The craft gear revolution: Colorado ski and board boutiques flourishing | SummitDaily.com

The craft gear revolution: Colorado ski and board boutiques flourishing

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part gear preview. For men's skis and bindings, see the first part.

It seems like boutique ski and snowboard manufacturers are everywhere these days.

In 2011, back in the thick of the movement, Denver's Never Summer Snowboards had to turn away new contracts because its factory was stretched to the limit. Icelantic was just two years old at the time, and, yet, sales were growing at a clip of 40 percent every season. Two other clients — Summit County brands Fat-ypus and Rocky Mountain Underground — were growing just as fast. It's like the craft beer phenomenon: Just about anyone with a bright idea and a bit of cash can enter the industry.

And, to be honest, all of ski-dom is better for it. Variety is the spice of life, right? But there's also something to be said for experience and know-how, and, now that the boutique ski boom has leveled out, only the best brands remain. Silverthorne's Unity Snowboards has weathered industry changes since 1995 — it's the oldest independent Colorado brand along with Never Summer — while Weston Snowboards, a relative newcomer based in Minturn, has won a dedicated following with pre-made split boards, right in time for the skinning revolution.

It's funny how this industry takes trends, chews on them for a while, then tends to spit them out. In time for the 2015-16 ski season, the Summit Daily sports desk took a look at two boards that make the most of recent trends (if you can call powder riding a trend). We also got our hands on three brand-new women's skis from Liberty, Meier Skis and Icelantic, all with killer tech.

Unity Whale, $599

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Sizes: 160 cm, 165 cm, 170 cm

Waist: 25 cm, 25.5 cm, 27.3 cm

There's something to be said for history, and Unity Snowboards has more than just about anyone (aside from Never Summer). Since 1995, founder Pete Wurster has been pressing boards in small batches, working in garages and selling from his trunk before setting up permanently in a Silverthorne factory.

To keep up with the craft snowboard movement — or whatever you want to call it — he now pairs his most popular deck, the true-twin Origin ($515), with a slate of powder and split boards. New this year is a redesigned Whale, Unity's nothing-but-powder board. It starts at 160 cm and just gets bigger from there, with a directional shape and a float rocker profile (traditional camber between the bindings, slight rocker on the tail, major rocker on the nose). The bindings are set back slightly and it features a slight, tasteful swallowtail design, just like last year. The combo aspen/maple core is stiff enough for drops, but it won't feel like riding a sheet of titanium.

Find it: The entire 2015-16 Unity line is available at Pioneer Sports in Frisco, Mountain View Sports in Keystone, Alpine Sports in Breck and The Grind skateshop in Silverthorne. They're also available with free shipping through the Unity web store at http://www.unitysnowboards.com.

Weston Big Chief split, $899

Sizes: 157 cm, 164 cm, 168 cm

Waist: 252 mm, 262 mm, 264 mm

After about four seasons making boards, Weston of Minturn dove headfirst into the world of split boards. There's a split version of the company's two high-end models — the Dream Machine ($449 regular, $849 split) and Big Chief ($549, $899) — along with one split-only model, the 10th Mountain Division ($899). All are designed by a team of Vail-area riders and feature Karakoram split technology. Weston recently moved production overseas after several years at Meier's Carbondale factory, but they're making more than ever before and, after a few seasons, have fine-tuned split tech.

This season, the new Big Chief split was featured in Backcountry Magazine's best-of list and earned the Snowboarding Magazine seal of approval. It's ranges from 157 cm to 168 cm, with camber from insert to insert and slight rocker at the contact points on nose and tail. In terms of shape, the Big Chief is about as traditional as it gets these days. It's not quite a true twin, but it's close. The poplar/bamboo/paulownia core keeps things relatively light, and the ultra-fast Electra 4K base is — well, ultra-fast. This beast is made to handle a full day of touring and riding.

Find it: All current models (plus a few from last season) are available through the Weston web store at http://www.westonsnowboards.com. You can also pick them up at the shop on Main Street in Minturn, along with other backcountry snowboarding gear like bindings, beacons and airbags.

Liberty Envy, $599-$725

Sizes: 156 cm, 167 cm

Waist: 105 mm underfoot

The Envy, Liberty's flagship women's ski, saw a much-needed facelift over the off-season and is now lighter, poppier and more responsive than ever before. It's relatively fat underfoot at 105 mm, which makes it an all-purpose slayer, just like its dude-specific counterpart, the Origin. The Envy also features the same camber profile (traditional camber underfoot, slight rocker on the nose and tail), but it's not nearly as fat in the front and back. That gives it a sleeker, sexier profile — hey, it's still a women's ski — without sacrificing the powder-ready float Liberty is known for.

It made 2016 best-of lists from Skiing Magazine and Backcountry Magazine, and it's still one of the most affordable independent skis on the market.

Find it: Adventure Sports in Frisco and NorSki Sports in Keystone both carry the full line of Liberty skis, men's and women's. You can also track them down online through Backcountry.com and Evo.

Meier Skis Madam, $750

Sizes: 169 cm

Waist: 119 mm

Powder is no match for the Meier Madam. For the first time this season, the Carbondale-based manufacturer is pressing a ladies-only ski made just for the deep stuff. It's big and fat at 119 mm underfoot, with a nose (148 mm) and tail (130 mm) that will float for days.

Think all that extra material means the Madam is a brick? Hardly. At three pounds per ski, they're light enough for a full day of skinning and charging the backcountry. You'll hardly even feel them strapped to your back on summit climbs. The ski only comes in one size, but 169 cm is pretty much the standard anyway. Still, the combination of fat features and banana rocker constructions means this is a quiver ski to the core. But, come storm time, you won't want (or need) anything else.

Find it: Meier Skis are sold at AMR Ski and Board Shop in Breckenridge and Breck Sports near the gondola at Peak 8. You can also find a pair to demo through Copper Rocker, Copper Mountain's high-end rental shop.

From now through Oct. 18, buy direct through the Meier Skis website to get 30 percent off all 2015-16 models (yep, the new ones). The discount drops to 25 percent between then and Oct. 31.

Icelantic Maiden, $749

Sizes: 155 cm 162 cm, 169 cm

Waist: 101 mm underfoot

New to the Icelantic women's lineup this season is the Maiden, a freeride machine that takes the best parts of the flagship Nomad model (mid-range flex, hybrid camber with rocker on the tip and tail) and introduces the company's lightest core to date. It's made with Pacific albus, a hybrid type of poplar that's just as strong and noticeably lighter than the go-to poplar used in most cores.

Now, the Maiden is easily one of the most expensive models that Icelantic puts out, but, unlike so many of its high-end peers, this one isn't built to be a quiver ski. It's just fat enough underfoot (101 mm) to float through powder, and the shape is just slim enough for a few park laps. You can even hit rails without getting snagged. Think of it as the Land Rover of the ski world: Classy in all the right ways, yet tough enough to handle the nasty stuff. The Icelantic three-year warranty takes care of the rest.

Find it: Icelantic skis are sold at Alpine Sports, Mountain Wave and Slope Style in Breck, or Epic Mountain Gear in Frisco and MSO in Silverthorne. You can also find demos come skis season at the Copper Rocker shop.

Boot smart

Ski tech is all well and good, but that $800 pair of planks on your feet is just expensive wood if you can’t even feel your toes.

That’s where a good boot makes all the difference, and these days, many skiers who get 100-plus days on the snow swear by a custom insole and liner. Surefoot in Breckenridge is the go-to custom boot company, with pricing and equipment for skiers of all ages and abilities.

“The custom insole is the foundation any boot needs to function properly,” Breck store manager Oliver Holmes says. “It’s such a lateral, dynamic sport that you need to support you foot so it isn’t rotating. It’s key to any boot.”

Sure, he gets paid to say that, but you can’t argue with comfort, stability and function. A custom setup provides all that in three pieces: insole ($225), liner ($419) and the shell ($300-$700). Surefoot begins by scanning your foot to get measurements and foot shape. Then, they’ll built an insole just for your foot. It’s similar to the heat-moldable insoles and liners that come with many modern boots, but unlike “one-size-fits-most” customization, these are for you and only you, like a tailored suit.

The biggest question is lifespan. Casual skiers can go five or six seasons with the same custom boot, while locals who head out 100-plus days usually get about two seasons. A complete pair of custom ski boots runs $900-$1,400. Call the shop at 970-453-4966 for more info.

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