Wearing flannel, sporting beards and donning beanies, many of the workers at the DPS ski factory in Salt Lake City look like ski bums warming up between runs at the local resort. But they are hard at work crafting some of the most advanced skis in the world.
At one station, wood and carbon fiber are sandwiched together in what looks like a giant panini press.
“I recommend not eating eating those,” joked Alex Hunt, communications manager at DPS skis.
Carbon fiber is a fairly new trend in the ski equipment market . It’s the same flexible, durable and lightweight material companies use to make modern hockey sticks or racing bikes..
“If it’s lighter, the skier is going to use less energy,” Hunt said. “Therefore they can take more runs because they’re not so tired and just have a better day.”
But carbon fiber skis are also expensive. The high-end ones cost more than $1,000.
Hunt compared it to purchasing a new car.
“A Cadillac versus a low end, entry level Chevy or Pontiac,” he said.
And just like new cars, skiing is getting more and more high-tech.
In addition to carbon fiber, there are goggles that show your text messages as they come in, boot soles that tell you if you’re edging correctly – for novices, that means how good or bad your technique is – and even USB-rechargeable heated gloves, boots and jackets.
According to Hunt, all this new technology is designed to make a freezing cold mountain more fun and comfortable.
“Going outside in the middle of winter, for most people, is not a pleasurable experience,” he said. “So by having the best equipment – warm gloves, good goggles so you have strong vision – it reduces all those negative things that come to mind when a lot people think about going outside in a blizzard.”
But bombing down a hill in a blizzard wearing jeans and a cheap pair of gloves is how a lot of people in the rural West skied for decades.
“When we wrap ourselves in these fabrics that make us more comfortable, you lose a lot of the ‘Break the West’ vibe that, for a long time, has been part of outdoor adventure,” said James Lynch , an editor for Popular Mechanics who reviews the latest outdoor gear.
While he loves a lot of the tech-savvy new equipment:
“I think what’s lost is the struggle,” he said. “The aspect of going outdoors and it not being comfortable. Pushing yourself, seeing what you’re capable of, and having fun in that struggle.”
But some people don’t want to freeze their butts off on a mountain. Or they want to go as fast as humanly possible down one. And they’re willing to spend the money to do so.
One market analyst group expects the ski equipment industry will be worth more than $5 billion by 2020 as businesses pump out new products.
Back at the DPS ski factory, Alex Hunt shows off one of his company’s newest inventions. It’s called Phantom and it looks clear goop.
“I guess we could maybe compare it to the feel you would get from vegetable oil,” Hunt said.
Phantom comes in little, red packages and costs $100. But rub some on your skis, put them into a special tanning bed and you’ll never have to buy wax again. Those skis, Hunt said, will stay fast season after season.
When asked why people would spend so much money on what looks like a simple sport.
“People are figuring out ways to make their lives more enjoyable on a daily basis,” he said. “And if that means spending some of that money on more or less toys, then so be it.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.