The snowfall rate at the base of Brighton’s Millicent Lift increased dramatically. Vendors scrambled to lash down branded E-Z up tents as the wind’s rising howl threatened to send expansive displays of gear skyward. Outdoor Retailer (OR) had returned to Salt Lake City after a five-year stint outside of the beehive state, kicking off with the show’s on-snow portion, The Summit, during a classic Utah prefrontal gale. But the harsh conditions didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of those participating in the experiential activities.
Outdoor Retailer left Utah in the wake of ongoing efforts by state officials to snatch up public lands, frequently for the benefit of extractive industries. In returning, OR pointed to Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s commitment to renewable energy and public land conservation, but a number of heavy hitters in the industry—including Patagonia, REI and The North Face—weren’t on board with the return to Utah, and thus abstained from participating. Their absence was profoundly felt in the vendor village, which while enthusiastically populated, featured a paltry smattering of brands compared to what used to be a gargantuan maze of company tents.
Here, at the foot of the Brighton’s slopes you could sense the OR Show’s yearning for reinvention even as it returns to familiar territory. Instead of buyers and media lining up to test the latest and greatest from competing brands, attendees signed up for myriad on-snow clinics for everything from introductory ski touring and split boarding instruction, to ski mountaineering skills, to hut trip preparedness tips to emergency winter snow shelter construction. In all honesty, the commercial aspect seemed secondary at best, as the on-mountain experiences dominated attention.
Local guide service Inspired Summit Adventures had more than 30 guides on hand to lead activities. I tagged along while mountain guide Joey Manship taught a group of six the intricacies of kick turns while ascending a steep snowy slope. Another guide, Joel O’Rourke taught an attendee how to self-arrest while descending. Staff from the Utah Avalanche Center demoed how to dig snow pits and famed forecaster Craig Gordon provided a live avalanche forecast for all in attendance. It was a phantasmagoria of backcountry skiing and snowboarding activities with few hints of consumerism outside of the occasional demoed ski gear and the Breeo smokeless campfire setup, which proved very popular owing to the copious bratwurst their staff were cooking up for anyone with an appetite.
That OR is redefining its identity makes sense. Between Covid disruptions, the proliferation of internet sales and new distribution models, the outdoor industry is undergoing rapid change. Gone are the days of all the buyers getting together in a single location to place an order for the upcoming year with all the manufacturers. To stay relevant the show must evolve. “It’s nice to see OR back in Salt Lake City, but the show has changed so much during Covid, I’m curious to see what it becomes,” says Chad Brackelsberg, executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center.
How did others in attendance feel about the show’s return to Salt Lake City? Most just seemed happy it was no longer in Denver, which as anyone who’s visited knows is at times a seemingly unfathomable distance from the mountains. “It’s coming home to Salt Lake City, which is the only real city in the middle of the mountains,” O’Rourke says. Others were hopeful the show could prove beneficial in the long run. “Although things maybe haven’t changed as much in Utah, the show is an important part of the community, and there’s lots of outdoors folks who could help bring some positive change to the industry and the state,” Manship says.
OR is back in the same old location, but with a new look and feel. Regardless of the machinations that brought the show back or the conflicted feelings some rightfully hold about its return, nobody on snow seemed too preoccupied by much other than playing outside. I suppose no matter what else is going on, it usually feels good to be back home.
Note: The Author has previously worked as a guide for Inspired Summit Adventures and is an educator for the Utah Avalanche Center.