by Steve Threndyle
There's a consumer revolution happening in North America right now. Whether it's the beer we drink, the tomatoes we eat, the shirts we wear or the way we decorate our homes, there's an emphasis on locally-designed, owned, grown and manufactured goods.
Indeed, the most personal and heartfelt gear companies are the ones based in ski towns across North America, where small, custom ski companies are poking their heads up just like craft microbreweries and organic food co-ops.
In B.C., Pemberton's Johnny “Foon” Chilton and Vancouver's Oliver Steffen have also given modern ski design much thought. Chilton hand-builds his marvelous-looking Foon Skis from locally sourced western red cedar, while Steffen's team at Genuine Guide Gear in Burnaby are innovating with fibreglass and carbon fibre.
Chilton came to ski design through his Head skis sponsorship. Whistler rep Robin Mcleish was looking to sponsor a local rider who could help Head make a ski that would give it entry into the powder/ freeride side of skiing. Chilton says, “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. “A well-designed ski makes skiing well effortless, whereas a bad ski takes a lot of effort and work. I felt that ski design was directly linked to how well I could perform as a skier,” he says.
Chilton's decade-long tenure at Head resulted in two hugely successful skis: the Supercross and Monstercross. But with a successful career in cabinet-making and millwork, Chilton branched out on his own in 2013 and started Foon Skis for a variety of reasons.
Chilton strongly believes in the environmental sustainability of supporting a local economy and began experimenting with western red cedar. 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-practices 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.”
Still, the material has to work to make it successful, otherwise you might as well be on two-by-fours. Chilton says, “When I tried yellow cedar, it was like, wow – [it had] incredible strength when it was flexed, but felt lively, snappy and damp.”
Genuine Guide Gear's president and CEO Steffen took a very different material route, finding success by innovating with carbon fibre. “We've developed ways to reduce the amount of resin and carbon fibre to the absolute minimum without compromising durability. If you look at our ski weights and compare them to any other brand with comparable ski performance, you'll be surprised. Almost without exception, skiers will see notably less fatigue from the lower weight, while still maintaining very good ski performance.”
Still, it's a jungle out there. Virtually every company makes a fat, rockered ski that you can slap a touring binding on. Both men agree on one point: it's very, very difficult to go up against the major com- panies with their large marketing budgets and sponsored free riders. Steffen says, “They just flood the minds of consumers with a lot of hype.”
Chilton says, “Although I was stoked to win Editor's Choice in the Freeskier tests, that kind of marketing is extremely expensive. I think my customers are better served by putting that money into equipment that will allow us to make our skis even better.”
Spoken like a true artisan.