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Snow Business

Making small-batch, cult-hit skis in Reno

It’s past midnight at the Moment Skis factory in Reno. In the backroom, between shoulder-high stacks of wood planks, Casey Hakansson is running an 8-foot-long sheet of aluminum through a milling machine, safety goggles on, beer in hand. Silver slivers fly as the blade carves out the mold for a new pair of skis.

Hakansson grew up skiing in Tahoe and was good enough to get bit parts in some ski movies. He dropped out of college in 2003 and was working for his family’s masonry company in Reno when he decided he wanted to build his own skis. He found a local guy making snowboards, begged to use his equipment, and started experimenting. Hakansson is pathologically modest and struggled to find ways to tell people about his designs, so he hacked off the tips and tails and made his skis square, which no one else was doing, and people started asking questions.

Around the same time, Luke Jacobson was trying to figure out how to turn his fresh mechanical-engineering degree into a ski-manufacturing gig. He’d heard there was another guy in Reno making skis and tracked him down. “Basically, I emailed Casey, showed up, and never left,” he says.

Thirteen companies, most of them based in Europe, dominate the ski industry. They manufacture huge volumes of skis in China or Austria. But they can be stodgy and slow. At Moment, the same guys who design the skis also build and test them. That gives them the latitude to get a little weird. They’ve made skis that have what they call Dirty Mustache Rocker (its more buttoned-up name is Triple Camber Technology) — three points of concavity in the ski’s profile, instead of the traditional two, to cut deeper into hard snow — and park skis with unusual recessed edges that don’t catch when you’re sliding rails. “We make a weird ski, and then we’re like, ‘Oh, shit, how are we going to sell it?’ ” Jacobson says. “We do that all the time.” Some of these ideas, like the Mustache Rocker, have since been adopted by bigger companies.

In 2005, their first official year in business, Hakansson and Jacobson made around 250 pairs of skis. Now they’re making close to 10,000. That’s still not a lot. K2, the largest U.S.-based ski company, will produce more than 100,000 pairs this year. But Moment is the biggest American brand making skis in its own American factory (and out of mostly domestic materials).

Hakansson is thoughtful, slow to speak, and slightly disheveled. Jacobson is less worried about offending, and his sense of style (extra-skinny jeans, black on black on black, a very intentional haircut) is evident in Moment’s look. They’re an odd couple. But some days they spend 20 hours together. When they first started brainstorming ski shapes, Hakansson let Jacobson stay at his rental house, a few miles away from the factory. Jacobson still lives there, in the back half of the garage, which has been converted into a bedroom.

At night in the empty factory, while Hakansson is machining out the mold, Jacobson sets the timer on the sublimation machine they use to apply graphics. They invented their own process, which dyes the topsheet instead of printing directly onto it, and built the machine, which looks like a giant tanning bed. A series of tuning machines sit nearby a jury-rigged annealer, which Jacobson built with his dad, and a hand-me-down resaw with a bike tire to steady the lumber. “A lot of this is still garage science,” Jacobson says.

A ski starts out in that backroom in a stack of aspen, southern yellow pine, ash, or paulownia boards that Hakansson and Jacobson source from mills in Colorado, Arkansas, Michigan, and Maryland. They glue together strips of different kinds of wood to make the core, then plane that piece into the shape of a ski. Sheets of fiberglass give the skis stiffness and strength, and strips of rubbery dampening material keep them from cracking when they flex. This is the tricky part of ski engineering: figuring out the mix of materials that makes a ski both lively and stable, easy to turn but not squirrelly. When all the pieces are laid up, they go into a mold like the one Hakansson is cutting, then get heated and pressed. By the front door, skis are curing facedown on a rack, cooling before they’re shipped off.

Around the time Moment got started, there was a boom in small-batch, American-made skis. You could get skis made of blue-stained beetle-kill wood, or ones built by hand while your favorite songs played in the background at the factory (so they might absorb the vibe). But a lot of those small brands failed. Part of that is because the ski industry is dependent on snowfall, and a single weak winter can kill a fledgling company. It almost happened to Moment. In 2012, after back-to-back dry winters, Moment had a warehouse full of unsold inventory. That’s why they’re slammed now. They made fewer skis this year, then sold out, so now they’re making second production runs. “This year, even though it hasn’t been the best winter for snow yet, we’re back on the come-up,” Jacobson says.

It’s snowing for the first time in a while, so in the morning Jacobson and I bust out of the factory and go skiing. We drive 30 minutes south to Tamarack Peak and set out from the road on a backcountry tour. Jacobson was up until four last night, drinking whiskey in a grimy Reno bar, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing him down. As we ski he’s constantly pulling out his phone, checking Moment’s Instagram feed or seeing if orders went out. We crest a ridge and pull on our goggles to head downhill, and he gets an email about next year’s graphics — a Viking riding a horse made of rainbows — then rolls his eyes at one from a kid looking for sponsorship.

Skiers can be cliquey. The backcountry skiers don’t talk to the racers, who don’t associate with the park skiers. The guys at Moment have been able to cross those lines, in part because they can quickly tailor construction to meet a specific need. They make skinny, poppy half-pipe skis and huge powder boards for Alaskan heli guides. Before the Sochi Olympics, Red Bull brought them in to make a custom ski for one of their athletes, mogul skier Heather McPhie.

It’s hard to make a ski no one has thought of before that still performs. Hakansson and Jacobson want the flexibility to make short runs of bizarre models that may not sell well, but they also want to grow. At some point they don’t want to be building skis at midnight. Hakansson’s wife is pregnant, and Jacobson doesn’t want to live in a garage forever.

Back in the factory, Jacobson opens a spreadsheet, and Hakansson, who doesn’t appear to have left the building since last night, fills him in on new orders. A worker asks about base materials, and Hakansson heads into the warehouse. His phone rings while he’s gone. Then rings again. “Weird,” Jacobson says. He picks it up. It’s Hakansson’s wife. “Hey, someone get Casey,” he yells. “Jenn’s having the kid.”