Avon’s Liberty Skis leads way for small ski manufacturers
vail daily correspondent
AVON – What started off as a $28,000 run at the craps tables has turned into one of the most successful independent ski companies in Colorado. And they’re based right over in Avon.
Eagle County residents Dan Chalfant and Jim Satloff founded Liberty Skis in 2003 after a successful weekend in Vegas during the Snowsports Industries of America trade show. They won just enough money that weekend to finance Liberty’s first production line, and now the company conducts business in more than 20 countries in North America, Europe and Asia.
The idea was to create a twin-tipped ski that performs all over the mountain, not just in the park. Chalfant’s thinking was that a twin tip is not simply for people who want to ski backwards. They could also benefit forward-thinking skiers by allowing easier variation in turn shape compared to a flat-tailed ski.
“Seven or eight years ago, if you were making twin tips, people automatically assumed you were trying to be a park-style company,” Chalfant said. “For Liberty, we’ve been trying to get away from that because it’s not who we are. We design everything we make to be used as a real ski.”
While countless other independent companies have sprouted up, at the time, it was nearly unheard of to start up your own ski company. Liberty, Armada and Line, were the first – the latter two were predominantly park and pipe skis.
“I felt like there was a real opportunity to make a ski that performed well and were also twin tips. Now almost all skis – even race skis – have at least a little bit of kick in the tail,” Chalfant said.
A multitude of independent ski companies have since joined the marketplace and were able to follow in the footsteps of the Liberty and Armada thanks to a more level playing field with the big manufacturers. CAD machinery, milling machinery and design programs are more readily available than they were 10 years ago.
However, one of the things that separates Liberty is they actually manufacture their own skis, while other small companies simply design them and contract out the production to a larger factory.
Liberty is the first and only ski company to use a bamboo core in every ski it makes. They say bamboo contributes to the performance, longevity and strength of the ski, as well as the environmental friendliness.
Bamboo has a tensile strength (the ability to be stretched) stronger than steel and its coefficient of restitution (the ability to snap back to where it’s supposed to be) is remarkable. As anyone who has ever gone fly fishing with a bamboo rod will tell you, it always snaps back into place.
In terms of environmental impact, bamboo is harvested, not logged like other woods, and it grows back quickly. So it’s a very green material.
The design process begins in Avon, where the company has the ability to build prototypes onsite, but more often than not, they send the design to China, where five or six variations of a single concept are constructed, shipped back to Avon and tested at Vail and Beaver Creek by Liberty staff and its athletes.
Once they find the exact right combination of material, shape and camber, the skis go into production for the public. They are then distributed all over the world.
It’s Liberty’s smaller size compared to the big companies that has allowed it to take risks and experiment with new concepts, such as using bamboo, because they’re not beholden to shareholders.
“The big European companies really used to dismiss the small ski manufacturers, and now what we’re seeing is a lot of the innovations are coming from the smaller companies. And the bigger companies are taking notice,” Chalfant said. “We’re not Rossignol or Salomon, but then again, we don’t need to be. We have a lower overhead.”
Liberty jumped on the rocker bandwagon pretty early on in the ride – about four years ago – and since then, the company has refined the art of the early rise. Their skis take advantage of reverse camber in the tip and tail, while maintaining traditional camber underfoot, which seems to be the wave of the future for ski manufacturing.
Liberty played around with full reverse camber (banana skis), but quickly realized they stink in anything but pristinely deep powder. Their low, long rise in the tip benefits float and ease of rolling into the turn like a fully rockered ski but without the inability to carve.
Their Helix (105 millimeters underfoot) and Double Helix (121 underfoot) have been incredibly well received and were really the models that put Liberty on the map, Chalfant said. They are unchanged for 2011-12 aside from the cosmetic, which is very typical when a company doesn’t want to mess with a good thing.
“It’s hard to convince the general public to just try (fatter, rockered skis). You say, ‘Listen, it skis just like a giant carving ski, except when you get in powder, it’s so much easier for these people,'” Chalfant said. “Once they get on it, I think they’ll be converted. The great thing about a wider ski is you can have a really stable ski at high speed and more torsional rigidity (less twisting for great stability).”
Liberty will, however, offer something new and kind of crazy next year: The Mutant, Chalfant says, is the ultimate powder ski.
With the look of a water ski that Jackson Pollack had some fun with, the Mutant is 141 millimeters under foot (that’s very, very fat) with reverse sidecut, meaning the tips and tails are skinnier than the middle of the ski. This unusual shape offers optimum float and pivot-ability in deep snow. And that’s just about all it’s good for, Liberty admits.
“I wanted to do something that was totally unique and a departure from anything we’ve ever done before,” Chalfant said. “We make skis that are really good all-terrain skis that carve well. With the Mutant, I wanted to make a ski that was purely, purely a powder ski.”
It’s essentially a ski designed for the Liberty athletes, but will be available to the ambitious public. There aren’t too many people that are going to buy a 192-centimeter length ski with massive rocker and reverse sidecut. It’s simply not very versatile, but it’s definitely cool to look at and think about. And if you’re the kind of person with three-ski quiver, you could definitely consider it.
“If you get to ski this ski on a regular basis, you’re probably pretty damn lucky because the conditions that are needed are really good. You’ve got to have a lot of snow,” Chalfant said.
Liberty has seen growth every single one of the last five years with a little bit of a slowdown in the middle, likely due to the greater economic climate.
“It’s been really gratifying. I think we are delivering a product people want and a message people can relate to at Liberty,” Chalfant said. “We had good growth even in the downturn and the last two years have been exceptional.”
The company sold out last year and had to make an emergency mid-season run of skis, so this year, they planned on mid-season release. Liberty does not officially release the number, but Chalfant said they produce between 5,000 and 10,000 skis per year.
In the next few years, Chalfant expects companies will continue to play around with different combinations of camber and continue to put people on wider skis.
“I think what we need to portray as a company is that our skis work really well as carving, pure, performance skis – not just, oh it’s a twin tip and it’s fatter,” he said.
In the end, Chalfant couldn’t ask for a better gig.
“Skiing has been my livelihood and lifestyle as long as I’ve lived here. I love coming to work; I get to design skis,” he said. “I have started to see a lot of locals on Libertys, and it makes me feel great that people are out enjoying the product that was designed here. All of us live here, so it’s really cool to see people in the lift line skiing them.”
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