Montana Ski Company's first season unofficially began last Wednesday, when its president, Zak Anderson, skinned up and skied down Whitefish's Big Mountain on a pair of handmade Montana Ski Company skis.
"I was rockin' some prototypes from last year," Anderson says. "It worked well because it was heavy snow and it's always nice to have a bigger, fatter, wider ski—especially when there's only two feet...It's nice to stay on top of it."
Technically, this winter marks the Whitefish-based Montana Ski Company's second season. But it's the first year its skis, distinctive for their Montana-grown wood cores, are available for the public to purchase.
The company's emergence reflects a surge in the number of small ski businesses in Montana and around the country—and just in time for ski season. In Bozeman, 25-year-old ski fanatic and craftsman Eric Newman is launching Seneca Boards this winter, and in Helena, a trio of college students, under the name Epik Skis, began building skis in a garage last year, among other start-ups.
"There's kind of been this rebirth of the small, grassroots, made-in-the-USA ski business," Anderson says.
Anderson, 32, believes Montana Ski Company can thrive in the niche it's carving out.
"We're trying to make quality custom skis using sustainable timber from Montana and to keep that price point relatively low," he says. "And our focus is mainly on making backcountry and powder skis. We know there's an aspect of the market we can capitalize on there, and that includes telemark skiing as well."
The company began with an informal conversation last December at a Flathead Valley Ski Foundation fundraiser between Anderson and a friend, Chad Wold, who's a partner, along with former National Football League quarterback and Whitefish resident Drew Bledsoe, in the Bledsoe Capital Group. Wold told Anderson that he and Bledsoe were exploring the creation of a small ski company.
As Anderson tells it, he said, "I'm in," even before Wold could provide any details.
"Because that's one of the reasons I moved back here from Arizona—to get back into skiing," Anderson says. "That's where my heart's at."
Before long, Anderson found himself learning the nuances of the so-called boutique ski industry. The company partnered with Spokane, Wash.-based handmade ski and snowboard manufacturer T.J. Sneva, of Sneva MFG, to build a few prototypes. Meanwhile, it sought more investors to support the vision.
Montana Ski Company's financial backing gives it a significant advantage over most other ski start-ups. It's allowing the company, now with a staff of five, to make in the coming weeks about 30 pairs of its base models (costing $850), plus semi-custom ($950) and fully custom ($1,500) skis. It's developing a new website and marketing plan, securing additional financing, and identifying Montana athletes to be Montana Ski Company ambassadors. By next year, the company hopes to open its own production facility in Whitefish.
What also sets the company apart is its commitment to using Montana wood and the least harmful chemicals and plastics as possible.
"I think there's a bit of a misnomer in the world of skiing and snowboarding that they're all made of plastic or metal...," Anderson says. "But for the most part, skis are wood-core, and the best skis on the market are wood-core skis. The best materials for those are maple and poplar. Those are our go-to [trees].
"There's certainly a certain amount of mad scientist/artist that goes into creating skis," he adds.
Only a handful of people have actually taken turns in Montana Ski Company skis. Count Jules Older among them. The former editor of Ski Press tried two pairs of Montana Ski Company skis last winter.
"The P'arc, a maple-cored giant slalom brute, I hated," Older wrote the Indy in an e-mail. "The Buffalo Soldier, an all-rounder for any snow and any kind of turn, was the best ski I'd ever set foot in. Extreme stability without boring deadness. Great on short turns and long. Sweet as. I wanted a pair."
"Sweet as," Older explained, is a New Zealand expression for cool.
Anderson and his team hope many more skiers will agree. Montana Ski Company skies will initially be available only on its website—www.montanaskicompany.com. As the company grows, Anderson says he hopes to have its base models in select shops around the state.
"That's the goal—to keep it grassroots in Montana for the first few seasons," Anderson says. "And if we start to have the kind of success we're hoping for, then we'll expand a little and look into going into different markets."
But in the short term, Anderson has his eye on the forecast. He says more snow has already fallen on Whitefish Mountain Resort than by opening day last year.
"People are buzzing around town for sure," he says.