How Canadians at Whistler invented the future of skiing
In 1997, they pursued a new idea: twin-tip skis, which curl up at the front and back, just like snowboards
Part of a series about people, products and discoveries that changed the world.
The idea to ski backward led to the future of skiing.
By 1997, skiing had faded in popularity, usurped by an unruly and rapidly growing upstart: snowboarding. So a small group of skiers in Whistler – Quebeckers JP Auclair, JF Cusson and Vincent Dorion – began to emulate the snowboarders. They devised cool new tricks on jumps and skied in the halfpipe – and reinvented skiing.
But skis, unlike snowboards, were not made to land or take off backward.
Mike Douglas, the group's coach, and Stephen Fearing, an American coach who was in Whistler at the time, pursued a new idea: twin-tip skis, which curl up at the front and back, just like snowboards. They wrote a 20-page presentation, and Douglas made an eight-minute film featuring the aerial exploits of Auclair and company – a hint of where skiing could go with the new equipment.
"Skiing was dying," said Douglas, 47, who grew up on Vancouver Island and is a pro for Salomon, a leading French ski maker, and a filmmaker. "All the talk and hype was on snowboarding. We didn't want to be snowboarders and we didn't see why you couldn't do those tricks on skis."
But when they tried to sell big ski companies on the idea, there was a chorus of nos – at least initially.
Salomon's Japanese arm finally decided to put up several hundred thousand dollars to make the skis. The result arrived in 1998, dubbed the Salomon Teneighty. The distinctive orange skis, with a new swirling black logo, became a sensation. They opened up what skiers could do on the mountain and made skiing cool again. In doing so, they changed the course of an industry with an innovation considered among the most important in the sport's century-plus history.
The skis are the basis for the kaleidoscopic spinning and flipping tricks performed at the annual Winter X Games, which took place this past weekend in Aspen, Colo. They also helped create two new Winter Olympic events – ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle – which made their debut in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
"It was the most versatile ski ever," said Nick Sargent, president of SnowSports Industries America. "It spawned a movement. It was cool. It was free-flowing. And it created a huge spike in ski sales, in interest in skiing."
Today, twin-tip skis are a bright spot for an industry dealing with decline as baby boomers age. They account for two of every five pairs of skis sold in the United States each year – about 270,000 pairs, worth $101-million (U.S.), on total ski sales of about 680,000, worth $261-million in 2014-15.
In 2015-16, there were 52.8 million visits to U.S. ski areas, down from a peak of 60.5 million in 2010-11. The decline in Canada is proportionally steeper: 15.8 million visits last winter, down from the 20.7 million of 2007-08.
Snowboarding has lost its edge. There are about 7.6 million people who went snowboarding at least once last winter in the United States, down from a peak of 8.2 million in 2010-11. And the number of skiers who call themselves alpine skiers, the traditional segment, is down to 9.3 million from a high of 11.5 million.
But free skiers, those who ride twin-tips, now number 4.6 million, up from 3.6 million in 2010-11.
Cassie Sharpe is one. Today she is a national Freestyle Canada halfpipe skier. She started skiing at 10 in the early 2000s when her family moved to Vancouver Island. She soon got her first pair of twin-tips from the company Roxy. They were pink – with flowers.
"I loved them," Sharpe said. "They were awesome."
Both her brothers were snowboarders, and the three ripped around on Mount Washington, where their dad worked. She stuck with skiing. Last year, she won her first X Games medal, a gold in ski superpipe in Oslo, Norway.
(Her brother Darcy is a national team snowboarder.)
Of course it all started at Whistler. The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb Mountain was a nexus. It was also open for skiing in the summer, with an array of jumps attracting pros and film crews. The pioneering skiers – Auclair, Cusson and others – were dubbed the New Canadian Air Force.
They "changed everything about the way people skied or even thought about skiing," wrote Leslie Anthony in his 2010 book White Planet, a chronicle of skiing. "It was skiing's greatest-ever revolution."
It was Canadian-led, but multinational. At Salomon in Japan, marketing manager Toshi Shimizu latched onto the idea – and because he spoke French, he was better able to convince headquarters in Épagny-Metz-Tessy, France, that it was a worthwhile bet.
At the time, Salomon had fallen behind competitors in so-called carving skis. Douglas and friends purposely named their idea "air carving" to get attention – even though it was unrelated.
Fearing, the ski coach who brought the idea to Shimizu, remembered the early prototypes that weren't quite right and also the distinctive swirling black logo. It was only meant to be temporary, but it became a visual demarcation.
"I knew it would be cooler," Fearing said.
"It was a beautiful ski," said Lionel Favret, an athlete manager for Salomon in the late 1990s and today an R&D project leader.
Favret said the Canadian skiers were essential – they drove change in the industry. He recalled the Winter X Games in 1999 in Crested Butte, Colo., where skiing big air debuted. Cusson woke up late after staying out the previous night. Then, skiing on Salomon Teneightys, he won the event with a 720 – two full rotations of 360 degrees, taking off and landing backward.
"It was," Favret said, "a totally new, fresh air."