In a nondescript warehouse in Gorham, New Hampshire, Kevin St. Gelais presses skis. His small company, Saint Skis, started out as a basement-bound passion project and has grown, slowly but surely, into something pretty awesome. He’s a patroller at Wildcat, a ski hill near Mount Washington in the town of Jackson, New Hampshire, where patrollers de-ice lifts with super-soakers and seasoned lifties, many of whom don’t really ski, bump chairs in jeans. The community there is centered around skiing but there’s a different attitude than there might be in, say, Bozeman. Inter-generational, ever-positive, and patient with remarkably variable conditions, the ski community at Wildcat and in the White Mountains is small but mighty--and they like to do things themselves.
That’s where Saint Skis started, actually. St. Gelais had watched New Hampshire’s economy change throughout a lifetime in the state, with small, quiet towns growing smaller and quieter, and felt that Made-in-America manufacturing might be able to help. He figured building a ski couldn’t be all that complicated (and wanted the freedom of a custom-built ski without the price tag) so he started researching ski-building, built his own ski press, and started his grassroots company in 2010.
The promise of a better possible future, a more desirable option--whether that’s for your local economy or the skis under your feet--fuels innovation. The people who believe they are capable of solving the problem, despite whatever odds they might be up against, create that innovation. It seems obvious when you think about engineering, or city planning, or new technology. I never thought about how that mentality related to skiing until I visited St. Gelais’ warehouse last winter. I didn’t learn to apply it until I skied true East Coast conditions.
I drove into central Vermont, to a tiny town called Pomfret, in January to ski Sugarbush and whatever the mountains surrounding the farmhouse I’d be staying in had to offer. Sugarbush had seen consistent snowfall through December, but a swell of warm air and a multi-day rainstorm earlier that week had laid most of the mountain bare. Then, the temperatures dropped and froze solid anything remaining on the mountain. The local snowpack in Pomfret was unlike anything I’d ever seen before: a sturdy, two-inch thick rain crust atop four inches of faceted, sugary snow that wasn’t even sticking to the ground, much less itself.
Needless to say, I needed to get creative.
My friends Jack and Connor and I found a few shovels in the barn, dragged a bucket of creek-water up the hill behind the farmhouse, and started stomping an in-run into the ice crust, which shattered like glass when weighted. The sun broke and we peeled off layers as we shoveled sugar snow into two amorphous piles, dumping water in a slow effort to build a kicker off a small knoll and a ramp over a broken-down pasture fence. Connor and Jack are born-and-raised New Englanders, and messing around in the backyard when resorts are just a little too icy (and crowded, thanks to President’s Day Weekend) has long been a part of their lives as skiers. Growing up in Washington, I did my fair share of suffering through weird conditions. But building something, ground-up, even if it’s just a little kicker, was new for me. And it offers a different kind of reward.
St. Gelais’ skis were far from perfect at the outset, and the slow process of honing his craft has involved a lot of trial and error. He’s not alone--even big-time manufacturers like K2 toss out dozens of prototypes as they work their way toward what finally hits the market. So, with few resources and the Wildcat patrol testing his handiwork, St. Gelais started his journey toward today’s Saint Skis. They’re big, heavy, directional skis, appropriate for the variable conditions his customers and “team” (which, at this point, consists of himself and another patroller, Liz Freierman) often encounter. They’re also totally customizable, including top sheets. Along the wall of the warehouse sit skis (and snowboards, which Gelais started building shortly the skis) covered in local artwork, personal photographs, and--my favorite--a photoshopped portrait of Biggie Smalls.
The company has, in many ways, taken over St. Gelais’ life. It’s a huge investment financially and time-wise--at one point he even lived in the warehouse for a few months--and the problem with passion, as any injured skier knows well, is the specter of failing at something you’ve poured not just hard work into but heart as well. Gambling on skiing--as a lifestyle, a source of income, or even just the activity you’ve planned for your weekend off--has never been a sure bet. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good one to make.
St. Gelais’ first customers were family and friends, but the demand for boutique, custom skis continues to grow. With it, so does Saint. The staff has grown to include St. Gelais’ son, and ski orders come in consistently and ever-more frequently. With just two guys pressing skis there’s a long turnaround time and a limit to how many skis they can churn out in a year, so slow-and-steady growth works just fine. It gives them a chance to build a relationship with their customers, learn what’s been working, and what might need a little tweaking.
Hitting it just right is hard anywhere, but in New England, when powder days can be few and far between, patience is key. You gotta give it time and build your fun from the ground-up when necessary. We hit a midweek powder day at Sugarbush four days into our trip. Lapping a near-empty resort, we snaked through trees on Mount Ellen, ripped soft bumps under the chair, and surfed our way down wide-open steeps. Low snow isn’t a major problem in the grand scheme of things, and building kickers in the backyard isn’t innovation, per say. But Saint Skis presents a good model for skiers, anywhere. Take your time. Take nothing for granted. Make what you want to happen, happen.