The Madison-based Sol Alpine goggle company got its start when founder Lynn McMurray took a near-fatal tumble down an 80-foot cliff at the Crested Butte ski resort in Colorado.
It was 2001, and veteran Telemark skier Lynn McMurray was traversing “Sock It To Me Ridge” when a ski caught and she tumbled over the precipice. When she stopped falling, she said, she was “kind of a mess.”
A long-time skier, she’d grown up not wearing a helmet and wasn’t using one that day. (Now the mother of two young skiers ages 8 and 10, she always wears a helmet these days.) McMurray sustained several skull fractures and was flown to a nearby hospital. Her then fiancé and now husband, Dave, manager of the Planet Bike Company in Madison, watched the accident, horrified, and summoned the ski patrol.
“By all reasonable accounts, I should have died. But for some crazy reason I did not,” she said bluntly. “I owe my life to the Crested Butte professional ski patrol. They did everything perfect. When I was back there a few years ago, I ran into one of the patrollers and gave him a big hug. He said, ‘I think about you all the time. You’re the one when everything went right.’”
She was inspired to become a member of the National Ski Patrol and volunteers at the Blackhawk Ski Club hill just west of Madison. She also began thinking about what she could do to give back to the ski patrol and skiing safety.
“My husband and I started talking about starting a company,” she said. “Planet Bike, where he works, has a nice model for giving a percentage of sales toward cycling advocacy. I wondered what I could produce and sell and then give a percentage to the ski patrol.”
The thought never left her mind, but life (and motherhood) got in the way. McMurray, who now works part-time for Edgewood College in the graduate school, got advice on how to start a company from her husband and from her father, a retired Xerox executive who teaches business start-up classes in Madison.
“It’s taken awhile, but I decided I wanted to do goggles,” said McMurray, who considered making skis and dabbled with bamboo poles. “It was great to have help. With my husband, I could ask logistics questions. Without those guys, I’m not sure I would have known quite what to do.”
She also went to a national outdoor retailer show and hopes to get to a Ski Industries of America convention to market her goggles, which she designed to be functional and attractive. They come in two colors, white and black, and sell for around $70 a pair. The glasses have several lens options and come in two styles with the lens in a frame and frameless. She said her 10 year-old can wear the frame style, which are generally for a small-to-medium-sized face, while the frameless ones are medium-to-large faces.
Because she spent a decade at Crested Butte, she knows many people in the ski industry and got their input for her goggles. Her husband also used them on his 45-minute bike commute to work to test them and make sure they didn’t fog up. The straps have a “grippy” beading, she said, so they won’t slip off a helmet.
“I wanted them to look nice, of course,” she said. “But it’s really important that they work well. I looked at other quality goggles to see what I wanted. So mine have triple foam for facial comfort, are helmet compatible and the lenses have UV protection, but no changeable lenses because that seemed over-the-top to me.”
McMurray now has 600 pair of goggles in her basement and has sold around a dozen pair so far via her own website (which went live at the end of November) and Amazon. That allows her to cut out distributors and sell her goggles directly to skiers and snowboarders for considerably less that they’d cost if consumers bought them in a store. A friend designed the Sol Alpine logo.
She said she chose the number 600 because she didn’t want to run out this year, but also didn’t want to order too many.
“I’m not the Oakley goggle company and don’t have any brand recognition at this point, so I have to start out with a reasonable price,” she said. “My goal is give 1 percent of my sales to the National Ski Patrol, though I may make my first donation to the Crested Butte patrol because I owe them my life. I’m not looking at this as a get-rich company, more a slow-growth, make-some-money and make money for the Ski Patrol. Eventually, I’d like to get them in stores, but that would take a lot more work.”
McMurray said she chose the name Sol Alpine for her company because it epitomizes her love of being outdoors in the mountains. Sol, she noted, means sun in Spanish. She’s using Twitter to promote her goggles and said she’ll pursue other forms of social media.
“I’m just going to reach out to everyone I know, from folks at Telluride, Park City and even here at the Blackhawk ski hill,” she said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
— By Brian E. Clark