What makes a good ski? Science certainly, plus experience, physics, extensive awareness of snow conditions and slope. Preference plays a role as do the invariable laws of motion. Yet can there be more to a ski than the purely tangible – its combination of spirit, material chemistry and artistry.
The yellow cedar is noted for its slow growth and great longevity. It has a distinctive outline, elegant silver bark and a spicy aroma when cut. Traditionally used for boats, oars and paddles, the wood is similar in strength to a hardwood but far lighter, with exceptional freedom from twist and ease of machining. Add the fact that these trees only grow high on the slopes of the Coast Mountain Range and you have the potential for a unique species of ski. In the crucible of Mt. Currie, local trees plus resident ski maker mix to form a compelling equation. The result: Foon Skis.
In Haida culture, the Raven is the most powerful mythic creature. He is also a prankster and cannot resist interfering with the world and its creatures. One day Raven came upon three young women drying salmon on the beach. He began to question the women. He asked if they weren’t scared to be alone, or afraid that a wolf or a marten would come upon them. Weren’t they afraid of bears? The women answered no to all of his questions.
Raven persisted with his questions until finally, the women confessed their terrible fear of owls. Immediately, Raven left and hid himself in the forest. He imitated the owl, calling out toward the beach. Terrified, the women fled, running uphill until they were out of breath. Halfway up the mountain they stopped to rest and turned into yellow cedars. This is why the trees are only found on high slopes along the west coast, why they are so beautiful and have graceful branches, smooth silvery bark and silky inner fibres, like the women’s long soft hair.
A mythic, powerful tree, the yellow cedar is rooted in its landscape.
Johnny 'Foon' Chilton.
Johnny 'Foon' Chilton is a local legend around Whistler. For years he has lived the epic skier’s lifestyle, putting in huge turns all over the Coast Mountains while making a living here and there. Tucked away in Mt. Currie these days, the lanky skier has shifted his vision somewhat. Instead of shredding remote faces, he is spending more time on a different sort of fall line – handmade skis that link the energy of the mountains with the spirit of skiing.
Years ago, during Christmas at the Chilton household, there was a large wrapped package under the tree. To: Johnny, the card read. Inside was a custom water ski. Custom, as in made to the measure of a kid who loves to ride water, his style, his way. Young Johnny Chilton held in his hands the future of his craftsmanship and the origins of Foon Skis.
At one time having a custom pair of skis was an impossible thought in the alpine ski industry. Skis were manufactured in Europe or the USA, to prescribed specifications and mass produced. They carved. They dug into deep snow and had to be mastered. Meanwhile, pioneers like Johnny were out in the backcountry, surpassing anyone’s vision of what was actually possible and happening out of bounds. "We used to take Marker heel pieces from racing skis and fit them onto Emery touring bindings to get DIN levels of 16 instead of 10. The toe pieces we jammed with pennies until they couldn’t release (for safety). Basically, the binding would have to rip out of the ski." Or worse.
You always had to suffer through some part of the mountain so that another would be good.
Freeride ski equipment has finally caught up to the level of skill that’s out there. In the new school, ski, skier and terrain are one fluid expression, a symbiosis different from traditional carved turns. "Snowboarding and surfing have brought riding into the language of skiing. Some of the action and the thought is the same." Arguably, the experience is closer to water and floating in the back of Johnny’s mind was the custom ski he had as a kid. "A professional surfer would never buy a board that’s off the shelf. There is no relationship there."
Using the one ski philosophy, Foon Skis are crafted by a man who knows his riding tools. "One ski to rule them all" is the inspiration behind Foon Skis, in particular the Tyfoon. At the time Johnny was thinking about making skis, there was no ski on the market that could give him "a good, fun ride all the way down the mountain. There was always a compromise." At some point between alpine and tree line, skis erupted into grief for the skier and it was his philosophy that skiing should always be fun. The answer was the Tyfoon.
Optimized sidecut for easy stable turns, a base profile with a long early rise active rocker that starts low in the shovel and a similar but more subtle tail rocker makes for a ski that is balanced for power, feel and control. Simple and elegant, the Tyfoon has a yellow cedar core and a black graphite base.
Work in progress.
Although yellow cedar was not the first core material he used, as he explored his craft and the responsiveness of a wood that is both lively and damp, Johnny developed a personal relationship with this material. His source is local, harvested and milled by people he knows and trusts. Working exclusively with cedar, he makes a small quiver of arrows that shoot straight from the heart.
"I am fortunate enough to have a very unique position in the industry because I ride with guys like Kye Petersen, Hoji (Eric Hjorleifson) and Matty Richard, some of the biggest innovators in the game today, and we talk about design and needs. We discuss what they are looking for, what works and what doesn't. Then I can interject on what we had 15 years ago, what worked, what didn't. There has been an enormous progression in both riding and technology in the last 15 years, but not everything from this period is awesome, and not everything we learned in the past 50 years is totally irrelevant either. Our conversations go into my design ideas for a ski that can work for everybody."
A look inside Johnny's shop.
Trained as a cabinetmaker, Johnny shaped what he wanted. His designs have evolved and each pair is customized to the individual skier: where they ski, how they ski, what they want from a ski. Factoring in height and weight, the selected ski style receives personal crafting. To say that no two pairs are alike is true, but it’s also an understatement. Each pair is cut from a single piece of wood. When they are ready to leave the shop, the skis are labeled in pairs, in order to keep them together.
Currently, Foon Skis produces 70 pairs in a year. That’s double last year’s production. The concept of custom skis is catching on, and so is the desire for skiers to have a relationship with the tools they use. It may be particularly west coast to suggest there is a bond between fall line and forest, but trees are linked to skiing, since mankind’s first desire to shape wood and travel on snow.
Johnny outside his shop in Mt. Currie, BC.
Capable of standing dead for a hundred years without rotting, increased numbers of yellow cedars with dead tops are appearing in the forests. Ironically, scientists speculate that global warming is the cause; a lack of snow on the ground is causing the trees to freeze.
Our lives are a momentary trajectory, but there are values and a legacy that we can pass on. Buy local, make global choices and ski because it’s fun. That’s sustainable chemistry.