A four-part story about feet, about the ski boots they go into, and about the people at Salter’s Ski Shop who make sure the relationship between foot and boot as harmonious as possible. Decades ago, our late founder, George Salter, began offering the highest quality bootfitting in the Mid-Atlantic region, and his legacy continues to this day.
PART ONE: THE FEET
Down on one knee, Steve Merves takes a bare foot into his palms. He brings it close up to his face and carefully turns it between his hands. He examines it—the arch, the heel, and the ankle, even the individual joints in the toes. Every foot is different, but Merves has held thousands of feet like this before, inspecting every fold of skin for signs of irregularities in the bones and muscles— of which there are 26 and 20 in the foot, respectively. He knows what every piece of this foot should look like if it’s functioning properly. For the past 26 years, he has worked as a bootfitter at Salter’s Ski Shop in Eagleville, Pennsylvania.
On a winter weekend, the shop is flooded with customers but Merves is absorbed in his own little world: just himself, this foot, and its owner. He’s looking for problems—bumps, asymmetry, aberrations of the anatomy. Omar kneels alongside him, doing the same. Four bare feet, four knowledgeable, searching hands. Merves has worked in the ski industry for 26 years; Omar has been here at Salter’s since 2000. Between the two of them and the five other bootfitters on staff, the team at Salter’s has over 100 combined years’ experience with putting feet into ski boots.
They learned their craft from the master, George Salter, the shop’s late namesake. He passed away from cancer in August 2012 at the age of 82, and was posthumously inducted into the Pennsylvania Snow Sports’ Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame’s website reads, “Literally thousands of Pennsylvania skiers are in the sport today because they benefitted from George.” His shop was more than just the place that sells skis. It was the center of a Mid-Atlantic ski community, and the place to go if a skier wanted to feel safe and strong in their equipment.
50 years ago, the Pennsylvania native started selling wooden skis and soft leather boots out of a little back room. Then, during the late ’60’s, the ski boot industry transitioned from leather to plastic. Plastic boots are stronger and allow athletes to ski more aggressively, but George’s feet did not take kindly to the new technology. While the older, malleable leather boots broke in nicely and molded to the feet, the new, stiff shells were hell for anyone with a little bump, toenail, or hair out of place. For those without an anatomically perfect foot, this meant pinching, pressures, tight spots, skin rubbed raw, and sore, hurting feet at the end of the day.
A trained mechanic, George began fiddling with his new plastic boots to customize the fit. He used any little McGyver solution to adjust the way the foot sat in the boot shell, like heating up the material in some places to loosen the fit and inserting little wedges in were among the most effective tricks. The goal is to align all the littlest pieces, correct for any instabilities. Feet are the foundation. If there’s discomfort in the feet, then everything above—the ankles, the knees, the hips— and below—the bindings and skis—will be out of whack. This is especially important for new skiers, and George wanted to make sure all his customers had the best days of their lives on the mountain.
From his explorative tinkerings, George quickly found himself with an expertise that few in the east could match. His ski shop and reputation grew and grew. Offering this service to every customer who walked through the door, not just the expert skiers or the locals, was something special—and something that took a lot of time out of George’s day—but something that he would not compromise on.
PART TWO: THE BOOTFITTERS Omar Henderson rolled the foot between his hands. He’d been looking at it for almost a half hour. It had the highest arch he’d ever seen in his life; he could almost slip his entire palm under the foot when its owner stood straight up. Omar’s mind was turning rapidly. No normal boot could accommodate this. When the skier buckled up, his soles would flatten. He needed something else to keep the unique foot structure supported. So Omar recommended a custom orthotic mapped out to match the impression of the foot, with extra material on the insides for the arch to sit on. Now—voila!—the arch could maintain its shape even under the pressure of the tight boots.
This is what bootfitting is: problem solving. George Salter trained all his bootfitters meticulously to know what to look for, which solutions to use, and when. The answers are usually straightforward. The other day a guy come in who had two bunions the size of tennis balls. Omar took a Sharpie and marked where the bunions were rubbing against the boot, heated up the plastic, and pushed out two pockets for the bunions to sit in. When another skier came in with an off-center Achilles tendon, Omar similarly heated up the boot and created a space for the tendon to sit. Murphy’s toes—when the index toe is longer than the big toe—also often need extra space, and so do bone spurs, which commonly form on the backs of skiers’ heels.
But, as Steve Merves warns, there’s “never a concrete answer. It’s not 1+1=2. The answer may be three, it may be four. It may be six. Bootfitting is both an art and a science. The anatomy, that’s the science...the art is taking the information and being able to apply it.” For this, the bootfitters need a keen eye and the kind of familiarity with skiers’ feet that comes from looking at a lot of them. This is where George’s training program and mentoring comes in.
George didn’t let new employees fit boots on their own until almost the end of their first winter on staff. The fitters sometimes joke that they don’t touch a foot for their whole year—and it’s true that for the first month, the training is purely observational. Like apprentices, trainees would hover over George’s shoulder as he fit someone’s boot. When the customer left, the fitters new and old would all go into the back room and George would explain everything he did. To learn the trade, trainees had to just slowly absorb everything George did and said, internalizing it. “The learning curve took a bit of time,” says Omar, “but now it’s all ingrained in us.”
Halfway through their first ski season, trainees typically start practicing boot fits—just the simple cases, though. Whenever there was a question, someone would run and find George, if he wasn’t already overseeing the fit. “The best part about George is that he would... let you solve the problem under his guidance,” says Steve. “It was a true growth process. You don’t have that question again—the next time, you knew what to do.”
But there will always be perplexing cases, and now the bootfitters are carrying on their practice without George. “The first year that he wasn’t here was a challenge for all of us,” Steve says, “because we’d come across a problem and go, ‘George?’ But there was no George. He did a wonderful, phenomenal job in training us to carry on his legacy. Looking back, you realize he gave us everything [we needed] to solve our own problems.”
In fact, little has changed since George passed away. They still do everything by his method. As the bootfitters see it, “there’s no sense in changing that, because he trained us well and it works.”
PART THREE: THE FITTING When a customer walks in the door for a bootfitting at Salter’s the first thing he or she does is fill out a survey, which George Salter designed. This gives the bootfitters an idea of what they’re working with: Is this skier is timid or aggressive? How experienced? Are there any injuries? Once the questionnaire is complete, the bootfit begins.
The athlete takes a seat on chair perched on a raised platform and reveals their feet—whether they’re hairy or asymmetrical or smelly or none of the above—to the bootfitter. “As soon as someone takes off their shoes and socks and stands there, you can probably see four or five problems,” says Omar Henderson. But even though the bootfitters might be able to make some judgment calls right away, they still spend the next the next 20 minutes or so getting to know the feet.
First they’ll study the outside of the ankle bone on the right foot, then work their way in, checking 40 different points for problems. “There may be some commonalities [between feet],” one of the other members of the team said, “but if you look at every shape and the bone structure and foot alignment and toe shape and size of the arch—all those things— every one of those factors is unique. The process is always the same, the methodology is the same, but the answers are always different.” It’s not uncommon for there to be variation between even one person’s two feet, so the examination process has to happen twice.
At that stage, the focus is entirely on the feet. “Up until this point in time,” Steve Merves explains, “we haven’t even mentioned the word ‘boot.’” Only when the bootfitter is more thoroughly acquainted with the feet than their owner will ever be do ski boots come out of the supply room. Once the skier gets the first boot on, he or she will walk around the store and mimic some of the motions they make when skiing. From here on, it’s just whittling down what works and what doesn’t, and picking apart any problem areas until they find the perfect fit.
Sometimes it’s not easy for the skier to articulate where it hurts or why. “They can’t just say ‘my foot hurts,’” Omar says. “You have to start feeling around on the feet and have the person explain to you where exactly it hurts...really getting into the nitty-gritty.” The bootfitters ask the skier very specific questions, getting into the mind to feel what he or she feels, until the source of the pain is identified.
The whole process takes an average of 45 minutes, but if there’s a puzzling problem, it can often take much longer. And the fitting can take multiple session—sometimes issues won’t crop up until after a skier has skied in the boot for a day or even for a whole season. But, no matter how long it takes, the bootfitters are committed to working through it with every single customer. There’s always a solution, and Salter’s bootfitters know that with the right attention, every person’s feet can fit comfortably in their ski boots.
PART FOUR: THE END RESULT In the picturesque mountainside villages of Colorado and Utah, ski shops with expert bootfitters like Salter’s can be found on mountain access roads, buried in snow and tucked between the surrounding peaks. Fifteen minutes from King of Prussia, Salter’s sits on Ridge Pike, wedged between two shopping plazas. Last season, snow rarely covered the flat ground, and the Poconos, which top out at just 2,690 feet—are almost two hours away.
Still, from the inside of Salter’s shop, which was designed to look like a 1960’s ski lodge with a roaring stone fireplace, you might as well be deep in any ski town in the world. Old, signed ski posters line the walls. Conversations are saturated with the same devout reverence for the mountains, perhaps a reverence all the more genuine because the mountains in question aren’t anything like the powdery beasts featured in ski movies. And the guys crouching down over bare feet are just as dedicated to their craft as any mustached ski bum out west who can slip out the back door for a few runs during lunch.
This is George Salter’s legacy. He knew his shop wasn’t located in the Tetons or the Wasatch. Nor did he want it to be. He just wanted to give Pennsylvanians a good boot fit so that they could ski bell-to-bell without pain and find the simple joy in a day on the hill, just up the road at Camelback or Jack Frost. George believed not in just skiing back east, but in skiing south of New England, skiing outside Vermont. He—and now the second generation of Salter’s bootfitters—believe in skiing right here, in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic.
Not long ago, a skier came into the shop with the complaint that his ankle bones were rubbing up on the sides of his boots. His feet would start hurting after they’d been in the boots for only five minutes—less time than it takes to get to the top of a chairlift. After a couple of minutes of back and forth discussion with the skier on the problem and a few simple observations, one of the bootfitters pulled the bladder from the boot and inserted a simple little wedge in under the sole, to roll the ankle away from the wall. The man put his boots back on, stood up and walked around the shop for a few minutes, anticipating the pain. Shortly, feeling nothing wrong, he grinned and said, “Fantastic! I’m going skiing.”
Clare Menzel is a New Hampshirite who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in philosophy. As it always happens in this close and familiar northeastern ski world, Clare’s parents are family friends—way back from the old college days in New England. While in college, she was the Women’s Alpine Captain of the Penn ski team and has written for Powder Magazine and Powder’s blog.