For the past 70 years, the ski industry has lived by certain standards. The Head Standard to be precise. Howard Head’s lovechild, which came to market in the winter of 1951, was the first mass market composite ski. From the inside out, the sandwich consisted of a laminated wood core, two sheets of aluminum, integrated metal edges, plastic sidewalls, and a plastic top sheet.
Ski shaping and design has gone mad in the past 15 years—although it’s recently normalized—but ski construction is pretty much the same as it ever was. Despite the marketing hype, the flashy materials aren’t all that special either. Besides a hint of carbon and some polymers and minerals that come and go, we mostly ski on archaic materials put together much the same way as Howard Head did. An outlandish carbon footprint and recycling difficulties that are endemic to ski construction are the unfortunate side effects of all that tradition.
Recycling our old boards into anything but torturous Adirondack chairs has been a nonstarter. Given the extremes we run them through, skis are built to not come apart. (I once extracted a wood core from a ski on a lark. It took a few hours with a hammer and a chisel—and an extra set of hands.) As for the carbon footprint, the wood isn’t the problem—trees are renewable resources. And the wood species in modern skis are sustainably sourced. Encased as those cores are by bases and top sheets, that wood will be sequestering carbon for hundreds if not thousands of years. Only wood that’s allowed to decompose releases carbon. Beyond the use of metal, which would be easy to recycle if we could only get to it readily, the biggest issues with ski construction are the petrochemicals and waste.
Now enter WNDR Alpine. (It’s pronounced “Wonder.”) A subsidiary of Checkerspot Inc., which employs far more scientists than bros, WNDR is ostensibly a ski manufacturer; except it doesn’t cotton to most of the trappings of traditional ski construction. Although it wants to grow into an economically sustainable business, as part of the Checkerspot Design Lab division, WNDR’s entire existence isn’t tied to selling as many finished skis as possible. There’s a bigger story at play.
The company’s roots go back to Brazil, and a facility surrounded by, not mountains or ski slopes, but sugar cane. It’s there that a team of international scientists first figured out that if you grow microalgae in closed systems—as opposed to harvesting them from open water—through trial and error you can select for certain strains that take well to carefully engineered fermentation. Once that’s dialed—no easy task—extracting proteins and fats (oils) is the logical next step. Originally, the Brazil plant was keen on producing biofuels. Later, it made microalgae based skin care products and found some success. The lotions became a “tip of spear” product. Their success helped market the potential of microalgae. Some of the polyols (complex organic compounds we’d call resins) the facility produced also lent themselves to structural formulations—actual materials. But the original parent company went bankrupt before that potential was explored.
Today, a Dutch outfit called Corbion owns the Brazil assets. But the facility is operating under capacity. Which is where WNDR comes in. One of the two founders of Checkerspot, CEO Charles Dimmler is a skier. He and his business partner Chief Science Officer Scott Franklin both worked at the Brazil plant. Dimmler once built a pair of skis in Europe while traveling and was dumbfounded by how anachronistic the process was. Recognizing that Checkerspot was in need of its own tip of spear product to highlight what microalgae could do for a new range of industries, he connected with Matt Sterbenz, who ran 4FRNT skis, a boutique builder that began in Truckee in 2002. WNDR was launched in 2018 with Sterbenz as founder. The vision? Build a sustainable ski company that serves double duty as a design lab while adding notoriety to bio-based products.
It’s easy to get in the weeds with the technology—the process of producing the polyols involves a reactor that breaches temperatures of 2,000 degrees—but all a layperson really needs to know is that WNDR isn’t making its sidewalls and much of its core material from petroleum products; it’s making them out of algae. WNDR’s first move—working with Checkerspot scientists in a separate design lab in Salt Lake City—was to build structural polyurethane (PU) foam. That foam was then paired with laminated stringers cut from sustainably sourced and fast-growing aspen. Those hybrid “blanks” became WNDR’s ski cores. As a relevant aside, hybrid cores like this have recently been wowing Mountain ski testers for the silky ride quality they deliver, but with the dynamic pop of wood to keep the ski lively. WNDR paired those Algal Cores with the company’s latest technology—Algal Walls. Instead of inlaying a plastic sidewall, WNDR in-molds a liquid cast urethane into a milled out channel on the wood core. Once that liquid cures it produces a sidewall that isn’t glued to the ski, but bonded to it. WNDR’s Algal Walls alone cut 60 percent of the petroleum used in a traditional ski. The Algal Core can cut another 40 percent by reducing the use of resins.
The injection sidewall method also produces far less waste. Traditional ABS (petroleum based plastic) sidewall material arrives at a ski factory in long rectangular strips. But in a ski, sidewalls aren’t rectangular, they taper to the tip and tail and vary with ski length. In traditional construction, a lot of ABS material ends up on the cutting room floor. But by injecting its sidewall material into the blank core, and then cutting off the excess to reveal the sidewalls, WNDR creates less waste. The small stuff, since it’s made of wood and algal dust, can be used as bedding for horses. The larger pieces of flashing might someday get employed as filler material in other wood products. When you consider that WNDR’s Salt Lake City facility runs entirely on renewable energy, WNDR is now the most eco-friendly ski producer on the planet. Sterbenz says that WNDR has only just tapped the surface of what might soon be possible using algae-based oils in ski construction.
While I was pursuing other reporting, unprompted a representative from a large European brand that’s investing heavily in the greening of its ski production told me that WNDR’s Algal Walls and Algal Cores are on their radar. Which circles back to the original vision. Sterbenz calls it the “democratization of innovation.” The materials and processes behind microalgae materials sourcing are scalable. They also expand beyond skiing. The end goal is to convert industries away from petroleum dependence—while running a sustainable business. Checkerspot is currently working with Gore-Tex to create environmentally friendly durable water repellent (DWR) treatments for fabrics. Wicking technology using microalgae based polyols is also in the works.
But just because WNDR is green (it’s a certified B Corp), works with scientists capable of splitting DNA and sees a bigger world than skiing, doesn’t mean it’s not a core backcountry ski brand. WNDR’s Intention 110 is a ripping backcountry powder ski with ample rocker and a nice blend of tip and tail taper for a slashy feel. It has everything a ski tourer looks for in a dedicated backcountry ski, and nothing else. That list of what’s been left out includes those old-school sheets of metal. But it also covers a slew of petrochemicals. The Intention is a ski in keeping with WNDR’s motto, which they stamp on those Algal Walls: “Tread Light, Charge Hard.”