For the past eight years, I've been completely faithful to my snowboard. Addicted to it, actually. I could never see a reason to go back to skis, although the convenience of poles was something I envied every time my board got stuck on the flat stuff.
But when I strapped on a pair of Icelantic sticks at the top of Keystone's gondola, I realized they were so short and fat they might as well be boards. While it was strange having to face downhill again -- like having sex standing up when you're used to a bed -- I forgot all that as I flew down the mountain.
Icelantics are fast. And though the sensation of leaning back instead of side to side was weird -- almost like cheating -- I couldn't stop at just one run.
That's exactly the reaction Ben Anderson was hoping for.
The 23-year-old entrepreneur wants to revolutionize the industry with Icelantics, the skis he created in his Evergreen garage. The boards are nearly twice as wide as traditional short skis and tapered in the middle, so that they're widest at the front and back. "We wanted to keep the speed and stability of a longer ski but make it a lot more maneuverable," Anderson explains. "It's just all about the surface area. All of our skis are shorter than most, but they have the same surface area -- and that's what determines the speed and stability, the actual amount of ski on the snow."
His invention has caught on fast. Anderson was in Munich, Germany, earlier this month to accept a prestigious award for best new product at the 65th International Trade Show for Sports Equipment and Fashion (ISPO) the world's largest trade show for such products. He was at a winter sporting-goods show in Las Vegas last year when a woman approached and suggested he enter his homegrown company, Icelantic AT Boards, in the ISPO's international competition, and he decided to go for it. "We pretty much wanted to prove to the industry that surface area is king," he says, "to break their infatuation with long skis and show them that a shorter ski can perform just as well."
When the fourteen international judges saw samples of Anderson's four ski types and the short video he made touting their virtues, they all agreed. As do I -- although I still feel like I betrayed my board with a pair of Icelantic Scouts.
Icelantics offers four designs: the Scout, the Pilgrim, the Nomad and the Shaman. The Pilgrim performs well in icy conditions and is designed to be a park ski, although it can be taken out on the groomed stuff, too. This design has more snappy flex, which makes it forgiving on rails or when landing big air. "Given the length, they're good for a variety of skill levels, but the harder and more aggressive you ski, the better they perform," Anderson says.
With an extremely tapered design that measures 160 millimeters up front, 110 underfoot and 130 at the rear, the Shaman excels in heavy powder. Anderson describes this model as a "snowshoe" concept: The bindings are mounted farther back so that a skier is pushed to the front of the boot, allowing him to be more aggressive in deep snow, digging in and laying down snowboard-like turns.
The Scout and the Nomad are short enough to fit in some car trunks, but fat enough to give a solid, all-mountain performance. "At high speeds, there's no chatter; they just charge through everything," Anderson says. "Every one of the designs we have, no one has ever done it before."
Anderson started skiing at the age of four in the Midwest, but graduated to high-country powder when he moved to Evergreen with his parents fifteen years ago. He tried snowboarding when the sport blew up, but always preferred his sticks. He was just fourteen when he started tinkering with ski designs, and after graduating from high school, he headed to Western Washington University in Bellingham so that he could continue to ski and study industrial design.
At WWU, Anderson made a friend who worked at K2, the ski and snowboard giant, and that foot in the door proved useful. He got frequent behind-the-scenes tours and developed an understanding for the magnitude of work that goes into the business. By his sophomore year, Anderson decided the money and energy he was putting into school were misdirected, so he bailed out of college. He returned to Evergreen and bought all the machines he needed to make skis from a now-defunct company, paying just $2,500 for equipment that normally goes for up to $50,000. "Some guys out here, they hooked it up," he remembers.
Anderson also called up artist Travis Parr, a snowboarder buddy, and asked him to create designs that would set Icelantic apart from the rest. (Parr's ex-girlfriend came up with the company's name.) They started building the company in Anderson's garage, with Anderson working on perfecting the skis while Parr created original paintings for each model. The Shaman, for example, features a shaman's head at the tail of the ski, with the shaman's vision of ice and a DNA strand fading into a mountain at the tip and wind blowing off into the shape of an owl.
"They have tons of detail in them," Anderson says. "I'd just say it's really illustrative, very colorful, whimsical."
After a couple of years, they thought they had a workable product, and Anderson outsourced his designs for production. He planned to produce 250 pairs of skis last year, but his manufacturer "crapped out" and came up with only about a hundred pairs.
Still, Anderson managed to get his skis into about two dozen shops, several of which specialize in snowboards rather than skis. It's the "crossover factor," he explains.
Anderson worked at Maison de Ski in Idaho Springs during high school; his former boss, Bob Davis, put Icelantics in his rental rotation. Davis says that many customers who rent the short, fat skis come looking for them through word of mouth; others are just intrigued by their appearance. "Sometimes it's a young person who wants to get a little more aggressive in the pipe," he adds. "I haven't had anyone say that they didn't like them. It seems like it's a younger-person type of thing, but we've gotten some middle-aged people on them, too."
At ISPO, approximately 1,800 exhibitors are showing off more than 2,700 brands to tens of thousands of trade visitors. Anticipating much more demand for Icelantics after the show, Anderson hired more employees, bringing his staff to five, and contracted with a Brighton company for research-and-development prototyping. He also started the process of changing to Denver-based Never Summer for manufacturing and plans to put out 3,000 pairs of skis this year.
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"I think it definitely has potential to blow up, but at the same time, I don't want to turn into a Salomon or a huge corporation," Anderson says. "I want to be able to see everything that goes on. We just want to keep a quality product and have a sense of everything that's going on in the company instead of losing control of what happens with the product and the company itself."
He also wants to make sure he has time to hit the slopes again. Even though this has been a phenomenal powder year in Colorado, Anderson has had few chances to slap on his skis. "I've only been hearing about the snow lately," he says. "It's been hectic for the last month."
But it should be all downhill from here.