In the late 70s, Bob Wade, a geology major at the University of Colorado, followed his climbing mentor into the tumultuous world of outdoor retail. Bob Culp owned Boulder Mountaineer, a core climbing shop, and the two went on several trips together. While on a climbing trip to the Roaring Fork in blooming Aspen, Colorado, they saw promise for an outdoor store for the growing community. So, like any auspicious venture, they opened their new outdoor shop in April 1977, which happened to be right after the worst season in resort history — there were bare slopes in January — but they knew if the shop could succeed then, it could succeed anytime. “No one had money after that winter,” remembered Wade.
Ute Mountaineer got its name from the people who lived in Aspen. Pre silver boom, the town of Aspen was called Ute City, named for the Ute Indians who prospered in much of Colorado, especially the Roaring Fork Valley. The first shop was in an office space. The upstairs tenant ran a kid’s ski shop and wasn’t too optimistic about their chances. “He said, ‘good luck’ to us,” says Wade, mimicking the tenant’s ill-concealed sarcasm.
In an effort to stay afloat in the early days, Ute Mountaineer got involved with the Aspen Schools’ outdoor education program, which connected them to the community instantly. For 20 years, Wade volunteered his time with the program, which bolstered his and the shop’s credibility with the town. He still currently serves on four community boards.
After their first three years, Ute moved into a new location and grew in several directions, knocking down walls to accommodate their growing business. “We pushed out walls and ended up having three landlords,” says Wade. It was not the simplest situation to manage.
Three years ago, Ute Mountaineer landed its current location, a beautiful sandstone building in downtown Aspen with 4000 square feet, high ceilings. Rent in Aspen is notoriously high, and real estate is at a premium, but their current landlord, the Elks Club, saw value in leasing space to a local independent business instead of a huge company. “Real estate is very expensive here,” admits Wade, “and they made it work for us.”
One way of reciprocating their good fortune is, again, being intimately linked to central community events. From avalanche awareness to pro nights to various outdoor competitions, Ute Mountaineer has strived to be community minded. Since their first year, they’ve held the annual GoldenLeaf Half Marathon that connects Snowmass to Aspen. They’re also a sponsor of the traveling Banff Mountain Film Festival, as well as a chief sponsor of the Owl Creek Chase, a USSA/FIS-certified competition for nordic skiing. “We like to thank customers by having events for them,” says Wade.
After being in business for more than 35 years, Wade bases the success of Ute on one principle. “We try very hard to have what our customers need,” he says. “Customer service is everything,” he says.