From the moment we decided that skiing was something that we definitely enjoyed doing, which was during our very first skiing holiday some 12 years ago, it became clear that hiring equipment every year was not going to be a option. After all, we had already taken a chance by buying proper ski clothing. We had bought ski suits back then when C&A still had shops in the UK and sold ski clothing of unbeatable value. I still have that suit and, although it is very comfortable it is a bit out-of-fashion these days. Still, I live in hopes!
Gloves are an annual buy. I buy cheap and disposable. I rarely pay more than £10 so if they only last one season, that's OK. They usually last two or three in practice. Hats, socks and so on are essential purchases, as are ski goggles. However, all of these are very much off-the-peg purchases. One thing that definitely isn't is ski boots. Initially, as I said, we had hired and, although the boots fitted, it did take several attempts to find ones that did. This is not an exercise we were keen to repeat, or to take any chance of spending a holiday in uncomfortable boots.
My first pair of boots were Salomon 63s that I got at a very reasonable price in a sale for our second skiing holiday. These boots fitted so well that, although technology progressed over the years I saw no reason to change them just for the sake of it. It was only last year when I finally decided that they had had their day and would finally have to be replaced. The only reason for this decision was that the internal padding had become so compressed that the adjustment clip couldn't be done up any more.
And, saying clip gives you clue about the boots. Salomon 63s are the old style of rear-entry boots. No, not that sort of rear-entry! These boots have the boot tongue at the back rather than at the front as with normal shoes and also modern ski boots. The whole construction is very much simpler but with consequently less range of adjustment.
So, what to get next? A visit to Snow & Rock at Chertsey provided an opportunity to directly compare different makes and models. I had no particular preference, only a requirement that whatever I chose would be as comfortable as the old 63s and as effective in use.
Now, what constitutes comfortable? In my experience of 12 years of skiing there is one simple rule. To be a good fit a boot must fit snuggly around the calves, ankles, heel and across the instep but in contrast the toes must be able to move freely and the big toe must not do anything more than brush the end of the boot. There must absolutely not be any pressure on the end of the toes.
I used to be a believer that boots should be done up as tightly as can be born but nowadays I no longer believe this. This year I skied with a much less constricted fit and felt no lack of control as a consequence.
My feet were measured and found to be just over size 28 on the recognised scale for ski boots (which you will gather is not the same as normal shoe sizes). This surprised me as my old boots were 27.5 and fitted perfectly. My feet are quite long; my normal shoe size is 10. However, my feet are quite narrow and I don't have a high instep; in my youth I was actually diagnosed as being flat-footed!
I tried a number of different make and models but eventually the ones with which I felt most happy were the Salomon xWave 8 models in size 28.5.
The xWave 8 boot is predominantly dark blue plastic with a red detail on top of the instep. The outside of each boot also has a pattern of hexagonal cutouts that expose a red background.
It is a front entry boot with four adjustment clips, two on the ankle cuff and two across the instep. The boot is split down the front and one side overlaps the other to keep out the cold and snow. Each clip engages with a ratchet on the other side of the boot and tightening the clip draws each side together to give just the right fit for your foot.
The ratchets have four, five or six teeth to enable the right tension to be set, according to its position on the boot. Each clip also screws in and out for even finer adjustment. The ratchets on the cuff can also be attached to the boot in three different positions. In my case I needed then to be set to the middle position. The ratchets across the instep cannot be moved. Lastly, the boot has a strap around the very top of the cuff that is secured with velcro.
I did find that I was near the limit of adjustment on a couple of the clips but still managed to get a tension that ensured a good fit. Maybe, over time, as the lining compresses I may reach a point where there is no further adjustment possible but for no this is not a problem.
The inner lining can be removed from the boot though in practice you will be unlikely to need to do so. The lining is primarily a fairly dense foam that moulds itself to the contours of your foot as the boot is tightened. You may have a problem if you have prominent bones. I have ankle bones that stick out a bit but the lining seems to have been designed to cater for that by reducing the thickness of the foam at this point.
The other issue that may need to be addressed is support of the instep. Obviously the boot lining has to be designed for the average foot but who has an average foot? In my case I needed additional support under the instep so as to prevent the foot stretching out under pressure and causing the toes to press against the end of the boot. I had a Superfeet insert fitted to give my foot just the right support. It fits inside the lining rather than between the lining and the boot as some supports do.
I used these boots for the first time this year on our skiing holiday to Vars in France. Even though they were brand new and clearly needed bedding in, I never had a moment's problem with them. I soon found the ideal adjustment position for the clips and never had to change them during the holiday.
They gave me excellent control, used with a five year old pair of Head Cyclone Carve skis in 160 length. As I said, I even used them with a bit looser fitting than I would have used with the old 63s. My feet never suffered from the cold even though I don't use boot warmers.
The only thing I did notice was that walking in these boots is more difficult than my old ones. With the 63s you can simply undo the clip and the rear tongue opens up backwards to give your ankle freedom to flex for walking. All modern boots, as I said do, however, open at the front not the back. Consequently, you don't get that flexibility, even if you undo the clips. It's a minor point but worth noting.
The other thing I found was that getting into and out of the boots was more difficult but I suspect that this is also a general problem with the modern design and nothing specifically related to these boots.
Snow and Rock do give a guarantee regarding fitting. If you simply can't get on with your boots, despite their best efforts to make sure you get just the right ones, they will give you a large chunk of your money back when you return them. It's not something of which I am going to need to take advantage.
The boots, including the additional instep support came to just over £250. The boots alone were just under £220.
If this first year is anything to go by, hopefully now I am fully set up for another ten years of enjoyable skiing before I need to consider buying another pair of boots.