Going into the backcountry with Chip Smith at East Longmeadow’s Competitive Edge
About a mile past the X on Route 83, after Donut Dip and Pasquale’s Restaurant and Tavern, just over the Springfield city line into East Longmeadow, next to the Pride gas station, is Competitive Edge Ski & Bike.
It’s not the typical location for a ski shop specializing in backcountry gear. And East Longmeadow isn’t the place most think of when searching out a ski gear salesperson with an extensive knowledge of telemark and alpine touring equipment, but that’s where Chip Smith is anyway.
Smith stands six feet tall and speaks with the sort of enthusiasm a young man or woman from the East might use in anticipation of experiencing the majesty of the West for the first time. He says he’s 70 years old, but an athletic 60 would be more believable.
If you contact Competitive Edge inquiring about gear that would hold its own on a mountaineering trip in the Alps or a heli-skiing excursion in Alaska, you will be referred to Smith, their backcountry ski guru.
Smith grew up in the Springfield area. He first skied the famed avalanche-prone headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire at age 16. He and his brother — who went on to captain the ski race team at Syracuse University — made the pilgrimage to Tuckerman’s every year before he moved out to the fabled West.
“Back then, Tuckerman’s wasn’t the party scene it is today,” Smith says. “It was mostly families and ski racers.”
Smith settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico before moving north to Taos, where Ernie Blake — the founder of Taos Ski Valley — hired him as a photographer. Later, he worked for the Colorado-based outdoor gear company Camp 7 as a fabricator and engineer.
As he shows me the store’s backcountry ski selection, he favors his left hip. That’s due to an injury he suffered about 15 years ago, he says, while flat track roller skate racing. He is awaiting a hip replacement, though his injury has yet to slow him down.
Smith’s knowledge of ski equipment is extensive, and even for someone familiar with the lingo, it’s hard to keep up when he talks skis.
“Everything is lightweight, but high performance,” he says, handing me a pair of Volkls. Or was that a Dynafit ski? A lot of their backcountry packages — skis, boots, and bindings — weigh only 21 pounds all together, which strikes me as quite a flimsy number for gear that will be used in extreme conditions.
“Every single major manufacturer is chasing this stuff like mad,” Smith adds.
Before I can fully process the lightweight technology, Smith is demonstrating the new telemark norm (NTN) binding — which allows the ski to release in case of an avalanche — with a Garmont boot. Or was that a G3? Then he picks up a Scarpa boot and places it into an alpine touring (AT) binding that secures the toe of the boot with only two measly pins. The back of the binding clips down to free the heel of the boot so a skier can more easily climb a slope, and then clips down to secure the heel of the boot for the descent.
“The pins don’t look secure enough for a steep descent,” I say skeptically.
“Oh, they are,” Smith responds. “Trust me.” He should know. Smith has demoed most of the gear he sells. He and his coworkers regularly skin up Mount Tom here in the Valley, Mount Greylock’s legendary Thunderbolt Trail in the Berkshires, and Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire. He has also taken a multiple-day trip skiing hut to hut in the Chic Choc Mountains of northern Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, as well as a trip to interior British Columbia last winter.
Throughout his life, Smith has worked on the side as an engineer to help support his skiing endeavors, and currently teaches sawmilling classes at the Heartwood School in Washington, Massachusetts.
He says he’ll probably head back out West in a bit. For Smith, even at age 70, it seems the allure of living the ski town life is still too enticing to ignore.
I ask him where he would go, and he says the San Juan Mountains, in southwestern Colorado, which are “just as good as Alaska.” Smith adds that he is friendly with the Pitcher family, who own Wolf Creek Ski Area, which regularly gets more snow than any other ski area in the Rocky Mountain State.
For now, however, he continues at East Longmeadow’s Competitive Edge, selling ski gear and offering a wealth of accumulated knowledge to anyone who shares his passion for the ski life.
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)