Legendary Ski Maker Karhu Is No More.
by John Dostal
“What’s the Sioux word for ‘Day to Die?’” Tom Carter bellowed as he walked through the front door of his renovated miner’s cabin in a hamlet of similarly ramshackle real estate—appropriately named Tom’s Place—between Mammoth Lakes and Bishop in California.
He was preceded by the lanky, laconic Connecticut Yankee Chris Cox, who muttered, “I think I’ve had it with extreme skiing.” Following him was the normally ebullient Allan Bard who simply shook his head. They were obviously sketched out, and had cause. The day before, they had skied Mt Russell. That followed a descent of the north face of Mt Whitney. Both part of the first leg of what they called the Redline Traverse, which referred to the colored contour on a topo map delineating the Sierra Crest. In all, the 1982 outing would be a ski tour of some 200 miles—“a low level flight over the Sierra”—as Bard later described it, and the boldest tour yet done there.
They did it on skis with a 62/54/59mm sidecut, foam core, made by a Finnish company called Karhu (“bear” in Finnish, which explained the graphics), leather tele boots and flat-bailed three-pin bindings. But it’s Hoe-kah Hay for Karhu—a good day to die as the Sioux would say. And this year—while you still might find leftovers on the shelves—the Karhu brand is officially dead. But damn if Carter and his brahs didn’t like them, even when shucking them when backing off the north face of Russell. (“It was really steeeep and hard,” the 58-year-old owner of Nevada-based Ruby Mountain Heli Ski recently recalled. “Blow it, you would have gone the distance. Just bending down to take ‘em off was really exciting.”
But they kept them on long enough to finish the line in two more stages. And they were in good company. Karhu attracted tele masters from Don Portman in Washington to Dickie Hall, the founder of the North American Telemark Organization (NATO) in Vermont and a host of others—enough to let it dominate the tele market through the ‘80s and beyond.
“They were the best skis around,” Carter says. “The GTSs were lively but predictable— not flinchy. And light—they let us pump terrain. Try that on today’s stuff.” Their successor, the alpine-cambered XCD Comps, he says, “sat on the snow and started articulating—and that’s before we figured out how to go shorter.”
But as the ski market evolved and shrunk—the distinction between alpine and tele skis becoming meaningless as skis got bigger and boots plastic and more powerful— Karhu hung on. In large part because Doug Barbour (a dapper Canadian with a good golf game and killer business sense) brought Karhu into North America in fairly rapid order with Merrell Boots, Trak, and later, Line skis. (Disclosure: I was involved with several of those companies for nearly two decades, mostly as a copywriter.) Look, let’s not make sausage here or get entangled in an episode of Lost. Karhu was sold to K2, who had bought Norway’s Madshus, the world’s oldest ski manufacturer, originator of a revolutionary fiberglass braiding technology that went into alpine skis in 1988. But with its XC heritage, Karhu was a better fit for Madshus, says Graham Gephart, the marketing manager for K2’s outdoor division. So what of Karhu endures? The metaledge waxless skis that sustained Karhu’s run. The Guide, now the Annum (uh, “year” in Latin, I believe) The 10th Mountain, now the Epoch, and the trademark XCD GT now the Eon—hell, it’s been around long enough.
*This originally appeared in TS#15