A New Approach To Backcountry Snowboarding: The MTN Approach System

MTN Approach Founder Cory Smith at the 2011 SIA Snow Show

MTN Approach Founder Cory Smith at the 2011 SIA Snow Show

Nearly twenty years in the making, snowboard industry veteran Cory Smith’s MTN Approach System approach skis resonated amongst the backcountry crowd when he debuted them at SIA earlier this year. The booth was packed every time we passed and the buzz about the folding approach skis has been stirring in the industry ever since.

Smith, who is Smith Optics senior promotions and multimedia manager by day, has been developing the MTN Approach system as a side project in his spare time along with MTN Approach Sales Manager John Kaiser and Smith’s wife Jennifer, who is serving as the tight-knit team’s office coordinator.

We caught up with Smith from his Ketchum, Idaho headquarters, from where they’ll be moving into a new space on July 1, to learn more about the future of backcountry snowboarding, product development, bringing a new product to market, and the lessons he’s learned along the way.

When did you get the idea for the MTN Approach system and what went into turning that idea into a functioning system?
I first thought of the idea about 18 years ago when I was riding for K2. K2 developed an approach ski to use with their clicker system but they were too short to work in deep snow and too long to fit into your pack.  I thought it would be cool to make a pair that folded up so you could get the benefit of length but also be able to store it for the decent. I just sat on the idea for years waiting for someone else to develop this product but it never happened. Then I took a job at Smith Optics ten years ago and was disappointed (at the time) that Sun Valley didn’t have a terrain park.  I ended up spending a lot of time in the backcountry as a result and discovered a new way of enjoying snowboarding.  The MTN Approach skis were born out of a desire to hike and ride the backcountry without cutting my boards in half.

The bindings and design are really well thought out. Did you get help on the design side or was that all you?
I’d been thinking of different ways to build a hinge that would lock out and be able to support the weight of a person, it turned out to be a real engineering challenge.  I’d made a few prototypes in my garage that worked but lacked the refined design needed to take it to market. I finally linked up with Dave Narajowski who had worked at Black Diamond for years and was freelancing at the time.  Dave came up with our patent pending design of the locking cam hinge after about a year of trial and error.  The binding was fairly straight forward, I knew I wanted a heel loop like a snowboard binding but couldn’t afford the space required to have one on our system.  The collapsible heel loop just came about from testing and discovering new attachment methods, it’s really a simple design.  We searched a lot of other products and prior art but didn’t see anything like it so we filed a provisional patent on this as well.

What were some of the biggest lessons you learned with the design, sourcing, and production of the skis?
I’m definitely still learning them.  The biggest lesson so far has got to be the realization of how time consuming and how many resources it takes is to develop a product like this.  We’ve had a lot of failures but have continued to push on.   The sourcing and production is an incredible process, there are so any vendors in this world that can make anything you can imagine.  Finding the right ones and having them deliver is the real difficult part. Luckily I’ve meet a lot of people in the industry over the past 20 years who were a great resource for me to tap into.

Where are you making the product?
The skis, bindings and backpack are being made in China, the hinge is in Taiwan, skin material in Canada and the straps in Idaho.  It all gets shipped to the US and we assemble it here.

Including skins and the backpack is a great idea. With the Sawtooth and endless options in your backyard, I bet you've been getting a ton of product testing in.  What were the most difficult parts of the equation to get right?
Living here in Idaho has allowed me to get out and test the product a lot.  I’ve put thousands of vertical feet on some of the test products, then hand them off to someone else to take them out and beat them up.  It helps that we can walk right out the back door for testing.  There were a lot of things we needed to get right, the skis had to be light weight but couldn’t break.  They had to fold up to a small volume so you didn’t loose too much room in your pack.  They had to be just long and wide enough to float a 200+ lbs person with gear yet when folded, fit nicely into your pack.  It took a lot of trial and error to get the ratios just right.

From your testing, how much use can customers expect to get out of the system?
Climbing skins eventually eventually wear out and will need to be replaced.  Our skins are permanently attached and don’t require peeling and storing every lap.  We will sell a skin replacement kit that can be installed by removing the hinges and re gluing.  An average set of skins will last you 2-3 seasons, depending on how much you hike.  The skis and the rest of the components should last much longer.

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about the product since you debuted it at SIA. What has been happening on the business end since that point?
We’ve mostly been working on dialing in the product to ensure that when we start selling skis they live up to our expectations.  The emails come in daily from people who are excited to buy this product.  We’ve kept it fairly tight lipped but the word is getting out.

It looks like from your site that you're the only place to get these still. Are you going to be in other retailers this winter?
We will be selling direct but have some retailers as well, mostly on-line partners.  We hope to get them out to the brick and mortar this winter, a lot of the shops wanted to wait to see how it does first.  It’s a totally new product so i understand retailers taking some caution.  Based on the amount of interest at SIA and people finding us on the internet we feel confident that we can sell direct. Tactics and Evo Gear will be selling the system as well.

What's your goal as far as distribution?
We are focusing on US sales for our first year but have international distributors wanting to push us into other countries in 2013. Our main distribution is focused on internet sales for 2011/12.  We feel this consumer is passionately involved with blogs and sites that focus on backcountry riding.  With minimal effort we’ve already tapped into this user group and have seen a significant response. There are amazing viral media outlets now that make it easy to reach the people your after.

What's your marketing plan for this winter? Are you sponsoring any riders or film projects?
We plan to get quite a few pair of skis out to pros to test and improve the design and functionality.  We’re not a huge company looking to blow up in the first year, we are going to grow organically within the backcountry snowboard market and develop a strong following that will hopefully spread to a broader audience.

At $800, this is pretty reasonable compared to most splits. With the growth in backcountry's popularity, split board systems are improving pretty rapidly and becoming cheaper. As those technologies get better and splits perform more like regular boards, how do you foresee convincing riders they need the MTN Approach system?
Splitboards have come a long way over the last few years and they will continue to improve with the increased popularity.  We’re all for this, we’re not anti-splitboard we’re pro-backcountry snowboarding.  We’re just giving people another option.  Most people already own a snowboard they like, now they can ride it in the backcountry.  Our system allows you to ride any board for the conditions that day.  I feel more confident on a solid snowboard versus a split, and as it turns out there are others out there that feel the same way.

What are you most excited about for the upcoming winter?
I’m really excited to get this product out to the people who have been waiting for it.  Weather you’re on a split or MTN Approach skis, getting into the backcountry is a liberating experience and we’re pumped to help people get out there and enjoy the backcountry.