Doug Stenclik recalls entering a ski shop in the mid-2000s to inquire about ski touring gear “with little money and even less knowledge.”
After his first forays into the backcountry he fell in love with the sport and thought he saw a bright future for the niche market.
So before uphilling, ski touring and skimo became common jargon among skiing enthusiasts, Stenclik and Randy Young took a chance in 2011 by opening Cripple Creek Backcountry in Carbondale — believed to be the first store in the county dedicated to ski touring.
Stenclik said it’s hard to describe why he was so confident the sport would take off. It was basically a hunch that a lot of other people would share his love for uphilling on the slopes of the ski areas for the conditioning and touring in the backcountry for the beauty and solitude.
Bingo! Residents of the Roaring Fork Valley have immersed themselves in ski touring this decade.
“I think what we found is if you own a downhill set-up you’re going to have an uphill set-up too,” Stenclik said. “Now it’s not just your one crazy friend doing it.”
By the 2016-17 winter, there were an estimated 3.2 million skiers slapping climbing skins on their equipment and hustling up the slopes of ski resorts while 928,000 were venturing into the backcountry, according to SnowSports Industries America’s annual Participation Study that year. Some participants, of course, partake of both.
Sales of alpine touring and randonee skis, boots and accessories hit $54 million by 2015, the ski industry retail association estimated, and it’s climbed from there.
The Roaring Fork Valley embraced the uphilling culture from early on. Aspen Skiing Co. officials welcome uphillers on their slopes. Marble, the back of Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass are popular havens for backcountry enthusiasts. The Aspen area hosts two of the premiere ski mountaineering races in the country with the Power of Four and Grand Traverse.
Cripple Creek Backcountry’s growth has paralleled the explosion of the sport. Building off their success in Carbondale, Stenclik and Young opened their second shop in Vail in 2016. They added Aspen to the mix in 2018 and, new this year, they took over the retail operation at the Aspen Expeditions shop at the base of Aspen Highlands.
Uphilling and ski touring was slower to catch on in the Vail-area than in the Roaring Fork Valley, but it’s picking up steam, Stenclik said.
He remembers what it was like for him to walk into a ski shop with little knowledge of backcountry gear. That’s guided his business philosophy. It’s important to him that employees are as welcoming to newbies as they are with seasoned veterans. He wants to see the sport continue to attract new blood.
The educational aspect of the business is important to him. Cripple Creek has an extensive archive of blogs on its website dealing with everything from the ski touring start guide to ski mountaineering race reports. They also purchased backcountry skiing icon Lou Dawson’s WildSnow, a longtime blog focused on all things backcountry.
Cripple Creek also hosts numerous community events. A presentation by Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s Brian Lazar in early November to recap March’s epic avalanche cycle attracted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people to Cripple Creek in Carbondale.
Customers are encouraged to stop by and consult with the staff over a hand-pressed espresso or a craft beer. Customers can also schedule an appointment online to dial in their gear.
He is particularly excited about teaming with Aspen Expeditions. It’s a one-stop shop for people who want to buy or demo gear and work with guides on everything from uphilling on the slopes of Aspen Highlands to venturing into the backcountry. Stenclik said Cripple Creek will take advantage of its location just a few yards away from the slopes at the Highlands base and host frequent demonstration days where skiers can check out gear.
The store’s online sales of skis, bindings, boots, climbing skins and accessories continues to blossom. Stenclik said his staff often exchanges multiple emails with prospective customers before they complete an online sale.
So what’s next for Cripple Creek Backcountry?
“We’re definitely trying to get into Denver,” Stenclik said. “It takes more time.”
They are used to small mountain town markets where a store can be successful despite an obscure location. In Denver, picking the right site is critical to success, so the Cripple Creek team is taking its time and doing it right.