Hit the Slopes

Words by Christina Chahal

Photos by Irene Searles

Words by Christina Chahal

If you’re a ski buff growing up on the Peninsula, winter rain means just one thing: snow in Tahoe! That’s what Menlo Park’s Gary Hohl remembers most about his childhood. When the wet stuff began to fall, it wouldn’t be long before his family loaded up the car.

“Growing up, it was a station-wagon-bagged-lunch kind of thing, when a lift ticket cost $12 and a season pass was a whopping $125,” smiles Gary, as he describes frequent Highway 80 trips up to the High Sierra. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, hitting the slopes was a fashion-backwards kind of activity, he reminisces, where you could throw on whatever winter-ish clothes you could toss together. Frequently, it was a carefully Scotchguarded pair of jeans paired with a hand-me-down sweatshirt for the annual rite of spring skiing.

In addition to flying down the mountain in his favorite Levi’s, Gary’s favorite memory is the uninterrupted time he spent with his parents, and more recently, the precious time he’s had with his own spouse and two sons, all because of skiing. “Skiing or boarding is one of the only times you can find yourself alone with your child,” notes Gary, who reflects how rare that is today, especially quality time that’s free of devices. “Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my family were on a chairlift. Even now, I ski with my kids more than anyone else. It’s a lifelong bond.”

It’s no stretch to say that Gary Hohl is an expert on the subject of local snow sports. Raised in Burlingame, he started skiing at the age of nine. Then, after several memorable years of mogul mashing, there he was—a teenager working at Helm of Sun Valley Ski Shop in San Mateo, a job he kept all the way through junior college and college. “It wasn’t work,” he says. “It was a lot of fun and something I always looked forward to.”

After graduating from UC Davis, Gary took a job with Kraft Foods as a quality manager in rural Idaho. Less than two years into it, the phone rang with a career- and life-altering offer. “My old manager called and said, ‘Do you want to buy a ski shop?’” he recounts. Gary didn’t have to think too hard: “I said, ‘Sure!’” Four decades later, Gary is still the guy in charge.

To clear up any confusion: the original Helm was in Sun Valley, Idaho, as befits the name. Westward expansion brought the store to California, where the San Mateo location has been a community fixture for over 63 years. “There aren’t a whole lot of businesses that can say that and we are proud of it,” says Gary. Today, as in years past, Gary’s passion is to get anyone and everyone out there enjoying snow sports and taking full advantage of the Peninsula’s close proximity to the mountains. From experience, Gary believes that the difference between a good day skiing or boarding and a great day is a well-fitting boot.

“The cornerstone of our business is boot-fitting,” he says. “What we’re really good at is analyzing people’s feet and then matching a boot up to that foot and that person’s needs.” Don’t expect to see a giant wall of boots on display. After factoring ability level and aspirations into the puzzle, staff duck into the back and bring out recommended styles for consideration.

Customization also plays a vital role. “We’re able to customize boots in many different ways—punching, carving, grinding,” Gary notes, citing examples like molding a boot to accommodate a big toe bunion or boosting comfort and performance through after-market liners. And, he points out, getting cold feet is no longer an excuse for not skiing. “The number-one thing is to get a boot heater that’s permanently affixed into your boot that runs on a lithium ion battery,” he guides. He’s also a big fan of the heated boot bag: “So many people struggle getting their boots on in the morning, and this just completely solves the problem.”

If Gary has one mission, it’s to clear up a misconception. “So many skiers and boarders think painful boots are just something you have to tolerate,” he says. “I’m amazed that people come in with that attitude and it really doesn’t have to be that way. Boots have gotten so much more comfortable over the years.”

As a shop run by skiers and snowboarders, Helm’s offerings include all the essential equipment and accessories, plus shop work and even season leases. “If you are skiing or snowboarding more than two weekends per season,” Gary advises, “then leasing is a great way to save money, along with time and hassle.”

In what may sound like an impossibility, Gary insists that families can still hit the slopes on a budget—they just have to get creative and go off the beaten path. Consider buying used equipment and clothing (look for Helm’s annual Ski and Snowboard Swap every November)—and aim for smaller “mom-and-pop” resorts like Boreal, Sierra Ski Ranch and Dodge Ridge. “I grew up skiing at Dodge Ridge,” Gary shares, “and I still go there nowadays. It’s easy to get to, and it’s never crowded.” Whether you have a preference for skiing or boarding, packed or powder, Gary says time on the mountain equates to treasured family memories for seasons—and generations—to come.

Custom Fit – helm-sport.com