CAN a computer algorithm create the perfect pair of skis?
Pete Wagner, a 37-year-old Ohio native, likes to think so. Since 2006, he has been applying his background in mechanical engineering and computer coding to make skis -- and a few snowboards, too -- that are individually designed to fit each owner.
How does he do it?
"Our computers crunch the numbers," said Mr. Wagner, a self-professed "nerdy engineer" whose shop-factory, Wagner Custom Skis, is in Placerville, Colo., not far from the alpine paradise of Telluride. "We've created a scientific method of fitting people," based on collecting data about other skis they have used, as well as personal information like height and weight, he said.
Mr. Wagner's goal goes beyond creating an innovative product. He wants to retool the way people think about ski shopping. Rather than choosing a pair in a store or online, only to find that after a couple of runs down a mountain that they feel leaden, or don't perform well in powder, he says, people can save time and money by having their skis designed much as they would a custom-made suit or a couture gown. And, yes, as with those luxury items, there is a cost: his skis start at $1,750.
Still, the idea seems to be catching on. Last year, Mr. Wagner sold more than 1,000 pairs of his skis, which are available on the Internet and in a dozen boutique ski shops around the country. He also made a few customized snowboards requested by "friends of friends."
"It's a little bit like getting custom clothing," said Larry Houchon, the owner of Larry's Bootfitting, a ski boot shop in Boulder, Colo., that has a kiosk where customers can order Mr. Wagner's skis. "If you're used to going to Nordstrom's and buying clothing off the rack, but then you suddenly become more interested in your appearance, you're going to go talk to a tailor.
"It's the same with skiing. If you're more committed to skiing better, and with less effort, the skis just make sense."
Not everyone can justify the cost, however. Glenn Muxworthy, a ski buyer for the Ski Company in Rochester, said that there wasn't "a big calling" for custom-made skis because "in this day and age, price is a determining factor." He said that for less than half the price of a pair of Wagner Custom skis, a shopper could buy a pair of Blizzard Cochise skis, a much-buzzed-about product this season.
In Mr. Wagner's system, the process begins by filling out a "Skier DNA" questionnaire. Among other things, the form asks customers to list their sex and weight, the types of terrain where they like to ski -- groomed runs, tree runs, backcountry powder, etc. -- and the model of skis they've used in the past.
"Skiers can tell us, 'You know, I've got a pair of skis that are five years old,' so they might be a Völkl Mantra from 2007," Mr. Wagner said. "Our design software will understand, O.K., that person's ski has these certain stiffness characteristics, this certain geometry, and is made from these types of materials. Based on that information, and their physical information, where they're skiing, our algorithms will figure out what kind of design is going to be great for them."
After a follow-up consultation with Mr. Wagner -- by phone, e-mail, Skype or in person -- the design recipe goes to the factory, where computer numerical code machines mill the components of the skis, which are then assembled by hand.
"It's a combination of 21st-century, computer-controlled milling and manufacturing equipment and old-world craftsmanship and attention to detail," he said of the process.
Unlike other boutique ski makers, he added, he does not rely on precast molds. "We always go through the same steps when we create a ski, but every ski is different."
Mr. Wagner's eureka moment came not long after he moved to Telluride in 1998 and bought a new pair of skis that had received high marks in ski magazines.
"I bought them and I started using them and I didn't really question them," he said. "And I skied on them for about 80 days and just adapted to them. But after 80 days of skiing, I tried another set of skis, and that's when I realized I had been crippling myself with the equipment I was on."
When Mr. Wagner wasn't skiing, he was writing software for Penley Research and Development, a company that makes custom-designed golf shafts based on a person's golf swing and size. His experience with his bum skis led him to wonder: what if he adapted the software to create personalized skis?
In 2003, when he enrolled in business school at the University of Colorado, the idea for a customized ski company was still knocking around his head. For his final project, he put together a business plan for his prospective business -- but received little encouragement from professors and ski experts.
"There were definitely a lot of industry veterans who were telling me that doing manufacturing in the United States wouldn't work, and that starting a manufacturing business in a remote ski town made no sense," Mr. Wagner said.
Mr. Houchon, who saw Mr. Wagner's business plan, was one of the initial skeptics.
"I was unsure as to whether it would work," he said. "I didn't realize the extent to which Pete could streamline the manufacturing process and how good he was working with computers.
"I thought it would be a lot more tedious and difficult."
In Mr. Wagner's first year in business, he sold 200 pairs of skis. But through word of mouth, and because he could reach so many people through the Internet -- which accounts for 90 percent of his sales -- his business began to take off.
Even with his bigger workload, can he still find time to ski?
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "We have a powder-day clause at our shop. If the Telluride Ski Resort reports five inches or more, then we come in to work at 1 o'clock."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.