A young Austrian apprentice wagon maker, Josef Fischer, decided to strike out on his own in 1924 in the trade of “wagon making and the manufacture of wooden products.” He started off with toboggans and then, the next year, he made a pair of skis. They were cut from locally grown beech or brook ash — no one is really sure — and measured 220 centimeters, about 87 inches long. He sold them for the princely sum of 140,000 crowns.
That Fischer started to make alpine skis in the first place is somewhat surprising because his hometown, Ried im Innkreis, in Upper Austria just to the west of Linz, is surrounded by gentle rolling hills dotted with pear trees. There is nothing resembling a mountain for as far as the eye can see.
But the factory is still in the town, albeit at a grander site, and remains the only large-scale, family-run ski manufacturer in the world.
The plant is able to make 1,700 alpine and nordic skis a day, although production fluctuates during the year according to demand and the release of new models. Many of the 480 workers have spent their entire careers at the factory.
Although the majority of the production line is now automated, many details still need to be worked by hand, imbuing the factory with an air of craft and technical know-how. The company, Fischer Sports, opened a plant in Mukachevo, Ukraine, in the 1980s, for most production, but the Ried im Innkreis plant handles the most complicated skis: those tailor-made for World Cup downhill and slalom racers, carbon cross-country skis and skis for jumping, whose crafting process is so secret a visiting reporter was not permitted to watch.
New technologies and secrets, of course, have always been an integral part of ski manufacturing. Josef Fischer Jr., the son of the founder, pushed to experiment with new techniques, particularly lighter composite skis. His father, however, told him that “it was nonsense to cut up the wood first, only to glue it back together in a different way.”
But after Josef Fischer Sr. died unexpectedly in 1959, his son’s focus turned toward making the company competitive in elite ski racing, and he decided to develop its first metal ski, the Alu-Metal.
When Egon Zimmermann of Austria used those skis to race to the gold medal on the Patscherkofel course at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, he scored a big-time coup for Fischer. The company’s skis had been perceived as being for “the army and the general public,” Zimmermann said, but victory changed that.
Production surged, a new factory was built, and the company’s standing in alpine skiing was cemented when Franz Klammer, on Fischer’s C4 skis, flew down the same mountain to win the gold medal in downhill at the 1976 Winter Games. Despite going 15th, the last of the seeded skiers and with the course already roughed up, Klammer thrilled the home nation and the world to pull off one of the most dramatic downhill victories in Olympic history.
Fischer looked to branch out in the 1970s and entered the nordic ski market — and even the tennis racket business — focused on producing lighter skis than its competitors. Within a few years it became, and remains, a dominant force in nordic skiing.
Other brands, such as Atomic, Head and Rossignol, also produce elite-level skis, but Fischer outfitted the most medal winners overall — 89 out of 160 — at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this year.
Technically, little separates the equipment of the top ski makers, so often it is personal customization that dominates design decisions. Alpine skiers, in particular, have distinct preferences for stiffness and weight, and the Fischer factory in Ried im Innkreis makes skis adapted to their individual styles and the varied snow conditions they will encounter during the long World Cup season.
Most cross-country and biathlon athletes have their skis chosen by their own technical specialists from the elite-level stock stored at the factory. These technicians will carefully cast their eyes along the hundreds of seemingly identical skis, running their fingers along the edges and balancing the skis in their hands, searching for the special pair that will somehow save their skier a few precious milliseconds, which is often the difference between glory and defeat.