There’s no such thing as a free (heel) lunch…

Sometimes I feel that I need to write on this blog page to keep it current and I have to think a bit to come up with something interesting to write about. This time of year there is so much going on that I have to decide what not to write about. This time of year I think to myself (with some guilt) that I should have made more entries in the last month. Because there truly are a lot of interesting things happening in a ski shop in the middle of winter. At least this one…

So lets high-lite some things I COULD have written about and then I will write some about just one topic. Although the blog is called rambling from CalSkiCo for good reason so I make no promises…

I COULD do a whole blog about how great my staff is. That would make about 10 people really happy around here at least. But it might not be the most interesting thing for you other readers, so I will pass on that.

I COULD write about my experience at the recent national trade show in Denver. That is always interesting, but I do that most years. If you want to read about that just go into the archives and look at entries from late January or early February. Let’s just say that there is a bunch of very cool new stuff for next year!

I COULD write about how there has been only one single little snow storm since mid November or so. How the industry is in a bad state because of it. How many dealers and company sales reps are freaking out. How storefronts will close. How Reps will leave the industry to find consistent paychecks selling widgets or toilet paper. All the doom and gloom stuff. But that is simply depressing stuff, and any regular skier already knows it has not been a good snow year. Plus I just wrote about that the day after Christmas so you could simply re-read that entry if you want to get depressed… 

I COULD write about how we are currently throwing a massive store wide SALE unlike any we have ever had this time of year. All skis are 30-50% off. Clothing is all at least 30% off. Helmets, gloves, goggles and the like are all 20% off etc. But this blog is not about store promotion (although it just crept in right there!).

I COULD write about how we are now on Facebook and even have a twitter account. How I have wanted to do this for a while and finally it is happening due to my great and creative staff. How they have been doing interesting and creative entries and videos to post. How you should all check it out.

But instead of all that let’s talk a bit about backcountry skiing. Yes, I said backcountry skiing. What does that actually mean you may be asking? Backcountry skiing basically refers to two things in my mind. One aspect is simply alternative bindings to conventional alpine set-ups that allow one to also go uphill on skis instead of just going down. The second aspect is the “backcountry” part meaning no lift tickets, no crowds, and a more pure mountain experience.

Backcountry ski shops typically cater to what we might categorize as cross country, telemark, and randonee skiing. If you don’t know what that stuff means look it up. Or just type in “backcountry skiing” into your search engine and explore. If you are familiar with these terms then you may know that for the last 15 years or so the backcountry skiing has been the stronghold of Marmot Mountain Works here in Berkeley. They have been specializing in this aspect of our sport as well as climbing and camping gear and doing a good job of it. We have done lot’s of binding mounts and worked on lot’s of boots meant for this aspect of skiing that were sold by Marmot over the years. CalSkiCo and Marmot have had a great symbiotic relationship. Many are the times that customers have asked if we were going to start doing backcountry gear. My stock answer has always been that it is a small niche market and that Marmot was representing it well already. If we competed with them there would then be two entities right in the same town serving the entire bay area for this niche market and it was better to allow Marmot to take all the business and do it right.

Well Marmot is closing down this month. They have a second store in Washington state and the owner has decided to close the Berkeley location. It is a sad thing for many who enjoy this aspect of the sport. Marmot has taken care of the needs of thousands of enthusiasts over the years. Now the closest real backcountry shop for them is ‘The Backcountry Store” in Truckee. Sunrise in Livermore has some stuff. Gary down at Helm in San Mateo dabbles a bit with a boot line to compliment his alpine boots. But as far as I know that’s it. And someone has to take up the slack. Should it be California Ski Company?

I have thought about this a lot over the last decade. We have always been a true specialty shop. No snowboards. No summer business model. Just alpine skiing. Sticking to our core competency. But as time has gone on, the line between alpine and backcountry has become blurred a bit. Mainstream alpine companies are now getting involved with backcountry, and it has crept into our store all on its own. Marker Duke bindings came out as a crossover alternative to established randonee bindings and are hanging on our wall. Fischer Watea skis are so light that they are desirable as backcountry skis and we have sold many pairs for this use. They are even notched for mounting climbing skins from the factory like true backcountry specific skis are. We have sold Stockli “touring” skis as alpine models because they worked well for that purpose. We even stocked the Dalbello Virus backcountry boot for a season. The shop mounts enough backcountry bindings that we have mounting jigs for the more popular brands. We are very familiar with the whole world of backcountry.

Now both Salomon and Tyrolia have new backcountry bindings that will be marketed under the brand names of Salomon, Atomic, Head, Fischer, and Elan. And all of those brands have plans to continue to develop this aspect of their offering. The truth is that while backcountry still only represents about 2% of the industry sales, it is the fastest growing market segment for the last number of years. It has grown to the point that the “Big Boys” have taken notice. They have decided to compete against the small backcountry specialty brands. Now they will advertise it and drive the backcountry scene even more. You will see more and more articles in Ski, Skiing, and Powder magazines. Mens journal and Outdoor magazine will do backcountry gear expose’s.

And I have the resources to give it a go. Steve and Gabe are serious about their backcountry skiing. Steve even teaches backcountry skills classes while working here too. I have a great realtionship with Rich Meyer who is the guru of backcountry skiing here in the Bay Area, and have done some backcountry skiing with him up on Mt. Shasta. Some of the staff at Marmot have even contacted me and want to meet to discuss being part of integrating their niche expertise into California Ski Company. If we are going to expand our offering, backcountry seems the logical way to do it. It is not selling out or compromising like snowboard sales would be in my eyes; it is certainly skiing. It is not a second seperate summer business which would limit my time off in the summer (selfish?-YES!). And the market and industry is making it easier each year to see why it would make sense. The staff is very into it, but it is not there money so they just think it would be fun. I have to look at it from a business standpoint. My argument against it has always been that Marmot already did a great job and satisfied the needs of the greater Bay Area for a core backcountry shop. Splitting that business between us might make for two decent options instead of one really good one. But the market is changing. Backcountry is growing. And Marmot is gone…

What do you think? I think that if we don’t do it somebody else will. Actually I know that is the case. If not this year then soon. I think that we are already spatially challenged but have always found a way to cram more into this funky cool retail space. I think that this is NOT the year to make a big move from a financial standpoint due to a down sales year. But I think now is the time to strike if I have the desire and the nerve to take a bit of a gamble on next years weather. No risk, no reward, right? And as they say “There’s no such thing as a free (heel) lunch”.

Again I ask- what do YOU think? As customers your input is of the utmost value to us. email me at, write a comment on the blog, or give us a call. If you have an opinion we would like to hear it…

And pray for snow. “Thinking snow” doesn’t seem to be getting it done this year!

6 Replies to “There’s no such thing as a free (heel) lunch…”

  1. PLEASE take up the backcountry mantle!

    Marmot will never be replaced, but it would be doing them and their loyal customer base (one of whom I counted myself) a huge service. Also, as you note, it would fill a big void in the market. I can't speak to the finances of it… but I can say that I would support you for my BC gear.

    I can't stand going to the REI/Sports basement big boys for gear or advice… especially for things like trad climbing or BC gear, where actually talking to someone who knows the gear is essential.

    Thanks for providing the forum for input.

  2. Snow is falling!
    I hope you say yes to back country and take advantage of the intellectual resources that Marmot has released into the market.

  3. Due to a pair of Garmont three pin boots I've been able to get into the back country, something I had not been able to do to any extent with lesser equipment.
    I need some service/maintenance/repair though to keep me going. I want to go up to Sierra at Tahoe for this Saturday's Telemark Festival and need some equipment help.
    I'll call and see if that's possible.
    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Jordan Herrmann
    El Cerrito
    510-520-9782 or let me know?

  4. Hi Greg,
    I hope you do decide to fill the void left by Marmot – Berkeley and carry more backcountry gear. If not the full tele/bc line at least some black diamond and dynafit equipment.

  5. Hi Greg,
    Last week good friend contacted me and asked where I take my skis for tuning work. I stated only Cal Ski Co. in Berkley. He mention that he use to go Marmot and now wasn’t sure who would be able help him and his family out with gear, ski tuning and repairs. I let him know that your shop was only place in the bay area I trusted to work on my skis and that Martin was Tech Guru with Skis tuning. I also let him know that your staff was by far the most knowledgeable in the industry. I think you would be able to easily pick-up some new customers by adding back country to your inventory. My only concern is how you would do this with your current shop space.

    Gary Smith
    Bear Valley/Brentwood

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