“Putting the Euro in Ouray”
I’ve long thought that San Juan ski mountaineers and backcountry skiers proved true the adage about how difficult it is to herd cats: it’s impossible, because they drift in opposing directions, and everything they do is secretive. Backcountry skiers are the same way.
You see evidence of this all the time while driving Highway 550 over Red Mountain and Molas passes. Ski tracks come off of some stunning peak a long way from the road, making you wonder where the best route to the top is. If you happen to get “in” with someone in the inner sanctum, then you might be privileged to ski a big line with competent partners, or be shown some secret spots, but unless you live locally this is pretty hard to do, short of hiring a guide. But two months ago, on Dec. 1, things began to change.
That is when Gary Ryan, a lifelong climber, guide and connoisseur of mountain regions, along with his partner, Averill Doering, opened the Guide Garage in Ouray. Ryan’s business card touts it as an “alpine touring and tuning center.”
“We want to be a ski shop that is backcountry-centric. Alpine touring is our goal,” Ryan says. But their vision for this endeavor is far larger than just a shop that specializes in mounting randonee equipment and grinding bases.
The six month plan is to create a meeting place where San Juan skiers and climbers can come and exchange information on snow and avalanche conditions, as well as get a “Euro ‘Spro” — a European-style espresso — or British tea.
“First, it’s a gathering place,” Doering says of the Garage. “We thought it was important to create a physical space where backcountry skiers and climbers could meet. We wanted to make something that had the things we need: Wi-Fi for checking the weather and avi reports, maps,” and especially that elusive information about backcountry conditions that people are bringing in based on their experience skiing it. In short, they want it to be a place where “We’ve got the beta.”
“It’s like an old 1970’s barbershop where people sit down and visit,” Ryan adds. “Except we tune skis.” It isn’t just about route information; it is also about linking people together. “There are a lot of small, tight-knit groups of friends that climb and ski together, but they don’t know each other. Here, there are a lot of potential connections that can be made. There’s a good chance you are going to like each other,” Doering points out.
Ryan’s motivation came out of skiing in La Grave, France the past two years.
“We connected to a much deeper culture in European skiing — its climbing and its history.” The mountaineering and skiing lifestyle there is a product not only of the complexity of the environment, but the great number of practitioners and the fact that people have devoted themselves to these pursuits for well over a century. In Chamonix, Grindelwald, Glencoe or any of the other major alpine centers, there is a concentrated energy from a communal culture. It stems from a combination of beauty, danger, extreme skiing, avalanche risk, crevassed glaciers, hard climbing, the closeness of staying together in huts and shared hardships with partners. All life’s pleasures and risks are crammed into intense days in some of the most beautiful places on earth; you see it in the faces and attitudes of climbers and skiers wherever you go.
“That culture was instilled in me from growing up in the U.K. and visiting the Alps,” Ryan said. “We wanted to bring that to Ouray. We recognized the need for it here in the winter; a lot of guides come to town and need their skis and equipment maintained. Skiers also need these sorts of services.”
Ryan’s life history is what infuses the Guide Garage with substance. He started climbing on Gritstone in the Peak District of England at the age of six. Under the tutelage of his father and the climbing tradition of the local Rucksack Club, Ryan had a core of competent mentors. His first trip to the States at 15 years old saw him climbing 5.11 cracks in Yosemite Valley while his father was off summiting El Cap with former Ouray local, Mike O’Donnell. Before moving to the U.S. more or less permanently in 1988, Ryan spent winters learning the finer points of ski maintenance in a shop in the northern English town of Manchester for clients that “would pull up in Lotus’s and drop off skis for a tune up before flying to Europe for the week.”
Ryan has made first ascents from Alaska to the Alps, is an AMGA-certified guide, and has an insider’s knowledge of the skiing and climbing businesses. “Eventually I got the prime job as a sales rep for Black Diamond. They called me up and said it was time to come in from the cold,” he said.
He was with them for three years before moving to Scarpa North America, where he spent five years helping build that climbing and ski-boot-sales program. Ryan asserts there is a “new paradigm in retail,” which includes offering customers a sense of belonging and community.
These myriad connections and business experiences enabled him to strike out on his own in a unique way. “We are doing it in our own style,” he says. Though the Garage is Ryan’s brainchild, he and Doering are its co-founders (“She translated my vision into a living beast”). He took inspiration from ice climber and alpinist Jeff Lowe, who he regards as a visionary. “This is what I want to do from my heart and my passion in this culture.”
When I inquired about the Garage’s eclectic business model, Doering explained, “Basically, this is a kick-started, community-funded startup with a $30 membership and benefits. It’s a community-supported co-op.” Ryan offers members a 20 percent discount on mounts and tune-ups. “If you get two tunes and a mount in a year, you are going to get your $30 worth,” he says, though he’s quick to add that “folks get the environment, too.” They can come to The Garage, drink powerful coffee, share notes on snow and mountain conditions and be treated to what Ryan describes as his “infectious British sense of humor.” He is an easy conversationalist and natural storyteller, wrapping you into one adventure after another.
Ryan and Doering have also started the Red Mountain Club, based on his experience with the Manchester Rucksack Club and the camaraderie that develops between people who share climbing meets, social gatherings, film nights and outings.
“I grew up in a long-established tradition in climbing clubs and hut culture. This kind of community goes back 100 years,” he pointed out. Ryan is importing that British tradition to the San Juans. As he says with an impish smile, “We are putting the Euro in Ouray.”
In fact, the RMC has an eye not only toward “celebrating San Juan mountain culture,” but also having a say in recreation and land-use issues. “We are concerned about access to Yankee Boy Basin and all the developments on Red Mountain Pass. We’ve seen a lot of buying of private claims and the building of little huts. Are we seeing the privatization of Red Mountain Pass? We want a voice in that as a club.” Membership has already exceeded expectations, Ryan says. “When we have 500 members, we want to look at buying a little place for a club hut.”
The creative energy coming out of The Garage is infectious; it’s a place you can go and visit without feeling like you are taking someone away from their work, because frankly, you are part and parcel of what the Guide Garage is about. Ryan summarized his thinking this way. “This organic thing that we’ve created here is like an alpinist. We are minimal people; you can’t carry any s—t up there but the essentials. We are climbing and skiing, and this is as authentic as it gets.”
IF YOU GO
Here are a few tips for a successful pilgrimage to the Guide Garage. For starters, take a look at the Garage’s Facebook page, where you can begin absorbing some of its zeitgeist. The Garage is only open Fridays through Sundays; a call in advance (720-304-8707) might be prudent. Be prepared to leave whatever you need fixed for a few days; Ryan says he wants to “slow things down” in a good way.
You might also consider becoming a club member: $30 for a couple of tune-ups and possibly a mount is a price structure from a bygone era. Allow some time for Ryan or Doering to make you a coffee, answer your questions and get you excited about what they are doing, because they are certainly making it feel like the beginning of a new era for skiers and climbers in the San Juans.
The Guide Garage is located in Ouray at 825 Main Street.