The perfect pair

Stephen Wood in search of the ultimate ski boot
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The Independent Travel
My feet are ugly, misshapen things. I wouldn't normally mention this; I do so now only because it explains my painful relationships with ski boots. It's always the same: what starts as a firm embrace becomes a tight squeeze, then degenerates into a pinching, chafing squabble. Attempts at mediation - relaxing the forefoot adjuster, a compromise with the heel retention unit, are useless. By mid-afternoon the boots have turned mean, all take and no give.

I resolved to start this season in the right boots. I would find the country's finest boot-fitter, probably a horny-handed artisan called Hans at a small workshop in Clerkenwell - and he would cobble together a pair which had at least something in common with my feet. But none of the equipment experts I consulted knew a Hans. Further disappointment followed: their choice of where I should get my boots was about as intriguing as Marco Pierre White recommending Marks & Spencer as the place to go for good sandwiches. They suggested Snow+Rock.

"You've got a wide foot with a big first metatarsal, there's pronation, your second ankle's very prominent, your arches are collapsed and the heel is very, very narrow behind the Achilles," said Rob Hickling, equipment department manager at Snow+Rock's Holborn branch. That's what you get for consulting experts: I knew my feet were bad, but I didn't know they were that bad.

Hickling, however, stayed calm. He stared at my feet. "We have to reiterate the foundations of the feet," he pronounced, and gave my right ankle a twist. "That's the shape to which I'll be fitting the boot: the foot's straight, the instep is higher, everything is aligned - you'll be able to flat-ski, and exert more pressure when you push forward. And you won't roll around inside the boot."

I knew that Snow+Rock means business from its catalogue: the boots come with a "comfort guarantee". Ski boots have previously guaranteed me discomfort, but Snow+Rock was prepared to change or re-fit boots before use "if any problems develop" (which explains why, for the first time, I am writing my column in ski boots), and even re-fit them, still free of charge, after use. To offer that guarantee, Snow+Rock has to be confident of its fitting service - so the process usually takes an hour and a half.

Rob Hickling knows his boots inside as well as out (and says, surprisingly, that the greatest variation between their shells lies in the fit around the ankle and heel). Having got to know my feet, he chose the Nordica GP07 for me because it was the closest to their shape, and because he gathered that I would gladly give up some performance for comfort. (Low- compromise skiers, of course, go for tighter-fitting, performance boots with expensive custom-moulded liners.) He heaved out the entire liner; I put the GP07s on, and he peered inside the shell with a torch. "If you don't take the liner out and look down the shell, how the hell are you going to know what's going on inside? That's what sets a good boot-fitter apart from a bad one," he said.

The old rear-entry boots that gave me such pain - "buckets" Hickling calls them - were packed with seductive padding, but could be adjusted to exert pressure on only three sensitive points, the forefoot, heel and calf. The newer, clipped boots are designed to grip the whole foot more closely, with thinner liners - which makes a good fit all-important. So the GP07s, which passed the torchlight test around the heel, would be widened by heating and stretching the shell to accommodate my big first metatarsal (a bunion, to you and me); and a rigid, custom-made insole support called a "foot-bed" would be fitted to raise my arches and align the feet, countering pronation (the rolling inwards of heel and ankle) and reducing the prominence of the second ankle (a knobbly bit that sticks out below the inside of the ankle).

Correcting my foot faults seemed complex, but the major problems Rob Hickling has with customers are more straightforward. "The biggest is having to get across to them that I can't put them into a boot just because they like the look of it - I have to put them into one that is the shape of their foot. Similarly, customers have often read a magazine article in which a journalist has skied in a pair of boots that fitted him really well and given them a great write-up and I have to say `They're not going to work on your feet'." The other major problem is persuading customers to buy boots they think are too small: "Big boots that feel good in the shop won't feel good on the slopes."

I was persuaded, even though I could feel the end of my boots with my toes. (Hickling corrected me: "You can feel the liners.") He stood me up on a machine fitted with what felt like two plastic bags full of soft clay: they took an impression of my feet, which were used as moulds for the footbed - which, in my (extreme) case, had to be reinforced with "stabiliser blocks". Then I joined the other customers standing about waiting for their boots to hurt. Mine didn't; so, three hours after entering the shop, I bought them. The boots cost pounds 200, the foot-bed package pounds 56.

They have stayed comfortable for the time it takes to write 1,000 words: not quite carpet slippers, but OK. I was very impressed with the boot- fitting, but Rob Hickling knew I was a journalist - taking notes is a dead give-away. I thought I should get a second opinion. Sneaking a look at the shop's job cards, I got Philip Halliday's name and number: he had had foot-beds and custom- moulded liners made for his own boots, bought - as he told me - in a ski resort. What did he think of the Snow+Rock service? "Excellent," said Halliday, who is 36 years old and works for a merchant bank. "They did a superb job."

What kind of boots do you need?

Beginners, and experienced but unadventurous skiers, should buy boots that are light, flexible, comfortable and cheap. Expect to pay about pounds 150. Only if you are well built - and therefore naturally exert more downward pressure - should you be tempted to go for intermediate boots.

Intermediates who ski moderately well on difficult pistes should choose boots with a stiffer shell and lining. They will fit tighter, and enable a good, strong skier to get more response. Intermediate boots also offer more adjustments for canting and flexing. Expect to pay from pounds 190.

Experts ski aggressively and at high speed, so they need a very stiff, racing boot. These are unforgiving, and often require custom-made liners and foot-beds for a perfect fit. Expect to pay pounds 270-plus for the boots, and pounds 425 or more with the custom-fit package.

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