Three days into 2023, three of the most decorated American ski athletes — Bode Miller, Chris Davenport and Michelle Parker — gather under the sunrise glow at Holloway’s Pretty Good Horse Barn, a ranch in Bozeman, Mont.
It’s an odd location for the group — flat prairie land, the Bridger Mountains far off in the distance. But there’s an important connection: Not only does Miller call Bozeman home, he also has a history of training horses. And his business partner, Andy Wirth, happens to have a horse named Cinco at the ranch.
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As the athletes suit up in their ski gear — both for a photo shoot and to keep them warm in the brisk 10-degree weather — Miller talks about his kids and the challenges of getting back to a school routine after the holidays.
What has brought everyone together is Peak Skis, the direct-to-consumer brand launched in April 2022 by Miller and Wirth, a former ski resort executive. (Aside from having Peak Skis in common, both Miller and Davenport are backed by Italian outdoor footwear company Scarpa.)
Peak Skis is just one of many endeavors Miller has embarked on since retiring from competition in 2017, after racking up six Olympic medals.
Over three days, FN joined the trio for a cover shoot as the startup captured content, including an impromptu visit to Big Sky when permits for the backcountry proved elusive. While there, the athletes rode the chairlifts, skied and grabbed coffee in the lodge with the unsuspecting general public, and they hiked over some of the resort’s more than 5,000 acres of ski terrain, trying out next season’s gear.
Miller and the Peak Skis team are building their business at a very advantageous time, with the ski industry experiencing a boom.
According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), resorts nationally saw record numbers during the 2021-22 season, with 60.7 million visitors. For the 2020-21 season, there were 59 million visitors, up from the 51.1 million for the prior season.
Davenport and Miller attributed the growth to several factors. Davenport cited the quality and amount of snow in certain ski areas, and Miller noted a significant migration of people from metropolitan areas to rural areas, specifically ones that surround ski areas.
However, the two decorated athletes agreed that COVID was the primary driver.
“A lot of the growth was from pent-up demand coming out of the pandemic. People hadn’t spent money on vacations, or they hadn’t been able to travel, so they went skiing,” said Davenport, who is one of the world’s top extreme skiers.
Miller believes much of the growth in participation is from existing skiers who were able to spend more time on the slopes during COVID — rather than the sport attracting new fans.
And he may be on to something. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, there were 13.6 million ski participants during the 2020-21 season, a 5% decline from the 14.3 million participants the year prior and an 8.4% drop from 14.9 million in 2018-19.
For this season and looking ahead, Miller expects participation to remain flat. “It might go a little higher, but that’s primarily due to mother nature cooperating,” Miller said. “This has been an incredible snow year so far, at least on the Western half of the U.S. Good early season coverage and cold temps. That pulls people out. East Coast, maybe not so much, but they had good early season snow, and warm temps don’t tend to strip the mountains. They tend to lock that snow in.”
CONQUERING SKI’S GREATEST THREATS
While winter ’23 has seen incredible snow, the ski industry is facing a potentially catastrophic obstacle in climate change, labeled the No. 1 threat by the NSAA.
Both Davenport and Parker are involved with Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that focuses on advancing nonpartisan policies concerning climate change. “No matter what side of the aisle you’re on politically, you want a healthy environment, you want a healthy planet, you want access to clean water. That shouldn’t be an issue that divides us,” Davenport said.
Despite the work he’s done personally with the organization, which includes speaking with elected officials in Washington, D.C., there have been hinderances along the way — specifically, administrations with an opposing ideology.
Davenport said Protect Our Winters was very involved with both the Obama and Biden administrations but was ignored by the Trump administration. “We got zero support,” he said. “In fact, we weren’t even allowed on to Capitol Hill. They didn’t want to hear anything from scientists, activists or anybody who wanted to talk about climate change and solutions that would not only benefit communities but were also economic solutions. The way we see it, good environmental policy will equal good economic policy.”
Davenport’s solution to this is simple: vote. “We have to stand up as voters, use our voice and not elect people who are unwilling to push legislation forward that will protect us for the future,” he said. “Every year that there’s an election, I get out there and stump for candidates who understand science, believe that climate change is real and want to act on it and do something about it. We need more people to be active. When you only have 40% or 50% of the population getting out there and voting, that’s a huge, missed opportunity.”
Miller, though, isn’t confident policy is enough to create meaningful change. “The reality, in my opinion, is that the ship [on climate change] has sailed,” he said. “Our system is designed for stagnation, for the status quo. Presidents can serve a maximum of eight years. It’s hard to turn a giant ship in that amount of time.”
He continued, “I hate to be a fatalist, but [climate change] is well underway. We needed strong leadership and good decisions a couple decades ago to keep the existing ski resort infrastructure viable for the next 50 years. That part is already gone.”
Nevertheless, Miller doesn’t believe climate will kill the sport. Instead, he believes it will shift the season. “It’s already a lot later. It used to be you’d ski in November everywhere, sometimes in October. Also, you couldn’t ski in April very often. Right now, it’s regular. You get snowstorms in April all the time in most ski towns,” Miller said.
A more positive shift in the sport involves the skiers themselves. While skiing and snowboarding have notoriously been lacking in diversity (according to the NSAA, 88% of U.S. downhill snow-sports participants — which includes skiers and snowboarders — for the 2021-22 season were white) several efforts are making a dent in the industry’s image, including Virgil Abloh’s posthumous partnership with Burton.
“The future of the industry depends on more equitable access,” Davenport said.
Specific to racial inequity, he applauded the efforts of The National Brotherhood of Skiers, a nearly 50-year-old nonprofit based in Illinois that has a mission to increase participation in winter sports. “Organizations like that, where people feel comfortable and not out of place, are important,” Davenport said.
But the diversity issues go beyond race. The industry has long been male dominated and has hindered the growth of women in the sport — something Parker experienced first-hand.
“When I started out as a professional skier, I didn’t know what was possible because there wasn’t female representation in the mainstream media or media within the ski industry,” said Parker, an expert in freeskiing. “Looking back on my career, it made me not progress as quickly or feel empowered. I’ve managed myself, my entire career and I’ve had a lot of amazing mentors, but they were never female.”
One of the more impactful efforts Parker has engaged in to shrink the gender gap is helping to found S.A.F.E. A.S. (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety), an in-person, women’s-tailored avalanche awareness and safety clinic.
“When you show up to an avalanche level one course, there’s one or two women in a group of men. That can be an intimidating environment to learn in,” Parker said. “The program is about empowering women and giving them a safe space to learn.”
Although the organization started as women-only, Parker said it has expanded to all genders but continues to host a women’s-specific day. To date, Parker said S.A.F.E. A.S. has taught more than 2,000 participants, and proceeds from the class have raised $70,000 for nonprofits associated with avalanche forecasting.
Another nonprofit Davenport commended was Aspen Gay Ski Week. The anti-bullying and tolerance-focused organization hosts an annual, week-long LGBTQ+ ski event in Aspen, Colo., and is now in its 46th year.
Peak also works locally with Big Sky Bravery, a nonprofit program in Bozeman for active-duty special forces military.
But when it comes to barriers to entry for the ski industry, the most prominent issue is cost of participation.
“Sadly, over time, winter sports have become sports for affluent people,” said Davenport. “A lot of ski resorts don’t show any initiative to bring in lower-income people. They just exist to serve their customers and that customer group. If the ski and snowboard industry wants to become more equitable — and also more sustainable from a business side — it needs new and creative ways to figure this out.”
Current solutions, while a start, are imperfect. For instance, both Davenport and Miller said the Ikon Pass and Epic Pass have helped with cost-effective seasonal access. (The former is from Alterra, which runs Deer Valley, Steamboat and Palisades Tahoe; the latter is from Vail Resorts, which has been steadily buying up properties over the past 10 years.) The passes have also created challenges, such as overcrowding. And while rental programs have gotten better, the overall pricing of equipment must drop for companies in the space to still be economically viable.
Some creative solutions have emerged as of late — and Davenport even offered one of his own.
“Imagine if you showed your taxes to a ski resort, proved you’re of a lower income and the rate for your season pass was much lower,” he said. “If one person makes $250,000 a year and another makes $25,000, why should they be paying the same amount for the service?”
For Miller, the answers can be found in the Snöbahn indoor ski center in Colorado and Alpine-X, a company he invested in that’s looking to develop indoor snowsports resorts in unexpected locations like Austin, Texas. They are cost-effective and ideal for beginners.
“Those two together will be the biggest impactors of the ski industry in the last 50 years,” Miller said. “It is a great sport, but I know how brutal it is in the beginning. All you do is fall down, you’re uncomfortable, you’re cold, it’s frustrating, it costs a bunch. Who wants to pay to be uncomfortable? These have the ability to introduce half a million to 1 million new skiers to the sport every year and get them interested.”
THE PRODUCT CHALLENGE
Inside the Peak Skis office in Bozeman, which sits above its manufacturing and shipping operation, there’s a sign that reads, “We are not here to do what has already been done.”
Innovating in skis isn’t foreign to Miller. After all, the athlete made history in ski development once before, having been credited with inventing the K2 Four-shaped skis, then winning four medals — including three golds — at the 1996 Junior National Championships at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine while wearing them.
When Peak Skis debuted last year, part of what made this new venture intriguing, Miller said, was the opportunity to make better skis after years of stagnation.
“The retailers who sell skis aren’t loyal to anybody because they have 10 brands on the wall. The same shop sells direct competitors. And the guy in the store is like, ‘If you’d like red, do this one. If you like yellow, do that one. If you like white, do this one,’” Miller said. “There’s no investment in the customer to educate them of what would work best for them, in making it a two-way relationship.”
As the brand’s chief innovation officer, Miller is betting on an engineering fluke from his World Cup competition days to make Peak Skis stand out in the market. Each pair features a keyhole cutaway, a design element that Miller believes gave him an advantage during races by offering more powerful edging and a forgiving turn entry.
What’s more, Miller explained, Peak has introduced a direct-to-consumer model previously foreign to ski brands.
“This allows us to have direct communication with the customer where we can educate them, we can get feedback from them. We’re small enough that we can move and change and adapt quickly. That’s been missing from the industry since I started,” he said.
To help ensure Peak’s success, the brand has tapped experienced pros for leadership roles. Davenport joined the company in August 2022 as senior director of skiing and product innovation, and Parker was named senior director of product development and innovation in November 2022.
Aside from their roles, Wirth confirmed that both Davenport and Parker have a stake in the company.
“Chris and Michelle are legends in the sport, they’re icons, they’re both incredibly successful — and in different areas, too. That’s important. We need different perspectives,” Miller explained. “We need different skier types and backgrounds to plan and move forward.”
Davenport said what made joining the Peak team attractive was owning the customer relationship.
“I know your name, I know where you live, I know where you ski and you become part of our Peak family,” he said. “When a box arrives, there’s a note from either Andy or Bode, or I’ll pick up the phone to call our customers and say, ‘How are your skis working out?’ That’s big. We want to transform the industry by owning the customer relationship.”
He continued, “From a business standpoint, it’s excellent revenue-wise because our margins are quite a bit bigger than a company that has to sell to a salesforce, which then sells to a retail shop, which then sells to the customer.”
For Parker, aside from the innovation process and being able to create a more recyclable ski, she appreciates that her voice is being heard by a company more than ever before.
“Peak differentiates itself from my other sponsors I’ve worked with in the past by involving me a lot more in the process. There are not enough women building skis,” Parker said. “In my 20-year career, I’ve never had the opportunity to work on ski technology and give my feedback. Now I can create a women’s ski, or a ski for anyone, that is incredibly enjoyable, powerful and sturdy.”
Davenport also teased future opportunities for Peak. “We have another business model operating in the background, it’s three to five years down the road, and that’s a set of manufacturing processes,” he said. “Instead of making skis the way they’ve been made for 60 or 70 years with a press and glue — which takes a long time, is costly and not very environmentally friendly — we can do it in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost and still deliver the same quality, if not better. We’ll license out that technology to other brands and revolutionize the way everyone makes skis.”
Miller also intends to bring his eye for innovation to the ski boot market with Scarpa. The decorated ski racer inked a deal with the brand in January 2022. Davenport, meanwhile, has been a Scarpa ambassador since 2012.
Part of what has kept Davenport aligned with the brand for more than a decade are its sustainability initiatives.
“When you make a ski boot, you have these little plastic pellets and you pour those pellets into a big hopper and it gets heated up and that plastic gets injected into a mold. You pull the plastic ski boot components out of the mold, you trim them and put them together. When you trim them, there’s a bunch of plastic waste,” Davenport explained. “Scarpa over the last 30 years kept all of that waste in barrels. We are going to introduce new Scarpa Maestrale boots made from recycled plastic. We also introduced last year our 4-Quattro boot, which is plant-based.”
He continued, “Innovations like that are not only good for the company, for their sustainability initiatives, for their ethos, but it’s also good for their bottom line. If I’m a customer and want to vote with my dollars, I’m going to buy the ski boot that has no petroleum products from the company that obviously cares, that’s making recycled boots.”
As for Miller, he said he was not searching for a boot partner proactively when Scarpa approached him, but he was intrigued after hearing how the brand wants to build boots.
“There has been a lot of myopic, linear thinking about ski boots. If you look as far back as the 1960s and ’70s, there was a lot of creativity — the Hanson [rear-entry] boot, the Salomon rear-entry was winning World Cups, rightly. Unfortunately, now they’re just very hyper-homogenized,” Miller said. “You look at boots, they’re all different colors, maybe different buckles, but they all look and function the same.
He continued, “When Scarpa came to me they said, ‘We want to make the best boots.’ That’s a very valid aspirational goal to have, and I think I can help them do it.”
While impressed with Scarpa’s goal, Miller knows it’s a lofty one to achieve. However, he said the brand’s strengths in other areas — such as alpinism, rock climbing, mountaineering — could be assets as he helps Scarpa improve in downhill skiing.
“When they got into touring and side country and backcountry skiing, they were in a great position because they knew a lot about the movement of the foot, hiking things in touring bindings,” Miller said. “They stepped in with their expertise and did a great job.”
He continued, “But there’s nuance. It’s a miracle that ski boots work as well as they do from an engineering standpoint. Scarpa is in a place where they want to take that next step and have a boot that’s well-designed, super light, great for going up the hill and also very high level and comparable to any ski boot on the planet going downhill. That’s where it was appealing for me to get involved.”
In year one of the relationship, Miller said Scarpa was well into the design of its recently released 4-Quattro XT boot, so much of his time has been spent allowing them to pick his brain. Miller believes it will probably take another year or two for his design ideas to come to fruition, but when they do, he is confident they’ll have an impact on the industry globally.
Much like with Peak, Miller wants to make history and innovate with Scarpa. “I want to help Scarpa build the best ski boot on the planet,” Miller said. “Built correctly, designed correctly, it’ll be one boot — it’ll be the best ski racing boot, the best recreational ski boot, the best big mountain boot, the best touring boot. We have stuff available to us now that we didn’t have 50 years ago, which is when all the boots on the market were essentially designed, minus touring boots. It’s past time that they get modified.”
— With additional reporting by Shannon Adducci
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