Underground no more
VAIL, Colorado – A local startup ski company is the hottest thing in the cold.A handful of guys started building Rocky Mountain Underground skis two winters ago in an unheated garage, just as the wheels were coming off the world economy.Their timing couldn’t have been better, because their product couldn’t have been better.The world is beginning to notice.In Europe there’s this international sporting goods show, ISPO, the largest of its kind on earth. Hundreds of companies introduced thousands of new products last year, and they all got judged. You’ll find the best five in the center of that huge room, and Rocky Mountain Underground will be right there, center stage.”Of hundreds of new products, we were a top five finalist,” said Timothy Haley, who, along with Mike Waesche, launched Rocky Mountain Underground.”It’s like a tiny South American company being featured at the Detroit Auto Show,” Haley said.Closer to home, they’ll be at the SIA snow sports show in Denver later this month.
It’s a classic American startup story, very romantic, and it goes like this.Like most enterprises, Rocky Mountain Underground started because someone got mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more.That would be Waesche.Mike was competing, or training, or doing something on skis to indicate he might not have the most well honed sense of self-preservation. But instead of breaking his head he broke some skis. He called his ski sponsor to get more and the conversation went something like this:Mike: “Your skis broke and I need more to compete.”Sponsor: “There will be no more forthcoming, and please be more careful.”Mike: “I would not be experiencing this dilemma if you built skis that didn’t break more easily than a tobacco industry lobbyist’s moral code.”Sponsor: “Well, you are more than welcome to build your own skis, if you think you could do better.”Or words to that effect.Mike slammed down the phone as pithy remarks poured forth. He exclaimed that he most certainly could do better, and he knew some guys who could, too.One of them was Haley.”We had a buddy who could weld and two days later he came over and built a ski press,” Haley said.And just like that, they were in business, in that unheated garage in the dead of winter.But their burning ambition and heat from the skis they were pressing kept them warm.In January 2008 they started planning. By March they built their first skis. By May they had their first production line ski.It didn’t take long for word to get out.”Summit and Eagle counties are small places and people literally started knocking on the garage door,” Haley said.They haven’t had to take on debt. Everyone has one or two other jobs and every dime RMU generates goes back into the company.Investors are beginning to approach them. Some they’re listening to, some they’re not. When you don’t owe anything, you own everything and you’re in control.
They made skis they wanted to use and they use them for everything you can imagine, and for some things only they can.They also made mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes, many of which are stored in that unheated garage.They built that first set of skis, pulled them out of the press and experienced something less than love at first sight.It’s a little like Thomas Edison’s light bulb, they decided. Edison claimed to have failed 10,000 times before he successfully made a light bulb.”Sometimes it felt like we had made 10,000 skis and none of them were right,” said Waesche. “I look at some of those first few, then I look at what we’re making now and it was worth everything we went through.”Bennet Albertson, Luke “Ocho” Allen with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, and Bill Kirkhoff are all involved to varying degrees. Eventually they settled on a terrain park line, a backcountry line and an overall mountain ski, although the other two are wondrous over all the mountain. There’s the Professor ($780 suggested retail price), the Apostle ($800) and the Diam ($550). The Apostle has the largest area of contact edge on the market. Basically, it’s a carving ski that floats powder like you’re on a cloud.By August 2008 they couldn’t keep up with demand. They went to see the folks at Never Summer in Denver.The expert skier will love them because they can stand up to anything you can dish out. Intermediates will be ecstatic with the control and performance.It’s not like listening to a mediocre song on an eight-track tape that refuses to die. This really is the cutting edge in ski technology.And speaking of edges, they’ve engineered their all their skis to have more edge in contact with the snow during a turn than any other ski. It really does turns itself.They’ll do any death-defying stunt you can imagine, but they also have exceptionally good manners on the freeway.
They build a good product, and success is finding them them. Gorsuch picked them up and they’re in all the Gorsuch stores and catalog.”You’ve arrived when you’re in the Gorsuch catalog,” Haley said, smiling.In two years they’ve expanded to more than a dozen retailers that includes some of the industry’s most prestigious names: Gorsuch, Base Mountain Sports, Mountain Wave, CJ’s in Eagle, Sawatch Backcountry in Leadville.It’s not like being a rock star. Rock stars don’t work in retail shops or fight fires like the RMU guys do. These guys can walk through Vail and not be noticed, but that’s changing slowly.They were driving to ski areas and ski shows, and people drove by the RMU truck, flashed their lights and waved. They were in Montana, Washington and Utah, and people rushed up and asked them, “How do you know about Rocky Mountain Underground?””I’m one of the owners,” Haley replied.High fives all around and an enthusiastic “OMG” from the questioners.Contact Vail Daily staff writer Randy Wyrick at 970-748-2935, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building skis is like building a sandwich. It’s not complicated, but you have to put it together right and use the right stuff.”We use the highest quality material on earth,” Haley said. “People sometimes tell us, ‘You can’t make skis, it’s like making a car.’ OK, we can’t make skis, but we do.”The sidewalls are made of the same stuff that holds the Sears Tower together. Comparing it to sidewalls on other skis is like comparing a 5 mph bumper to a 100 mph bumper, Haley said.Their base is one of the thickest in the industry.”People don’t do that because you can’t make any money on them. We didn’t set out to make money. We wanted to build great skis that wouldn’t break,” Haley said.When you cut a Rocky Mountain Underground ski in half, it looks like there’s a tree truck inside it.Professional athletes ski 200 days per year and don’t break them.”We’ve never had an edge blow out. They never break. We’ve never had a warranty issue,” Haley said.
They’re bigger, fatter, stronger, more stable. No matter what you do to them, they stick around.”I pound through skis. These last,” said Tanner Coulter, a local freestyle skier who’s having a great season with Rocky Mountain Underground skis and gear.Coulter is in it to win it. He’s been atop the podium twice in the last two weeks. RMU skiers have rung up five first places in the last two weeks.”I’ve blown edges in 20 days with other skis. These I’ve put more than 100 days on, and no cracks,” Coulter said.If they last through Tanner Coulter, local freeskier Cole Pates and Dylan Ferguson, an aerialist with the U.S. Ski Team, how long will they last you?”You’ll get tired of skiing before you wear them out,” Haley said.