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The Anti Ski-Factory

Wagner Custom has been making skis the hard way since 2006—And that makes all the difference.

The snow is coming down hard in fat, fluffy clumps that land with a soft hiss on my jacket. It’s late afternoon, and after the quick 15-minute skin in from Highway 550 to the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, the bags the snowmobiles brought up are already covered with an inch of the stuff. Pete Wagner, owner of Telluride-based Wagner Custom Skis, clicks out of his bindings and adds his skis to the fleet of other Wagners standing sentry under the eaves.

The lodge is one of many—including the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska, several Eleven Experience properties and Patagonia Heliski in Chile—that uses Wagner to provide its demo skis. “You can go and try them, we can talk to you about your experience on them, and make something that’s even more dialed in for you,” Pete says, gesturing at the fence of skis, all sporting his trademark logo.

If you’ve never heard of Wagner Custom Skis, you’ll be surprised to start noticing them everywhere—especially down here in Southern Colorado. Nearly half the people in the tiny Ridgway coffee shop where we ate lunch earlier were wearing Wagner baseball hats. “Do you know all these guys?” I asked Pete. He shook his head and laughed.

Pete founded the company in 2006—and it remains one of the first and only truly custom ski companies in the United States. Now, Wagner makes more than 1,000 pairs of skis per year, which works out to roughly six pairs of skis each day. Each one is completely unique, created using proprietary software and algorithms he designed. 

Craft Conscious – Wagner builds more than 1,000 pairs of skis each year, taking into considration each customer’s unique needs (and top-sheet art requests) and drawing on materials that include aerospace-grade fiberglass.

As we drag our bags into the hallway, Trax, the owners’ Bernese mountain dog, runs over to us and rubs his snowy body against our legs. The lodge is gorgeous—built on the European model of backcountry luxury, a concept that is pretty unique in Colorado’s DIY-style rustic hut culture. A huge wall of windows on the open main floor looks out into the snowy trees and peaks out back, and the craftsmanship shows in every beam of warm-hued Douglas fir—all notched together with pegs. As we stand around the kitchen and refuel with chips and guac, we discuss the possibility of a quick evening ski tour with our guide and the co-owner of the lodge, Nate Disser.

We only have a couple hours of light left, so we opt to go just in back of the lodge to a zone called Hollywood, so named because you can ogle your tracks afterward from the deck. As we gear up and ski down into the valley, the clouds seem to hold their breath, pausing the snow that’s incited a winter storm warning for tonight. We pass a mining shack crouched on a hillock, its roof sunken from the weight of the snow. Nate tells us it’s an old jail from the mining camps of the 1870s (more than 30 million dollars’ worth of gold was extracted from these mountains), which the lodge is eventually going to repurpose into a wine cellar.

We reach the bottom and start to wend up the mountain, skinning through a sparse glade of trees. Crystals suspended in the air sparkle in the watery sunlight, which is breaking through the clouds in earnest now. Pete is just ahead of me, our clomping steps in unison, and I pepper him with questions because I’m both curious and breathing harder than he is.

Pete, now in his mid-40s, is the antithesis of the ski-bum stereotype who starts a ski company in his garage. He’s small and wiry, a mechanical engineer and computer scientist, and though he’s a passionate skier, he has zero bro-ego around the sport. Before starting Wagner, he wrote software in San Diego for enhanced-performance golf clubs, using a swing monitor to collect information about how players were hitting the ball. “Using all those data points, we could design the perfect equipment for someone,” he says, executing a kick turn up the track.

He started working remotely from Telluride so he could ski every day and soon realized the skis he bought weren’t a good fit for him. “They were too demanding,” he says, but there was no way of knowing that before actually skiing on them. “I was creating all this tech about how to fit people with their perfect golf clubs, and I didn’t see anyone doing that in the ski industry,” he says. “The golf world seemed to be operating on a much higher level than the ski world.”

So, as any mechanical engineer and computer scientist would, he wrote an algorithm and software for creating custom skis. He couldn’t actually measure the data with skis as he could with golf clubs, so he created a questionnaire and then used predictive engineering to determine stiffness depending on a skier’s weight, preferred terrain, and ability. He also created a database of other mainstream skis that cataloged materials, flex index, mounting points, and shape, so that when customers pointed to a ski they liked in the past, he could incorporate similar qualities. He shopped the system around to big manufacturers, whom he figured would be interested in making their process better. “But no one even wanted to talk to me about it,” he says.

We’ve worked our way up the bench, and we can see the beautiful swath of untouched powder that lies just over the ridge. It’s just mellow enough of an angle to be safe—these snow-choked peaks are known for avalanche danger (a massive slide would close the Million Dollar Highway for weeks come March)—but steep enough to merit one-at-a-time protocol. We give enough space between us on the traverse, and then stomp out a transition zone in the last stand of trees. We rip skins, drink some water and then watch the first of our group inscribe his signature all the way down.

My turn comes, and I stack my tracks right of the others, my skis purring through the velvety pow. Even though every ski Wagner makes is unique, there’s a commonality I’ve felt in every pair I’ve tried—a feeling I can only describe as buttery. They feel simple and beautifully made, like a cake baked from scratch. In comparison, some mainstream models feel like something from the King Soopers display case.

It’s no wonder: Every ski Wagner makes boasts a classic sandwich construction with a wood core and vertical sidewall, which is the best—and most expensive—way to build a ski. Pete uses more than 270 high-quality material combinations, like aerospace-grade fiberglass to add torsional rigidity or metal laminates to damp vibration. Each ski takes roughly 10 hours per pair of labor, handmade with an attention to detail you do not get from skis mass-produced in China. “Love and passion go into the skis we build for people, and I think people can feel that,” Pete says.

Indeed, when we tour Wagner’s shop in Mountain Village, it strikes me as the anti ski-factory. Guys still in baselayers from their morning ski worked side by side in light-filled, sawdust-fragrant rooms right off the main pedestrian drag, with a vibe somewhere between backcountry ski hut and Santa’s workshop. The same computer program that designs skis talks to the milling machines, which cut out the cores precisely to the specifications of his algorithm, and then the skis get layered and pressed in adjustable ski presses Wagner built. Everything is customized—even the vacuum system that sucks up the sawdust. “We work with a guy who’s a bit of a mad scientist,” Pete explains as he walks us through his process.

The company now has 15 employees and is still growing, but they’ve had to climb many barriers to get there. People who buy custom bikes and custom liners for their boots somehow still view custom skis as “untested prototypes,” Pete tells us. Others fear they don’t know enough about skis to be able to articulate what they want or they’re not good enough skiers to merit the investment (Wagners start at a hefty $1,750). Wagner guarantees every ski they make, but they end up rebuilding only a few pairs a year (a failure rate of .32 percent, says Pete, ever exact). “It works—people love them.” 

The last of our group makes it down the apron, and we’re high-fiving and laughing, buzzed from floating through pow. Our tracks are beautiful, perfect turns spooned together—Hollywood is aptly named. A few of us are debating about whether we have time for another lap, but the sun is low, the clouds are moving in, we have a big day tomorrow, and a deep wine list and hot shower are waiting for us back at the lodge.

We put our skins back on and work our way through the trees near the valley floor. In one section, the slope drops precipitously on our right, so we go one at a time. Conditions are good, though—we hit it during the perfect window—so tomorrow we should be able to get into some steeper terrain, Nate says. He wants to bring us to a gladed zone down the road called Sam’s Trees, and then, if we’re feeling good, up and over the backside to Chattanooga, a steep and open valley that wouldn’t be skiable in less favorable avalanche conditions.

As the lodge comes into view, the wind blasts our faces with crystals so fine they sting—one final caper before the curtain of clouds closes and the snow starts to fall again. Then, all is still, save the big, fat, fluffy flakes that pile up all night long.

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