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Seeing with your feet

Montana Ski Company carves its niche in a changing industry

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Zak Anderson thinks you can see the future of the ski industry from the backside of Whitefish Mountain Resort. The emerging image starts in the “slack country,” where innovations in alpine touring or “AT” boots and bindings continue to pull skiers away from the marked trails and out to terrain like Whitefish Mountain’s Canyon Creek.

Just beyond the well-packed skin tracks leading into “The Canyon,” there’s Skookoleel Ridge—a south-facing backcountry zone marked by the “Skook Chutes” and a history of avalanches.

That’s where, on Christmas Eve 2010, Anderson decided to test some of the first skis pressed by his fledgling business, Montana Ski Company.

“The sun was out, there’s fresh snow,” recalls Anderson, who skinned to the top of Skookoleel (pronounced “Skoo-Coe-Lee-El”) on a pair of prototype skis branded with the same name. The core and sidewalls were made of maple and regionally sourced woods—poplar and ash—giving these sticks a light swing weight and sturdy feel.

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“Wow, I’m in knee-deep snow, carving down the face on a pair of skis we made and named after this place,” Anderson continues. “I’m thinking, this is a really tasty moment for me.”

It’s one he continues to savor. Two years later, the Montana Ski Company has new office space in downtown Whitefish and growing buzz around its regionally inspired breed of skis—especially the Skookoleel—which targets AT and freeride skiers.

“We made the ‘Skook’ the same year that a few other companies experimented with skis that had camber underfoot but early rise in the tip and tail of the ski,” Anderson explains. Camber in the middle of the ski allows riders to carve even on hard pack, while reverse camber, or “rocker,” keeps riders afloat in fresh powder and crusty leftovers. That’s according to company hype and ski critics from Backcountry magazine.

“‘The Skook’ wowed testers with its high-speed chops,” Backcountry raved in its latest gear reviews.

In the last two years, the company pressed “around a few hundred pairs” of various designs, says 31-year-old CFO Will MacDonald. A one-time Jackson Hole ski bum, MacDonald brings business experience in commercial real estate to Montana Ski Company, and an enviable résumé, at least among skiers.

He and a partner launched Great Northern Powder Guides, where guests ski up to 12,000 vertical feet a day in Stillwater State Forest, on the western side of the Whitefish range (MacDonald later sold out to his partner). Many days in Stillwater are dreamy, but then come long stretches of gray skies and damp, sticky snow. The upside is that the heavier snow can make skiing certain rock faces possible. The downside: Some days all you can see is your breath as it blends into the soupy fog.

“This is Montana, where you have to see with your feet,” MacDonald says. “That’s where a good ski comes in—makes it that much easier.”

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