High Gear checks out Liberty Skis: The Colorado guys with the bamboo sticks
March 23, 2014
For the guys at Liberty Skis, it's all about bamboo. It's been at the core of the now Avon-based company's skis for more than 10 years. Spawned from a discussion between co-founders Jim Satloff and Dan Chalfant over beers while in British Columbia — at a time when most small, independent ski companies were in their infancy — Liberty has since become one of the biggest producers in the independent ski market. So why bamboo? Because of the strong, lightweight and flexible nature of the wood. It offers a playful rebound from tip to tip while still maintaining strength and stiffness across the width of the skis.
We spent a morning a few weeks ago skiing with Liberty chief operating officer Chris Sears at Vail and had the chance to check out their upcoming 2015 lineup at the Snowsports Industries America (SIA) Snow Show earlier this year in Denver.
Sears took some time between charging groomers to give us a little more insight into what Liberty is all about.
One of the knocks on the company — among some skiing elitists — is that Liberty produces its skis in China, implying a potential for a lower-quality product. Riding the chair, Sears smiles at the notion and asks me to take a look around my house and at my ski gear and think "what doesn't come from China?"
In fact, he explains, the decision to produce there was in part based on quality, adding that they wouldn't offer a three-year warranty on their skis — one of the more comprehensive plans in the industry — if they were concerned about quality.
He said that the company originally explored a number of manufacturing options domestically and abroad, including using the production facilities of existing larger companies. But those options limited their input on design.
Their current manufacturing set-up gives them the flexibility to design skis exactly they way they want to, Sears said, with no limitations and the opportunity to make design adjustments more quickly. That's led to a number of unique design concepts, including their Bomber, Stealth and Hammer rockered tips and tails.
Producing in China also reduces the cost of bamboo, a material they chose in part for its sustainability. Anyone who's ever had bamboo in their yard will know just how fast the tree can grow and spread.
We had the chance to jump on a couple pairs of Liberty's signature model skis, the Helix, Variant 113 and Double Helix, as well as their Adrenalin Alpine touring bindings. Across the board, we were pretty impressed.
Helix and Double Helix
Considered their flagship ski, the Helix might just be one of the most well-rounded all-mountain options out there. It's no wonder it's their best-selling model. At 105 millimeters underfoot with an aggressive side cut, the skis are narrow enough to make quick, sharp turns, but wide enough to provide some nice floatation when getting into the deep stuff. Liberty's Stealth Rocker feature also puts just enough rise in the front of the ski to give the added benefit of a rockered ski in deep snow, without compromising performance on groom terrain. Its flat tail and low-rise tip manage to hold an edge effectively on hardpack without creating the chatter of a more aggressively rockered ski. The twin tips also make it an appealing choice for the skier who spends some time riding or landing switch (backwards). This ski is a great choice for someone looking for a one-ski quiver and for someone who is looking to get into a wider ski but is a little intimidated by full-on powder sticks.
Liberty's Adrenaline Alpine Touring binding is a nice lightweight option — 4.23 pounds plus bindings — for backcountry travel. At 121 underfoot, the skis' bigger brother, the Double Helix, is a solid option for someone looking to spend a little more time in the deep stuff. While the Double Helix is described as the go-to ski for most of Liberty's employees and still offers a short turn radius (around 25 meters), unlike the Helix, it's probably a little burly for the average destination skier. Both skis come in a variety of lengths, from 167 to 190 centimeters. If there's one flaw to the ski, it's that the top sheets — at least in the 2013-14 model — may be somewhat prone to chipping along the edges. But that's a purely aesthetic concern that applies to most skis ridden by a more aggressive skier.
Variant 113 and 97
Likely the next most versatile skis in Liberty's extensive line of ski designs are the Variant 113 and 97 (widths underfoot). These puppies are geared for the skier looking to get their skis up on edge and carve up some groomers, but also looking to throw on some skins and tour the backcountry. The Variants add a strip of metal to the center of the ski's bamboo core to make them a little more rigid for carving and holding an edge but still relatively lightweight at around 5 pounds — depending on length. The small notch in the tail of the ski is a nice added feature for anyone looking to secure climbing skins to them for Alpine touring. The Variant also has a special limited-edition Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) model, a portion of the sales of which go to CAIC. In addition to their mostly stiff base and cambered back to tail, the Variants also have Liberty's Hammer Rocker tips, which provide a slight rise in the front to add floatation in deeper snow. The rockered tip is also subtle enough to not chatter significantly on groomers and engage well on edge.
I demo'd the 186 centimeter Variants that are 113 underfoot. At 5-foot-7 and about 150 pounds, I probably should have opted for the shorter 179 option, but the longer skis still handled impressively. With the width underfoot, they were still very nimble and did a great job of holding an edge on the groomer. Unfortunately, we didn't get a deep powder day on them, but with a few fresh inches, they seemed to float very well. I didn't get a chance to ride the narrower 97's but imagine they'd be a great choice for someone looking for something a little narrower.
Like most ski and snowboard companies, next season Liberty will dip a little further into the Alpine touring market — the fastest growing segment in the ski industry, according to SIA. In addition to its heel-release Adrenalin A/T bindings, Liberty will be offering its own line of climbing skins. Unlike most skins, Liberty's new Transport skins are glue-less and use a proprietary vacuum technology that works like tiny suction cups. Liberty boasts that they are easier to separate than traditional skins while still able to firmly attach to the skis. They are also solvent-free and eco-friendly. I got a look at them and noticed they were clearly less sticky but didn't get a chance to field test.
While a number of their current 2013-14 models won't change beyond top-sheet designs for next season, Liberty will introduce a few new models of skis, along with their skins. One ski to look for will be the new Liberty Origins. With a full rocker design and 116 underfoot, these guys look like they'll be a really fun and playful ski without the intimidation factor of some of Liberty's really wide powder skis such as the Mutant and Genome (149 and 140 underfoot). Softer in the tail than the Helix and wider underfoot, the Origins should be just as fun with a little more deep powder floatation.
As to the future of Liberty, in a market where independent ski companies come and go, Liberty has clearly established themselves as one of the big boys. With continued growth projected and a market that now extends from Europe to Asia, the little guys that started in Edwards don't look like they'll be going anywhere any time soon.
Prices and other details are available at http://www.libertyskis.com.
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