Friday, November 25, 2011

A local legend still feels the love

Hotdogger Bobbie Burns calls Ketchum-Sun Valley ‘utopia’

Express Staff Writer

In his Ketchum workshop last week, Bobbie Burns talks about one of his early innovations, the Fat Albert ski. His business, The Ski Company, launched the wide-bodied ski to derision—until people tried it in deep snow. “Everybody could go and do things they could never do on a skinny ski,” he said. He now incorporates nanotechnology into his product, The Ski “Wet Paint.” Photo by David N. Seelig

It's not uncommon around these parts for ski bums to work behind a bar, behind a sink or sometimes behind a cash register. Legendary skier Bobbie Burns took turns at dozens of jobs before carving out positions for himself in ski technology and fashion, perpetually propelled by an unbridled love of freestyle skiing.

A successful racer and entrepreneur, Burns has been on more ski hills than anyone can count, but he still names Sun Valley's Bald Mountain as his favorite.

"I've been everywhere in the world, and there isn't a better mountain," he said. "The quads. The snowmaking. The vertical drop. The grooming machines. It's a utopia. Somehow we've got to get it out there and tell people what we've got."

Through technological innovation and personal exploration, Burns has left his mark on all facets of the ski world—an imprint as unique as his gleeful smile and blond mane.

Burns himself is a part of the history of Sun Valley, and outranks it in seniority.

"My daughter tells me I'm the only person older than Sun Valley," he said.

Despite being born a couple of years before Sun Valley, Burns maintains a love of life, a passion for skiing and the same trademark look that he brought to the valley more than 50 years ago.

In those early days, learning, or even wanting, to ski moguls was not common.

"It wasn't something everybody did at that time," he said. "In the old days, we didn't have the luxury of machines to cut all the moguls down. You had to learn how to ski bumps. It just became a fascinating thing for me to see how fast I could ski those bumps."

Ski racing turned to hotdogging, which led Burns to tinker with his skis to gain maximum velocity.

Hotdogging, a term that defined extreme skiing in the 1980s, is akin to today's on-the-edge freestyle skiing, going as fast as possible over bumps, catching air and jumping off cliffs.

A friend, Chuck Ferries, recruited Burns to work at ski manufacturer K2 on Vashon Island, Wash., in the 1960s.

"K2 was my learning ground," Burns said. "I was really getting involved in making skis."

Always the experimenter, Burns left K2 in the early 1970s to pursue an idea.

"I decided I wanted to make a ski for bumps," he said.

Like many inventors, Burns set up shop in his garage. From there emerged The Ski.

The Ski was colored "Wood River Valley blue," with rectangles of colors inspired by ski boots' colors.

Although The Ski filled a niche, technology alone wouldn't have made the innovated ski nationally known.

"No matter how good you are, you need a little luck," Burns said. "I happened to pick a young skier (to sponsor) by the name of Bob Salerno. With him first, we ended up winning a lot of things."

When the The Ski took off, Burns moved the operation to Park City, Utah.

Looking again to fill an unmet need, Burns' company launched a wide-bodied ski called Fat Albert.

"Everybody laughed at me," he said.

But those who tried, he said, were converted.

"Anybody who skied deep snow got into them quick," he said. "Everybody could go and do things they could never do on a skinny ski."

Twenty years later, skiers still push the limits and still look for equipment that allows them to do so.

"Wide-bodied skis and snowboarding make it so people can go where they never went before," Burns said.

With that, however, comes increased risks.

"Athletes get better," he said. "They do more extreme things, they take more risks. Now, it's a world of bigger risk."

He still takes pleasure in watching the sport grow, and he still finds Sun Valley to be the right perch from which to witness its evolution.

"I never realized how cool Ketchum was until I moved to New York," he said.

After more than 15 years in Manhattan working in the fashion industry, Burns returned to his adopted hometown.

"It's a place where, when you get home, you don't have to turn on the TV," he said.

Instead, his free time is spent with his wife, Tyia Wilson, and children Leyla, 10, and Litenin, 4. Another daughter, Montana, hopes to return to Ketchum upon completion of her education.

Experimentation is still in Burns' blood. Using skills acquired from years of skiing, manufacturing and a college degree in chemical engineering, Burns spends time in his Ketchum shop pushing the sport, and its equipment, to the next level: nanotechnology.

His new The Ski "Wet Paint" line incorporates this technology.

Applying nanotechnology to skis, Burns said, allows for a drastically lighter ski while being much stronger.

"More than that, you get a great dynamic," he said.

Searching for a great dynamic has kept Burns immersed in skiing, involved in its future, and excited to wake up every day in his version of utopia.

Rebecca Meany:

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