In last week's feature, tobias c. van Veen tracked down local ski builders in Whistler and Pemberton, discussing the economics of small-scale production in high-end sports equipment. Many builders felt that a shared industrial space would allow them to take their designs to the next level. In the concluding installment, tobias talks to local snowboard and splitboard makers.
People in the Valley are good at making and doing things. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the fringes of Whistler's hub; a quick survey of the Pemberton phonebook reveals a slew of entrepreneurial types, from landscapers to photographers. While these artisans and trades support something of the bigger beast of tourism, most long-term locals are self-starters, setting up shop, and selling a service or product. Many workers in the Valley are multi-skilled, juggling numerous jobs depending on the season. Nearly everyone around these parts has figured out a way to work and play in the Sea to Sky corridor by fulfilling some sort of niche.
Over the past couple of years, a motley though dedicated band of local ski and snowboard makers, have gained momentum — propelled by declining technology prices, trickle-down mechanical innovations, and information sharing through social media, thanks to maker-websites such as skibuilders.com. Yet the desire to craft skis and boards, to create local, handmade, artisanal shapes for riding on snow, though it follows upon similar developments in the surfing community, can only be understood if its economics are contextualized within a thriving snowsports culture that has embraced a Do-it-Yourself ethos.
Freesking and ski-touring have once again upended the ski industry, with innovations in rocker design — those crazily turned-up shapes — sweeping across all styles of ski. Splitboarding, though it has been around for close to 20 years, is seeing a strong resurgence, if not renaissance, as snowboarders strive to keep apace with their ski-touring cousins. The Sea to Sky is not alone in this respect; across North America a wave of smaller-scale ski and snowboard makers have begun to make inroads into the broader snowsports industry, redefining the whole through the diverse sum of their many parts.
PRIOR — all that has happened will happen again
If there is a Big Bang moment for modern ski and snowboard construction in the Sea to Sky, it is Prior. The history of Prior would fill a tome unto itself. Ever since Chris Prior began shaping snowboards down in the city over 15 years ago, Prior snowboards (and later skis) began to be synonymous with superior-quality, Coast Range oriented design. Prior is one of Canada's most respected ski and snowboard makers, bridging the gap between the major manufacturers and the smaller, one-man outfits. Simply put, Prior is known for its designs around the frozen world.
But little known in this storied history of the Function Junction lynchpin is the innovative work of pro-rider, ex-racer and self-described "punk rocker kind of guy" James Oda in cutting Prior's first splitboard with founder Chris Prior.
Back in the raving '90s, splitboarding was not only in its infancy, it was as underground as snowboarding had been in the late '80s. The idea of splitting a snowboard in two for mucking around in the backcountry was pioneered by Voilé, which also developed the first widely available commercial plate bindings, skins, and attachments to strap the board back together again for the descent.
Around 1996, James Oda went to buy a Voilé splitboard, but supply was thin; so he and Chris Prior set about making a thicker, heavier board for splitting in early 1997. It didn't work, says James. "We found out that we really didn't need to change the snowboard as dramatically as we thought we did with the split down the centre."
Once they got over their misconception that a split board would "lose all integrity of the board" — and as they realized that a split board is, in essence, a pair of skis — they, "quickly pressed a (regular) board," cut it in two, and James took it to Chamonix, France, the next day. Today, the prototype board is mounted on Prior's history wall as you walk up the stairs of its Function factory. Along the side of the board, providential words are written: "It's been a long skintrack from here to the first PRIOR splitboard — thanks for making dreams happen. James Oda, 1997." The sidewalls of the board aren't even finished, and the cut is askew and far from perfect; James was supposed to take a router with him, but as he says, "it never happened."
Never matter. James blessed the boards in Chamonix's steeps with the likes of Glen Plake — and it immediately opened his eyes to the possibility of splitboard touring, even though he was sporting Raichle ski touring boots and hardboot snowboard bindings mounted on a freeheeling plate. "I went from post-holing and walking around in snowshoes," he says, "to being able to travel, and get distance . . . I was able to do Fissile in half the amount of time it used to take me to." Yes — before the era of splitboards, James used to walk to and from Fissile on snowshoes, a solid 30 kilometre round trip, in often knee-to-tits-deep snow. He did the same for the first snowboard descent of Mt. Fitzsimmons in 1992, which took him two days with four hours sleep.
"That was a big move in those days, for a snowboarder," recounts James. "I was pretty overwhelmed with the whole thing, let alone stepping out onto the face, on a snowboard, of Mt. Fitzsimmons — at that point it was the biggest, gnarliest face I had ever seen in my life, let alone having the climbing skills to get there. Here I am packing a borrowed ice axe, borrowed crampons, borrowed everything. I didn't own anything for that trip pretty much."
Once he got the splitboard, he did Fitzsimmons in a day. James would get "yelled at by skiers in the skintrack," because everyone "still had skinny little pinner skis." So he'd have one foot in the skin track, and one foot outside. "I got called a kook," he says, "but I was pretty used to that." Today, all of that has changed with modern fat skis — and a growing abundance of splitboarders.
"I went from being the only splitboarder in Whistler, to a couple of friends getting kits, to the point where we did a traverse of the Spearhead in one day on a snowboard," says James, who figures he was probably the first person to pull it off. "Whenever you met a splitboarder, here you've met another alien," he says. "We embraced each other, like when we first started snowboarding."
In 1997, James built a board that was "split off the bat." This board went up Mt. Currie and down its north face, as well as down Mont Blanc's infamous chutes of the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix. Around 1999, Prior made the first production splitboard. "Maybe only 10 boards," says James, noting that "some people are still riding them today." The graphics were designed by venerable t-shirt maker Toad Hall.
Today, Prior is one of the world's foremost makers of dedicated, wood-core splitboards with two layers of Kevlar and carbon fibre. Yet splitboarding "is still a fringe sport, to some extent," says James. "Snowboarders aren't conditioned to the same level of cost that skiers are." That said, their numbers are growing, and with cheaper options like Brad Bethune's services available — see below — more snowboarders will find themselves "ski touring" on the up to surf on the way down.
Slicing it up, Supernatural Style
Brad Bethune shares his garage space in Pemberton with ski maker Greg Funk, where the two swap ideas and tools across their plastic-divided double carport. Hailing from Kingston, Ontario, Brad has been doing his thing in Whistler since 1998. Today he splits snowboards into two, making splitboards; as far as he knows, he might be the only commercial board-splitter in Canada.
The procedure is simple enough, at least for the customer. You send him your board; he'll slice it lengthwise, seal the cut edges with spar-urethane, drill-press the thirty-four holes for the uphill and downhill stances, epoxy the inserts and plug the bases, attach the binding plate and the latch kit, and provide pre-cut skins, all for 470 bucks—which is much cheaper than the full retail version, which costs $1,800 (though including a new splitboard). Snowboard touring bindings (such as the Sparks) and upgrades (such as Karakoram clips) are also available at additional cost.
Splitting old boards has proven to be a smart business model. "While working at Evolution, on my lunch, I went on to GoDaddy and bought splitboardz.com for like 15 bucks," says Brad, who says that Jeanine, Evolution's owner, "has been extremely supportive" and "super helpful in understanding the retail side of the business." But as a shop worker, Brad saw, in classic Hegelian style, the writing on the wall before the master capitalists.
"Two to three years ago the splitboard thing began showing up on a retail level," says Brad, "which made me notice it. Without the retail experience I had, I would never have identified the need for splitboarding." So he figured out how to split old boards, set-up accounts with suppliers, and got his gear together. "The need for it now is insane," he says, with emails and calls incoming daily for his splitboard services.
"Right from the very first year, it was popular. I had calls even though I didn't advertise, I didn't have a webpage, I had no social media, but through Evolution and the 'shopkids community', everybody just found out," Brad says, gesturing at a half a dozen completed boards. "Everybody wanted a splitboard, but nobody wanted to pay off-the-shelf (prices). So I've been cutting boards for three years now."
While the income remains supplemental — Brad runs Super Natural Landscapes as his main business — the demand is growing like B.C. weeds. He's looking at upgrading his services to install metal edges on cut boards, "making it closer to off-the-shelf," he says. With the website and the Facebook page, he's now seeing widespread interest from across Canada and the U.S. And his prices are, perhaps, even too reasonable; if you come to Brad with your own kit, he'll split your board for $150.
"If I'm working for an hourly wage," says Brad, "then I'm not doing that well. It probably takes me about 10 hours start to finish, but it has to be over a three-day period, because epoxies and urethanes all need to dry and have several coats."
Like other makers in the Sea to Sky, Brad is now looking at expanding his business, weighing the options of a shared space for smaller makers to stimulate their sales and share associated costs.
Noboard, No Problem—Whitegold's Got the Goods
When I arrive at Kevin Sansalone's place in White Gold — that infamous neighbourhood tucked away between Lost Lake Park and the 99 — his face betrays some concern. His Dutch snowboarder friend — who happens to run Bateleon boards — is upstairs with a concussion, and a clinic visit is imminent. So I throw Kevin onto his skateboard for a photo shoot on his indoor garage ramp, figuring the noise will help keep his friend awake (he turned out fine).
Unlike the other makers here, Kevin doesn't handmake his own boards, though he has plenty of experience in designing them. As a sponsored rider for Vancouver's Option snowboards since 1998, he designed various iterations of his own ride, the Sansalone, for almost a decade. After he quit Option in 2006 (the board maker folded in '09). he kept toying with prototypes, working with Option's ex-engineer, Johnny Q, while producing and filming his Sandbox snowboard flicks. Basically, he wanted to ride his own styles, and not somebody else's. "I always had this passion for boards," says Kevin. "I'm really picky, I've always wanted really good stuff."
This drive led him to design his shapes in AutoCAD software, coming up with the nose and tail shape, and the specs for the sidecut, waist, and radius. He now works with George Cant, another ex-Option engineer, on the materials and pressing at the Elan factory in Austria. "I just wanted boards that I liked . . . so I thought, 'hey, I'll make a few extras,' and sell them to friends, or people who were interested in my Option line," says Kevin, who notes that his signature Option boards, available for 10 years, sold everywhere from Australia to Europe. In short, he had an existing market for small, limited runs of signature boards available solely online, without the need for mass advertising or exposure.
At the same time, his Sandbox Helmet business "has gone crazy the last couple of years, and the movies were getting really busy as well," says Kevin. "So the boards were this kind of fun hobby that I just built slowly." His boards are a "different business model" than the Sandbox rasta-graphics helmets and the "fast-paced snowboard porn" of his movies; the graphics are subtle and minimalist, and materials are top-of-the-line, featuring race-room quality Ptex 8000 bases.
Kevin has crafted a few different shapes, though not all are available. He hauls them out of their cloth board bags, and polishes the topsheets with care. For the most part, White Gold offers but one model, available in three different sizes, and designed as an all-mountain, all-around freestyle board, what Kevin calls "top-to-bottom Whistler style."
What is particular to Kevin's designs is what he calls the "slamback" mount position, which "makes pow riding so much easier." Riders can move their bindings up to three inches back from the usual selection of stances; this "turns a regular board into a fish-style board," and makes a shorter board a more versatile deep snow tool, allowing a single ride from park to powder. This innovation should be emphasized for enhancing the versatility of a single board into a Swiss Army knife of snow slaying; other brands, such as his friend's Bataleon, have already copied it.
For snowboards, his prices are top shelf. Future 12/13 prices will range from $600 to $800, with 50 made of each size. The 152cm will be a park, freestyle cut, also suitable for smaller women; the 157cm will be tapered for all mountain freestyle; and the 162cm will be a stiffer, big mountain board.
Beautifully unique in Kevin's line is the prototype Woodie noboard, which may see a future release. With its huge bulletnose, the board is 100 per cent wood (treated with tea tree oil) save for the inserts; with no bases and edges, it can be mounted with bindings or with a leash for noboard-style powder pleasure. Future models might feature a removable edge. Last but not least on the wall is the singular Glide 60, a unidirectional, reverse sidecut, rockered pontoon board. With only a few models in existence, this dedicated deep snow machine is suitable only for heli or catboarding, and — at least for now — not for sale.
The Economics of Storm-Chasing
Don't let me turn you off here, but there is a contemporary economist, Paulo Virno, who makes some interesting observations about the virtuosity of contemporary labour. While Virno wants to talk about a performance without an end product — such as in the case of pianists or dancers, or, as is his point, the political process — there is also the idea that certain objects are endowed with virtuosity. Like a violin or piano — or a mountain bike or snowboard — artisanal objects, such as skis, are built for the pursuit of human pleasure through virtuosic movement.
Let me translate this another way. Your skis or splitboard are tools for a performance — a transient, fleeting act of grace and show on snow (whether under the chair or far out in the CBC badlands). When local artisans build such tools, they are also building an economy that focuses around virtuousity — around chasing activities that never cease. This is precisely why skiers and snowboarders will suffer through the long learning curve of bumps and bruises, at whatever age, to spin in the pipe, whip downhill at speed, dodge trees, fly off drops and rocket through powder. It's an addiction.
An economy focused around feeding this addiction, around creating the very tools that are the apparatus of the powder addict, spreads this desire, making it grow and infecting other regions. Local manufacturers are the powder pushers, from Funk to Sluff, Gary Wayne to Foon skis, from Prior and White Gold boards to Supernatural's split services. They feed the need and provide the tools for the stage, and unlike the pure definition of economic virtuosity, they realize that such intangible experiences can be packaged into an end product — precisely by making the tools to live and act out that play of chasing the next storm, the next perfect pipe, into the horizon.