A Visit With the Powder House Ski Shops

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After spending lots of time in ski shops, one comes to expect a familiar scent from them, a unique olfactory brew of musty carpet, Lysol-sprayed rental boots, melted snow, p-tex fumes, and warm wax. It doesn’t sound appealing, but it comes with the pleasant associations of much-loved new gear and days spent as a ski-bumming shop employee.

Which is why walking into Wasatch Powder House is different. Nestled at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon, this handsome freestanding building is even lovelier on the inside, with an interior that blends clean modernism with mountain-people artistry. It’s part of a larger Powder House family, with three additional shop locations around Alta. The Wasatch shop is the sole Salt Lake location, a geographic extension of the family.

So, to get a little more insight into who is behind the operations and what makes these much-talked-about shops tick, I paid a visit to general manager Matt Farness to get the lowdown.

“We’re the oldest ski shop in Utah, open continuously since 1953,” Farness explains. “We started in Alta with the Deep Powder House, then added the Rustler Powder House and Motherlode Powder House over the decades.”

“Several years ago, we realized that even though we were an exceptional ski shop run by serious skiers, quite a few Salt Lakers didn’t know about us,” he continues. “So we pursued the opportunity to open a Wasatch Powder House in the valley to offer resort-level expertise to people going up both Cottonwood Canyons.”

The shop’s owner and his wife seized on the opportunity to design an amazing ski shop from the ground up, without having to work it into an existing building or lodge like most ski shops. That’s how the Wasatch Powder House assumed its custom-crafted appeal. These skiers thought up just how cool a ski shop should be, then built it to reflect a bright, modern sensibility with colorful creativity and artisan-level detail.

The result is a spacious two-level affair, with retail space upstairs and a state-of-the-art workshop and roomy rental shop downstairs. No ski retailer can create this kind of space when they squeeze a shop into a strip mall or low-ceilinged lodge building; it's something extraordinary.

Given the Powder House’s Alta roots, it’s maintained a focus on hardcore skiers who ski the Wasatch resorts and want the best of the best, snow-wise and gear-wise. Many local skiers walk in already knowing exactly what they want; the Powder House, staffed by fellow expert skiers, anticipates those needs.

“We rent a few snowboards, in case a family comes in and one or two family members snowboard; we want to be able to take care of them. But we mainly want to stick with what we know inside and out: alpine skiing,” Farness says. “We only carry products that anyone in this shop would be proud to ski on.”

That’s how the Powder House selects its retail inventory.

“We sell less quantity but much higher quality. A lot of outdoor brands are in a race to out-cheap each other. We don’t buy in to the race-to-the-bottom mentality; our price points are a bit higher but everything here lasts longer and delivers an excellent experience tailored to the needs of the Cottonwoods skier.”

Homing in on brands with strong products like Arcteryx, Full Tilt, Armada, Smith, and Black Diamond, the shops only carry goods that would be ideal for someone skiing our local conditions. A majority of customers in the Alta-based Powder House shops are visiting travelers, while the majority visiting the Wasatch Powder House in Cottonwood Heights are local skiers.

As we chatted, multiple customers swung by with service requests. Shop employees were busy fitting a boot shell, installing boot heaters, and taking a ski-tuning order.

“We like following through with service after someone makes a purchase," Farness says. "If you buy online, you don’t have a real skier thermo-molding your boot liners for you or adjusting your ski wax for the current temperatures in Little Cottonwood.”

The folks who run the Powder House shops know that premium service comes naturally when employees are well-skied and well taken care of. Alta shop employees get out to ski nearly every day, while Salt Lake shop employees are let out for recess three to four days per week. Employee housing is available too, and as a consequence of this grade-A treatment, turnover is low. Many shop employees have stuck around year after year, coming back for a reliable gig where they work for people who are as passionate about skiing as they are.

The Powder House also partners with Ski Utah’s program to help local elementary school kids learn to ski and snowboard. Skiing can be expensive for families, and this program makes it possible for kids from all backgrounds to get out for a free ski lesson and free gear rental to try it out. In addition, the shop has made an impact beyond its core ski community with events like its Tunes for Tots program each holiday season. Customers bring in toys to donate to kids in need, and in exchange, they get a free ski tune.

Another popular community event: A ski demo day that the shop co-hosts, which is open to the public each spring. They head up to the ski hill and partner with 30 gear manufacturers to showcase next year’s product samples for the public to try after the winter tradeshows are over (during tradeshow season, these samples are being shown to prospective retail buyers).

“Usually, the general public can’t learn about next year’s skis until the buyer’s guide magazines come out in August. This gives them a one-of-a-kind chance to preview the gear the spring beforehand,” Farness explains. “It’s a huge hit.”

Given the unfortunate reality that ski season only lasts for half the year, the Wasatch Powder House stocks year-round outdoor gear ranging from trail running shoes to mountain bike rentals and hiking clothing.

“Most of our clientele shifts to running, hiking, and biking in the summer season to stay in shape. And since they go up these same canyons to do it, this location is well-placed for that,” Farness notes.

The shop has become increasingly involved in the local trail running scene, serving as title sponsor of the Wasatch Trail Run Series each summer. It’s a unique race series—one I personally can’t wait to lace up for.

“We do a weekly evening race around 6 pm, every Wednesday. Usually there’s a short course and a long course so people can choose, and the entry fee is ridiculously cheap," Farness says. "It’s an excellent way for people to get a race into their training routine one weeknight per week in the summer. We switch up the venues, starting at lower elevations in the spring and then work our way up to the upper Cottonwoods later in the summer.”

Murphy takes his job as shop dog very seriously
Murphy takes his job as shop dog very seriously

This approach of adapting to their clientele's needs over the course of the year, and over the long run, is a savvy one. Today’s consumers are more inclined to buy at brick-and-mortar shops if there’s a richer experience and culture that comes along with the transaction. When skiers use a local shop like the Powder House, they’re buying from the same guys they’re likely to high-five on the ski lift. The line between retailer and customer is blurred; here, we’re all in it together for the joy of skiing.

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