Community December 20, 2023

Room to Grow with the Snow

Sun Valley ski inventions over the ages

Sun Valley has been at the forefront of more skiing progress, growth and inventions since it opened in December 1936 than can be mentioned here. It continues to do so in numerous areas, including ski gear. One of the best-known is Nelson Bennett’s ski toboggan, which has benefited hundreds of thousands of injured skiers. 

1941: Nelson Bennett, center, with his first Sun Valley ski patrol, Evans (back), Jerry Hyatt (left), Chuck Hibbard, Floyd Dupuis and Adolph Roubicek (right). Photo courtesy Nelson Bennett.

Over a couple of years in the late 1940s, Bennett (center) developed for the ski patrol a toboggan from a Stokes litter with two rigid shafts attached to the front, two short tail fins at the back and a loop of chain that could be hooked out of the way or dropped over the front where it would drag against the snow and the patroller could press down on the shafts to increase the drag. A single patroller could thereby take care of an injured skier. 

Bob Smith has likely improved the lives of more skiers, outdoor recreationists and fashionistas than anyone in history. In 1965, Smith founded what became Smith Optics by building the first double-lens ski goggles with a breathable vent foam, which kept the goggles from fogging. Smith was one of the best powder skiers of the ‘60s and was intimate with foggy goggles. He picked up the concept of double lenses from Gardner Smith (no relation), one of America’s finest alpine racers of the time. However, Gardner, an eccentric maverick and free spirit, lacked the skills to turn a concept into a saleable product. In 1971, Bob Smith, who made his living as an orthodontist in Marin County, California, moved the company from Rifle, Colorado, to Sun Valley. 

In 1965, Dr. Bob Smith’s (standing, far right) determination to stay out longer on powder days led him to build the world’s first thermal-sealed goggle lens. While working as an orthodontist, Bob began workshopping a way to prevent his goggles from fogging, testing the goggles in walk-in freezers and selling them out of the back of his car at the base of Alta. After receiving a patent for the open-cell foam he used for venting, he began building his product in Northern California.  Photo courtesy Smith Optics.

Bobbie Burns, a Sun Valley icon, invented freestyle bump skiing in the mid-’60s skiing bumps (usually on Exhibition). By revolutionizing the techniques of free and performance skiing, he was the first ‘hot-dogger.’ But his larger contribution to skiing was the invention of The Ski, the first ski developed with side cut, stiff torsionally and soft lengthwise specifically for freestyle bumpsters. 

Reflex Ski Poles’ motto is “Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Better The Second Time.”  

Reflex was born in the late 1970s in Sun Valley when four skiing addicts, Gus Verge, Roger Roche, Lou Krieger and Dick Marshall, who had all worked for other ski pole manufacturers, decided to combine their skills, experience and knowledge and to create a new ski pole that outlasted and performed better than anything else on the market. It was the top-selling pole throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. After they sold the company, Bob Smith asked Gus Verge to be president of Smith Optics. Gus’ son Ben was and is one of the better skiers on Baldy and started the Sun Valley Ski Team’s freestyle team and is still its coach. Roger Roche grew up in Pocatello and moved to Sun Valley in 1971, where he was one of the top ski instructors. He died in 2008 at this home in Ketchum. In 2020, Ben Verge, along with Jack Weekes, Charlie Dunn, Sean O’Connor, Joe Marx, Clint Lightner, Joel Bernbaum and Tim Carter, revived Reflex because they saw the void that Smith and Scott had left when they moved out of the Sun Valley area.  

With his long, blonde hair, unorthodox technique, unbelievable athleticism and huge smile, Burns changed the world of performance skiing by having more fun than anyone else. Photo courtesy Bobbie Burns.

Verge says, “Sun Valley has a long history of being a hub for innovation in the ski industry. We really wanted to bring that back to our town. We love the ski community here, and it is important to us that our brand is skier-owned and -operated and that we create a good product we are stoked on.”  

The eight founders are the only employees of the new Reflex, and each works at another full-time job. “Sun Valley is our home,” says Verge. “More than that, we have a great ski community here in the Valley, and that is essential to being a successful brand.” The beat goes on.


This article appears in the Winter 2023-2024 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.