Predictably Unpredictable: K2 celebrates 50 years of serious fun

November 8th, 2012 by

Words by Tess Weaver

“When you’re with K2, fun is what it’s about,” says Seth Morrison, who has been an athlete with the company since 1993.

Seattle-based K2 is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, commemorating its irreverent history with a coffee-table book, throwback products, webisodes highlighting different eras in its history and online contests. Throughout the decades, from primary to neon, Scot Schmidt to Sean Pettit, K2 has managed to retain its unique garage brand identity by doing things its own way.

In 1962, when Europe dominated the ski world, an engineer named Bill Kirschner, working at his family’s kennel manufacturing business on an island in the Northwest, built the world’s first fiberglass ski and K2 was born. The name’s origin is often disputed. Either it was named after the two Kirschner brothers or maybe the peak in the Himalayas or maybe after the first successful prototype in the K1 to 12 series. Theories vary wildly. Whatever the name’s origin, K2 spent 45 years on the 37-square-mile Vashon Island at the southern end of Puget Sound before relocating headquarters to South Seattle.

“Its unexpected location shaped the nature of the brand from day one,” says Mike Gutt, K2’s global marketing manager. “Vashon was this quirky, hippie island close to Seattle but so removed that it felt like a different world.”

The company took off in the ’70s. Marketing guru Terry Heckler grew the red, white and blue into cult status, and K2 contracted Sun Valley filmmaker Dick Barrymore to create a promotional film titled The Performers that showcased the most progressive skiing styles of the time. The film, coupled with a 15,000-mile tour (in which the wet T-shirt contest was born), elevated the hot dog movement and paved the way for modern-day park and pipe skiing.

Left: Wayne Wong. Image courtesy K2 archives. Right: Andy Mahre in Rusutsu, Japan. Shot by Nate Abbott.

In the ’80s, K2 was all about racing and Washington’s homegrown Mahre brothers, Steve and Phil, father and uncle, respectively, to Andy. The Mahre brothers rocketed K2 on to the global platform by winning World Cup titles and gold and silver in the 1984 Olympics on K2 skis.

When the release of Greg Stump’s Blizzard of Aahhhs film in 1988 birthed extreme skiing, K2 was represented by Glen Plake, Scot Schmidt and Mike Hattrup. The film shook the industry and spurred dreams of big mountains, big adventure and what is now big-mountain skiing.

When Morrison came on to the scene, K2 was one of the few companies sponsoring ski films. “I was ski racing, and you didn’t see K2 much in racing then,” says Morrison. “I was locked into racing and training, and K2 gave me the feeling of freedom and adventure.” In the ’90s, an era when signature skis didn’t exist and companies used one topsheet design for their entire collection, K2 developed a stiff, 204 centimeter Morrison pro model that was bright blue with a blinking light in the topsheet.

“It was pretty cool because nothing like that had really been done before,” says Morrison. “The opportunity to tailor a ski in the manner you wanted was a dream come true. That was a big push in the freeride direction. We brought fun, eye-catching graphics to skiing.” Ever since, Morrison’s skis have been among K2’s bestselling Factory Team models. K2 went on to develop skis for Brad Holmes and Kent Kreitler, and more recently, Pep Fujas, Sean Pettit and the late Doug Coombs.

In 1997, K2 put together the first legitimate freeski team that included Morrison, Holmes, Kreitler, Darian Boyle, Jason Moore and Jimbo Morgan. Along with the efforts of magazines and the emergence of new freeski movie companies, skiing began its ascent back into the spotlight after a lull in the mid-90s.

When Shane McConkey came to K2 in 2005, he would forever change powder skiing. His K2 Apache Chiefs, which he decambered and then rockered with cabling, spurred K2 to develop a number of prototypes. When they dialed in the Pontoon, rocker technology went from an athlete idea to a game changer, and in 2008, K2 introduced rocker for all conditions, across its entire ski and snowboard lines.

History tends to repeat itself. If the future, which includes plans to launch boots and outerwear, is anything like the past, K2 will be instigating even more trends in the ski world. And they’re bound to go about it differently than anyone.

“We just want to have a hell of a lot more fun,” concludes Gutt.

*This article originally appeared in the Volume 15 November issue of FREESKIER. Subscribe to the magazine, or get it on the iTunes Newsstand.

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