Aspen Times Weekly Aspen Untucked: Graham Sparks, The Ski Maker
Many people figure out what they want to do with the rest of their life in college. Sometimes a favorite class strikes a passion, an inspiring teacher helps create a long-term goal, or an extra-curricular imparts real life experience. For Graham Sparks, the idea for his career did not come from academia, but rather from distracting himself from it during a class his sophomore year at Hobart and William Smith colleges in New York State. He was browsing Stumble Upon, a discovery search engine with a collection of obscure websites, when he found a blog about making skis.
“I thought about it and figured I could do that. I already had all of the tools,” the now 26 year-old said.
That random website planted an idea in his head and a few months later he attempted to make his first pair of skis. Although his initial boards were barely skiable, the process ignited a passion that brought him West and eventually to Aspen, where he founded Grizzly Boards, a ski manufacturing company. While his company is currently small, the products that come out of it are truly authentic. All of the skis are made by hand, one at a time, to ensure proper care and precision. And the designs are hand-painted, making sure each set of skis is different from the next.
“It’s not a ski that is coming out of a factory,” Graham said. “Everything is done by hand. For every ski, the graphic is a number one.”
Graham learned to ski as soon as he could walk. Growing up in Rhode Island, his parents took his sister and him skiing throughout their childhood at resorts like Jay Peak and Stowe in Vermont. Sparks and his dad were particularly close and skied constantly together until his senior year of high school, when his father was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD), a disease that causes dementia.
As years went by and the disease worsened, Graham started spending more time in his parents’ barn making skis.
“He would go out to our barn with pieces of wood and stay up really late working,” said Cheryl Sparks, Graham’s mother. “I think it was kind of therapy for him.”
In August 2011, after six years of suffering with FTD, Graham’s dad passed away. Soon after, Graham accepted an apprenticeship with a ski manufacturing company in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
“I used the opportunity to get out of my house and be by myself,” he said.
But his work, both at home and in California, showed him that making skis wasn’t just an escape or form of therapy. It was an opportunity to combine his love for skiing and his aptitude for creativity.
“I realized it was more than just getting through what we were going through,” his mom said. “He got both a passion for skiing and a creative gene from his dad. He is able to meld those two things together.”
After a short time in California, Graham moved to Aspen at the end of 2011. He worked at a tune shop and started building his own Grizzly Boards, which he launched last fall.
Graham made 89 pairs of skis this winter season. He designs each pair of skis based on a customer’s body type, skiing style, and the kind of boards they want. Once a customer approves the design, it takes him about 15 hours over three days to build a pair from start to finish.
The Grizzly Board workshop is located downstairs at an office building on North Mill Street. The place is cozy and, at roughly 350 square feet, every spare bit of space is used to for ski making.
Graham wants to continue growing Grizzly Boards by making quality skis and he thinks Aspen is the ideal location for that.
“I’m so excited to be in this town,” Graham said. “It’s the right town to start the company.”
Despite the emotional challenges he has faced along the way, Graham believes he is now doing exactly what he should be.
“It’s so rewarding,” he said. “You put everything you have into a pair of skis and then you get out on them and they can shred. It’s awesome.”
For more information on Grizzly Boards, visit GrizzlyBoards.com.
Barbara Platts covers millennial life in Aspen and is always looking for inspiring stories, like Graham’s, to tell. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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