Before there were wool socks that weren’t itchy; before there were jackets that were both waterproof and breathable; before there were tents that weighed a mere three pounds, there was Mountain Chalet.
The oldest mountaineering shop in Colorado Springs, Mountain Chalet opened its doors in 1968. Today, it is nestled in a city block of boutiques and restaurants across from Acacia Park, and is the only locally owned shop selling outdoor gear in the city. For gear junkies, Mountain Chalet is irresistible, and locals and tourists alike visit the store to gain insight into the staff’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things outdoors.
The store started as a small regional chain, and in the 1970s, became the go-to spot for waffle stompers and puffy down jackets. “Hiking was starting to get big then,” says Mountain Chalet owner Dan Foster. “Everyone was heading for the woods, and there weren’t many people who sold gear for that.”
By the 1980s, the chain was scaled back, and there was just one Mountain Chalet. Foster and his brother were thinking about buying an outdoor store in Granby, CO, and he went to Mountain Chalet’s original owner for guidance. “One of the longtime employees had quit, and I started working there over the holidays,” says Foster, who became manager in 1985. Mountain Chalet was a 2,000-square foot store then; today, it has grown to 8,000 square feet. Dan is the store’s sole buyer; his wife Marilyn is co-owner, and daughter Tisa is the office assistant.
Foster, 62, has lived in Colorado most of his life. His love of outdoor sports led him to his career at Mountain Chalet. He would often explore the desert on solo hikes in Utah with his dog. He’s a skilled backcountry skier and climber, and has skied 18 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. He traded his backcountry skis for alpine in 1995 when he lost a friend in a backcountry accident, and today skis 35 days a year, mostly in Crested Butte, where he and his wife own a home.
Foster and his store have weathered trends through the decades. Newspaper ads for roller blades in 1991, redesigned snowshoes in 1994, snap-in cross-country ski bindings in 1997, lightweight packs in 2001, soft-shell jackets in 2002, and Crocs shoes in 2005 tell the story.
Today, the store struggles like many independent retailers to stand up to its big-box competitors, but it’s a fight that Foster believes is worth fighting. “I feel like I’m a steward of the store,” he says. “The sign doesn’t say ‘Foster Mountaineering.’ It’s been a great ride. We meet interesting people here – healthy people who are doing healthy, fun things.”
Mountain Chalet is a member of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance; one of three stores in Colorado in this organization for independent outdoor retailers. The appeal of the more than 70 stores in the alliance is their employees’ knowledge about the places they call home.
“I grew up in this town,” Foster says. “I’ve hiked the trails and skied Pikes Peak. Most of the staff has been here 10 or 20 years, or longer. So when someone wants to know about the best gear for Colorado Springs, we can tell them.”
But Mountain Chalet feels the squeeze of the giant retail chains that sprawl on the edges of the city. “We are turning into a 7-Eleven,” he says. “People will buy their bigger items online or at the big chains, and then come in here for freeze-dried food.”
Foster says he doesn’t believe his customers have abandoned him. “I think people root for the underdog, and cerebrally, they would rather shop with us than at a chain store. So we try to encourage that by supporting local causes and seeking grants.” Each year, the store sponsors the Banff Film Festival’s Colorado Springs stop, and often partners with retailers to raise money for local environmental and recreational causes. The store has a thriving rental business for snowshoes, cross-country skis, climbing gear and more, and is always looking for the next big thing for gearheads.
Foster doesn’t know what the future holds for Mountain Chalet. “I don’t have an exit plan for myself,” he says. “I don’t want to work until I’m 70 or 80. I always thought it would be great to sell it to longtime employees who can carry on the tradition. I feel like there is a legacy here.”