest to be had on the slopes.

The restaurant Chez Dany in Clambin, above Verbier

Chez Dany

As any fanatic knows, this can lead to disappointment: all too many cakes fail to live up to your fantasy. So, in order that any readers planning a visit to Verbier can look forward to their cake with confidence, I have been doing some intensive research.

I avoided the big restaurants at the cable car and chairlift stations, focussing instead on smaller, more characterful café-restaurants that are worth a detour; all are ski-in, ski-out. The house specialities turn out to be various takes on the fruit tart; after careful investigation, I can confirm that all are superb.

One of the venues, Chez Dany (00 41 27 771 25 24), is not on a patrolled piste but a marked “itinerary” – effectively a pretty track through the forest, dotted with chalets. To find it, take the red run that leads from the Les Ruinettes chairlift down to Médran, and look for the signposted turning off to the left.

Bruno Diebold from Chez Simon, Verbiery, with the house apple tart

Chez Simon’s Bruno Diebold with house apple tart

House speciality at this cosy wooden chalet is a raspberry tart, consisting of a flaky pastry base filled with whipped cream and smothered with glazed raspberries (CHF 6). Laetitia Boumard, the pastry chef who conjures up these slices of pure pleasure, recommends savouring them with a glass of local white wine.

The other cafés are located in the sunny Savoleyres area overlooking Verbier. This is neglected by aficionados of the couloirs and powderfields on the Mont-Fort and Mont-Gelé, but it is popular with families, fans of tree skiing, leisurely lunchers and tarte lovers.

On the north side of the ridge, just above the bottom of the Le Nord six-person chairlift, is Chez Simon (00 41 27 306 80 55; www.chezsimon.ch ), a café among the trees that specialises in just one tart – in large quantities.

The tarte tatin at La Marmotte, Verbier

Tarte tatin at La Marmotte

Bruno Diebold is one of two chefs who make up to 20 big baking trays of apple tart a day (CHF 4), each providing up to 26 slices. The apples come from a village at the bottom of the mountain, Riddes: in fact this stretch of the Rhone valley is as famous for its fruit brandies as its wine. The apple tart is “as simple as you can make it”, says Bruno, “with nothing surplus”: just pastry, apples, cinnamon, sugar and a little cream. He recommends tasting it warm, with a glass of vin chaud (mulled wine).

Two other top stops lie on the sunny slopes on the other side of the ridge, a few turns below the Savoleyres Sud draglift, on the long blue Planard slope that leads across the mountain to Carrefour and to the bulk of Verbier’s ski area.

La Marmotte (00 41 27 771 68 34; www.lamarmotte-verbier.com) is a large restaurant in traditional chalet style, whose dessert menu always includes the chef de cuisine’s celebrated tarte tatin. Fabrice Girel bakes a couple of these caramelised apple tarts a day, serving them with vanilla ice cream (CHF 11). Do look out for the specials, which change every fortnight: if you visit over the next ten days, it’ll be a mille-feuille aux poires (CHF 12).

Annick Margelisch of Le Namasté with one of her husband Jean-Lou's maple syrup tarts

Annick Margelisch of Le Namasté with the popular maple syrup tart

Just a few yards away is perhaps the most idiosyncratic venue of all: Le Namasté (00 41 27 771 57 73; www.namaste-verbier.ch), a café that feels more like a cluster of cosy living rooms. The exterior is decorated with all manner of fantastical metal sculptures created out of old agricultural implements that the chef, Jean-Lou Margelisch, welds in his spare time.

The speciality here is maple syrup tart (CHF 6). Jean-Lou said he “only started baking these because I have a friend from Quebec. Now everyone asks for it.”

When it arrives, served by Jean-Lou’s wife Annick, it looks alarmingly thin, but the layer of maple syrup filling, savoured warm, turns out to be so rich, sweet and swooningly sumptuous that I was left gasping with happiness.

So, which of the tartes is the best? I couldn’t possibly say: I urge anyone with an interest to try them all, and make their own mind up. Bon appétit!

One of the sculptures at Le Namasté in Verbier made by the chef, Jean-Lou Margelisch

Sculpture at Le Namasté by the chef, Jean-Lou Margelisch

The secret of comfortable ski boots

Are rental ski boots killing your feet? It could be time to invest in a custom-fitted pair.

Is the pleasure you have skiing spoilt by the pain in your feet? Do you dread putting your boots on in the mornings? Do you have to clamp up them so tight to control your skis that you all but crush the bones in your feet?

I used to answer “yes” in each case – until I had a pair of boots custom-fitted three seasons ago, complete with specially moulded insoles. I haven’t had one blister since, my boots fit snugly, and my skis react to the slightest movement in my feet. I can confidently say I have never been so happy about any other ski equipment or footwear purchase in my life.

The fitting isn’t cheap – at Profeet in London, where I had my boots done, the process now costs £149.95 on top of the price of the boot – but this is money well spent.

The process begins with a biomechanical analysis. First you stand on a mat that maps the distribution of weight around your feet, both standing normally and in a skiing stance. The various colours on the computer printout show precisely where you need support.

The technician also videos your movements on a ski simulator – an adapted “Skier’s Edge” – to see how your skiing stance may be affected by tight, weak or dominant muscles.

The next phase involves making the customised insole. As you stand on a squidgy cushion, the insole is heat-moulded directly to your foot using high-definition plastics. The technician then makes use of the information from your pressure-mapping scan to shape a support out of a special foam (EVA) that will provide the maximum support.

I was astonished that my insole was so lumpy, with big bulges under the arches of my feet. The technician showed how, without these, the arches of my feet have a tendency to collapse – which in turn causes my knees to drop inwards, and my pelvis to tilt back. Standing on the new insoles, I felt the whole alignment of my ankles, knees and hips shift.

The final element in the fitting is the boot itself. I was surprised that I had no choice of model: the technician said that given the shape of my foot, heel, ankle and calf, he would fit a particular pair of Nordicas. As for choosing something that goes with your outfit – forget it.

He made a couple of tweaks to the boot, stretching the plastic of the shell to better fit the shape of my foot, before adjusting the canting – effectively ensuring a correct vertical alignment of the lower leg and the boot, for the skis to run flat.

I stopped short of buying a custom lining for the boot, as I was running short of funds – and the technician said I could fit one at a later date. In fact, I intend to buy them soon here in Verbier: while the boots fit my feet perfectly, I notice some play around the ankles, especially when I hit variable terrain – something that a purpose-made liner should correct.

Still, the boots have served me superbly well for two and a half seasons. I find that for the first hour of skiing I have to tweak the buckles a fair bit, but then do not touch them again for the rest of the day. So, if you ski in rental boots or ones that you have bought off the shelf, consider treating yourself a custom-fitted pair – it could be the happiest investment you make in your skiing career.

Tips

Socks Only wear one pair; donning two can create a variety of problems, from wrinkling and bunching to excess perspiration leading to cold feet. Invest in ski-specific socks with extra thickness on the shin, heel and other key areas – such as those made by Falke.

Buckling your boots If your boots are well fitted, they will not need clamping up like vices for you to ski effectively. Start with the power strap at the top of your boots, if you have one. Then fasten the top two buckles on your shin, tightening them alternately to bring your heel firmly to the back of the boot. Finally, do up the buckles over your toes and your instep: not tightly, otherwise you will constrict circulation, just enough to feel the boot wrapped around your foot. Finally, secure the power strap around your shin.

  • Profeet (020 7736 0046; www.profeet.co.uk) is located in Fulham in London. The fitting process costs £149.95; this includes biomechanical analysis, foot pressure mapping, moulding of insoles, boot adjustment and alignment. The cost of the boots is extra; Profeet says it will match the prices of other retailers.
  • Further information: the Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com), the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the local tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)
  • Equipment rental through Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70; www.skiservice.com).