On a recent spring day, a customer walks into Mountain Chalet, the long-running outdoor equipment store to report a problem with a pair of skis he had purchased elsewhere. Store owner Jim Smith isn’t on the hook for the ski malfunction, but he offers to call the company to see if they can be replaced. And he does something more. He connects. He asks questions and commiserates with the customer, a fellow adventurer who has experienced a tough day.
It’s like that at Mountain Chalet, and in a small but real way, it’s the reason the gear outpost is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Through multiple eras—some that saw longtime downtown businesses close—Mountain Chalet’s staff has worked to connect with its community of climbers, hikers, runners and skiers. That connection began in 1968 when original owner Kent Kane opened the doors to what has become the oldest outdoor gear store in Colorado.
“We’re more excited for you when you come back and tell us stories about your climb or ski,” Smith says. “We get as much enjoyment out of that as we do going out and climbing or skiing ourselves. And that is true and authentic, like the store.”
THE DOWNTOWN LANDMARK began with a quirky mountain vibe that never died. Push through the heavy wooden door on Tejon Street, and it’s like Christmas every day of the year, with plenty of toys and goodwill to go around.
Dan and Marilyn Foster kept that energy alive for 20 years. They purchased the business from Kane in 1985, but Foster was a junior at Palmer High School when he visited for the first time.
“There was a place next door that sold bongs, and a used bookstore on the other side,” Foster says. “I was starting to rock climb a little, and with all the ropes and shiny gear, there was no place like it. It was like being a kid in the candy store at that point.”
Under Foster’s leadership, which he admits was often by the seat of his pants, the store expanded with more space and products. Mountain Chalet made big news in the outdoor community when it doubled in size with the addition of basement retail space. Within a year, a fire in the next-door Albany Apartments left the basement room in tatters, but the mess was cleaned up quickly and business boomed.
“We were outgrowing the place and digging out, and moving into the basement took us to the next level,” Foster says. “Finally, we could thoroughly rep everything we wanted to sell.”
Through those fun-but-trying times, Foster always considered himself to be a steward of something bigger than a store. It was important for him and his staff to be approachable, the go-to team that recognized no difference between elite climbers and beginners, but met the needs of all.
“You have to interact with people,” he says. “You have to have expertise, but not be elitist. There are no stupid questions. It’s a fine line to walk when you have all this technical gear, but you don’t intimidate or look down on people.”
Mountaineer Bill Houghton has climbed 94 of Colorado’s tallest 100 peaks, including all the state’s 14ers. A former Air Force pilot, he began working at Mountain Chalet in 1999.
“It just always felt like a place I wanted to be,” Houghton says. “Now I know many of the customers, what their favorite activities are. It’s fun to talk to them because what they’re interested in is often what I’m interested in too.”
SMITH HAD ALWAYS dreamed of owning an outdoor shop. He formed his first business plan in 1992. Some 23 years later he and his wife, Elaine, visited Mountain Chalet. “I turned around and said to her, ‘This is the place.’”
But it wasn’t for sale. They asked anyway. Foster was open to the idea.
“We had been talking about our exit plan,” Foster says. “We didn’t know if we’d walk away or try to sell. It was serendipity that the broker called, and it all seemed like a really good fit.”
The Smiths beefed up the product line, and stoked support of the community by adding a second day to the popular Banff Mountain Film Festival, an event originally brought to town by Foster that supports the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. They also hosted a showing of the movie Metanoia about pioneering climber Jeff Lowe. Proceeds helped offset Lowe’s health care cost as he battles a neurodegenerative disease.
“We were really new in town, but we had resounding response from the community,” Smith says. “I think it confirmed with the community that even though there were new owners, the Chalet was still the Chalet.”
Even in the best business climate, it’s difficult for a specialty shop to make it. Smith is confident about the store’s future.
“We love Colorado Springs because it’s a mountain town,” Smith says. “It’s a big city that lives like a small town. Within 30 minutes we have backcountry skiing, ice climbing, rock climbing in the city limits; our trails system is amazing. Boulder gets the accolades, but the Springs is 10 times better when it comes to outdoor recreation and proximity.”
Those at the Chalet intend to keep doing their part to keep it that way.
Gear Through the Years
Gear and prices have come a long way since the Chalet opened. Average prices compared with Jim Smith’s 1968 Eastern Mountain Sports catalog given to him by former Chalet owner Dan Foster.
Climbing Rope (70 meters)
1968 $3 (1-liter canteen)
2018 $100 (hydration vest and bladder)