As the fall season in the Wood River Valley wanes, the telltale signs of the impending long, cold Rocky Mountain winter begin to appear. It starts with the early dustings of the surrounding peaks, stark white in the frigid morning air, creating a sublime clash of color with the flaming foliage of the valley floor. Continuing its descent, winter takes hold in the hilltops freezing trickling tributaries of the Big Wood River before finally enveloping the entire valley in its firm, icy grip.
For many, these signals stir the stoke of the coming ski season, prompting hours spent pouring over precipitation prognostications and dreaming of lines yet un-skied. Yet, while skiing may be the winter sport of choice for many, for others, it is something much more profound than that. It is a transcendent experience vital to their very being. For them, powder lines are religious experiences, expressions of freedom and pure soul-quenching glory.
As the birthplace of America’s first ski resort, Sun Valley offers an extraordinary place for these diehard skiers to call home, one steeped in the very history of skiing. Over the decades, this community of core skiers has created and continually reinforced Sun Valley’s reputation as a ski town of unrivaled authenticity and home to the most devout disciples of the deep.
The town that lives and breathes skiing has given birth to some of skiing’s most well-known brands over the years. Scott USA and Smith Optics, two industry giants and Sun Valley mainstays, developed their groundbreaking inventions here: the aluminum ski pole and the double-lens ski goggle, respectively.
Testing their products on Baldy’s terrain gave their brands instant street cred among discerning skiers and synonymized Sun Valley with pioneering innovation. Another local start-up, Reflex, continued this tradition as founder Gus Verge aimed to elevate the oft-overlooked ski pole to its highest form.
Having spent years heading up Scott USA’s pole division, Gus helped grow and scale operations. He even spent time living in Utah to build a new production facility. However, throughout his days honing Scott USA’s production methods, a persistent thought kept nagging: “we should do this for ourselves, but better.”
And in 1979, with the help of close friends and fellow industry veterans Roger Roche, Lou Krieger and Dick Marshall, Gus took the leap, and Reflex ski poles were born.
From the outset, the mission was simple: make the best ski poles the world had ever seen. Better materials. Better durability. Better performance. Despite skeptics’ claims that the skiing masses would never want to spend money on premium poles, Reflex grew by leaps and bounds throughout the 1980s to become a household name.
In 1986, Gus was tapped to take the reins of Smith Optics by founder Bob Smith, and shortly after that, Reflex was sold to Easton Sports. Reflex maintained a presence in the ski world well into the 1990s, but without the heart and soul of its founders behind it, it lost steam and eventually ceased being produced and sold.
As Reflex eventually disappeared, so did Scott USA and Smith Optics, as both closed their Ketchum-based headquarters. The result cast aside their once intrinsic tie to the skiing heritage of Sun Valley in favor of corporate efficiency. The palpable void left by their departure triggered some existential rumination on the part of members of the local ski community. Did those brands take a bit of Sun Valley’s ski town culture with them on their way out?
Enter Ben Verge, son of Gus and a local legend in his own right.
As one would correctly assume, he was practically born with skis on his baby feet, no doubt dialed to the maximum DIN setting. He spent his earliest years cinched securely in Gus’s backpack, riding along as his father carved his way down Baldy. For people like Ben and Gus, skiing has always been more than simply a means to idle away a winter day. Skiing provided the foundation for their relationship and a fundamental part of their existence, sustained by this town, its mountain and its extraordinary ski community.
Like many in the tight-knit local ski community, Ben felt that something needed to be done to bring the vibrance of ski industry businesses back to the valley. As the son of Gus Verge, he was in a unique position to make some things happen.
A good friend and beloved local artist, Jack Weekes was the first to suggest that Ben bring Reflex out of retirement. Giving new life to the brand his father started so many years before would provide a chance to fill the emptiness left after Scott and Smith shuttered.
Over the next several ski seasons, Ben, Jack and a consortium of other close friends and confidants explored the idea of an all-new Reflex. They spent countless hours together on the hallowed grounds of the Greyhawk upper parking lot. With cold beers in gloved hands, they mulled the possibilities until it became clear that the Reflex revival needed to happen.
Taking it upon themselves to get things started, Ben’s friends surprised him with the completed legal filings for Reflex, LLC, officially setting the project in motion. In addition to Ben Verge and Jack Weekes, the brain trust propelling the new Reflex vision includes longtime locals Clint Lightner, Joe Marx, Joel Bernbaum, Sean O’Conner, Tim Carter and Charlie Dunn. A veritable all-star lineup.
While eight business partners might sound at first pass like too many cooks in the kitchen, it works well for Reflex and is part of the real magic. Each team member brings a unique field of expertise to the table and helps manage an aspect of the business. From designing the new poles and managing their production in Austria to handling operations and fulfillment, every member of the Reflex team contributes to the mission, which remains the same: Make the best ski poles the world has ever seen.
This time around, though, there is another mission as well. “We’re just excited to see where this all goes,” says Ben. “But in the back of all of our minds, something we’d all like to do is expand to the point where we’re employing people and building a big local presence.”
As for repairing any damage done by the exodus of beloved brands and places of work, Ben notes, “It can continue to become more difficult to hold on to the original nature of Sun Valley, but we are dedicated to bringing back the stoke and pride to our local ski community.”
However inevitable change may be, with locals like the Reflex crew sharing their love and reverence for the skiing heritage of Sun Valley, the depth and authenticity of this ski town’s character will never be questioned.