The ski hill --it's where lifetime friendships are made and celebrated. And it was on a chairlift five years ago that my Dad met Awka Ski co-owner, Jose Luis Aguila Cruz. Jose, originally from Chile, was up skiing Silver Star Mountain in Vernon, BC and after striking up a friendship with my Dad he quickly became part of our family.
Now I'm part of his. On my third trip back to the long skinny country of pisco sours, hot summer days and volcano powder ski adventures, I'm sitting in the office at Awka Ski's manufacturing plant in Santiago.
Jose started Awka four years ago with his friend Juan Ignacio Tejeda and sister Marcela Aguila Cruz. The company was born from an entrepreneurial spirit and a dream both Jose and Juan had as kids.
"Before I had ever skied, I knew I wanted to make them," Juan says. "I was inspired by a Line Ski video and fascinated with the process and the culture."
Jose and Juan grew Awka from humble beginnings, building their first three pairs of skis in Jose's mom's basement on a ski press they made themselves. Through Start-Up Chile, a government initiative to transform the Chilean entrepreneurial ecosystem, Awka was awarded a grant to help the company take their in-house production line to a medium-sized manufacturing plant in the heart of Chile's capital city, Santiago. (Jose's mom is very thankful.)
We broke a lot of skis to start...
In 2012, Awka took their prototypes to the slopes. Created using Juan's architect and design expertise and Jose's skiing background they developed a line of park and freeskis. The rookie ski builders enlisted three Chilean ski professionals to test their wares, and the feedback helped create and fine-tune the Awka line, which now offers park and freeskis in addition to custom-made skis.
"We broke a lot of skis that season," recalls Jose. "It was a huge learning process, lots of hours, of which almost none of those hours were on the ski hill for me that season."
It's all about the bamboo
Awka's secret is the naturally low vibration of the wood they use - colihue bamboo. This particular type of bamboo is abundant in Chile and regrowth takes just four years. Colihue's flex properties and continuous fibers (tip to tip in the skis) means it responds faster and weighs less than normal wood.
Don't be fooled by the bamboo name, it isn't hollow on the inside and for ski construction the fibers don't require layering, which means Awka uses minimal glue, contributing to a lighter ski and better environmental (and ski) footprint.
Locally sourced (You won't find a Made in China sticker on these skis)
Local is important to Awka-- they rely on Chilean-made machinery and materials, (except for the router, which was bought internationally) making their skis a truly "Made in Chile" product. Plus, when adjustments are needed Juan and Jose don't have to rely on foreign help to solve the problem.
"If you know how to build it, you know how to fix it," says Marcela, who runs day-to-day operations and, as she puts it, keeps the boys in line.
She adds that Awka is always dedicated to finding materials that are best for the environment as well as close to home.
What's in the name?
Stemming from the Mapuche Indian language, the word Awka is rooted in the idea of rebellion. As such, the spirit of defying the norm lies at the heart of Awka Skis. As the first ski makers in Chile (second in South America), Awka is creating an industry and following their hearts, all on their own terms. Proudly Chilean, they celebrate their culture through powerful and colorful design using local materials and labor, but also add an entrepreneurial DIY philosophy that can be found in ski cultures around the world.
During my time at Awka headquarters, I asked if it snows more when you're on Awka skis. The answer was a unanimous "of course." I skied them, and it's true (and that's not just family pride talking either).
When they're not making skis, you can find the Awka at Chile's central valley ski resorts, Santa-Teresita and having fun with some of their friends of Farellones getting turns in. You can also visit them at awkachile.com or on facebook.