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A ski for all seasons

Searching for the Perfect (Whistler) Ski



When you think about it, the simple definition of skiing is all about a feeling; it's "gliding over snow." And what is gliding but pure sensation — of movement, of freedom, or maybe it's simply "too swell to talk about," as George says in Ernest Hemingway's short story Cross Country Snow.

What skiers do talk about, especially at this time of year, are our skis, and how much we love 'em. (Have you ever gone up a lift with anyone who had the temerity to admit that their skis sucked?) Think of how much you really dug those ol' Rossi 4S's. How those Atomics could really hold an edge. What it was like to hit the park switch on those first Salomon teneightys. How awesome the rocker on those new DPS' was in deep powder.

It's almost hard to believe that anyone in Whistler has just one pair of skis — most of us have at least "rock skis" and "good skis," and it doesn't stop there. We have big mountain skis, touring skis, and even deep powder skis, the latter having massive girth, well over 120 millimetres in width. That's almost five inches of heft under your boot. Then, of course, there are skis ripping high-speed turns on hard pack — weren't those once called carving skis?

Wouldn't it be nice if one ski could do it all? Some ski designers with deep local roots think that you can.

Pemberton's Johnny "Foon" Chilton and Vancouver's Oliver Steffen have given modern ski design a lot of thought. Chilton hand-builds his marvelous looking Foon Skis from locally sourced Western Red cedar, while Steffen's team at Genuine Guide Gear (G3) in Burnaby are innovating with super-light, sleek carbon fibre, the latter being a notoriously tricky material to get right. Both designers would agree that despite the onslaught of burly snow conditions that Whistler Blackcomb throws at you, you should be able to effortlessly ski from top to bottom and not have to cower in fear that your boards will let you down.

Chilton came to ski design through his sponsorship by Head skis and local Whistler rep Robin McLeish who were, as he tells it, "looking to sponsor a local rider that could help them make a ski that would give them entry into the powder/freeride side of skiing. Robin admitted that Head really had no idea about how to make a ski for the kind of skiing we did."

The opportunity to have input on the design of the skis he would ride was the game-changer for Chilton. They agreed that a well-designed ski makes skiing, well, effortless, whereas a bad ski takes a lot of effort and work. "I felt that design was directly linked to how well I could perform as a skier," Chilton says, a philosophy that ski racers have innately known for years but was a new concept in the sponsored arena of big-mountain riding.

"Head sent me to Austria to see the factory and how skis were made and we quickly came up with some dimensions and ideas. The Supercross was released the next season, but at 72mm underfoot it was still very much like a race ski," recalls Chilton.

When Head Canada's Rick Lalonde called and asked, "'Should we go bigger?' Foon replied, 'Oh, yeah, Rick. Wayyyy bigger.'"

"I went back to Austria and they gave me full rein from size and dimension of the ski, all the way to coming up with the Monster Cross name.  Now by today's standard an 85mm ski is a quite narrow ski, but it was a huge step at the time for Head. But they were great skis; I felt that they really allowed me to grow as a skier."

With a successful career in cabinet making and millenary, Chilton branched out on his own in 2013 and started hand-building his own skis. "The materials and manufacturing of most mainstream skis comes from coal-powered factories in China. They have a big planetary cost to the environment, often the quality of materials is less than stellar, and they are made by people who don't really care about skiing," he says.

Chilton also believes in the environmental sustainability of supporting a local economy and began experimenting with local wood. "When I tried yellow cedar, it was like, wow — incredible strength when it was flexed, but lively, snappy, and damp." In short, all of the ingredients for a successful ski were growing literally in his backyard.

"I know that every yellow cedar that comes down in B.C. is subject to the stringent forest practice code and the economy of that tree stays here in B.C., benefiting the forester, the logger, the mill I get my wood from in Squamish, and me," he says.

From a design standpoint, Chilton has followed in the footsteps of the late, great, Shane McConkey, whose first fully-rockered Spatula skis threw out all the rules when it came to ski design. But even rocker has become much more refined a decade after its inception. Rocker refers to a gradual rise in the ski's tip that enables the ski to float above the snow and makes "surfing" style turns easy.

Chilton explains: "Subtle use of rocker allows the ski to swing and pivot on a dime, and all you need to do is roll your ankle over and engage the entire ski and sidecut radius to get power on the hardpack. Our Tyfoon model was designed specifically so you could ski from the top to the bottom of Whistler and love your skis the whole way down."

Foon Skis' trump card may be customization. "I think more and more skiers are beginning to look at their skis like a surfer looks at his board. We now have five models to choose from. These models (Tyfoon, Redneck Superstar, Gretski, Neo, Instrument) give a basic shape to work from, then we can customize the flex, rocker and camber to match the rider. I can make a Tyfoon for (freeskier) Hugo Harrison and a Tyfoon for my mom. They will look identical but will feel and ski completely different," says Chilton.

Genuine Guide Gear's president and CEO Oliver Steffen had already carved out a successful niche making top-notch climbing skins, telemark bindings and avalanche safety gear before wading into the hazardous waters of ski manufacturing in 2003.

"There are lots of decent skis available and many more players and brands in skis than, say, skins or tech bindings so yes, the ski market is more challenging. That being said, G3 has found success by innovating," says Steffen.

In G3's case, that innovation has come from re-imagining and redefining what can be done with carbon fibre, a material that sometimes over-promises and under-delivers. Using a "dry carbon" material and utilizing a construction process that dramatically reduces the amount of resin needed, Steffen says: "We can make some really nice products with outstanding performance. If you look at our ski weights and compare them to any other brand with comparable ski performance, you'll be surprised."

Touring the backcountry on lightweight skis is a given, but Steffen believes that lift skiers can benefit from losing a few grams on their fat rockered skis as well.

"Alpine skiers often think weight is required for a ski to perform well on-piste. But once we get a resort skier on our skis for a few days, they will quickly see the benefits: notably less fatigue from the lower weight, while still maintaining very good ski performance," says Steffen.

Much of the time, skiers will flex a light ski in a shop and think "that won't last." Steffen begs to differ. "We expect our skis to perform as expected for at least three to four seasons with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 150 days a year; that's 600 full days of skiing! Skis are generally very durable when they are built with solid wood cores, full metal edges, binding reinforcement zones and high quality carbon fibre." 

Over in Function Junction, it's hard to believe it's been two decades since Whistler's Chris Prior started building snowboards and (somewhat) more recently, skis. Prior came to snowboarding initially through surfboard shaping, and then by crafting some of the most innovative competition oriented windsurfers on the market in the early 1990s. "These boards were made from materials that were exotic at the time; carbon fibre, Kevlar weaves, and high-density foam cores, and I started using vacuum-bag moulding production to get more consistent quality control," he says.

Once he got into designing snowboards, Prior found that "the athletic abilities of top snowboarders far outweighed the performance characteristics of the product that was available to them, so I started filling a niche by building custom rides for various top-level riders. Having the technical knowledge of the properties of high-performance materials and knowledge of a relatively user-friendly moulding system, I was able to blend the materials and adjust the moulds into making snowboards with immediate success."

While Prior boards showed up under the feet of top Olympic racers like Mark Fawcett and Ross Rebagliati, the brand's true success happened when Prior moved to Whistler and began manufacturing snowboards for the recreational market.

"Being immersed in the Coast Range environment has allowed us to continuously be on the forefront of design and performance," says Prior. "Customers can buy and ride an authentic Whistler ski or snowboard, designed for the conditions and manufactured right here. Our customers like the fact that we are not mass produced overseas and that they have personal choice in their selection of ski or snowboard. No one else can claim that."   

Prior's most successful ski so far has been the Husume, a rockered ski that was designed by Ryan McKeeman, a former HEAD/Tyrolia team freeride park and pipe skier who defected to Prior because he "wanted to be involved with a local company, as opposed to one located halfway around the world."

One night at Citta's, McKeeman drew out a ski shape and side profile on a cocktail napkin, showing the rocker in the tip and the tail and how it should essentially work like a surfboard. Both men are keen surfers, and McKeeman recalls, "My analogy went something like this: 'A surfboard is shaped with rocker to stay on top of the water; the shape of this ski is just like a surfboard, but for frozen water. Let's make a surfboard/snowboard/ski for frozen water.'"

When Prior manufactured the first Overlord prototype, McKeeman was ecstatic. "It skied just like I imagined; no more angulation and 'driving the tip into the turn,' just 'pivot and skid.'" The next year, Prior created a downsized fibreglass and graphite version called the Husume that won an Editor's Choice Award in Backcountry Magazine, and became Prior's best-selling ski.

Unlike the Rossignols and Salomons and K2s of the world, none of these smaller brands are bent on world domination, and every business model and company is different.

Still, it's a jungle out there. Heavyweights like Marker and Dynafit compete against G3's Ion ski binding. Virtually every company makes fat, rockered skis that you can slap a touring binding on.

Chilton, Steffen and Prior both agree on one point: it's very, very difficult to go up against the major companies with their big marketing budgets and sponsored free riders. "They just flood the minds of consumers with a lot of hype," says Steffen.

For a company that makes only one — just one — pair of skis each day during the winter, Foon Skis won an Editor's Choice Award in Freeskier Magazine's on-slope test. How that will affect the company's growth remains to be seen.

"I felt I needed to spend some money to create awareness in the American market but it's extremely expensive and I don't know if I'll do it again," said Chilton. "I think my customers are better served by putting that money into equipment that will allow us to make our skis even better."

Prior added: "Being one of the original boutique manufactures, we have seen a massive influx of companies that have mimicked our business model. The past two winters there has been a culling and the number is diminishing. However, we don't really pay too much attention to it. Prior is focused on improving the product, plain and simple. Core materials, carbon configurations and resin systems are always evolving. A blend of all these materials and more subtle adjustments with the shapes of skis will lead our charge in the future."

Steffen adds: "Every skier is different. But finding the right ski really pays off with super fun runs and big smiles at the end of the day."

For Garywayne ski founder Sheldon Steckman, "the right ski" didn't look anything like what was commercially available in 2007.

Compared to a conventional ski that you might see on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, everything about the Garywayne is, well, odd; and that's because the entire design of the ski — from the spear-like tip and tail to the convex base is designed to create an entirely new sensation on snow.

Like Chilton's Foon skis, the Garywayne owes a huge debt to Shane McConkey and his massively rockered ski design.

"The very first turns that I took on an Armada ARG totally exploded my world," says Steckman. "No longer was I locked into a carve due to the sidecut or flex of the ski; I could feather (stay off the edge) my turns. That was the experience I had been looking for my entire skiing life."

Steckman took things one step farther by designing a curved, convex base, where the base is higher than the edges. Rocker and reverse sidecut (where the waist of the ski is wider than the tip and the tail) were radical enough notions, — indeed, reverse sidecut has been all but abandoned by ski makers — and creating the extra challenge of making a base-high ski was simply a bridge too far for most ski designers and companies, so Steckman — with the help of a friend with an engineering background in Victoria — persevered through several designs to come up with a ski that he was really, really happy with.

Alas, Steckman admits that the Garywayne ("the name doesn't really mean anything," he says) concept has been a tough sell commercially, despite the fact that guides and clients at Whistler's Powder Mountain Cat Skiing rave about it. "Right now, I've shelved the business plan and am back making skis for myself and pursuing other projects like homemade NoBoards (snowboards without bindings) and even kids-specific powder skis.

"I liken my situation to that of the local surfboard shaper. I'm doing it pretty much for fun these days. Locals know where to find me if they want a pair made."