That bit about the best skis in the world being made in Colorado isn't just hyperbole; several local brands have been holding their own in the annual ski tests, gear guides and editor's-choice lists published by magazines like Powder, Freeskier, Telemark Skier and Backcountry, and business is growing across the board, recession and weak snow season be damned. In the ski industry, Brand Colorado is catching on.
"The boutique ski companies are so important to the industry from a passion and innovation standpoint and because they're really going after that top tier of the skiing market," says Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America, noting that one in six pairs of skis sold in America now comes from a boutique brand.
"What's happening in Colorado is special, and the entire industry is paying attention," she adds. "It's just been a tremendous success story all around."
High-end, handcrafted skis probably won't make much of a difference for the typical skier who gets on the hill just a few days a year — but many Colorado skiers are anything but typical. Mike McCabe, master builder at the worker-owned Folsom Custom Skis shop in Boulder, points out that skiing is a way of life for many Coloradans and that when you're skiing like your life depends on it, you need skis you can depend on.
"I'm 6' 2" and weigh 230 pounds, and I ski hard," says McCabe. "Mass-produced skis just don't cut it for me, at all. When I first got involved in working with Folsom, I was competing in the IFSA [International Freeskiers Association] big-mountain ski tour, doing a lot of those freeskiing world tour stops that are just big, crazy skiing, and I needed a ski I could trust. I was skiing on some other shall-remain-nameless brands and just couldn't get the skis to perform the way I needed them to. I had some catastrophic equipment failures in situations that were really bad, and it really started to shake me up. When you can't rely on your equipment, you start second-guessing everything you do."
When he examined those broken skis, he would invariably find sloppy manufacturing defects like uneven applications of epoxy and fiberglass. Now that he knows more about ski construction, McCabe blames those defects on lazy, outsourced manufacturing, a sad side effect of overseas mass production. He and his Folsom co-owners have decided that the answer to the problem is in completely customizing the process of buying a ski for their customers (and for themselves), and in personally taking complete control over every aspect of the design and manufacturing of those skis.
Unlike Grace and some of the other garage brands, Folsom got into the game with a big initial investment in a CNC (computer numerical code) machine for the precision milling of its wood cores and to make its own ski molds. The company also bought a dye sublimation printer to print its own custom top sheets.
"Not to bash the garage builders, but we're not a garage brand," says McCabe, even if his factory occupies a mere 1,500 square feet behind a garage door in a Boulder warehouse. "Our product is precisely designed and built, and we take great pride in that."
The 250 pairs of skis being crafted in the Folsom shop this year won't put much more of a dent in the ski industry than the twelve pairs Liechty is building. Sales of skis, boots, bindings and poles totaled $533 million in the United States last season, according to SIA's 2011 Intelligence Report. A total of 639,098 pairs of alpine skis were sold. Roughly 90 percent of that market is dominated by the top ten companies, including Atomic, Blizzard, Dynastar, Elan, K2, Line, Nordica, Rossignol, Salomon and Völkl.
But Folsom has been making a name for itself all the same by giving lifestyle skiers exactly what they want and building skis that last up to three times longer than comparable mass-produced skis. The ski industry is taking notice: This year Folsom won two Skier Choice awards in Powder's 2012 Buyer's Guide.