Words: Jakob Schiller
Today, Rocky Mountain Underground is a well-respected independent brand with a full line of skis. But like many small companies, its story is full of early misses.
“It’s definitely been trial by fire,” says Mike Waesche, the founder of RMU.
The name for the brand was chosen because the company literally was born underground. Back in 2007 Waesche and a couple friends started tinkering with designs in a garage dug into a hillside in the Rockies. Like computer geeks who won’t buy pre-built computers, Waesche says the group knew they could build a better product than what they saw in the stores.
With no major investors backing them, Waesche (who at the time was 22) says they started by building the ski manufacturing equipment themselves. After the machinery was in place it took them several more months to build their first prototype. They were stoked when it came off the line but quickly realized it was way too soft.
“Everything came out wrong but we learned from it,” Waesche says. “Our wins were in our losses.”
It took them a while, but in 2009 they finally settled on a design for their first production model, a big mountain ski they called the Professor, after a well-known line on Loveland Pass.
Problem was, they had a design but still needed the cash to produce it. So like true small-business entrepreneurs, they pooled their own money. Waesche had been working as a firefighter (and still does) but he also picked up a restaurant job and everyone in the group started painting houses.
Collectively they saved $45,000, which allowed them to produce a small run of the Professor as well as another model called the Diam. Forty-five grand was more than they needed to produce basic skis, but Waesche says they had come too far to skimp and insisted on things like American sourced wood, a 3/8-inch sidewall and a 2.2 millimeter base.
“If you’re going to build a ski yourself you’re not going to build a crappy one,” he says.
They moved into the Never Summer factory in Denver for the 2009/2010 season and now have a full quiver of skis.
The company’s next big project is something they’re calling the Sustain-a-ski, a prototype that combines old recycled ski materials (ground up skis, boots, etc.) with wood to form the core of the ski. RMU gets the recycled ski material from the Snow Sports Recycling Program (SSRP), which is run by SnowSports Industries America (SIA) with help from Waste-Not Recycling based out of Johnstown, Colorado.
Greg Schneider, the SSRP project manager, says he sent the recycled material to several ski companies so they could play with it and RMU was the first to jump.
“They were the definitely the ones who grabbed the bull by the horns,” he says.
Waesche says he’s glad RMU is out front when it comes to recycled material and predicts recycled material construction, or some other type of green manufacturing, will be the wave of the future for the ski industry.
“It’s definitely cool to say that we’re the ones who figured it out,” he says.