Mittersill, Austria, is a small, blue-collar farm town without much more than a good bakery, a steak house, and a ski factory. The ski factory is how this Bavarian town in the Alps shares a 70-year heritage of craftsmanship with the rest of the world.
In 1947, a man named Toni Arnsteiner came home to Mittersill, Austria, after World War II, and made a pair of skis in his carpentry workshop. Now, the Tecnica Blizzard factory is a nondescript, two-story, white building beyond the center of town that can produce 900 pairs of skis a day. Those skis bear the logos of Blizzard and Nordica, their sister company, and also for a handful of companies that sought Mittersill out for its heritage, precision, and efficiency of ski making.
Earlier this month, five made-that-week pairs of Black Diamond Helio skis were lined against the wall in a conference room inside the ski factory. Made with a balsa flax wood core, a new pre-peg carbon fiber layup, ABS sidewalls, and early rise in the tip and tail, these skis are an example of collaboration between an Austrian factory and an American company that prides itself on engineering and design.
Black Diamond makes a quarter of their products, mostly climbing equipment, in their Salt Lake City headquarters, and they used to make skis on their own, too. In 2012, they sent a former engineering intern named Dwyer Haney to Zhuhai, China, to open a 43,000-square-foot ski factory. On his blog, Haney says the factory reached peak production in 18 months with a budget of $4.5 million. Then Black Diamond president and CEO Peter Metcalf said, “We believe ski manufacturing will allow us to be more responsive to our customers while maintaining a competitive pricing position and, equally important, sustain, if not improve, the highest level of quality and performance which is synonymous with the Black Diamond brand.”
But a year later, in 2013, Black Diamond began talking to Mittersill about moving ski production to Austria. The company, which is now publicly traded, kept production in China for their touring skis until 2016. Now, all of their ski manufacturing is in Austria. Pete Gompert, the engineer who designs Black Diamond skis, says the move to Austria was motivated by cost savings, efficiency, and the quality of manufacturing. I interpreted their move more plainly: The Austrians in Mittersill know how to turn Gompert's elaborate designs and CAD files into very good skis.
In the conference room in Mittersill, Gompert, 38, and Manfred Reitsamer, a 51-year-old IFMGA ski guide who oversees production of Black Diamond's skis in the factory, were discussing the guts, specs, and construction of the skis lined against the wall. These were samples of the first run of Helios, Black Diamond's backcountry ski, that were manufactured in Austria. Gompert picked one up and pointed out the carbon weave, which I could see through the translucent top sheet. It was imperfect; swirls and waves marked points of disturbance in the braid.
"That's what real structural carbon looks like," says Gompert. "You'll see some waves because that's how the process is. And we decided that's OK, we're going to show that off and say, 'Hey, we're being honest with you.’ That's what's really in the ski."
"It looks handmade," Reitsamer added. "Performance-wise absolutely no problem if the carbon makes some waves. But the look is really, it's a handmade look."
The display of carbon’s nervous, unpredictable properties were the exception in the otherwise meticulous operations of the ski factory. Reitsamer led us out of the conference room. We passed a board with papers pinned to display reports, charts, and graphs monitoring the factory's operations, and then we walked through an unmarked white door to the factory floor.
I could hardly hear what Retisamer said next over the screeching sounds of tools sawing wood and grinding metal that took over the airspace in the factory. A conveyor belt was guiding seven wood cores into a large machine that would shave them down to the beginnings of a rocker profile. Ribbons of steel, one side smooth and the other side with teeth that looked like paper ripped out of a notebook, were stacked in a rack; they would eventually become edges on a ski. Shelves held an array of brightly colored plastic sidewalls. And pallets were stacked to the ceiling, full of wood cores, which had been sourced and pre-assembled with blends of woods of varying density and weight.
I picked up the balsa flax wood core that is used in the Helios. It felt like air, but it was thicker and wider than the other samples of wood cores in the factory. Reitsamer pointed to the wood grains and explained the different ways the trees were cut—against the grain, vertically—and how assembling the pieces just so reinforces the ski's stiffness. Then, the core works with a layer of rubber and full ABS sidewalls to dampen the carbon's energy in the ski.
"If you can take a little bit of the vibration out of that shear layer it does wonders for how nervous the ski feels," says Gompert. "That's one of the reasons we kept the sidewall on these. We didn't want to build a nervous little touring ski that nobody wants to be on."
The sidewalls on the Helios are two-toned to match the top sheet. Figuring out how to adhere two different colored pieces of sidewall to match the graphics on the top sheet presented many nights of lost sleep for Reitsamer. Black Diamond's graphics are understated, but the top sheets go through six or seven layers of printing to add depth. We were standing in the printing room, a department that sees more women workers than the rest of the factory. This room was quieter and smelled like ink and alcohol. A woman in a teal T-shirt and jeans was systematically moving top sheets from a screen printer to a conveyor belt. On the other side of the machine, two more women were holding each top sheet up to a light to check the quality.
The factory is the one of the largest employers in Mittersill, staffing up to 200 people. There are two shifts: 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. About 10 to 15 percent of the workers on the factory floor ski, says Reitsamer, who has lived in this valley all his life and is an IFMGA certified mountain guide. The ratio of skiers is much stronger among the engineers, product managers, and graphic designers who work next to Reitsamer in cubicles in the office—there, ski posters hang on walls next to calendars with nude photos of women, and computer monitors display the web cams at the ski resort. After work, Reitsamer and his colleagues often skin up the ski resort for a quick "fitness ski," and on the weekends, they will take the lifts to the top of the mountain, leave the ski resort boundary, and tour down the ridgeline as far as they'd like before diving in to ski fresh tracks in the high alpine.
"We love skiing," said Reitsamer. "Not just all the technical parameters. We give the products—feeling." He used his hands to emphasize the last word.
"We couldn't get that in Asia," said Gompert, "where most of the guys had never seen snow."
Up until this point, the factory had been manufacturing the parts of a ski. Reitsamer led us past a machine that was bending a ribbon of steel to form the tip of a ski's edge and onto the pressing room where the sound of hammers shutting ski molds echoed. Each ski made in the factory gets its own mold, including one for every ski length. A mold costs between €8,500 and €12,000 and is made from aluminum in another local factory two streets away.
The man who was assembling Black Diamond's Helios into the mold had a pot belly and a head of thick, curly, dark hair. His hands worked fast and in a matter of minutes he had built one ski. The base went in to the mold, and so did the core, which already had the sidewalls assembled. A layer of carbon that looked like mesh was added. He expertly positioned the steel edges, which the machine had already bent at the tip. When all the pieces were in place, he hammered the top of the mold down and pushed it into the press.
On the other side, he pried the top off another mold and revealed a newborn ski. Epoxy oozed from all sides. Three words were stamped on the tail of the ski: Handmade in Austria.
A few days later, I clicked into the Helio 105s for the first time. Reitsamer was our guide for the day, and led our crew into a gondola that took us above the treeline and the inversion to the high alpine, where the sun was shining. We slapped skins on our skis and followed a ridgeline that wrapped around to the opposite side of the valley. The summit was marked by a cross emblazoned with the edelweiss flower. Per Austrian tradition, we shook hands at the top and kissed cheeks before diving into sun-soaked turns. The Helios were light, but stiff enough to cruise huge arcs into the snow. The taper in the tail with a slight early rise kept me honest on my turns. I went into my first turn fast and a spray of cold snow flew up over my head. I skied through the spray and didn't stop until I was low in the valley, in the trees. I looked down at my feet and then down the valley, to the factory where these skis were made.