Jason Levinthal on Ski Design, Ski History, and the Singularity

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Jason Levinthal is not a boring guy. The guy invented the entire concept of a center-mounted twin-tipped ski. He started Line Skis out of his parents' garage, growing it from a hope and a prayer through multiple, nearly insurmountable road blocks to the 5th-largest ski company out there. He found Eric Pollard, and helped him bring out some of the most progressive freestyle and powder shapes skiers have ever seen. He medaled in the X Games in a discipline that existed almost entirely because of the products (skiboards) he was producing, and, after selling Line Skis to K2, put his former intern at the helm and dipped out completely to start another ski company–J Skis–which sells direct, is East Coast-based, makes crowd-sourced skis with outrageous graphics that can be bought on a financing plan (including a colab ski with Masta Killa from the Wu-Tang Clan), and already has magazine test-winning skis in just its second season.

In late August, J Lev sat down with our forum community to field their occasionally interesting, occasionally bogus questions about everything from aliens to ski design to risk management with a family on the line. Here's the best of his responses to the questions we asked:

Dhelihiker: What was your high school prom like?

Pretty lame to me, but maybe I just wasn't into dressing up in a tuxedo and dancing back then. Now I do that shit every weekend and love it!

TahoeJ: What are your favorite resorts to ski in the lower 48? East Coast and West.

Squaw, Stratton, Baker, Bolton Valley, and summertime at Mt. Hood. I haven't been to as many as you'd think, and the random days I do, it's not always been epic conditions, so probably would like more ski areas if I was a ski bum with more time to ride instead of just staring at my screen haha.

jamesd32: What material do you usually print graphics onto and with what technique? Or just straight onto the back of the top sheet? One thing that stumps me about ski construction is how the ink is applied in a way that doesn't diminish the integrity of the lamination. No worries if you don't want to spill the beans, though.

You need to use epoxy ink so it sticks as well as the epoxy itself. Most companies silkscreen, t-shirt style, with each color applied one layer at a time and drying in between, and lots of dots. I use a digital printer which directly prints to the plastic with the same ink and then roller back coats it with white from behind. Or I use sublimation inks and digital print, both these methods give you photo-quality high res graphics and you can produce small quantities with no extra tooling or extra time drying each color. Basically, print like you do on your inkjet at home, but it's a $170,000 machine I'm lucky to have access to.

BGSTi_403: Wow–three pages worth of crap and not a single Wu-Tang question? Does Masta Killa ski? Did he have any input into the design of the ski? Any of the other Wu Tang members coming out with their own designs? If you get an invited to do a cameo on the next Wu Tang album, what would be your rap moniker?

He does not ski, but is down with it, kind of like how I don’t rap but like listening to it. He had 100% input on the graphic. He had the idea of a hand illustrated graphic inspired by Wu's song "Da Mystery of Chess Boxin" from their debut album “Enter Wu-Tang 36 Chambers”. I heard he was going to be at SIA, met him there and introduced the idea of a colab ski. We went back and forth over the course of a month until we were both stoked. I had a few ideas for different quotes for the base and he choose this one. I’d be stoked to try to do a ski to pay homage to ODB ski next year. RIP. I actually already have a Wu name: Snowninja!

LightRanger: Why don't more companies use quadraxial glass? Cost? When did you first start using rubber in your layups and what inspired it?

Every ski company uses what's referred to as "rubber foil" over their edges to increase adhesion between the steel edge and fiber above it. I just happen to call it out. Plus, I use more of it by running full width in the tip and tail to reduce delamination when a ski is slapped down on a landing–the tip actually completely unfolds flat when you do that, and each time that creates shear forces that try to delam the layers of materials.

Think of a ski’s construction like a magazine or phone book–each page equals layers of material in the ski. Then bend your magazine; you’ll see every page slide against each other. This is what's called “shear”. This shear force tries to separate, delaminating all the layers in your ski every time it’s flexed or the tips are slapped down on a jump landing. The rubber acts as an insulator, so that the edge and other materials can slide against each other when flexing but without delaminating. This dramatically improves durability & reduces vibration.

I also don't run an edge around the perimeter of the tips for same reason. The more different materials with different flex characteristics exist in the tips, the more they try to work against each other when subjected to shear forces and delamination. You don't carve on your tips anyways, so less metal = less delam = less weight = more better.

Leavenworth Skier: Eric Pollard seems super creative but also passionate about his designs and vision for skiing. Did you guys ever butt heads on ski design/shaping? Also, when you were at Line, besides Pollard, what athlete was the most influential in ski design?

Such a sick, unexpected question. Pollard and I didn't actually butt heads. He's got a really grounded perspective, and he's worked with other brands that don't give a shit and so appreciated my willingness to not only listen, but make his ideas a reality. I also never had the skills or vision for skiing that he's had, so both of us had huge respect for each others' strengths and mutual respect, so we were always on the same page, both influencing each other equally. No other athlete had the vision for product design like Eric, he's one of the few with a vision for both skiing and the product's future.

Leavenworth Skier: Do you think "spooning" of tips and tails on skis (a la DPS Spoon, new Atomic Bent Chetler, etc.) is a fad, or a worthwhile idea for a deep powder tool?

Spooning makes total sense to me for deep pow. Hell, what do you need a flat tip for, anyways? Might as well make all skis like that if you think about it. It just would be tough to manufacture skis like that without a totally new finishing system, so you'll likely only see them on high end pow-specific skis for now. I never tried, so this is just my guess.

baby bear: Hi Jason! I know one of your goals after leaving Line was to ski more. Have you been able to do this with launching J Skis? Also do you have any updated thoughts on singularity and how much time we regular humans have left before the computers and robots take over? Thanks!

Awesome! At Line I flew on about ten week-long trips a year to dumb meetings and presentations and trade shows talking about skiing, and only actually skiing two days total. Last year [there's J, left, with all he needed to start J Skis in 2013], I flew three week-long trips only to ski magazine tests and skied my ass off while talking about skiing. Plus, I was home more skiing locally, so that was awesome!

As far as the singularity goes, don't even get me started! It's inevitable because it's logical. Mankind will never stop trying to make computers smarter than themselves, and computers already are! Soon computers will outsmart humans and realize humans consume too many resources without any purpose to them–that's when they'll easily destroy us. Just watch the Teriminator movie and search "singularity," pretty simple logic here.

Flyoverland Captive: Any bizarre prototypes you've tried that really pushed the envelope, but were commercially unviable? Something revolutionary, but that you knew would not sell?

Previously, the Afterbang ski with a skateboard construction took four years to develop. So many people wanted to give up before it was eventually brought to market.

The ski I never brought to market other than Pollard's 150mm wide ski which eventually evolved into the Prophet 130 was a park ski with removable screw-on grind plates underfoot. Pretty sick idea but it stuck to snow, and even rails, like you wouldn't believe. Something still needs to be made to be more durable on rails, so I'm still thinking about it.

whyturn: Why did Line do so much early rise and so little rocker? Has Seth mellowed over the years? Are earth tones making a comeback?

We did so much Early Rise and so little rocker because Eric Pollard invented Early Rise and called it Early Rise, so we at Line called it Early Rise. Seth is mellow until he's not. Earth tones is the old black.

tele-ryan: Jason, as a pioneer in the way skis are made today, what is your advice to someone looking to become a ski engineer or designer? I'm currently going to school on the other side of the Champlain for mechanical engineering, and looking for any opportunity or advice to help break into the ski industry... (possible intern?). Anyway, thanks for your time, and keep doing you!

Common question and the answer is the same for every industry. Do whatever it takes to get your foot into any door you possibly can in that industry regardless of how far off it is from what you ultimately want to do. Then work your ass off and before you know it you'll be doing exactly what you set out to do. Here's an example.

This pic is of me in my basement my first year and Josh Malczyk his first year with me. He now runs Line & Full Tilt as Brand Director. Seven years earlier, after helping me for three years during college as an unpaid intern, I hired him and his first day on the job was lugging product around for me & hammering nails at a trade show.

RaisingArizona: So you are a serious skiing badass, a legend, and you have done much more than just about anyone will do that posts on here. Me? Well, I'm just a ski bum that is dealing with some mid-life crisis stuff, so as I have asked others in these threads I'm going to ask you... What are your thoughts on becoming older, risk management, and your skiing? Where do you want to be with skiing 10 or even 20 years from now? And be honest, has the growing older been an easy transition or has it had its challenges? Thanks.

J Lev (right) shredding the Stowe park with fellow skiboard pioneer Mike Nick. "Now I claim to be the oldest dude in the park instead of claiming the best trick, and that’s cool with me."

Awesome question. Past few years I've been dealing with the same conundrum, which has not been easy mentally for people like us that want to leap before we look, but I think I finally figured it out. I’m 42, have a wife and kid, and I need to stay out of the hospital to guarantee I can take care of the family. Taking big risks pushing myself to a new level use to be the goal AND the funnest part of my skiing. Now I take big risks in business instead and get a rush out of that, and on the hill I have fun doing whatever I know I can stick without unnecessary risk of getting hurt. Once you come to terms with that, you’ll have as much fun, just at a different level. You'll be all good.

Now I claim to be the oldest dude in the park instead of claiming the best trick, and that’s cool with me. Nothing wrong with having fun sliding straight rails 2’ off the ground in the kiddie park & hitting 20’ tables throwing straight airs with smooth style instead of 70’ 900's if you're having fun. When I’m with my kid, I drop into the trees just off the trail instead of hiking up to Never Never Land and have just as much fun making the most of 6” of freshies with him… seriously! Just having a blast making a lot out of nothing and skiing for myself within my own limits and if I’m having fun I don’t give a fuuuuuck what others–never have with skis on my feet.

We’re all in the same boat: no one’s getting younger, we're just at different points in the ferry ride. Take your turn and move on to the next phase and make the most of it with enough smarts to also protect all the other stuff in life you've accumulated by getting here. In 20 years, I’ll still be the oldest dude in the park, lame as hell but I’ll still having fun!

Dexter Rutecki: Are we allowed to blame you for snowlerblades?

Only thank me.

BGSTi_403: I have seen some discussion recently on the potential for knee damage related to the proliferation of wider skis in the last decade. What are your views on this topic? What do you think is the optimal ski width from that perspective for East Coast use in variable conditions?

Ski width does not cause knee injures knees. Bindings not designed to protect a skiers during a “backward twisting fall” causes knee injuries.

It is possible to stop knee injuries in skiing! I actually developed a Line binding at one point that did protect your knee from this type of injury, but it cost us close to $2 million to design, develop, and manufacture, and after years of trying, we couldn’t sell enough to dig out of the financial hole it took to create it as a small ski company. Luckily, we sold to K2 before losing so much money we would have been out of business.

Unfortunately, binding companies don’t want to invest in creating new products that people are not demanding. I’ve talked to the engineers at binding companies, and they know exactly what causes knee injuries, but none of them have the budget or desire to obsolete their current products, tooling, investments, etc. in the name of saving some skiers' knees that unfortunately think “knee injuries are just part of skiing”.

Anytime you’re about to fall backwards, just let yourself fall. Collar bones and arms heal easily versus a blown knee. Don’t fight it or you’ll risk a “backwards twisting fall”. Check out some more info on that here.

Ryan Dunfee: How has the East Coast ski scene evolved from the mid '90s until now? Best run at Stratton? Do you still skiboard at all? Do you snowboard much?

The '90s was all about parks being created for only snowboarding and snowboarding blowing up! 2000's was all about twin tips & park skiing. 2010's is all about getting into the trees and away from the lifts.

I never skiboard anymore, but I should. I snowboard a few days a year with the wife because she snowboards, and it's a sick perspective change. I always get enlightened riding anything other than skis–change is good. Try some old skinny skis–you'd be very surprised how good they actually are! I'm going to bring non-rockered skis back! Skiboarding too! No, seriously! I'm for real.

Ryan Dunfee: Could you save tele skiing? And snowboarding while you're at?

I could definitely save snowboarding, not tele though. Tele is like ski touring. People think it's a different sport and you need a totally different ski but you don't; those categories are just "aliases" like an alias folder on your computer of skis that already exists. Yeah, you want it lighter and stuff, but if it doesn't ski well downhill, and doesn't hold up, then it sucks, no matter how light it is. Skis should be designed for skiing first, walking second.

Bromontana: You are on a deserted island and only have a volleyball named Wilson, a fruit-laden landscape for sustenance, a pound of well-cured chronic, a knife, and an unlimited supply of Bic lighters. Now, you have to smoke this bud to stay sane and prevent developing a psychosis-induced friendship with the volleyball. Which strain would you choose and, more importantly, why that strain? Please be specific.

Bubba Kush because I'm a pretty hyper dude and would get bored quick on an island so gotta chill out to stay mellow with that volleyball.

Ryan Dunfee: Better rivalry–Seth vs. McConkey or Tanner vs. Dumont? If you had to work for the feds, which department would you toil in? What would your ideal ski area look like, if you could start from scratch?

Tanner vs. Dumont–both got the attitude to want to one up the other regardless of consequence.

I always wanted to work for the secret government agency with the men in black to recover aliens. It's real! It's impossible to not be visited by alien,s and more impossible for government not to have a clue about it.

Jason arguing for more "natural" terrain parks that would flow with the natural terrain of the mountain at a Ski Area Management Cutter's Camp.

My ideal ski area would look not like angled parking lots. They flatten all the fun natural drops and rolls and banks out on the trails to satisfy insurance companies. I'd cut trails and groom, but every single trails would have terrain that is not consistent. There'd be banks, hips, drops, woops, trees, and logs, and stuff on every trail like a natural terrain park. I actually proposed this and called out mountains for making terrain lamer, including boring parks at this Ski Area Management's Cutter's Camp rally to all terrain park employees and most of them agreed and wanted to try it in some capacity.

Ryan Dunfee: Were you bummed when 'freeskiing' got into the Olympics?

Skiing in the Olympics was great, my problem is I still don't know what "freeskiing" is? It's the dumbest term yet. First it was hot dogging, freestyle, Xtreme, twin tip, freeride, now freeskiing? Every time you come up with a new term for the same damn sport, you subdivide an already tiny sport into smaller pieces, weakening its presence in the mind of the every human, let alone skiers.

Sorry, but it's fucking ridiculous that everyone that skis in the Olympics is not on the US Ski Team. There's freeskiing, freestyle, alpine, etc. all of which people need a dictionary to decipher and still can't. Skiing is skiing, and the more times you use a single word to refer to a single sport, the stronger it will become. On top of this, you have the USSAs, or whatever all those sub-event names are, they don't even know their own name let alone others by using abbreviated event names you might as well call it XYZ!

It's gone too far. You're not a freeskier. We're all just skiers, and we're all just skiing. There are different event categories and names of course, but it's all in the sport of skiing, and everyone participating is a skier. Admit it and be proud of it. Someone might actually see and here what you do and say "Right on, skiing is cool!" instead of "What's freeskiing?" It's a big problem if you still have to explain what skiing is after 500+ years of its existence. It's just skateboarding, it's just soccer, it's just football, it's just skiing... we can do this!

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