“Big mountains breed big ideas.” When I wrote that sentence in my novel The God of Skiing, I was referring to Wyoming’s Teton Range, and how instrumental those jagged peaks were in inspiring the advent of ski mountaineering, the ultimate winter adventure in which the up and the down are unaided, untracked and elegiacally pure.
The same could be said of the ski town entrepreneur. There is something about mountain living that cultivates and even creates the independent spirit, opening the door for a ragtag mix of innovators, visionaries, and opportunists to create a career out of high, thin air, often leaving a lasting mark on the world.
Pioneering filmmaker Warren Miller and Colorado’s own alpine icon Klaus Obermeyer immediately spring to mind. Miller started making ski movies almost as soon as there were Western ski towns, getting his start in the nascent, trend-setting luxury of Idaho’s Sun Valley before taking his camera across the globe. He set first tracks for ski film auteurs such as Dick Barrymore, Greg Stump and the Jones brothers of Teton Gravity Research, who would follow in his lead.
It wasn’t until I read Miller’s excellent autobiography, “Freedom Found,” that I learned he and Obermeyer had once partnered on a barnstorming sales tour, driving to ski shops across the Rockies, California and the Pacific Northwest looking for accessories orders—Miller, with a ski bootlace invention, and Obermeyer with Austrian “Koogie Ties,” a kind of puffy bolo for après-minded two plankers.
Obermeyer, now 98, would parlay that cold weather tchotchke into an apparel empire, creating the first quilted down parka, mirrored sunglasses, nylon windshirts and mountain sunscreen, as well as one of ski marketing’s most iconic images, the “Obermeyer Girl.” He would also plant the pole for some of today’s rising clothing brands, such as Aspen’s Strafe, Pagosa Springs’s Voormi and Jackson Hole brands Mountain Khakis and Stio to trust their own visions of what kind of jacket you need to put on your back in an always wilder zip code.
Skiing itself remains the big-budget dream of the outdoor entrepreneur, as evidenced in the relatively recent development of Silverton Mountain, and the storied, wide-reaching, powder-plated glove of Vail Resorts. And from the summit of the chairs, that dream filters down to independent snowboard and ski-makers like Wagner, Venture, Folsom and RMU. From there, the jobs multiply—condo-builders, restauranteurs, bartenders, oh so many realtors, weed dealers (who finally went pro here in Colorado), mutt-mending veterinarians, housekeeping services, rental shops and a couple hundred dozen t-shirt and chocolate shops inevitably follow down the ski trail.
Of course, it’s not just about skiing anymore. It hasn’t been for years. There’s only so much snow, you know, which is why Telluride started its game-changing Bluegrass Festival and Salida its fast-water FIBArk. It’s why Crested Butte played an integral role in inventing mountain biking, and why so many craft brewers such as New Belgium, Odell, Avery and Ska started creating a richer, tastier alternative to Coors (the original ‘microbrew,’ which my New York state-based uncles used to pack into their carry-ons whenever they returned home from Colorado).
Why all this inventiveness? Or to willfully misquote Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” “To what do we owe this generosity of ideas?” To answer that question, I asked my high school friend Chuck Sullivan to shed a little Colorado sunlight on the matter, focusing on how smart high altitude innovators have become in recent years.
“Sully” founded local entrepreneur support agency Something Independent precisely for the purpose of celebrating Colorado-bred businesses, from distillers to tent and sleeping bag makers (hello, Big Agnes) to furniture designers, and anyone else with a unique vision about how to make this state a better place for us all. He told me, “You’re seeing mountain towns throughout the West leaning into entrepreneurship as a path to creating meaningful year-round jobs and healthy local economies. The likes of Telluride Venture Accelerator and Jackson Hole’s Silicon Couloir are harnessing technology, talent and capital in providing would-be entrepreneurs invaluable support systems in remote, rural communities.”
He added that, “There’s a real sense of opportunity tied up in the idea of putting a stake in the ground and carving out a life and business in these special places. This notion is by no means new, however. The Rockies have been a lure for generations of the entrepreneurially-inclined. They’re the wildly independent and stubbornly self-reliant type, but when the call goes out you just know who will be the first to the barn raising. And this is exactly what we’re seeing today.”
My response to that kind of wisdom bomb? “Oh yeah! Let’s see where we go from here.” Colorado wants your ideas.