Last winter, after having not skied for 25 years, I caught the ski bug. I skied once over Christmas, and after a few more runs, wasn’t ready for the season to be done. So, I flew across the country where it wasn’t—Colorado. From late April through May, I skied 19 times at Arapahoe Basin—more times than my entire life combined, by far.
I had two big take-aways from my champagne powder holiday. For one, the mountain has magic. I grew up playing competitive athletics on a court and on a field, but, decades later, I’ve come to realize, nothing compares to adventure sports outside in the wild.
Secondly, I came across a company, and community, that’s as inspirational as the mountains themselves.
I meandered into A-Basin’s pro shop after a typical shaky few runs down Molly Hogan—the bunny slope—and Wrangler—the easiest green. I started chatting with a guy working inside about what I was looking for—some skis that were soft enough for a beginner but that had some range that I could grow into. I emphasized the latter part, since I had made up my mind that I was going to buy an advanced ski despite my novice status.
“I ski really hard,” said Matthew Ortisi, the person helping me. I believed him. He had a fresh rope burn across his face, a badge of authenticity earned practicing tricks in the park. He opened a catalog and showed me his favorite skis.
“Nomad 105,” he said of Icelantic Ski’s most popular freeride model at 105-mm width. I was in awe. To start, the name “Nomad” was just too fitting. The night before, I had slept in a car in a Walmart parking lot near the mountain like a proper enthusiast. I too was a nomad.
Secondly, the skis were a thing of beauty, like pieces of art. The topsheet design was a regal ship powering its way across uncharted seas, and mountains.
I had to learn more about Icelantic Skis, this local company with a cult following. I started doing research, and the more I learned, the more I loved. So I called up the CEO.
Icelantic was the brainchild of Ben Anderson, a sort of mad scientist of action sports. There’s a video of him trying to blow up a pair of Icelantic skis on the homepage of the company’s website. Both the skis, and Anderson, survived by the way, crystalizing Icelantic’s claim that its skis are, in fact, “bombproof.”
“Ben is literally the most prolific creator I have ever met,” says Icelantic’s CEO Annelise Loevlie. “It’s insane. He has an idea, [and] you’ll never see a creative process happen as quickly or as smoothly. It’s something to witness.”
Like all great companies, Icelantic started simply as an idea. Anderson was dissatisfied with what was available on the market, wanting something shorter, fatter, more playful. Like all great visionaries, Anderson believed the solution was to make one himself. So, at age 16, he started learning the art of ski-making at an internship in Boulder.
Anderson continued on to study industrial design for a year and a half in college, before dropping out and committing to his obsession—making skis at the standard of durability, and fun, that he wanted. At 19, he bought a press and started making skis out of his parents’ garage in Evergreen. He then picked up the phone and called three close friends he had known since he was 10.
Anderson needed a logo for this bootstrapped ski company to rival the deep-pocketed incumbents who had owned the market for the last half-century. His first call was to artist, and co-founder, Travis Parr.
“Parr is such a deep, deep, thoughtful artist,” Loevlie says. “Every graphic we have is 10 layers of intention and reasons why we chose it.”
Icelantic’s website has a quote from Parr: “Humans and their environment are irrevocably interconnected. I begin by using texture and color to hint at the invisible, emotional energy on the canvas. Then the human subject evolves, capturing and reacting to that energy and emotion, providing a glimpse of the complex and broad spectrum of self.”
Parr’s starting point, this symbiotic interplay of man and nature, illustrates the ingenuity of the logo he conceived for Icelantic: One Degree Celsius. It’s the temperature at which water molecules begin to transform into their solid state, snow.
“To us, it represents the temperature of change, a catalytic moment—that one degree separation from transformation,” Loevlie says. “There’s that story of a person digging for a gold mine, and they dig for years and years and years. They give up, but little do they know, they are one pickaxe throw away from the gold.”
Parr also hand draws all of the topsheet art for the skis. His artwork is one of the signature traits of Icelantic, whose competitors use safe, consumer-tested digitally-generated graphics.
“It’s risky to put what we think is beautiful art on skis, but for those who see it and feel it … when you see something that’s beautiful, it makes you happy,” Loevlie says. That was my experience. It was Parr’s nomadic ship on the 105s that first caught my eye, beckoning me to take a voyage with them.
Once the logo was solidified, Anderson called on two more childhood friends: Travis Cook, who was studying architecture and engineering, who would work closely with Anderson to craft a legitimate ski that would hold together and perform well. The final role was reserved for a friend studying business across the country in Vermont—Loevlie, the company’s future captain, or “C.E.Ohhhhh,” as her email signature reads.
The close team of four friends then decided to do something entirely forbidden by any reputable ski-maker—they sought manufacturing from a company that makes … snowboards.
“The idea of a snowboard company making skis was ludicrous,” Loevlie says, highlighting the well-known rift between skiers and snowboarders. But this wasn’t just any snowboard manufacturer—it was a legendary one.
“We all grew up riding Never Summer snowboards, because we all grew up here, and Never Summer was the coolest thing to us,” she says. “It was always pipe-dreamy for us to have our skis made at Never Summer.”
But pipedreams born on the half-pipe have a certain daring, invincibility to them. Never Summer was the clear choice to make the world’s most indestructible skis because they had been making the world’s most durable snowboards for the last 25 years.
Of course, the cheaper route—both in cost and quality—would have been to outsource to larger factories in Eastern Europe and China, the two places where 95 percent of skis and snowboards are manufactured. But at the core of Icelantic is the union of art and artisanship. To give Icelantic’s topsheets a worthy vessel, the skis’ craftsmanship would need to be up to par. So after four years of working with other independent manufacturers, Icelantic finally sold Never Summer on a partnership, and a new legend was born.
“In bigger factories, it’s 50 percent hands-on, and 50 percent machine,” Loevlie says. “In our factory, it’s 100 percent handmade, even the finishing is done by hand. It’s a craft. When the skis come out of the press, they hand cut with a jigsaw every single ski out of its mold. It’s insane to watch—it’s really an art.”
With the Never Summer factory only 10 minutes from the Icelantic head office, there’s also unparalleled quality control, prototyping, and engineering that can be worked on daily together.
It’s also about being “able to high-five the people that are actually making our skis, and have a relationship with them,” Loevlie says. Knowing the conditions of the factory and the workers, as well as boosting the local Denver economy, are all essential for Icelantic, and would be missing if the skis were made abroad.
“Manufacturing is such an old-school idea,” she says. “It’s cool to fan the fire of this renaissance of manufacturing coming back.”
Icelantic isn’t only inspiring trends, it’s setting new standards of quality. Officially, Icelantic skis have a three-year warranty, while most skis have a limited one-year warranty. But unofficially, Icelantic stands behind its skis forever, for life.
“We’ll take any ski in and replace it,” Loevlie says. “If we’re going to make a product it’s got to be high quality and last a long time. When you’re done skiing them, you can hang them on your wall or make a chair out of them.”
When skiers like Matthew Ortisi—now an Icelantic Skis athlete—discovered the quality and philosophy behind Icelantic, any frostiness between skiers and snowboarders simply melted away.
“One of my favorite things about Icelantic is that they’re locally made, down in Denver, hands-on,” Ortisi says. “I’ve been to the factory myself and seen the people, and the process. It’s a loving family down there. They take pride in what they do, which makes you have even more pride in your product. Knowing where your product comes from is super essential—quality work done in the United States.”
Still Waters Run Deep
Icelantic skis have been turning heads, twisting bodies, and making skiers smile for 12 years now. But until four years ago, when Loevlie took over as CEO, “the company was just struggling, hemorrhaging money,” she says. “You can imagine all the excitement, and all the opportunity, and all the energy that was going out everywhere.”
But it was time to get out of the red. The company and its players went through a period of introspection—“really a period of contraction and focus,” she says.
They asked each other, “What is Icelantic’s purpose? Where’s it going?” The answer was outside, but also inside, each of them.
“The real turning point was [when] ‘Return to Nature’ became our mantra,” Loevlie says. “Return to Nature is our mantra on the outside for people to see, and for customers to attach to, but also on the inside, it’s like bringing your authentic self to do this.”
For me, as a consumer and novice skier, this slogan—Return to Nature—grabbed me. It spoke directly to me and my own spiritual journey over the last 20 years of my life, reverberating at a moment when I was just learning a new phase of expression, and connection—the power of the outdoors.
“It’s really a part of [Icelantic’s] culture to get outside; that self-care is more important than anything you have to do at work, and we put that as a priority,” Loevlie says. “Nature is our greatest teacher and our greatest healer.”
Recently Loevlie went climbing with friends, something she hadn’t done in years.
“I personally have been in a weird funk lately,” she says. “I climbed really strong. I had this notion after the climb, a feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time—this idea that I am strong, I am capable, and I am accomplished. Doing something like that challenged me, challenged my body, my mind; [it] was a really great reminder of the power of interacting with nature, and pushing yourself. The easy thing to do in every situation is to sit on the couch, and just not do anything.”
Loevlie takes nature’s lessons with her into real life, leading Icelantic as CEO.
“The observance of nature, her dynamic ways in terms of storms, seasons, sunshine and rain, and how it’s so normal to be an expressive person … The more we can emulate the natural cycles, I think the better off everybody’s going to be,” she says.
She analogizes her leadership style to water. Water is soft, yet strong, malleable, unbreakable. It can be tranquil and still, like a glassy lake, or dynamic and powerful, like a wave.
“One of the things I’m really passionate about is bringing humanism back into business, bringing vulnerability, and authentic expression into the business world,” she says. “I definitely think there’s a trend toward conscious companies … Consumers are becoming more conscious, and it’s actually a part of their buying decisions now—where the product is made, what sort of conditions the product is made in, and what the company stands for.”
Returning to nature, both personally and professionally, has uplifted Icelantic. The company is now healthy, in a positive cycle, and still spearheading trends. For example, along with this year’s men’s Natural 101—which is already sold out on their website—they’ve released the industry’s first-ever women’s backcountry touring ski, the Mystic.
This winter, maybe it’s time I go off-piste. The Natural and Mystic topsheet art of a wise snowy white owl is certainly worth collecting, just like the Nomad 105, which I did end up buying, and loving. In fact, on one of my first outings with them, I met up again with Ortisi at A-Basin. To test out my new skis, and ever-so-slightly improved skills, we went down moguls on the blue diamond Ramrod.
On the way up on the chairlift, our talk turned philosophical, which I’d expect from any Icelantic athlete.
“When I am on the mountain, that’s when I feel closest to my creator, my maker, the universe. You need to be one with nature to really experience nature,” Ortisi says. “Like a lot of things in life, you can never master skiing—there’s always something new to be learned, always a new line to go, always something to scare you … For me, without the fear factor, there would be no reward.”
As I was catching my breath after a few runs, Ortisi edged his way to the top of a rock cliff. He charged down. As he backflipped in the air over me, I caught a glimpse of that special brand and logo on the bottom of his Nomads. It made me think—maybe one day I could eventually do that. After all, as long as I put in that one degree more effort, day in, day out, season after season, anything is possible.
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.