The boot doctor
There are 26 bones in the human foot.
A properly-fitted ski boot responds to even slight movements of each of these bones. Like hands on a steering wheel direct a car, booted feet drive skis. Millimeters make a difference in fit and pain.
A perfectly-fitted boot is a balance between tight enough that even small movements illicit a response in the skis, yet not so tight they hurt the feet or ankles or calves.
In his years as a boot fitter, Stephen McDonald has seen it all, blackened toenails, bleeding blisters and skin rubbed raw to the bone. McDonald is a certified pedorthist at Jackson Hole Sports. He’s the boot doctor, the person you see when you are curious if you could ski without pain, or if you are driven to the brink of giving up the sport, or uncertain if you could ever wear ski boots in the first place.
McDonald arrived in Jackson in 1991 from the East Coast, with $35 in his pocket. He climbed, but didn’t ski. He landed a job as a lifty at Snow King Mountain Resort that first winter and taught himself to ski.
He took to the sport immediately and soon it became an important part of his life.
For years he lamented the pain of the sport — specifically alpine boots. What he didn’t know at the time was that his boots didn’t fit properly; his toes were gripping the inside of the boot causing cramps. It took 10 years, but he he finally invested in custom foot beds and suddenly he could ski all day and more aggressively.
“I knew then I was a boot guy,” he said.
In 2003 McDonald started fitting boots at a ski shop in Jackson. He’d always figured he’d work in the back shop, tuning skis. But he liked working directly with customers and found that by helping fit boots properly he could make a difference in the way people skied.
Early in the season, McDonald’s knuckles are already scabbed from shoving his hands in and out of the tight spaces of boots. By the middle of the season, duct tape will wrap his hands and his nails will blacken.
He will see beginners trying skiing for the first time and experts who ride extreme terrain. He’ll work with staff who spend all day in their ski boots and tend to visitors who come with blistered feet, frustrated their vacation is ruined. McDonald will get them back on the mountain.
One Christmas Eve a man came into the shop in pain because of his flat feet. Nothing had been going right in his life lately. He was unhappy with his job. He disliked his boss. All he’d wanted was a vacation in Jackson to ski with his kids, but that was proving too painful. McDonald casted his foot and built him a custom orthotic. The man spent Christmas Day on the slopes with his family.
A good boot fit isn’t always about reducing pain. It also improves performance.
Chris Davit visited McDonald in the winter of 2008-2009. A part-time employee at Jackson Hole Sports, he’d heard of McDonald’s skill.
Davit has an extremely narrow foot with a long arch. In regular shoes his foot measures a size 11, but has a size 13 or 14 arch.
Davit took McDonald a brand new pair of alpine ski boots. McDonald created a custom foot bed and liner for Davit’s boots.
Davit had foot beds in boots he’d owned before, but McDonald’s were stiffer and felt more responsive to his foot. From the moment he slipped the boot on and felt his heel slide into place he knew it was molded to his foot.
“You feel the contact all the way through the arch,” Davit said. “You feel your individual toes. It just fits right.”
Davit liked McDonald’s work so much he brought him a pair a new pair of alpine touring boots later that season to also fit with a foot bed and liner.
“Any skier can ski any ski on the wall,” McDonald said, gesturing to the arsenal of skis behind him one afternoon in Jackson Hole Sports. They varied in width, height and technology not visible to the untrained eye. “But to really fine tune and move that ski, that boot’s gotta fit.”
People often spend money on skis — the latest models and technology, fat skis for powder days, light skis for touring.
“But boots make or break a day,” McDonald said.
As McDonald continued to work in boot fitting, his interest in it as a profession grew. He saw the difference he could make in simply making sure a person bought a boot that fit correctly, but he wanted to do more.
In 2007, McDonald went to pedorthist training for eight months in Oklahoma. There he studied anatomy and how the foot works. The training allows him to work with people with extreme feet conditions. He can build custom liners to fit around screws protruding from ankle and feet surgeries, and custom orthotics for those who can’t comfortably wear boots without major modifications. He’s worked with amputees. He especially likes working with kids with deformed feet. In a proper fitting ski boot, disabilities go unnoticed. Skiing becomes an equalizer.
At $280 per hour, McDonald now primarily sees only the extreme cases of boot fitting where people need custom made orthotics built. A full fit takes two and a half hours, during which he does a full intake on the skier — from the type of skis they use to the terrain they prefer.
Feet are all shaped uniquely and while McDonald can look at a foot and tell what brand a person might do best with, he also takes moldings of the feet.
McDonald doesn’t tire of handling gnarled and bleeding feet. Each poses a new challenge. Feet are complicated. There are so many joints and small bones. Creating custom liners and orthotics can sometimes feel like sculpting works of art.
“This is the Superbowl of skiing,” he said pointing out the window to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “And I’m the tape guy.”
What you need to know about buying ski boots
If you ski more than 10 days a year you should own your own ski boots.
Bring a thin wool sock to the store.
Don’t go with the first boot you try on. Try several pairs and brands.
How the shell fits is important. Any boot-fitter that knows his or her stuff will have you put your foot in just the shell and use fit sticks, or dowels, to measure the space between your feel and the boot.
You should have to use your feet to grip the boot. It should fit snuggly while your foot is relaxed.
Every skier should have a basic custom boot fitting appointment, which usually runs $50 to $70 depending on the shop.
Once you own boots store them buckled.
Also keep them high up on a shelf. Mice are attracted to the liner smell and can destroy them.
Want to know more? McDonald wrote a book, “The book on Ski boots,” that while a little tongue-and-cheek tackles how to alleviate problems and pain in your ski boots.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at [email protected]
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