Skinny Skis celebrated its 40th birthday in late September. Phil Leeds wasn’t one of the original founders, but he joined as a partner three years after the gear shop opened in a 500-square foot, winter-only space. (Why wasn’t he a partner from the beginning? “I was in college,” he says. “I needed to graduate before I could invest in the business.”) Leeds did work at the shop from the beginning though. He knew founder Jeff Crabtree from summers working together in Grand Teton National Park. “I was here the first winter the shop was open,” Leeds says. “I had taken that winter off from school. Jeff and Owen (Anderson) were the partners and I would help them out when they got busy. It was a quiet winter.”
A collegiate Nordic racer, Crabtree got the idea for Skinny Skis after moving to the valley to be the Nordic Coach for the Jackson Hole Ski Club. “There was nowhere in Jackson to get high-performance racing gear,” Leeds says. Jeff coaxed his friend Owen to invest. The two scraped together $1,700 and used a contact from Jeff’s days Nordic racing at University of Colorado in Boulder as a broad-based distributor of Nordic gear and clothing. “They brought in skis, boots, poles, and some accessories and that was what launched them,” Leeds says.
For its first three years, Skinny Skis was an October-April-only operation. “We were able to get the space year-round the same summer I graduated from college.” How did Skinny Skis decide what kind of gear to carry in the summer? “We featured gear and clothing for the different activities that we enjoyed,” Leeds says. “We liked road running and trail running as well as hiking and backpacking and some climbing.” (The 3,500-square foot space Skinny Skis is in today includes their original 500-square feet. “We just kept growing out and out,” Leeds says.)
Over the years, Skinny Skis hasn’t just expanded its range of gear, but also its involvement in the community. “It started with our relationship with the JH Ski Club,” Leeds says. “That was there from the beginning. Over the last thirty years it has evolved to encompass engagement with lots of environmental groups and other community service organizations.”
Over the last 15 years, a Skinny Skis sponsored race, Run and Ride for the Cure (it’s a combined 5k run and 15k bike ride), has raised upwards of $100,000 for the Cancer Patient Support Fund at St. John’s Medical Center. “While there are lots of organizations that contribute to cancer research, this one is very community-centric,” says Leeds. “All money raised goes to patients here in the valley that may have difficulty paying for treatment or ancillary expenses that insurance might not cover. It’s non-bureaucratic too. The women running the oncology department can channel these funds directly to people without red tape. That means a lot to us.”
The Run and Ride is one of the most popular early summer events in the valley. Skinny Skis is also behind one of the most popular—and potentially life-saving—winter events too: Avalanche Awareness Night. “This is really, really important to us,” Leeds says. “We’re involved with selling gear and clothing for the backcountry. It’s critical and commensurate for us to be involved in backcountry awareness as much as we possibly can. This event won’t give people everything they need to know to safely go into the backcountry, but it opens their eyes and educates them about what direction they need to turn to develop their avalanche safety.” In 2014, Avalanche Awareness night is December 11, at the Center for the Arts.
“The gear evolves and the clothing changes and it’s always interesting and fun, but being an integral part of the community for as long as we have been has only been possible because of the support we’ve gotten from the community,” says Leeds. “So we try to give back and further the nonprofits that make Jackson Hole so unique.”
But enough about Skinny Skis. Since we’ve gotten Phil to sit down and chat with us, we might as well pick his brain for gear and ski recommendations.
Q: What do you think have been some of the most standout innovations in your time in the industry?
A: Gore-Tex came out when I was in college. That was a big one. Certainly stretch woven was fun and interesting. Fleece was a huge one too. In the last five years the number of styles and fabrications of down pieces have really taken off. Now there’s water resistant down.
Q: Owning an outdoor gear store, are you always upgrading to the latest and greatest?
A: My wife gives me shit about it. “How can you possibly continue to wear this thing?” she’ll ask. In some ways, I think it’s like working at a candy store. Some people are addicted to having the latest and greatest, but I find pieces that work well for me and stick with them.
Q: What’s the oldest piece of clothing in your closet?
A: I’ve got some Cloudveil pieces from their first year or two in business.
Q: And the newest thing you’ve gotten?
A: A Salomon mid-layer piece from this fall.
Q: What do you wear when you go out Nordic skiing?
A: I wear a base layer—I love Icebreaker and merino-based pieces—along with some stretch woven Salomon pants. I use those pants about everyday in the winter. I appreciate the versatility of a Nano piece from Patagonia as a lightly insulated mid-layer.
Q: Favorite Nordic places in the valley?
A: I love skiing Trail Creek. I’m there more often than not.