Mountain characters: Latching on to the good life

Jill Beathard
The Aspen Times
Chris Johnson, owner of Latch Custom Boot Fitting & Orthotics, studied his craft for years before starting his own business.
Jill Beathard/Aspen Times |

The apprentice becomes the master.

Chris Johnson didn’t start his own boot-fitting business overnight. He studied it. He practiced it. And when the time came, he relocated and began learning what it meant to run a business.

Johnson has lived in Colorado all his life. As a child, doing things “the way you’re supposed to do” didn’t jibe for him. He started working at ski shops in Denver at a young age and then moved to Crested Butte at 21.

He had never been to Crested Butte before, but he wanted to live in a ski town, and the number of accidents he saw driving along Interstate 70 to go skiing turned him off. Plus, he was chasing big-mountain terrain.

“Some of that terrain there, you look down and think, ‘There’s no way,’” Johnson said. He went on to live there 13 years, working in ski shops and learning to repair bikes in the summertime.

Eventually, he started working for a boot fitter and high-level ski tech who took Johnson under his wing, teaching him the science of custom fitting.

“You kind of have to want to learn it,” Johnson said. “Some people don’t want to work with people’s feet. You have to be open to it.”

Johnson had to learn about feet as well as equipment and technology, and he spent four years shadowing his mentor in Crested Butte and another five on what he calls “trial and error.” Then, he said, “I got it.”

When Johnson was ready to strike out on his own, he knew he couldn’t stay in Crested Butte and compete with his mentor in such a small market. So he started looking around at other ski towns.

“Aspen — that name carries globally,” he said. “I couldn’t ignore that starting a business.”

That was four years ago. Johnson spent one season working in another ski shop to make sure this was where he wanted to stay, and then he opened up Latch, his custom boot-fitting and orthotics shop, the following winter.

With his expertise and focus just on ski boots, Johnson has something different to offer from ski shops that do everything.

“What I’m trying to do is keep it more simplified and do more quality than quantity,” he said.

Johnson experienced some growing pains during Latch’s first two seasons. He didn’t buy a ski pass for two years, spending his mornings in the shop expecting walk-in customers. He soon figured out the Aspen clientele operates a little differently.

“People here, they like to sleep in or brunch,” he said. “If they’re going to get their boots fitted, they want to come in after skiing and before dinner.”

So this year, Johnson adapted. He skied more than 70 days this season. And riding the chairlift with people complaining about their ski boots helped him spread the word about his business.

“In my third season, I finally broke ground with the local community,” he said. “I doubled what I did the season before.”

So Latch and Johnson are here to stay. Which means he’s also carrying on a family legacy: During the mining days, his great-great-grandparents lived in a house that still exists today near the downtown core.

Aspen is a seasonal resort these days, though: In the summertime, Johnson works on bikes at Ute City Cycles. For Johnson, Aspen is the perfect combination of the good life with the means to make a living, he said.