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Written by George Fisher

Image for article SKIING KNEES

I ski a lot, usually over a hundred days a season.  Most of it is off-piste; sometimes in marvelous conditions, sometimes not.  Of course this is a good job. But it is suddenly not good when your knees start screaming with pain and you have to continue otherwise you cannot earn a living.

A brief potted history of off-piste ski design evolution. Skiing off-piste has exploded in popularity over the last 20 years, the primary reason being that skis were developed for purely skiing off-piste.  They were much wider and shorter, allowing them to ‘float’ on top of the snow, and because they were shorter they would turn faster. The generic term for these skis is ‘fat boys’.  They acquired their name because they were wide under the foot, and also possibly because big fat and mostly rich people could now ski off-piste, and the Canadian heli-ski industry particularly embraced them (the skis, that is).

The big drawback with these skis was that they were so wide that it was difficult to engage the edge, which is essential for skiing on anything other than bottomless powder snow. Off-piste skiing involves skiing all types of snow, from rock-hard and icy, to snow that is commonly referred to as ‘porridge’.

Gradually, skis were developed so that they could be used on- and off-piste and a whole new concept was born: freeride skis.

These skis were game changers for people like me (mountain guides) as it gave us a much bigger potential pool of clients, because off-piste was now comparatively easy. It was also easier for me too!

What then gradually happened was that the ski manufacturers cracked the problem of creating wider skis that could be skied well on-piste, by making the skis torsionally more rigid. This meant the edge could bite into the hard snow, and the grip was better.

What started to happen was that skis gradually got wider again, the thinking being that you could truly have a fat ski that you could carve on-piste; apparently the best of both worlds.

Fast-forward to earlier this season. I was due a new pair of skis, and as I get older I am always looking for ways to make things easy on my body.

It seemed to make sense for me to buy a fatter pair of super-modern skis, which is exactly what I did. A stunningly well-made pair of skis which the manufacturer promised were good in all sorts of snow but also (I quote), "Allowed me to carve my way home on the hardest of pistes."

They were not wrong! These skis charged through powder, breakable crud, and certainly did allow me to carve on piste. I skied hard on them all week, then one day I started to get pain on the inside of my left knee. Now this is something you get use to as a guide. You learn to live with it; when you get home you ice your knees and stretch and by the next morning it's mostly okay. Yet this pain was different, because within half an hour my right knee was hurting in exactly the same place as my left. Still, I just thought “Oh well, these pains come and go.” But this pain did not; it got worse, and by the end of the day I was in considerable discomfort. Self-diagnosis told me that it was a cartilage problem. My hypochondria made me conclude that it was the beginning of the end - my knees were starting to fail me.

That evening, I went to see my physiotherapist (about a completely unrelated problem, tennis elbow) but when he saw me hobbling through the door he asked me what I'd done.  Meaning: have you had a ski crash or something. 

I told him I hadn't done anything that I hadn't been doing for 20 years. Anyway he sat me down, examined my knees, and then asked; "Have you bought a pair of new fat skis?"

"Er, yes” I said, thinking he must have a sideline as mind reader. "I thought they made skiing easier?" He raised his eyebrows and said, "Well that's your problem! Your new skis are too fat."

The physio (who not only looks after me, but also the French ski team) then explained that it was a relatively common problem as when you put the skis on their edges, because they are so wide, your knee joints twist too much and you create undue stress.

This was both good and bad news. It was potentially bad because I had bought a pair of skis, which I couldn't use, while it was good in the sense that there might be quick solution to my sore knees.

The next day I fished my old skis out of the skip and went skiing again; no pain.

I have discussed this with various skiers and it seems that I am the only person who didn't know about fat skis causing knee pain. Many confirmed what my physio had told me. 

A modern off-piste ski might be something over 8cm wide under the binding. It seems that once a ski is wider than 10cm under the binding, then this kicks off the potential for sore knees.  10cm is okay, but my new skis were 12cm and this extra 2cm appears to be the tipping point. Some of the really outlandish fat skis are 15cm underfoot.

Needless to say I have been convinced. I now have another pair of skis. Clearly this is just my personal experience, but it does seem to follow the adage that when progress is apparently made in one direction, often there are contrary problems in another.