Stefan Dag transformed skiing more than 30 years ago.
He just might be primed to do it again.
In 1980, the Austrian native and part-time Carbondale resident unveiled the Rapidgate, a hinged slalom pole constructed of polycarbonate thermoplastic that still is widely used at all levels. A variation of the technology will cover the slopes of Aspen Mountain for today's Aspen Winternational giant slalom and slalom races.
Now, the 62-year-old self-proclaimed industrial artist and entrepreneur is thinking big again. For nearly five years, he's been toiling on a redesigned pole, one fashioned out of soft but durable ballistic materials. Dag calls it the Airkipp - kipp loosely translates to "tip" in German - and says the revamped design will make injuries a thing of the past.
"It's kind of bizarre that nothing has changed with these gates in about three decades, and I thought something had to be done. It's ironic that it's me doing it again," Dag said Thursday. "I thought of this several years ago, but I always tossed it to the side. I had a hard time with the original fighting with the (International Ski Federation) - it was like a personal war trying to get them to change. I didn't want to do this again. I already have a nice life.
"Nobody knows slalom poles better than me, and if this was a bad idea, I wouldn't have touched it. But this was just too good."
Airkipp poles, the result of years of tinkering with hundreds of prototypes, are sized to meet FIS specifications and fashioned out of urethane-laminated ballistic nylon. Impact areas are reinforced to prevent wear.
"It's the most durable thing there is on the planet," proclaimed Dag, who developed the system with the help and encouragement of wife Alexandra. "It's made of expensive materials and complicated manufacturing techniques - this isn't something you make for a kids' pool in the backyard. The valves are difficult to make; the bladder is difficult. This was a can of worms. Luckily, I've been in a few cans of worms."
Set-up requires three steps: drilling a hole in the snow with a special bit, inserting the gate and then inflating the internal urethane bladder, which takes about 10 seconds. When deflated, an Airkipp pole is not much bigger than a balled-up T-shirt.
"Would you like to carry 10 of these in a pack on the chairlift or 10 of the (original gates)?" Dag asked. "This really is a no-brainer."
The poles come in hot pink and fluorescent yellow to create an interesting profile and improve visibility - "Blue and red are ancient, and those colors fade in the shadows," Dag said. (They retail for about $69 each, and Dag's "starter kit" - 20 gates, a backpack, drill bit and drill caddy as well as an inflator with lithium-ion battery, is available for $2,237 on www.airkipp.com.)
The most significant benefit, however, is safety, he added. Airkipp's design is predicated on eliminating most of the mass of conventional "hard" gates, thereby decreasing the force of inertia.
"I really want to help ski racing. This isn't about me," Dag said. "Inertia and big mass leads to pain, broken teeth, the usual. There are kids that are afraid of slalom training in clubs because of the gates and people that would love to ski gates but are getting older and don't want to armor themselves like knights in shining armor.
"I'm trying to make everything right that was wrong with my first pole, especially the injuries and the pain. Maybe then I can get into heaven."
Dag's system was rolled out about three months ago, and he has embarked on what he calls a guerrilla marketing campaign to drum up interest. He spent Thursday's opening day on Ajax doing demonstrations at the top of the Gondola Plaza.
Last week, during a U.S. Ski Team training session on Strawpile, he was chatting with everyone from Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athletes to course workers and officials.
"You never know who you're going to run into in Aspen," he said. "I met a guy from upstate New York, a coach at Hunter Mountain, who said, 'This is cool. I've never heard of this. Can I have your card?' Basic gumshoe work is what I'm doing. People I talk to are on board and interested, but they have to be convinced. This is something new that has to be proven, and then they'll jump on the bandwagon.
"Anybody who creates a new product will tell you the same story. People are skeptical, and they should be. You have to be brave because you're going to hear negative things thrown at you. It's human nature. Call it being a devil's advocate. "
The Austrian ski federation - the same organization that threw Dag out of his home mountain, Kitszbuhel, for demonstrating the Rapidgate in the '80s - is reviewing the Airkipp system and has been receptive, Dag said. He also has engaged in preliminary discussions with both AVSC and Aspen Skiing Co.
"Give it five years, and this will have a life of its own. I'm convinced of that," he said. "Of course I'd want to see this used in the World Cup - I'd be a fool if I said no. But this time, I have a bottom-up approach. I'd rather have young kids using it right now and not getting injured. I'd rather have intermediates with no injuries, and then work our way up to the pros.
"The market is huge. There are thousands of ski areas where people slalom. I want to see ski school with clients going up and running gates and rental shops renting a course in a bag and people getting to go ski in a designated area. Basically, I want to bring the fun back to skiing."