Creator of Hexcel honeycomb skis

Passing Date: 
Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hubert A. Zemke, Jr, age 75, inventor of the aluminum honeycomb ski, died February 17, 2018 after a long struggle with cancer.

Zemke was a an Air Force brat, son of a fighter wing commander. He learned to ski at Garmisch, and during a determined but undistinguished career as a racer and coach, made many friends in ski racing, including Dick Dorworth, Spider Sabich and the McCoy boys, Gary, Dennis and Carl.

In 1964 Zemke entered the University of Nevada/Reno to study mechanical engineering. There, he engaged a trio of professors to help find a livelier, stronger material for ski cores than the plywood then in general use. The team tried laminating fiberglass to aluminum honeycomb, a very light material used mainly for floors and panels in large jet aircraft. The main problem was how to adhere the fiberglass sheets to the tiny gluing surface presented by the thin edges of the honeycomb cells.

The project went dormant for a year while Zemke served in Vietnam with his National Guard unit. Eventually the group built a few pairs that skied well – well enough to interest the McCoys and their father, Mammoth Mountain founder Dave McCoy. McCoy came in as chief investor and Zemke dropped out of college to build skis in McCoy’s shop.

Zemke bought the bulk of his materials – aluminum honeycomb and pre-impregnated fiberglass – from the Hexcel Corp., which manufactured the stuff for large aerospace customers like Boeing. In 1970 Hexcel licensed the ski from McCoy (paying royalties to the UNR professors), and moved production into an abandoned World War II explosives factory in Livermore, California. The lively, featherweight skis proved a huge hit among slalom racers. Within a few years Zemke was able to move Hexcel ski production to a modern facility in Reno where production may have peaked at 12,000 pairs a year.

Because of the cost of materials, the skis were expensive to make. In 1970, Hexcel Corp. needed to focus on its core aerospace business and sold the ski enterprise to Chris and Denny Hanson of Hanson Boots. Zemke stayed on as product engineer and factory manager. When, in 1984, interest rates hit 23 percent, many ski and boot factories closed – Hanson/Hexcel among them.

Zemke went on to a consulting career. Among his clients was Hexcel Corp., which outsourced to him projects like super-light aircraft seats for large passenger jets.

He is survived by his wife Tessa, daughter Tasha Marie Zemke, and son Hubert Zemke III. --Seth Masia


Submitted by Big Al (not verified) on

Bought my first pair of Hexcel Skis Sundance in 1976 at Chicks Sporting Goods in Covina CA when they only had that single store. In fact, Jim Chick mounted and set up my Nevada 77 Bindings as well. Skied for 30 years in that same set up. They got so old that there wasn't a ski shop that work on them. I bought all the tools to do it myself and never had an accident while doing my own tuning and adjusting. My wife followed suit the next year with the "Honeycomb Prepreg Hexcelator II." They now hang on wall of my house in Big Bear Lake CA the home of Snow Summit and Bear Mountain Ski Resorts. Of course Jim Chick went on to expand his 1 store into an entire chain until he sold out to Dick's Sporting Goods. I've never had the chance to compare any other ski since the Hexcels were the only ones. And since Hexcel and Hansen were a winning combo, I skied the rear entry Hansen' Boots my entire time. The rear entry boots were fantastic. No pressure points with that bladder inside where they shot in warm wax, I believed they called it flow melted into the cast into your exact foot shape and size. Had two pair over those 30 years. 

Gave up skiing about 15 years ago mostly due to double by-pass heart surgery but thinking about starting up after moving up here to the mountains about 2 years ago. Think I could take those skis down, tune 'em up and ski again on those great skis?  By the way, I still have my Hansen Boots in my ski bag just waiting to get on the hill. 

Submitted by craiglsalmela on

Though he passed away a couple of years ago, Rest in Peace Hub.

I read the obituary then and noticed it said 12,000 pairs a year at its peak. I thought it was a typo.

Since then I have been reorginazing some of my father's files, some of which were work related. He worked for Hexcel corp. for 42 yrs.(1949-1991). From 1970 to 1980 he was Quality Control Administrator for Hexcel corp. from 1975 to somewhere in the 80's he was Hexcel skis Techincal Delegate to the ISO. He worked with hub the entire time they made skis both in Livermore and Reno on Production and quality issues. I ran across a company newsletter from 1979 that laid out Hexcel skis Reno factory entire operation down to how many skis per day. They procduced 400 pairs a day in 2 shifts and expected to exceed that number in the near future. So they had the capacity to make 100,000 pairs a year. Basically wanted to get it right for Hub and my father as well. I remember they worked all night on issues early on in Mammoth in 1970. They worked hard to make a go of it.

I enjoy the articles this magazine has,some  bring back all kinds of memories.

Craig Salmela 

Submitted by Tyler (not verified) on

Today would have been Hub's 77th birthday.

He was a dear friend and mentor to me, I miss him every day.

Your obit was great but, Hub served in Vietnam not Korea. 

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