Planks of glory

After 14 years on mass-made skis, what it's like to upgrade to a semi-custom setup

Clay Fong | Boulder Weekly

Standing atop Spillway, an intermediate groomer at Loveland Ski Area, I visualized my descent on the crowded ribbon of man-made hard pack tending towards icy. Sticking to a line was critical, and this task was daunting, as I had just strapped on my first new pair of alpine skis in 14 years. These were Folsom Custom Blue Note Carves, a semi-custom, all-mountain ski hand built in Boulder and optimized for quick turning. I inhaled, and pivoted down the fall line.

My Loveland journey began last spring, when my quest for new skis led me to Folsom. Seeing friends ski down runs while exerting themselves far less than I was, I realized it was time to retire my long, heavy 188-centimeter slalom boards. I considered all-mountain skis in the $700 range as well as the newest iteration of my old skis, which now retailed for over a thousand dollars. Folsom had a spring special of an $850 semi-custom ski offering fewer options than a full custom, and this was an intriguing choice from a price and performance standpoint.

Like any other gear purchase, I factored in the cost of time spent doing online and magazine research, visiting ski shops and demoing skis. Folsom’s build process could help reduce this time drain, although I was concerned about buying skis without trying them out first. Rolling the dice, I made an appointment with Mike McCabe, Folsom’s head builder. McCabe’s background includes fabricating carbon fiber spindles for aerobatic aircraft and competitive freeskiing.

“Designing skis, it’s good to have a background in what works and what doesn’t work,” he says.

Fortunately, a similar knowledge base isn’t required of Folsom’s customers. McCabe began our discussion by noting my height and weight, and then asking about my skiing ability. I mostly ski Eldora and Arapahoe Basin, starting out with fast, short-radius turns on groomers, before playing in bumps, steeps and trees, and I’m a oneski quiver person. McCabe suggested the Blue Note Carve.

For short turns, he recommended a standard flex pattern over a stiffer option better suited for wide radius work. As an old schooler, I chose a half height tail over a twin-tip setup. Length was 170 centimeters (from past experience, 160s felt too squirrelly), and McCabe suggested a “mellow rise” in the tip coupled with a traditional camber. This profile would help turning and stability off hard pack without compromising groomer performance.

This conversation took a half hour, the same amount of time I would have spent in a ski shop. It was a thoroughly unintimidating experience, which is a good thing for a late ’90s Rip Van Winkle regarding ski technology.

“You don’t have to be a knowledgeable skier. We can help you figure it out,” McCabe says. “One major misconception is this is a hard process.”

Founder Jordan Grano began laying out the groundwork for Folsom in 2004, but in a few short years, this company’s reputation became such that it now builds skis for such demanding clients as Freeskier magazine editors and Aspen Highlands ski patrollers. McCabe says the skis are also appealing to performance-minded recreational skiers who want “a ski better than mass market.”

Grano was inspired by custom builders of mountain bike frames and surfboards, as these craftspeople build personalized gear for not much more than mass production competitors. For 2011, a full custom setup costs around $1,200 to $1,300. Output is around 250 pairs a year, with each ski taking eight to 10 hours to build. Quality control is easier to track in the Boulder shop than it is in an overseas plant. As McCabe points out, “Everything’s done here.”

Why go custom? Any given length of an off-the-rack ski accommodates significant variables in skier height and weight — in other words, they are a design compromise. Both semi-custom and custom builds enable a skier to have a ski dialed in to their needs. Customers can choose from numerous shapes for applications ranging from powder to racing, and can specify length, tail shape, flex, camber and rocker, and graphics.

McCabe used to have skis give out after 20 to 30 days of competition. But Folsom skis come with a two-year warranty. McCabe says that one of his custom-built pairs lasted 300 days, while still retaining its performance characteristics. Folsom’s goal, he explains, is to “make a ski that would last much longer than mass-produced.”

More than 90 percent of Folsom materials come from the U.S., with one notable exception being the Italian top sheets that feature nearly non-toxic dyes. A 99 percent non-toxic resin is another component of construction, and cores are made from laminates of bamboo and poplar, a sustainably harvested domestic wood. McCabe describes this wood as vital to performance and environmental sustainability.

“It’s light, responsive, predictable and high abundance,” he says.

Skiing the Folsoms, they were markedly easier to maneuver than my old skis.

Stability in giant, slalom type turns was rail-like and I easily absorbed any terrain irregularities without losing my balance. The technology has gotten better since the late ’90s, and I was struck by the skis’ light weight and easy turn-initiation.

Earlier season groomer runs may not make for a comprehensive test, but the responsiveness and stability make me unconcerned about hitting hard bumps, steeps and trees.

My fears of buying skis without trying them out were put to rest. These are a pair of versatile skis that retain the strengths of my old boards while minimizing, if not eliminating, their weaknesses.