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Sea to Sky Made

Start-ups and struggles in the Sea to Sky snowsports industry

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Staring intently at the CNC machine as it cuts out the tail template for a new set of Sluff skis, Jeremy McCall flips on the fan switch. The machine is about the size of a ping-pong table, a robotic chainsaw of sorts that cuts with laser precision into the medium-density fibreboard. As I watch the machine's razor saw go to work, the dust and shavings are sucked up by the roaring fan into a giant transparent bag above my head. The machine is a real beauty — a CAND Bladerunner A-10. Connected to Jeremy's laptop by USB, the CNC machine — which stands for Computer Numerical Control — ensures a precise cut, each and every single time.

We stand shivering in a garage tucked away in Tapley's Farm — though Jeremy would rather you not know that. But the space isn't what matters, and here in Whistler many start-ups find themselves using all manner of strange abodes for their workshops.

"So many of the new start-up companies started from a garage and went on to full-scal e production," says Jeremy, eager to explain that what really matters is the design, the equipment, and the production quality. Indeed, right now in Whistler and Pemberton, a slew of small scale "makers" — as they are known — are producing some downright world class product, from custom skis to splitboards.

Like other makers who craft anything from clothing to toboggans, Jeremy believes in shifting production of consumer goods to something like a 100-mile diet. It is possible to buy not only local produce, but local high-end goods. Local ski maker Gary Wayne will sell you a pair of 150mm banana boards designed for three dimensional, next generation powder skiing. Greg Funk will customize and tweak to your specifications his selection of playful big mountain skis from his Pemberton workshop. Brad Bethune will take your snowboard, cut it in half, and install the bindings and mounts for a splitboard, as well as provide DiY kits. Ski mountaineer Johnny Chilton, better known as Johnny Foon, will make you a Kevlar-and-carbon woodcore ski based upon years of R&D in B.C.'s steeps. Kevin Sansalone, a pro-rider formerly with now-defunct Option snowboards, will hook you up with his signature and limited edition snowboards and noboards, designed in Whistler and built in Austria. And local small-scale manufacturer PRIOR, the king of the crew, offers a wall of skis and snowboards to suit any taste, including its innovative and highly popular splitboard series, initially cut and designed by pro rider and woodworker James Oda with founder Chris Prior.

Jeremy and his start-up ski company, Sluff, are at the forefront of this new breed of indie ski maker. These local builders are tucked away in industrial studios, garages, and storage spaces. Yet, as Jeremy emphasizes, they are really just a "scaled down genuine manufacturer." Their quality is close to — if not the same as or better than — their larger, corporate cousins.

"There's no reason," says ski builder Greg Funk, "that you can't get as good a ski or better from your local guys." Trickle-down technology from high-end manufacturing has opened the door to these smaller operations. Affordable robotics, software, and computers have lowered the investment barrier for entrepreneurs, allowing for rapid design, prototyping, and production. Fine adjustments to size, shape, and style can be tailored for each pair of planks. From idea to rippin' realization, notes Jeremy, can now be had in under five days.

In short, we've now entered the era of indie snowsports builders, a phenomena that takes its lead from the worldwide proliferation of custom shapers in surfing. Most surfers buy their boards from local shapers who take into consideration the rider's weight, style, and skill, with surfer dudes and dudettes seeking out particular shapers for the nuances they bring to the craft. If Jeremy has anything to say about the new wave in ski shaping, more riders will begin to seek out local makers just like surfers do for their boards.

Such endeavours along the Sea to Sky corridor are not only part of a long tradition of stoners seeking to heighten the ethereal, fleeting bliss felt out on snow, but perhaps herald an avenue of economic development that has yet to reach its full potential. As much as Whistler prides itself on importing package tourists, it has become clear that the corridor requires more than just catered and mechanized industrial tourism to sustain its growing populace. Whistler and Pemberton are full of regional expertise and know-how that draws from a community of globalized human resources. In short, people come here from all over, and their connections extend across the planet. Things that work in Whistler often echo throughout the sports industries. In this respect, developing an economically sustainable future might also mean exporting the Sea to Sky's most intangible magic in material product. Don't just visit Whistler, is the idea, but own a functional piece of it. And there's no better place to start than what Whistler does best — play around on snow.

Sluff Skis — The Start-Up Kid

Back in Jeremy's workshop, I glance at the laptop screen. Jeremy designs his skis in Solidworks, a 3D modelling program that provides information on sidecut, turning radius, and other aspects that concern the physics of skiing. After the design is down, the shaping data is plugged into software called Vetric Cut 3D, which can control to the point-millimetre the depth and thickness of the CNC cut. Jeremy taps in the data, and after a bit of thinking, the machine cuts with surgical care. Picked up from a skateboarding manufacturer, the CNC machine cost about $4,500. All told, he has invested around $15,000 in equipment over the past three years — not to mention his time — while getting his workshop up and running.

The cutting done, we turn to the ski press. The first time Jeremy turns it on, we blow the electrical circuit. We turn off the culprit — the space heater — and get back to business. Once started, the pneumatic compressor chugs away, inflating airbags that press against the top and bottom of the freshly layered-up ski.

"Most small manufacturers make their own ski press," says Jeremy, pointing out the finer qualities of his numerically controlled system. The ski press is one of the last stages in the production process; it squishes the sandwich-layer ski together and squeezes out the extra epoxy. At about 2.5 metres long and weighing some 816 kilograms, it's also quite the piece of engineering. You'd think that Jeremy has formal training, but besides work in residential and commercial carpentry — "the odd summer job to finance the ski season" — the 28 year-old, London, Ontario native is entirely self-taught. "I've always been one of those kids that goes off and makes things on his own," says Jeremy. "I take things apart and put them back together again." Jeremy knows every inch of his production process, modelling it exactly on industry specifications.

"That's what everything is here," says Jeremy, gesturing to his nicely clean machines. "It's a scaled-down version of a genuine ski manufacturing facility. The way I'm profiling my own cores, the way I'm using CNC to cut-out all the templates for the shapes and what-not is the same way that larger manufacturers do it."

Jeremy's Sluff skis are tailored to the advanced to expert rider, including women's specific models. His goal, he says, is to "make skis that are essentially bomb-proof." His designs are tailored for riders "throwing down a hundred days a year in powder and steep terrain," which drives Jeremy to high quality methods and materials, including carbon strips and nylon topsheets. In crafting the ski's shape, Jeremy uses a rockered tip and a turned-up tail, with the width varying between 110mm and 120mm underfoot and with lengths between 168 and 194cm. With 25 pairs pressed so far, Jeremy is now preparing for a semi-public launch of Sluff skis, with limited prototypes now available.

Riding the Tyfoon with Johnny Chilton

The first ski Johnny Foon made, the flex was so stiff that he didn't even want to craft it a sibling. But after some friendly coercion, he did, and after testing the ultra-stiff pair he began to question everything he knew about the relationship between flex and rocker. "You can have a stiffer ski," says Foon, "once you have rocker."

Johnny "Foon" Chilton is a steep-skiing pioneer, known for his first descents alongside Jia Condon and Trevor Petersen from the St. Elias Range to Mt. Waddington. Formerly sponsored by Head/Tyrolia, Johnny felt that "they would never go the whole way — they'd take ideas but they wouldn't design the ski I really wanted." As Johnny began focusing more on his family and "less on riding rad lines," Foon felt it would "make more sense building a pair of skis than buying them."

Foon leads me into the cavernous basement underneath his Mt. Currie house, perched among subalpine forest. He pulls out the first pair he ever made; the skis are adorned with multiple mount holes. "I probably put 50 days on these skis," he says. I can barely flex them. But I believe him.

"For three years I've been perfecting this model — the Tyfoon, the ultimate quiverkiller," says Johnny. The custom-flex, fir-core ski has a rockered tip and a pronounced curve of camber that rises sharply from the flat shovel and tail. At 112mm underfoot it is available at 165 through 185cm. The finish is unique, with wood-grain visible underneath the glossy lexan topsheet. Foon is already imagining new models; the Gretzski, at 100mm underfoot, will be for all-mountain use as well as a "mountaineering stick" for the chalky, hard snow of couloir skiing. A fat, reverse-sidecut ski, inspired by his longboard, will be called the Foonami.

Like Jeremy, Foon has invested in high-tech materials including thin-gauge titanium and carbon and Kevlar strips to enhance the ski's performance. "It's expensive as hell," he says, "but it adds torsional stiffness to the ski." Likewise, he reinforces the binding mounts with steel plates. This year, Foon is prototyping yellow cedar from Haida Gwa'ii, which he is testing for strength, as well for the "soul of the ski."

"Most mass market skis don't use these materials because of the cost," says Foon. And such skis tend to last a little too long. "A ski like this — with a wood core from the mountain, or from Haida Gwa'ii, from somewhere that's special — when I sell a pair of these skis I intend the person to have them for the rest of their lives. That's the thing with the carbon and Kevlar. They'll be able to." The skis sell at $1,250, priced at a fair $1,000 for Sea to Sky residents.

"There's a revolution going on in the industry," says Foon of the rise of localized ski builders. But he's not sure if it can become his full-time income. "It seems to be at a point where I'd be crazy to turn back," he says. He's achieved the ski he wants in terms of performance, durability, and aesthetics. But with his current one-man operation, he has to cap his limit at 40 pair. As he works full time as a groomer for Blackcomb, the income remains supplemental.

"It's a start," says Foon. "For me to go to the next level it would take a major retailer to go 'OK, I'll take a hundred pairs' with half upfront, that would give me the seed money necessary to take it out of my basement, get a shop space in an industrial park, and hire somebody — because there's no question I could teach an apprentice what I know. With two of us full-time and one part-time person, we could crank out a lot of skis."

As it stands, "it's pretty hard to work an eight-hour day out of your house," what with Foon's kids (who have rockered 111cm miniFoons called Squalls) and other distractions (namely Miller Beach, Pemberton's unofficial local ski hill). So for Foon, it is once again a question of space and startup capital — a common theme among the Sea to Sky makers.

Call Him Mr. Wayne, Call Him Mr. Wrong, Call Him Insane

"My friends at the time were calling each other fake names," says Sheldon Steckman, the inventor of the massively-rockered, twin-pointy-tipped, convex-based, 180mm beasts known as the Gary Wayne, which is available in 181cm. "Kind of like Dirk Diggler, it's a really weird name but it's really familiar — one of those double first names, like a serial killer, a classic American feel, and I thought it was familiar but very strange for a ski company."

Indeed. And as the name is strange, so are the skis — with a banana-boat-shape, the Waynes are fully reverse camber and feature "feathered up edges" that allow a three dimensional approach to going absolutely batshit on snow. Steckman dreamt them up when first riding Armada ARGs at Mt. Baker on his birthday back in 2007, and like the other builders here, had prototypes built by winter 2008. He saw the future, and like any visionary, made something the world has yet to understand.

"When your skis are at 90 (degrees), you don't have to be digging in the tail to get a leading edge up of the snow," says Sheldon, explaining the physics with his hands. "That offers up a whole new angle — omni-directional skiing. Because now I can get the tips going anyway I want, and then choose when to edge."

Basically, a rider can spin around in circles on Gary Waynes in nearly all conditions. Sideways, switch, half-assed, whatever, the Waynes open up entirely new if not utterly strange possibilities for whipping downhill — kind of like one of those death-defying, plastic flying discs we put our young loved ones on, only to watch them take off like a torpedo at terrifying speeds. But the skis have more control than that.

Afterall, this is "a ski from the 2030s," says Sheldon, "designed as a pure powder ski, but performing wonderfully on slush, pond-skimming, and when there's nice corduroy, they really offer you a rally-car, hovercraft experience on good groomers."

And yes, they can do hockey-stops. "The way you ski them is definitely different," says Sheldon. "It's more about using the angle of your leg to choose which part of the edge touches the snow. The unique shape of the ski allows any part of the edge to be accessible at any given time." The end result is a whole other language of skiing, both physical and semiotic, developed from airplane technology; Sheldon explains to me terms such as dynamic pressuring, adjusting angle of attack, and spinning around in circles by pressuring forward-and-back "like a dimmer knob." A rider can throw a huge schmear turn, angling sideways while sustaining if not increasing speed, pressuring the uphill ski to affect the speed of the slide, or pressuring the downhill ski to bite in the edge and accentuate the carve. It's like a schmear on steroids. Shane McConkey would've been proud.

Although 3D modelling software played a part in the initial design, Sheldon plotted out the prototypes by hand on a chunk of foam, cutting out the shape with "scissors, a pen, some door skin, and some epoxy." Apparently, they skied just fine, even with a "chunky and wishy-washy" base grind. But these were the protos. The real deal was to come, but it came with a production problem: how does one construct a ski with such an exaggerated amount of rocker and a convex base?

The answer arrived from skateboarding construction — and from his best friend, Casey Keulen, who is finishing his doctorate in engineering at the University of Victoria, specializing in composites and laminates. "We threw everything we knew about ski-making out the window," grins Sheldon. "We ditched sidewalls, we ditched a vertically laminated core, and went with the skateboard-style technology, of using (horizontal) sheets of wood instead. . . This allows us to be very flexible with our shape and our thicknesses, (offering) a very customizable, modular production scheme."

The Waynes are made in Casey's basement in Victoria, which is "lit up like a lab." Now that the production system is refined, they're looking for a shared space in the Sea to Sky. Such an endeavour is not destined for the big time, but for the boutique.

"I see the company growing as boutique, unique, one-of-a-kind, being able to produce specialty items for people as opposed to being a mass (producer)," emphasizes Sheldon. "I'm never going to be able to compete on the volume scale. I want to keep it handmade, charging at the front of what's new for powder technology, and being able to adapt with my flexible style of making skis."

The Waynes are built with Sitka Spruce from Vancouver Island, and yes, the skis do have edges — but no sidewalls (though treated with linseed oil). The Waynes are reinforced under the bindings with wall-to-wall carbon fibre, and the convex bases — what are called concave by skateboarders and chine by surfers — are hand-finished by local ski-tuning legend Turtle.

Skis with designs this radical are pushing other technologies and conventions too. "The binding hole pattern needs to be twice as wide," says Sheldon. At that precise moment, Turtle walks in — we're holed up in a nefarious corner of Whistler Cay, and this is Turtle's acid-house abode. Turtle reveals he's been working with Eric Hjorleifson on new binding insert strips for an (unnamed) ski-touring binding manufacturer. Sheldon turns to me — "There's lots of innovation going on around here," he says, before he and Turtle launch into a discussion of adding fins to the Waynes.

Funk, Don't Just Sender — Trans-sender!

Greg Funk leads me down into the garage he shares with Brad Bethune of Supernatural Splitboardz. The garage has been transformed, with one side devoted to all things split-snowboard, the other side, ski construction. Four pairs of Funk skis are lined up ready for oggling; tools and cores are stored on shelves; and a long workbench extends along one wall, with Funk's handmade ski press tucked against the end.

A transplanted White Rockian, Greg began building skis back in 2002, when he was on the clock as a maintenance staffer at the Westin. With the basics under his belt, he crafted fully customized skis under the Capital moniker from 2005 through 2009. Working fully custom left him with some doubts; as he puts it, "the quality just wasn't consistent." The issue with fully custom — as Jeremy McCall also pointed out — is that customers don't always know what they want, nor do they understand what will work. "You're haggling back-and-forth over minor details," says Funk, "yet people are only willing to pay so much for a pair of skis." The result is inevitably a compromise between cost and customization.

After hanging up the ski press for a year, Funk got back at it with his own signature brand — Funk Skis — once he was "confident and happy with what he could produce." To his credit, he offers a two-year warranty and "has become really anal" about quality. The new line is a creative exploration of modern shapes and styles; Funk's line shows a futuristic use of rocker and taper in both tip and tail.

Funk offers four shapes in his current line. The Smoking Gun is a big mountain charger at 103mm, while the Slash, at a fat 125mm underfoot, features a rockered tip and tail designed back in 2007 with Dave Treadway. The Transcender, at 112m underfoot, was created with Ian "Cheddar" Watson as a ski mountaineering tool; and the Aliens, as supa-wide 140mm symmetrical powder skis, are designed for centre-mounted shennanigans.

Depending on the model, each ski offers a choice of widths, rocker patterns, stiffness, tail shape, and flex, as well as the core itself, which can be either a combination of maple and aspen or dedicated aspen for lighter-weight touring. And — of course — colour. Along with PRIOR, this definitively makes Funk's skis some of the most customizable options in the Sea to Sky, as well as fairly priced at $1,000 a pair. And like the other makers in the corridor, he makes just enough to get by, at least for the season. Most of his buyers are local, Whistler to Pemberton riders; demos are available at Surefoot in the Village.

"This is just my winter business, for now," says Greg. "As long as I'm getting some business, I'm not losing money on it, and it's getting more efficient all the time. . . It's about 18 hours of labour time for a pair of skis. As long as I'm going to be handbuilding skis, it's not going to get much quicker than that."

Like Foon, Greg Funk envisions a future with a few more employees, growing to be "a little bit bigger, but staying true to the roots of a handbuilt, somewhat custom ski company." Funk also sees the future in terms of eco-technologies and newer, more environmentally friendly composites and resins. Greg is also more forthcoming about the competition (as well as the creative community) these small builders create for each other.

"It's tough, there's a lot of competition out there," says Greg Funk of the local ski builder scene. "When I started Capital, there were only a couple other small ski companies. Now they've sprouted up everywhere, and there's several here in Whistler. That's tough competition, but that's pretty exciting, as we're all pushing the creativity side of it and the technology side of it. I'm happy to see it go that way."

Shared Shred Space

Ski presses are heavy beasts, weighing over 900 kilograms. I ask Jeremy McCall what kind of guarantees he has on his space. He pauses. "I have cool landlords," he says. In short — none. Should he lose his space, a significant amount of his fixed capital would go down the drain, probably enough to sink his operation.

Like other makers in Whistler and Pemberton — including Foon, Greg Funk, Sheldon Steckman, and Brad Bethune of splitboardz.com — Jeremy would be happy to have a proper workshop space in an industrial zone like Function. But such spaces are expensive and too large for smaller makers. Would not a shared space for smaller makers offer a more affordable alternative?

"I would be excited to move into something like a shared space — I would be so keen to see everybody else's stuff and to have them see my stuff," says Brad Bethune, who mentions the new Don Wensley building, zoned for light commercial, as ideal for such endeavours. "With Greg here, it's a huge influence for me to start making my own boards," he says of his current shared space with Greg Funk. Like other makers, he envisions shared space as offering creative inspiration and "natural, friendly competition." Indeed, most makers spoke of the benefits of a creative think-tank atmosphere, as well as possibilities for shared expenses and purchases, including insurance and liability.

"None of us are making millions, so we're able to collaborate," suggests Brad. "It would give us a face for the public. People could come by and see, and everybody would do more sales."

"I think it would be a great idea because a lot of us are in a similar boat right now," says Foon, who almost claimed shop space with local surfboard maker Andy Lambrecht. "I was really excited about the idea about spending eight hours a day with a surfboard maker — I think the brainstorms would be awesome," says Foon.

"More and more we're surfing the snow — it's surfing technology that has freed us, in the last few years," says Foon. "Rocker is a surfing technology. Spending time with people that are close, but not exactly the same industry as you would just create more and more ideas." The same would go for sharing space with snowboard makers. Indeed, Foon says, snowboarding saved the ski industry from its "revolving door" of big name manufacturers who were "stuck" in their ways.

"We're at the hub," says Brad. "We see the trends a year or two before they even hit. I'm still way before splitboarding is going to hit the cities. And no doubt it will." Things blow up in Whistler; packing together a few makers would be like compressing dynamite.

Most of the builders I spoke to in the corridor participate in the online community of makers who gravitate around skibuilders.com. "There's lots of information out there," says Jeremy McCall, "but some of the most useful information is buying some things, putting it together, and trial-and-error." It is this DiY spirit that abounds in the builder scene, most of whom know each other and their respective work.

"That's the idea of a whole lot of ski builders out there," says Jeremy, "to help each other with problems they've come across, or provide solutions to problems."

It is this collective spirit that is very different to the closely guarded, competitive and patented secrets among corporate manufacturers. While it is arguably the case that competition is the engine of one-upmanship, it is certainly the case that niche builders in comparable markets — such as surfing — have benefited from sharing rather than scrapping. The end result is niche specialization in higher-quality, localized product.

In this respect, Jeremy "doesn't consider" the likes of Foon and Funk his competition — "they're just somebody else out there wanting to sell things that are produced locally. I think it's great — I fully support other (indie) manufacturers."

Foon says nearly the same thing. "In order to be successful, I don't need to beat Greg Funk, or Jeremy McCall," he says. "I think we can all work together to prove that Whistler is a really vibrant place and you are just offering people more choice — because their skis are very different than mine."

Next week's installment will look at local snowboarder and splitboard makers PRIOR, Supernatural, and Whitegold.

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