The Heli-shoe Guide

by Matt Kinney

Funny how outdoor gear selections evolve. I might see a revolutionary new ski leaning on a car at a trailhead and from that point on, I must have it. Selecting shoes for everyday use, however, is an entirely different matter. Call them running, trail, jogging or tennis shoes if you like—they’re all the same to me. We all own a pair of these general utility light weights for everything from running local errands to high stepping straight up scree slopes for summertime summits. Finding a new pair was something I was not looking forward to, but in the end, it all came down to the expertise of a local heli-guide named “Tom”.

I’ve known Tom for years from his annual migrations to Valdez
to work as a heli-ski guide for one of the companies operating in
the Chugach Range. A few years ago, he made the move to more
permanency and now enjoys an annual Alaska Permanent Fund
Dividend check along with a tenmonth ski season. Over the years
our paths have crossed at trailheads and we have had simple, short
conversations about this and that in regards to his ski preference
for that day, but that’s been about it. Despite ample opportunities to
push the button on the hotter topic of skinning vs. heli-skiing,we
have sucked it up and, instead, added stoke to each other’s ski days.
He knew skis and each time I saw him he was toting the future of big
mountain descents on his shoulders in the form of new, odd-shaped fat skis with scratchless bases. We should all be so lucky. Tom the ski-tester-heli-guide was okay by me.

A few weeks ago at the REI store in Anchorage, while my wife, Tabitha, hurried upstairs for more clothing selections, I headed to the shoe section focused on one thing: all season running shoes that would take me from the snowy streets of Valdez to day hikes along the alpine tundra ridges on summer solstice.

My current pair was still soggy with split sides. The store greeter took an immediate glance at my feet. They had lasted a year as my one shoe quiver, fulfilling my steadfastness to avoid “over-consumerism”, thus saving the planet Earth. No fashion statement from me. I always keep the laces tied loose enough to slip in and out of them at the door or at a trailhead where I step directly into boots for a day of backcountry skiing. The laces looped through eroded eyelets of the shoes on my feet had not matched since I lost one of the shoelaces for some forgotten reason when they were just one month old. I had replaced the lace with a worn one off the even older pair I had thrown into a closet to use for dirty projects.

It was Friday afternoon as I moved solo
and sideways, past people on the way out
who were carrying all sorts of goods with
which to enjoy the great outdoors. Customers
are provided with tiny push-carts, barely big
enough to carry a bike tire through the store’s
slot canyons of tents, bikes and gear. Everything
else must be carried in your arms as if to confirm
your physical stamina before you purchase.

I passed the mountain bikes and got sidetracked looking at expensive replacements for the ancient Hard Rock that I ride year around. “Keep it simple” echoed in my ears. There was nothing odd in the fact that my bike was on its last chain link, and the wet shoes I was wearing had outlasted their intended life span. I needed a bike, but not today.

There is nothing simple at all about the Anchorage REI
shoe department –or any REI in America. So many shoes!
I can’t imagine how many more sandals a flagship store
would have. I wanted to spend under $80, but knew that the
low-end shoes would be exactly that. The far corner of the
store slowly came into view through swaying outdoorsy folks
stooping to look at small items and reaching overhead for other
things. It was busy and I knew this was going to take some
time. The “innovative, new, light weight, durable” materials
offered in last year’s models were back along with some minor
cosmetic deviations, but basically, I was seeing the same shoe
design offered for the past twenty years. This was nothing like
buying new skis, which I would hug and bend, caressing the metal edges in anticipation of flying down mountains like a tele-god. I could shop for skis for days, yet was mentally exhausted after only being in this store five minutes.

I spotted Tom sitting on a bench. Beside him were two teetering stacks with seven boxes each of running shoes. How coincidental could this be?

I gave him a sort of “hi” and we soon were chatting away about shoes. Tom was obviously coming to a decision after an exhausting process with the store clerk. He looked like he would really rather be skiing. We cheered each other up with enthusiasm about the past season as we waited for the clerk to return.

On the wall small shelves each held one shoe. They all looked the same, except for the price. What a nightmare. I looked at Tom and his stack of shoes.

“You tried all those on?” I asked with a grin as he sat on the bench for the last time with his old shoes. I admired his patience.

“Yup,” Tom uttered.

“Are those the ones you like?” I probed, standing still with my hands in my pockets. The shoe in his hand was stamped with “Fluidpost” and “Integrafit”. On the sole was stamped “GT”, an attempt at assuring me that these were better than any shoe developed in the past year.

He breathed and replied “I think so,” then tiredly stooped for what must have been the tenth time to tie a shoelace. The style looked okay despite the line of yellow around the sole that seemed to be the only thing distinctive from the other twenty types of display shoes.

The clerk came out one last time to seal the deal with Tom. Other alert shoe shoppers began filling the void floor space around the clerk and poked at him silently for assistance. A shoe fell off the wall and the clerk quickly placed it back, exactly where it belonged.

Interrupting, I asked, “Can you bring me that same pair in size 9?” He nodded as Tom continued gathering his old shoes, new shoes and jacket. The clerk returned in less than a minute with my box of new shoes.

“Tom, I am going with your call on these. Thanks for
testing and saving me the time. Certainly cheaper than
skis.” I said with a chuckle. Tom smiled at the situation.
I left the men’s shoe section with an unopened box of
size 9 ultra-everything shoes that would last a year.
REI Shoe Department Transition Time: Three minutes.

Soon, with my new shoes in hand, I was breaking
trail through the growing number of shoppers and looking
for my wife. “Gosh, that was really simple,” I thought to
myself. I had actually taken the advice of a heli-guide and
felt good about it. (June 1, 2012)
(Art- Robert Crump)