One Man And His Skis
Meet Mr Rupert Gammond, who hand-builds freeride skis in the English countryside (oh, and Arthur the dog)
Deep in the heart of the English countryside, there is a man who makes skis out of bamboo. This is not the beginning of an elaborate joke. Meet Mr Rupert Gammond, whose company, Pure Freeride Design (PFD), is headquartered in a workshop in deepest rural Worcestershire, an hour’s drive away from the nearest large town and god knows how many more from the nearest proper ski resort. None of it seems to make any sense. And yet.
The product to which Mr Gammond has dedicated the last few years of his life is a thing of simple, elegant beauty – and his tranquil working environment is enough to make any commuter or cubicle drone sick with envy. The workshop overlooks a small garden dotted with bowing snowdrops, and when the clouds clear to let the spring sunshine stream in through the windows and pick out specks of sawdust hanging in the air, you’re treated to a new definition of the term “gainful employment”.
As the name would suggest, Mr Gammond’s skis are “freeride”, which means they’re designed with an eye for both powder and piste. There are three models in the current line-up – The All Mountain Charger, The Big Mountain Charger and The Powder Charger – and they vary in shape and size, with the specialist Powder model the fattest of the lot. Each has a flexible bamboo core and varnished bamboo veneer top, and the skis are stiffened with additional layers of carbon fibre and fibreglass. It’s obvious even to a man who doesn’t know anything about skiing that Mr Gammond has gone to extreme lengths to design a high-performance product. That’s all well and good, but one suspects that performance wasn’t all he was going for when he started his company five years ago.
“Freeride is so much more than just a technical variant of skiing,” he explains in a lilting Kidderminster accent. “It’s an attitude. It’s about being out there, among nature, away from the ski lifts and the crowds. I wanted to design a ski that reflected that. Not just in the level of craftsmanship that goes into it but in the materials used, too.” What he has created, in other words, is a niche product aimed squarely at passionate skiers. At £1,100 a pair – that’s not including bindings – they’re priced accordingly. But, as the production run limited to just 100 pairs a year, he’s under no great pressure to sell them in large numbers.
That’s probably just as well, because he doesn’t come across as the world’s greatest salesman. He regularly gets approached while queuing for ski lifts by people enquiring after his skis – on one occasion, the operator even stopped the lift – but he can rarely muster the self-confidence to tell them that he made them himself.
“I’m terrible in those situations,” he laughs. “I just freeze up.” It can’t be good for business, this reticence, but it makes the conviction he has in his work all the more convincing. An engineer at heart, he’s at his most animated when showing off the jigs he’s had custom-made to shape the skis’ steel edges, flicking through designs for new shapes or explaining the operating procedure of his 40-tonne pneumatic press – which, by the way, he designed and built himself.
This beautiful, pristine workshop set in the bucolic English countryside seems to fit so naturally into its surroundings that it’s difficult to imagine the time and effort that must have gone into setting it up. In reality, though, Mr Gammond’s dream was more than a decade in the making. The foundations were laid by a product design degree at Leeds University followed by six ski seasons in six years, and it’s only now, after a few more years of designing and testing prototypes with help from collaborators as far afield as Japan and Sweden, that he actually – finally – has a product ready to sell.
And the work doesn’t stop there. “I still spend seven days a week until 11.00pm in here getting things right.” If he’d known at the start how hard it was going to be, would he have gone ahead with it? He stands for a moment and silently contemplates the view out of the window. “I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.”
With a girlfriend soon to finish medical school in Sweden, it’s not clear where Mr Gammond’s future lies. The Swedish ski market dwarfs that of the UK – of course it does, there’s snow – and he might let his business follow his heart. It’d give him the opportunity to leave home, at the very least. “I’m 31 now. It’s probably about time.” Whatever happens, though, this workshop – the fruits of his labour, his labour of love – isn’t going anywhere.
“Why not?” he says. “Even if I do leave, I’ll be coming back to see my family. And can you imagine how hard it’ll be to resist doing a bit of work, especially on a summer’s evening with a beer or two?” It’s a tough one to answer, at first. Mr Gammond is directing this question at a man who baulks at the idea of working beyond 6.00pm and who has been programmed from a young age to believe that operating heavy machinery while under the influence is a very bad idea. But then the sun peeks through the clouds again, lower in the sky this time, bathing his home and garden in a peachy glow, and you can begin to see where he’s coming from.