After 17 years on the slopes, I thought I knew the first thing about skiing. But I didn't. Asked by boot-fitter Phil Vass which buckle I tightened initially when putting on my boots, my answer was the one at the toe. Vass was generous rather than scornful: almost everyone makes that mistake, he said. The correct place to start, he informed me, was with the top buckle, on the calf.
This was more pleasing than embarrassing. The reason that I was sitting in the Ellis Brigham shop in Kensington High Street was not because I enjoy having people stare in wonder at my gnarly, knobbly feet. Nor did I need new ski boots: my current pair, made by the Austrian boot-maker Strolz, is only five years old and has done nowhere near the 200 days of skiing which, so I am told, ski instructors reckon to a boot's average life span. Rather, I was there to learn.
Boots don't stand still: most seasons see changes in materials, structure and design. Reluctant to wait the estimated seven years to the end of my own pair's days, I put my bare feet in Vass's hands for a state-of-the-art fitting, and to catch up with boot technology.
Admittedly, the quest was prompted in part by a marketing decision by the most innovative ski-equipment company, Salomon, to lay greater emphasis this season on comfort. Its boots now come in five "shells", at least one more than most of its competitors make; and the company is also working in partnership with foot-bed maker Conform'able to improve the foot/boot relationship. I was interested, too, in the major change that has taken place in the process of customising the boot liners.
The fitter's tools have not changed. A foot gauge and a short piece of wooden dowel are all that is required. True, Vass's gauge his own, rather than the shop's is a beautiful thing, made in polished aluminium by the US specialist Brannock. On the other hand, he didn't deploy a pocket torch, used by my first fitter (in 1996) as he peered down into the boot to see how my foot was doing inside.
Getting the right shell the structure of the boot is the first and most critical decision a fitter must make. With a mixture of calculation and intuition, he or she must choose the one which best accords with the shape of the customer's foot. Since I was evaluating Salomon's boot-comfort initiative, Vass could choose only from among that company's shells. (Given a free choice, he said, he would also have let me try a slightly softer, Lange boot.)
Obviously, shells come in different lengths. But they also come in different shapes, varying in width but also in the relationship between the size at the heel and the "toe box". Vass hauled the liner out of an Impact 8 boot, to check that my foot fitted comfortably inside the shell. It did. Then he inserted his 20mm-long dowel behind my ankle, to establish that he had chosen the correct boot length (a task made trickier by the fact that a foot bed can alter the foot's effective length). Vass was satisfied: the 100mm-wide Impact 8 boot, in a size 27.5, was the one for me.
If the customer was always right, a fitter's task would be easy. Unfortunately, the converse is commonly true. Fitters often moan about the effect of ski magazines: when a writer eulogises a particular boot, it is difficult to persuade customers that there is no reason why the boot should be equally comfortable on their feet.
Colour is an even bigger problem. Of course, skiers want boots that are attractive and won't clash with their skiwear. We all mention this to fitters, and laugh at such frivolity but it's anxious laughter. Because we know that he or she will ignore the hint, and choose the boot that best fits our feet, not the one that best fits our aesthetic sensibilities. And we know applying the principles of sod's law that the fitter is going to reach for that boot whose colour scheme recalls the television show Pimp My Ride, with its too-brilliant white, fluorescent mid-blue, black flashes and lurid typography. That is my new boot, and I put it on with a dissembling smile.
(The colour question is an interesting one. Each Salomon boot comes in two colour styles, though Ellis Brigham stocks only one. How does the company know which colours to use for a particular shell? Has it done the research and found that people with wide feet are, say, high achievers with a tolerance for credit-card debt who have a propensity for buying garish sports equipment? Not according to Salomon's Eric Davies; he says the colour styles one usually black, the other much brighter are the result of focus-group work.)
With my boot chosen, the next task was the foot bed. This is a device a glorified, three-dimensional insole that supports the foot along its length and ensures that the ankle doesn't twist and the arch doesn't drop. The Conform'able version is made on a platform that feels as if it has soft mud on top, covered by a black rubber sheet. Barefoot, you stand on top of the sheet; the fitter aligns your feet; and in a few minutes an impression is created in the "clay", and used as a mould to make a heat-hardened foot bed. With that in place, all that remains is to customise the liner.
It is this process that has changed since I endured my fitting at the Strolz shop in Lech. Then, customising involved wearing the boots and having warm foam pumped into the liner a sort of double-walled, inner boot under pressure; the effect was to fill up the spaces between boot and foot, ensuring a close fit. Having one's feet squeezed is painful enough, but the process also involved hauling on handles fixed to the floor, to prevent the pressurised foam lifting the feet. The area where this process took place in the Strolz shop looked like a torture chamber.
All that is history, for leisure skiers. Most manufacturers led by Salomon use comparable systems, albeit with different proprietary names. The boots come with liners that contain a filler material, which is softened by heat. Liners warmed by what Davies describes as "the world's smartest hairdryer" are fitted into the boots, in which the customer stands for as long as it takes for the filler to solidify (about 15 minutes).
Is this process as effective as the old and painful one? Logic suggests not, because pressurisation produces a liner that more closely follows the outline of the foot. But I would find out from experience. My challenge for Salomon was to give me boots to match the comfort and performance of the Strolz pair.
The match is a rather unfair one. In its quest for boot comfort, Salomon has made several innovations including "stepped" shell thicknesses, an adjustable ankle buckle and a smoother forward-flex system; but Strolz produces the closest thing to a bespoke boot that is readily available. Although it makes only three different shells, it also creates a "last" for each customer, a facsimile of the foot made with a wooden core that is customised with strips of padding. The shell is heated to make it pliable, and then molded around the last, to shape it. The result is a snug but comfortable boot, hard to get on in cold weather.
In the sudden cold snap a couple of weekends ago in Austria, my new Salomon boots got their first airing. They went on surprisingly easily. A friend on the same short glacier-skiing trip to Tyrol noticed the new-boot sheen. Had I, he asked, got used to the boots by wearing them around the house? No, I hadn't; but now, to my alarm, I remembered that I was told to do that with the first pair of boots I ever bought. The alarm faded quickly, because this unpreparedness would, I figured, be a good test of the custom fitting.
The boots passed the initial test. In a blizzard that lasted most of the weekend, ski conditions were difficult: high winds closed the lifts in the Stubai area. But my feet felt comfortable throughout, except on the day when I forgot to slacken off the buckles at lunchtime a failure which is itself indicative of comfort. The days were too short, though, to form a conclusive opinion, especially on the boots' performance. That must wait until after next month's trip to Canada. There's another factor, of course. Maybe the boots felt good because I tightened the top buckle first, located my heel properly, flexed the feet forward in the boot and only then closed the toe buckle, without over-tightening it.
Salomon Impact 8 boots (with custom-fit liners) cost 230; further information from 0800 389 4350 or at www.salomonski.com. A boot-fit service at Ellis Brigham, including Conform'able foot-beds, costs 50Reuse content