Outside Online Archives

Dispatches, February 1999

The Cutting Edge

Hey, You Got Tofu on My Sewage Snow!
At Ski Inc., eccentricity is the mother of invention

By Cristina Opdahl

Ever since French trappers began battling wilderness ennui by attaching knives to their boots and skating figure eights, all sorts of unlikely devices have been adapted to winter recreation. Below, proof that one of the most straightforward of such enterprises — strap on two sticks; point yourself downhill — may be spinning out of control.

There's a Six-Foot Base, and Soybeans Have Dropped to Ten Cents a Bushel!

"Wax eventually comes off on the mountain, so why not have it be biodegradable?" asks Ryan Howard, a "food process engineering" student at Purdue who has just invented arguably the world's most earth-friendly ski wax — and also, perhaps, its tastiest. Though Howard won't disclose his exact formula ("Some canola and soybean oil, plus other natural ingredients that I'd rather not specify"), he claims that "Soyski" could be faster than petroleum-based wax. Howard will market his breakthrough this winter, but be forewarned: The price will be as mercurial as the machinations of the Chicago Board of Trade: "The cost," he says, "will vary with the price of soybeans."

Pure as the Driven Snow

"Once we make snow, it's 99 percent devoid of bacteria," says David Keith, superintendent of Carabassett Valley Sanitary District, describing the sewage-treatment process whereby Sugarloaf ski resort has been transforming its 300,000-gallon daily output of human waste into an unofficial sledding park. True, debate over this process has raged for years — most of it surrounding the ice crystals' rather unsavory vapors. But upon hearing that the town of Island Park, Idaho, would be testing out its own sewage-based snow hill this month, we eagerly phoned Keith to inquire how soon it would be before resorts nationwide began to implement this exciting technology. His reply: Don't hold your breath. "I'm not too sure," he says, "that the affluent really want to ski on the effluent."

Liar, Liar, Bibs on Fire

This season, six ski resorts are renting — for 27 bucks a pop — the SportsTracker, a pager-size GPS unit that plots your precise location, speed, and cumulative vertical feet skied. "Our device communicates with antennae atop each mountain," enthuses Hoot Gibson, president of the company that is marketing the new gizmos, "which relay your exact second-to-second location to 24 satellites 10,400 miles above Earth and then back down to be entered into our mapping software." Wow. And the point is? Why, a color-coded topo map chronicling exactly where you were every second of the day. "You can show your spouse where you skied," Gibson explains, "and you won't be able to lie."

Illustration by Brian Rea

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