The Inventor

Mountain Life 1205

John Simms is one of the most successful ski bums you'll ever meet. The soft-spoken 68-year-old invariably dresses in Carhartt work clothing, and his thick spectacles are crowned by an unruly mop of hair that gives the impression he's just rolled out of bed. But over the course of his career, Simms has revolutionized both backcountry skiing and flyfishing, founded two successful gear companies, and pioneered ski routes in the Tetons. Now, he's turned his innovative eye to sculpture, creating masterworks in metal that have landed in various museums around the West.

Simms's career began after a 1961 avalanche killed one of his friends, a fellow patroller at Colorado's Arapahoe Basin, where Simms had taken a job after dropping out of college. Simms spent the next few years inventing groundbreaking avalancheforecasting instruments, which led him to found the backcountry gear company Life Link. Later, Simms, a flyfisherman, was experimenting with neoprene, and he got the idea to fuse the material together to form waterproof, insulated waders—the first of their kind. Simms's eponymous flyfishing equipment company was soon born. All the while, he busied himself chalking up first descents in the Tetons with friend Charlie Sands—the other S of the famed S&S Couloir. "We've never said which one of us went first, Simms says.

A few years ago, Simms had yet another inspiration as he helped his daughter, an artist with a degree in product design, assemble her portfolio. "I thought, 'It would be wonderful to be able to do this,' he says. "Instead of being creative in a practical way, I wanted to be creative in an artistic way.Steel and bronze appealed to him because he envisioned ways of bending the metals into sensual, organic shapes."I wanted to take something that had very little character and transform it into art, he says. So Simms bought a book about welding, built a crane and began turning simple shapes inside out.

His results are mathematical marvels, unexpected geometric configurations. He builds on a huge scale—some sculptures are 30 feet tall—so the pieces interact with their environments. "My pieces utilize negative space. You can look up through them and see the sky. You can stand underneath and see the shadows, he says.

Simms finds art to be among the most satisfying of his life's endeavors. Unlike products he's invented, a finished piece feels as if it's in its final form, he says. But that doesn't mean his ideas are finite. "There are so many branches a piece could have gone down, he says. "My mind is filled with possibilities.

See more of Simms's work at

December 2005