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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.”

Local knowledge built in

There’s a tribe of Whitefish skiers who routinely turn tight clusters of snow ghosts into a series of gates. They bash between lodgepole and fir, seeing only one at a time, making fast, swiveled turns along the soft edges of tree wells.

MacDonald and Anderson say regional ski companies hold an advantage because this kind of constant R&D is already happening. If you ski in Montana, or in similar terrain from Sandpoint to Whistler, Montana Ski Company offers something like a rifle with its scope already sighted in. They know what you are going to see—and not see—out there, and they claim to know exactly how you want your skis to feel.

This pitch is repeated by other small, independent companies hoping to poach market share from dominant brands like K2 and Volkl.

In Salt Lake City, 4FRNT company president Matt Sterbenz uses YouTube mini-lectures to frame himself and his company as part of this budding revolution.

Sterbenz recalls his company’s first trip, in 2004, to the annual SnowSports Industries America convention, known as the SIA show. By joining the annual industry gathering, Sterbenz helped provoke a healthy conversation about where commerce meets the soul of skiing.

Sterbenz tells his YouTube audience that when he showed up at SIA, “People looked at us as though, like, ‘Are you stupid? Do you really think a ski company can just start up and just start selling to retailers in North America?’”

Anderson believes Montana Ski Company and at least half a dozen other independent American ski builders stand poised to step out of the garage and into a growing number of retail spaces. CFO MacDonald says Montana Ski Company hopes to move from pressing a couple of hundred boards a year to a couple of thousand. He also wants to eventually relocate the company’s manufacturing space in Spokane to an industrial area between Whitefish and Columbia Falls. This move will be financed in part by retired NFL star Drew Bledsoe, one of the company’s founding investors.

MacDonald and Anderson know that 71 percent of the $533 million ski market is controlled by the top five ski companies: K2, Volkl, Rossignol, Atomic and Salomon. But compared to microbrewing, the ski market picture looks less like David and Goliath. In brewing, the big few guzzle around 90 percent of sales.

It’s a natural comparison: Like beer, skis come to life when the right mix of ingredients, heat and pressure meet inspiration and local tastes.

The Montana Ski Company’s full line will be on display for the first time at the SIA show, Jan. 31 through Feb. 3, in Denver. It will be a coming-out party for the Skookoleel and other wood-cored creations inspired by and tested in the steep, snowy forests of northwest Montana.

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