Interview: Jamie Kunka, award-winning Perthshire ski-maker

Jamie Kunka of Lonely Mountain Skis in his workshop
Jamie Kunka of Lonely Mountain Skis in his workshop
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From a small workshop in the picturesque Perthshire town of Birnam, the muffled shriek of a bandsaw can be heard above the hum of traffic on the A9. Given the location, in the heart of “Big Tree Country” on the fringes of Tay Forest Park, it’s a sound that’s not uncommon, but what’s happening here is far from ordinary. This is no timber yard, and these are not your average planks of wood being cut. Step inside and you’ll find a young man single-handedly transforming the surrounding trees into beautifully crafted, award-winning skis.

At the age of 27, and with only four years in the business, Jamie Kunka of Lonely Mountain Skis has already reached the pinnacle of industry success by winning a prestigious ISPO Gold award.

Jamie Kunka, testing his creations

Jamie Kunka, testing his creations

Growing up in Aberdeen, with the Highlands within easy reach, Kunka got into skiing at a young age thanks to school trips to nearby Glenshee. After leaving school, he moved to Dundee to study product design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, where the seeds for Lonely Mountain Skis were sown.

“I was always a keen woodworker and passionate skier,” he says, “and then after seeing a Ray Mears episode where he visited a ski maker in Sweden I thought I would have a go at making a very simple wooden pair of skis. I tried them at Glenshee and had so much fun on them that I became totally captivated with ski building and threw myself into it 100 per cent. That was in the winter of 2012.”

While it was very satisfying to ski on his own creations, he soon realised their limitations on the sometimes icy Scottish slopes, and began researching, developing and testing his designs to create a ski that would make light work of the variable and often unforgiving conditions that can be found in the Scottish mountains.

Under the guidance of an inspiring team of technicians, and with state of the art facilities at his fingertips, he was able to research and develop ideas for his own ski designs. In 2013, during his fourth year at DJCAD, Kunka founded Lonely Mountain Skis as the basis for his honours project, with the objective being to produce a high performance and aesthetically pleasing ski using sustainable materials.

Every pair of Lonely Mountain skis is handmade in Birnam

Every pair of Lonely Mountain skis is handmade in Birnam

After two-and-a-half years of prototyping and testing, the resulting product is just that. Kunka combines traditional materials and ski making techniques with the very latest technology to produce skis that not only look fantastic but also perform exceptionally well. All Lonely Mountain skis have an eight layer laminate construction and are composed of at least 80 per cent wood, which is all sourced from FSC certified forests. The hardwood core is composed of either poplar, beech or balsa that is cut into thin strips to ensure there are no defects that will affect the ski’s performance, and stuck together using a sustainable epoxy glue. The core is then covered with layers of flax and carbon fibre for strength, stiffness and optimum power transmission.

Rather than being squeezed in a press, the layers are sucked together in a vacuum, which is a relatively new technique that helps to even out the flex pattern of the ski. For a ski that’s both fast and durable, Kunka uses the highest grade sintered racing PTex for the base, and specially coated steel edges that provide the best possible bond with the ski, to withstand the roughest of terrain. To cover such high quality craftsmanship with a garish topsheet would be criminal, so Jamie finishes the skis with a final layer of wood that is then treated with several coats of varnish for a natural finish.

Once a design has been prototyped, the skis are put to the test in different locations around the Highlands, in varying conditions, and if need be, the design is tweaked until Kunka and his chief tester, Philip Ebert, are satisfied that the skis perform as well as they possibly can.

There are currently three different skis in the LMS range. The award winning Sneachda, named after Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms, is an all-mountain ski that excels both on and off piste. The Crua is a narrower, more lightweight version of the Sneachda, while the Ord is a big, fat backcountry powder ski that’s perfect for when the corries are loaded with snow.

Kunka is conscious of doing his bit to conserve the winter playground of all snowsports enthusiasts, and the company’s eco credentials are strong. All of the skis are made from 85 per cent grown materials, with all of the wood and resin coming from sustainable sources. The natural flax fibre that’s used is not only stronger and more shock absorbent than fibreglass, but also requires much less energy to produce than synthetic fibres. The LMS workshop is also powered by 100 per cent renewable energy from wind and hydro schemes, and for every pair of skis that he sells, Kunka intends to plant two trees in order to offset the CO2.

Earlier this year Kunka’s hours of research and development, craftsmanship, and commitment to sustainability were rewarded when the Lonely Mountain Sneachda ski received the Gold award in the touring ski category at the 2016 ISPO awards. The coveted ISPO Gold award is widely regarded as the industry benchmark for quality, and inevitably leads to a surge in demand from retailers and consumers. More than just offering recognition for all his hard work, the award has also increased the profile of Lonely Mountain Skis immeasurably.

“To win the ISPO in my first year was unbelievable,” he says. “It was a dream come true, as it was recognition for the years of R&D I put into the skis before I released them. I feel proud to be on the world stage in terms of ski companies, and it has given me great confidence going into this season.”

Lonely Mountain Skis are no longer a well-kept secret amongst Scottish ski tourers, who’ve found them to be the perfect apparatus for tackling the varied Highland terrain. Word has already started to spread to the rest of Europe, and as far afield as Japan, with Kunka being inundated with orders, particularly for the ISPO Gold winning Sneachda.

However, owning a pair of Lonely Mountain Skis is still the preserve of a privileged few. With one pair of skis taking a whole week to make – varnishing alone takes several days – this is a far cry from mass production. While he’s looking to produce 50 pairs of skis this year, Kunka hopes to be able to double that soon, in order to satisfy demand. Talking about his ambitions for Lonely Mountain Skis, it’s evident that he would like to grow the brand, but without compromising on what makes it so great.

“I would like to upscale the business to produce more units,” he says, “but I like the idea of being a small, manoeuvrable company that is constantly innovating. In five years I would like to be selling all over the world and be seen as one of the highest quality ski brands on the market, and perhaps even have a Lonely Mountain Skis shop.”

And to put his money where his mouth is, he plans to take a step in that direction by employing his first ski-making apprentice in the near future. So, even if the mountain’s lonely, the workshop certainly won’t be.

*For more information on Lonely Mountain Skis, see www.lonelymountain.ski