Weather-worn wisdom

Local outdoor expert Jake Palazzo retires after decades at Mountain Sports

Jake Palazzo tending to a pair of cross-country skis at Mountain Sports in downtown Chico.

Jake Palazzo tending to a pair of cross-country skis at Mountain Sports in downtown Chico.

PHOTO courtesy of mountain sports

For the past 24 years, Jake Palazzo has been a fixture at Mountain Sports in downtown Chico. In addition to selling gear and making repairs, Palazzo has become somewhat of a sage of outdoor recreation, passing along field-tested wisdom to customers and fellow employees alike.

But on Dec. 28, Palazzo retired, and Mountain Sports lost what employee Andy Olson described as “a wealth of knowledge.”

“He’s a natural teacher, for sure,” said Olson, who worked with Palazzo for 10 years. “He loves to sit down and do mini-clinics on gear and whatnot, but I probably learned more from him about life in general than about gear, which is saying a lot.”

Olson’s praise went much further than Palazzo’s knowledge of the outdoors: “I can say with full honesty that Jake’s the greatest guy I’ve ever met, hands down. He’s super genuine and would give you the shirt off his back.”

Palazzo spoke over the phone with the CN&R from his cabin in Plumas County, where he and his wife, Marty Dunlap, intend to spend much of their retirement. He reflected on his time at Mountain Sports and his career in the outdoor industry, which, including 10 years at a shop in Santa Cruz—his hometown—lasted roughly 35 years.

He was drawn to the outdoors at a young age, taking to backpacking when he was 11 years old. As the years passed, he fueled his interest by reading as much as he could, and learning about rock climbing and backcountry skiing from friends.

“Everybody goes through the same things,” Palazzo said of his early years as an outdoorsman. “You don’t become an expert in anything without having to make a lot of mistakes.”

After stints as a painter and working at a hardware shop, Palazzo began working at an outfitter in downtown Santa Cruz. It was there he began developing his love for the outdoor industry and abandoned his previous plan to become a doctor.

“One of the coolest things is to have a job you enjoy doing, and if you’re both appreciated and respected for it, that’s icing on the cake,” Palazzo said. “You’re meeting people who are [in the store] because they share your interests. I’ve done so many hundreds of trips with my customers.”

Indeed, Palazzo and Dunlap originally met through one of Palazzo’s customers at the Santa Cruz store.

“One of [Dunlap’s] former neighbors moved down to Santa Cruz and came into the store,” he recalled. “I was organizing a big rafting trip on the Rogue River in Oregon, and I asked the neighbor—who was very cute—if she wanted to go on the trip, and she asked if she could invite her boyfriend and some other friends from Chico. One of her friends turned out to be the woman I would marry.

“That’s what brought me up to Chico, like a lot of guys—the young women,” he said with a laugh.

Palazzo’s first day at Mountain Sports was Nov. 1, 1989; the shop had recently made the move from Main Street to its current location. Since then, he has helped countless adventure-seekers get started, often acting as “backcountry travel agent with customers, sending them on adventures in hidden spots and swearing them to secrecy.”

Though his love for the work has not waned, the death of a close childhood friend this past spring prompted him to consider retirement. “Time just gets more valuable the older you get,” he said.

As for retirement plans, Palazzo intends to pursue writing—several book publishers have expressed interest in his ideas on outdoor subjects—making his cabin “more livable,” picking up his old hobby of woodworking and, of course, more backpacking, backcountry skiing and river-rafting trips.

Olson said that the employees at Mountain Sports are “all going to miss him immensely. But, hopefully, now we’ll be hiking with him instead of working with him.”

The feeling, Palazzo said, is mutual. “I’d like to thank [Mountain Sports owner] Bruce Hart for giving me the opportunity, the customers who made my job such a pleasure, and all of my colleagues who were so wonderful to work with. It’s been a great run.”

Palazzo plans to have a “very public” retirement party sometime next spring.