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By: Bob Woodward
Inspired by the post-World War II generation of trailblazing outdoor gear and apparel creators, a new pool of design, manufacturing and retail talent emerged between the late 1950s and late 1970s. To a person, this second generation of pioneers strove to create unique gear and make the public more aware of the joy of outdoor pursuits. Either by coincidence or luck, their work was aided by three important national developments.
Early in his term in office, President John Kennedy encouraged the American public to get outdoors and recreate for good health and to do it with “viggah.” His remarks sparked a growing interest in recreation that was further enhanced by the second development — the successful American ascent of Mount Everest in 1963. Suddenly, a majority of Americans were aware of climbing and expeditions, both of which were previously considered things only Europeans engaged in.
The last development was a revolution of sorts that started in Eugene, Ore., but would quickly become a nationwide sensation. Initially fostered by University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman and later by writer and running guru Jim Fixx, it was the running — or, as Bowerman preferred to call it, jogging — movement. In a short time, thousands of Americans were out running, and as a result, many of them discovered backpacking, hiking and other outdoor pursuits as alternatives to stay fit.
Against this background, the market for outdoor gear and apparel started to grow and foster a new set of movers and shakers.
As a graduate student in business economics at California’s Claremont Graduate University in 1970, Don Douglass’ thesis analyzed REI’s mail-order business model. In his analysis, he found two things that intrigued him: “First, was the fact that their largest base of customers was in Southern California,” he said. “Second, was the fact that people who bought from REI would prefer to try on gear, especially packs and boots, before buying it.”
With his findings and MBA in hand, Douglass raised the capital to start Wilderness Group Inc. (WGI) in 1970, and then opened The Backpacker’s Shop in Claremont, Calif. Later, he opened two more Southern California stores, one in Santa Ana and one in Pasadena.
Apart from retail, WGI started a pack company called Alpenlite. “Dick Kelty couldn’t open more dealers because he couldn’t build packs fast enough,” Douglass recalled. “So I said, ‘Hell, we can build a great pack,’ and we did.”
Around the same time, the first urethane-coated nylon fabric came onto the market and Alpenlite ended up using it in all its pack bags. But it wasn’t the waterproofness that made Alpenlite backpacks famous. It was the hip belts. “We used big, padded waist belts, and the company slogan was: ‘Let your hips shoulder your load.’ “
Alpenlite packs were hot sellers in the ’70s. At one point, kit maker Frostline alone was selling thousands of Alpenlite backpacks in kit form, and Sierra Designs created a special pack bag for the Alpenlite pack frames it sold at its retail shops.
With the retail and the manufacturing businesses humming along, Douglass announced to his partners that if sales reached $1 million, he and his wife, Reanne, would take a leave of absence and sail around the world. The partners chuckled, but within two years of starting WGI, sales hit the $1 million mark, the couple purchased a 42-foot sailboat, and they were off.
Their voyage started well, but 800 miles west-northwest of Cape Horn, the boat was overturned by a giant wave. When nothing was heard from the couple, they were presumed dead. But 42 days later, they arrived on the southern coast of Chile, both they and their boat badly battered.
Despite the harrowing experience, their voyage was aborted not so much because of the sailing conditions but because Douglass had to come back to take over WGI, which was struggling under a temporary CEO’s leadership. “I came back and immediately got the company (now all of it officially under the Alpenlite name) into book bags, which were a huge hit for us, and then into bicycle touring bags under the Kangaroo label.”
Not one to stand still, Douglass loved any new challenge and started expanding his horizons into other endeavors while Alpenlite moved along.
So while Alpenlite moved along, the Douglasses decided they wanted to write a book about their fateful sailing journey each from their own point of view. Publishers, though, had a different idea, wanting a more macho-driven high adventure tale. Rather than bow to the pressure, the couple formed their own publishing company (Fine Edge Productions) and printed “Cape Horn: One Man’s Dream, One Woman’s Nightmare.” (The book is now in its second printing and has been translated into Italian and French.)
During this time, Douglass also developed an interest in mountain biking, purchasing one of the first multi-geared mountain bikes from mountain bike pioneer manufacturer Tom Ritchey. Next thing you know, Douglass is riding all over the mountains, becomes an advocate for more mountain bike trails, and is the brains behind the most famous mountain bike downhill race in the United States — the Kamikaze at the Mammoth Mountain ski area in Southern California. For all his efforts on behalf of mountain biking, Douglass is among the first inductees into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame as one of the sport’s founding fathers.
Busy and interested in so many diverse outdoor recreation opportunities and with a growing publishing business, Douglass retired from the outdoor business in the mid-1980s. He and Reanne then moved to the Sierra where he set the still-standing record for running the Muir Trail from Whitney Portal to the Yosemite Valley in an elapsed time of 118 hours. That feat led to Douglass designing and making ultralight gear.
Eventually, the Douglasses were drawn back to the sea. These days, they live in Anacortes on Fidalgo Island near Washington State’s San Juan Islands. Their first book led to seven more about sailing and places to anchor a boat. The latest one is “Exploring the Gulf of Alaska.” They also have a detailed map of the waters of Baja coming out later this year.
And if that’s not enough, they’ve established The Friends of The Inland Passage, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring public access to the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
While studying French at then-San Francisco State College, George Marks became friends with a close-knit group of people who were into mountaineering, backpacking and rock climbing.
“Through that group,” he recalled, “I met many who would go on to become the super stars of the industry — Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Allen Steck, the Long brothers and George Rudolf to mention but a few.”
However, being part of the then-small outdoor industry of the time held no interest for Marks. His passion was language, and as soon as he graduated college in 1957, he was off to France as an assistant in the English department at the Lycee de Garcons in Thionville. Later, he assumed a similar position at high schools both in Wiesbaden and Giessen, Germany.
“During the three years I was in Europe, I spent the holidays in the Alps with French and German friends. We did a lot of ski touring, climbing and general outdoor activities,” he said.
“After my return in the fall of 1960, I took a job at the Ski Hut in Berkeley working for Allen Steck, who was manager of the retail store at the time.”
Soon adventure called, and thanks to the Long brothers, Marks became the logistics officer for the U.S. Antarctic Research Programs for a National Science Foundation funded project in McMurdo, Antarctica.
“During my two years at McMurdo,” Marks said, “I gained invaluable experience in how to cope with low temperatures by honing my skills at designing tents and outerwear.”
Back from Antarctica in 1963, Marks returned to The Ski Hut where he went to work at the retailer’s Trailwise gear manufacturing enterprise. There, he met Bob Swanson who was in charge of The Ski Hut’s mail-order operations.
“Over the next two years, Bob and I became good friends and with capital provided by our mutual friend, David Buschman, we co-founded Sierra Designs in 1965.”
Thus, began a long fruitful relationship with Swanson in the role of general manager and Marks as head designer.
Based in Point Richmond, Calif., just west of Berkeley, Marks and Swanson had a small retail operation, a mail-order catalog, and they also made sleeping bags under contract for the likes of The North Face.
Small in size but large in customer satisfaction, Sierra Designs gained a solid reputation for products like the bombproof Glacier tent and the 100, 200 and 300 sleeping bags.
The business grew to the extent that it required additional space to accommodate more seamstresses and a larger retail presence. With the move to an old paint company warehouse at Fourth and Addison streets in Berkeley, Sierra Designs business flourished due in no small part to the runaway popularity of the company’s 60/40 Mountain Parka and expanded wholesale operations.
“The company doubled in size for several years and several large companies came courting. After some consideration, Bob and I decided to sell to the CML Group in 1971.”
The company doubled in size for several years and various large companies came courting. After some consideration, Marks and Swanson decided to sell to the CML Group in 1971. The brainchild of Harvard Business School lecturer Charles M. Leighton, CML was a big conglomerate of the time and had Kelty as part of its growing portfolio of companies.
Marks continued to work Sierra Designs for almost 12 years before leaving, “at CML’s invitation,” in the fall of 1984. “Life there had become less than enchanting as all creativity had just about dried up as it was all about ‘the bottom line.’ I left with no regrets,” Marks said.
Out of Sierra Designs, Marks again joined Swanson in a new venture called Walrus Tents.
“It was a struggle from the first,” Marks said. “There was never enough money and the market was now crowded with other tent makers, mostly from Asia. We attempted a garment line, but the timing was bad and we could not sell what we had made. It was also the time when domestic manufacturing was no longer feasible.”
Walrus was eventually sold to REI and with, “nothing left for me in the U.S., I decided to move to China and see if I could put a new life together in the now rapidly developing Chinese economy.”
And so from 1993 to the present, Marks has been the lead designer for Dark Horse Trading Company making product for clients in diverse sectors of the outdoor and other markets.
And gifted linguist to the end, Marks today speaks Mandarin like a native.
In the early 1940s, 16-year-old Allen Steck and his brother, George, headed from their home in Oakland, Calif., to the Sierra to go climbing. Without any hardware and unroped, the two lads made what became the first ascent of the northwest ridge of Mount Maclure. The event turned Steck into a mountaineer for life.
Following a stint in the Navy during World War II, Steck said in a 1991 interview, “I slipped into the climbing scene.” Slipped as in making climbs in the Sierra, Italy’s Dolomites, the French Alps and the third ascent (first north face ascent) of Canada’s Mount Waddington.
With his climbing travels at an end, Steck returned to the Bay area and enrolled in the Graduate Language School of UC Berkeley to study German. His idea was to teach the language when he graduated, but gradually grew disenchanted with the idea. Instead, he headed down University Avenue from campus to take a job on the sales floor of The Ski Hut in 1952.
By 1953, he was the store manager and then moved on to the Trailwise manufacturing side of the business. “I was interested in the designing and making of things,” he said. Among his pet projects was the breakthrough Slimline sleeping bag design.
Outside of work, Steck continued a prolific climbing career including a 1954 expedition to Makalu, a 1963 first ascent of the south face of the Clyde Minaret, and a 1965 first ascent of the Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan.
“I still consider the Logan climb the finest one I ever did,” Steck said in 1991. “I wonder how we ever managed to succeed where so many others had failed.”
There were other climbs to come, including the 1966 third ascent of El Capitan’s Salathe Wall with Steve Roper and Dick Long.
A year later, Steck, now 40, co-founded and edited, with Roper, the first edition of Ascent, a stylish, beautifully illustrated and literate climbing magazine. The magazine would flourish for close to three decades.
In 1969, Steck’s long interest in the far reaches of the world led him into a partnership with Leo LeBon in a new venture called Mountain Travel, America’s first true adventure travel company. Then, in 1972, he co-authored the book “Wilderness Skiing” with Lito Tejeda-Flores and authored “Fifty Classic Climbs in North America” in 1979.
From the time he co-founded Mountain Travel to the time he retired in 1985, Steck made about five annual climbing trips and along with his brother, George, made an 82-day traverse from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1983.
Retired and interested in travel to less adventuresome locations, he none-the-less celebrated his 70th birthday by joining a group that re-ascended his Salathe Wall route now called the Steck-Salathe Wall.
A degree in forestry from Purdue University in hand, Indiana native Mic Mead headed west to California in 1955 to fill a two-year obligation as a Navy officer. “Thus began,” said Mead, “a 40-year stay in San Diego.”
A four-decade stint that saw him migrate into the business of making and selling outdoor gear. “I’d always wanted to own my own business, and after getting out of the Navy, I started by designing and building houses then adding a carving business.”
Along the way, he became involved with an Explorer Scout troop whose leadership was keen on making 16 mm adventure films. They called their film making enterprise “Adventure 16.”
“Soon,” Mead recalled, “the troop started making their own gear and selling it out of a garage close by my carving shop.” Among the eager gear-making young scouts was one named Wayne Gregory who would later make a name for himself in the outdoor business.
In 1968, a Girl Scout troop brought a tent made by the scouts to A-16 to get poles. After much alteration and the addition of arrow shaft poles, the result was what Mead contends is the first crossed pole dome tent to come to market.
Two years later, Mead financed and incorporated A-16. “It was a manufacturing operation making tents, 800-fill down sleeping bags, packs and some accessories, like the first net-front, see-through ditty bags.”
Among his most prized products of the time were packs. “We came up with a Kelty conversion kit that was very successful. It was a hip carry system with a padded belt that for the first time moved the pack’s carry point forward.” Then, there was his patented telescoping frame that “allowed everyone to get a perfect pack fit.”
A-16 eventually branched out into more retail locations in 1972, around the same time that Mead tried to save sleeping bag manufacturer Snow Lion from bankruptcy. “My banker said not to do it,” Mead said, “so I founded Black Ice in Reno with Peter Benjamin as a partner and Bill Simon as our off-shore contractor.” (Simon was founder of Snow Lion and later the owner and CEO of The North Face.)
Through the short-lived Black Ice venture, Mead came to own the Granite Stairway Mountaineering retail store in the San Fernando Valley as well as its wholesale division.
A-16 grew steadily, adding more stores. Mead said its retail success was due to six factors: “The regular publishing of the Footprints instructional newsletter that went to a mailing list of 100,000 customers, a great class and outings program, free slide shows at the stores that would draw up to 500 people, always selling top-flight gear, stores that were deliberately funky and filled with all sorts of country antiques, and training, training, training. Our mantra was: ‘Don’t oversell. Make the friend and the sales will follow.’ And they did.”
As manufacturing shifted to the Orient in the early ’90s, A-16 phased out its factory and started selling goods made by others.
In 1995, Mead took advantage of A-16’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan and retired back home to Indiana where he lives on a 40-acre former children’s camp where he had worked as a young man. Today, he spends his days nurturing his own “wilderness,” is involved in local government, sculpts and helps his wife with her antiques business.
Looking back on the outdoor business in the ’60s, ’70s and now, Mead said, “To me, the customers back then were totally dedicated to and loved the mountains. Today, the customers seem to be more sports activists who participate in a lot of outdoor recreational activities, but are not the pure wilderness buffs that we were.”
He also said he believes that stores that don’t teach wilderness skills are set up for failure. “They have to remove whatever intimidation and barriers that beginners have of being out in the wilds if they expect to build their businesses.”
Where and how he was raised are the two most significant factors that influenced Bill Forrest’s future as a climber and innovator of climbing equipment.
“When I was seven, my family moved from California to Aurora, Colorado, where I ran a trap line and hunted right out our back door,” Forrest said. “Come summers, my dad, who surveyed for the BLM, would take the family to the mountains and I hiked the trails and wandered around the woods every summer for years.”
One of those summers, a BLM employee friend of his father taught Forrest and his sister how to climb. Later, at age 12, he would climb Long’s Peak with his Boy Scout troop.
The family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Forrest finished high school and was about to go off to college on a basketball scholarship when he decided to join the Army. “I wanted to travel abroad,” he said, “and I was shipped off to Bamberg, Germany, which turned out to be a hotbed of rock climbing.”
There, along with a friend he’d climbed with in Salt Lake, Forrest started climbing in the Klettergardens with abandon. “It was a way to put the Army life out of my mind.”
When he got out of the Army and returned home, Forrest was a strong lead climber with a full rack of gear and something few had in the United States at the time — a kernmantle rope.
His next stop was Arizona State University for a degree in English, as well as climbing with partner Gary Garbert on “anything local that was big and steep.” Upon graduating — and tired of beating through the Arizona cactus and brush to get to climbs — Forrest spotted a want ad seeking climbing instructors for the Colorado Outward Bound program. Soon, he was back in Colorado where he teamed up with Yosemite climbing legend Glen Denny.
“Glen and I taught together, and in our spare time did some epic climbs like the north face of Crestone Needle unroped,” Forrest said. They also attempted the Diamond route on Long Peak, but had to rap off. That climb got Forrest intrigued with big wall climbing, and he eventually made six successful climbs of the Diamond including the first solo.
But one climb kept eluding him. It was the east face of Babo Quivari in Arizona. “I finally hacked a route to the base of the climb, found a water source in a cave at it base and made the first ascent with George Hurley. While on the climb, I grew concerned about the problems of sorting out gear. So I thought about what to do and came up with the idea for the Pin Bin, a metal loop with a spring-loaded mechanism that made it easy to organize gear and get it on and off easily.”
In 1968, Forrest rented a big house in Denver where he lived and made Pin Bins. He rented out rooms to climbers and worked the graveyard shift at a truck loading dock to keep financially afloat.
From these humble beginnings, Forrest Mountaineering was incorporated. The company had one sewing machine, which was soon put to use making harnesses, which were best sellers for years. Forrest also ventured into ice hammers, producing the first hammer with interchangeable picks, and the first ice axe with an aluminum shaft and a stamped chrome-moly head.
In 1985, Dick Olsen of Olsen Industries approached Forrest with an offer to buy him out. Olsen had purchased Gerry and was looking to add to his outdoor group. Forrest sold the company and became a consultant to several outdoor and climbing companies.
In 1993, he headed off to Mount Everest on an expedition and that same year got the idea for the Denali snowshoe design, which he eventually sold to MSR in 1995.
Forrest worked for Cascade Designs from 1995 to 2004 perfecting the Denali and inventing the Lightning snowshoe before retiring and moving with his wife, Rosa, to Salida, Colo.
Suffering from the long-term affects of amoebic dysentery contracted during his ’93 Everest adventure, Forrest has become a long distance hiker with plans to start climbing again soon. “I’ve had my eye on a few routes for some time now and will be on them as soon as my strength is back.”
While his name is forever linked to the first successful ascent of Mount Everest by an American team in 1963, to longtime members of the outdoor community, Jim Whittaker is equally known for his years as a retailer.
As a young man, Whittaker and his twin brother Lou were active in the Boy Scouts and eventually became members in an Explorer Scout climbing group. Climbing came easily to the twins and soon they’d established quite a reputation in Northwest climbing circles. So much so, that in 1948, they were asked to help run the guide service on Mount Rainier. A year later, they were running it by themselves.
During his winters off from guiding on Mount Rainier, Whittaker attended college and sold ski gear. With the outbreak of the Korean War, he and his brother were drafted into the Army and sent to a Signal Corps detachment in California. From there, they transferred to the Army’s Mountain and Cold Weather command at Camp Hale, Colo.
“We skied at Camp Hale during the winter and climbed in Colorado Springs during the summers,” Whittaker recalled in a 1990 interview.
Discharged from the Army in 1954, the twins went back to guiding on Rainier. Come winter, Whittaker repped ski gear for Seattle retailer and importer Osborn and Ulland. Then in 1955, REI founder Lloyd Anderson came calling and asked Whittaker to head up REI’s first retail store.
“It was too good to pass up,” he recalled in a 1991 interview. “What a job. I was the only one in the place. I opened the store, stocked the shelves, talked with customers, rang up sales, cleaned the place, locked up and made the bank deposit.”
Ironically, the first REI store was located over a restaurant. “Every day I’d get calls from people asking where the store was. I’d ask them where they were calling from and many would say, ‘The Green Apple Pie Restaurant.’ Then I’d bang my foot on the floor and say, ‘That’s where I am, upstairs.’ “
And as sales grew, “our traditional clientele of doctors and lawyers remained, but there were more students coming in.”
Sales totaled $80,000 during Whittaker’s first year running the store, and continued to move upward for the next four years during which Whittaker remained REI’s solo retail act. In 1960, he hired Gary Rose to fill in for him while he took a leave of absence to participate in an expedition to Mount McKinley.
He returned to a flooded REI warehouse, the result of a broken Seattle Water Department main. Restitution was made to the tune of $65,000.
“That check kept us going,” Whittaker indicated years later. “If we hadn’t received it, we would have been out of business.”
But there were other factors that played into the co-op’s continuation in business — like Whittaker’s growing fame as the first American to summit Mount Everest. While modest about the affect of that climb on REI and its sales, Whittaker did finally admit, “The press coverage sure helped.”
Following on the Everest coverage, REI sales and membership numbers soared. “Word of mouth put us on the map and people came to know us for good prices, hard-to-find merchandise and the annual dividend.”
By 1979, sales had grown to $46 million and Whittaker found himself, “shuffling papers in my office nine hours a day and thinking: ‘This operation is getting way too big.’ ” He left REI that year.
“My goals had always been to get as many people as possible out enjoying the wilderness, to make that experience affordable to them, and to make sure we kept the wilderness as free of trash and trace of man as possible.”
Post-REI, Whittaker remained active as a climber and mountaineer, and in 1982 got back into the outdoor business as an investor and management team member of a new outdoor apparel company called “Because It’s There.” The new company got loads of media attention, but just three years into its existence, it was shut down amid allegations of fraud by a top executive.
Whittaker went on to become a product designer, product endorser and founder of several environmental organizations, as well as a guide for well-known figures and celebrities on Mount Rainier and the leader of the 1990 Everest Peace Climb.
Today, he and his wife, Dianne, remain involved in sailing both as recreational and racing sailors.
Whittaker’s book “Life on The Edge” covers the arc of his life in full.
Of all the second-generation outdoor industry trailblazers, the most visible and best known today is Yvon Chouinard. As an advocate for the environment, adventurer, author, pioneer in the making and marketing of climbing and outdoor goods, and one of the most environmentally concerned members of the outdoor manufacturing community, Chouinard remains as vibrant a force today as he has been for three decades.
Already known in American climbing circles, Maine native Chouinard started making pitons for Yosemite big wall climbing in 1957 on a secondhand coal-fired forge. These pitons would play a key role in his climbing efforts, like the second ascent of the Nose on El Capitan in 1960 and the first ascent, with Royal Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt, of the North American Wall on El Capitan in 1964.
In 1966, Chouinard and Frost became partners in Chouinard Equipment in Ventura, Calif. They continued to make pitons and other rock climbing hardware, but soon became interested in ice climbing and revolutionized ice climbing tools.
1970 proved a turning point for both Chouinard and his burgeoning business enterprise. On a visit to Scotland, he took a liking to sturdy cotton rugby shirts for climbing and decided to import them to the United States for sale. On his return home, Chouinard opened the Great Pacific Iron Works store in Ventura.
Apart from getting into retail, Chouinard was concerned by the damage pitons were causing to Yosemite’s rock walls and started producing a line of chockstones that would eventually include hexentrics and stoppers.
And as important as Chouinard’s entrance into retail and clean climbing were, it was the issuing of the 1972 Great Pacific Iron Works catalog that would have the most significant and long-lasting affect on his business and on the American outdoor market. The catalog was considered a work of art, literate in tone. Doug Robinson’s “Clean Climbing” essay set the tone for climbing ethics for years to come.
“This was our first ‘call to action’ to our friends and customers,” Chouinard said, adding, “Today, we still have calls to action in our catalogs and always aim to give people a way to personally make a difference in the environment. If we see a problem in the environment, and there are plenty, we give specific actions that our customers can do to become involved in the solution.”
1973 saw Patagonia’s incorporation and a move to a remodeled slaughterhouse in Ventura. Patagonia’s unique product offerings included Foamback raingear, Stand-Up shorts and the Ultima Thule pack. Two years later, the second Great Pacific Iron Works catalog was issued featuring a pile jacket. A year later, spring sportswear was added and company sales passed the $2 million mark.
And while his name was well known in the climbing and outdoor communities, he was virtually unknown to many Americans until a New Yorker magazine profile of Chouinard appeared in 1977.
Now with more visibility nationwide, the third Great Pacific Ironworks catalog, printed in 1978, featured soft fleece garments. Successive years brought unique apparel products like Bunting, polypropylene base garments, BorgLite pile jackets and pants, and Patagonia’s first kid’s products.
Sales grew to $5 million by 1980, and in 1981, Patagonia and Chouinard Equipment were incorporated within Great Pacific Iron Works. (In the late ’80s, Chouinard Equipment morphed into a separate company and re-named Black Diamond Equipment.)
1982 saw the first printing of the Patagonia catalog and the rest is, for the sake of brevity, history. A history of one man’s vision for making durable, reliable outdoor gear and apparel, giving back and making a difference.
“Everything, we make,” Chouinard said, “pollutes the environment. Because of this, we tax ourselves in the form of 1 percent of our sales annually. This money goes directly to grassroots activist groups — and we’ve given more than $26 million since ’85.
“We use green building methods, power ourselves with wind and solar, have annual environmental campaigns. Today, we’re also taking responsibility for our products from the fibers they are made of, to the end of their useful life,” he said.
“This truly is the future — we’ve got to do this. We’re recycling our own garments and supplying our own supply chain, while reducing our reliance on virgin oil. It’s not a perfect solution, but we’re working hard to reduce our footprint on the planet,” Chouinard said.
During the summer of his final year at San Francisco State College in 1961, Bob Swanson worked in Big Sur, Calif. when he got interested in kayaking along California’s coastline. “That,” he said, “somehow led to lots of hiking around Big Sur and an interest in the mountains.”
After buying a French-made rucksack, Swanson headed off on his first-ever trip to California’s Sierra. “Having been raised in Philadelphia,” he recalled with a laugh, “I really didn’t know there were mountains like the Sierra.”
Despite his love of the big mountains, he headed back to Big Sur to work at Nepenthe, arguably the hippest restaurant in the United States at the time and the home away from home for countless artists, writers, musicians and beatnik poseurs.
“In 1962, I left California and drove to Boulder, Colorado, and I started knocking on doors in search of work.” He landed a job at LeRoy and Alice Holubar’s small outdoor shop. Ten months later, he headed to Berkeley where he got a job at the Ski Hut/Trailwise running the mail-order operations.
There, he met George Marks, and in 1965, they founded Sierra Designs. “We were both interested in the mountains and in climbing and backpacking, and making gear for those activities seemed like a happening business.”
Out of a small building in Point Richmond, Calif., Swanson and Marks handled every single aspect of their burgeoning business together.
“I came up with the design concepts as I was more conversant with the marketplace and George executed them. Slowly, I evolved into the business person in our enterprise,” Swanson said.
From the start, Sierra Designs (a name Swanson came up with) was noted for its tents and down products including jackets, parkas and sleeping bags.
The business grew and Sierra Designs moved from Point Richmond to Berkeley in 1968. With the change of address and expanded sales came some of the outdoor industry’s most interesting catalogs.
“We decided it made sense to do a catalog in the field,” Swanson said. And they did, with the catalog shot in the ghost town of Bodie, Calif., in 1972 becoming an instant classic.
That catalog was followed by one photographed during a weeklong hike of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. Then came a catalog featuring watercolors and sketches by a top California artist.
All this called attention to Sierra Designs and large corporate suitors came calling. “We could have sold to Parker Pen for cash,” Swanson said, “but we decided to go with CML mainly because of who they owned at the time — Kelty, Hood Sails, Boston Whaler, among others — and the prospect of getting rich via stock options.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t get rich, and after four years and growing acrimony with the CML operations people, Swanson left Sierra Designs in 1979. Shortly thereafter, he joined geodesic dome designer Bob Gillis in a venture called Shelter Systems.
Based in Santa Cruz, Calif., Shelter Systems made geodesic dome greenhouses, outbuildings and storage sheds. The business flourished for three years before slowly dying.
Looking for new opportunities, Swanson partnered again with Marks and their longtime friend and business associate Henry Gruchacz to form Walrus. “We had some unique tent and apparel designs and fought the good fight for nine years before selling the company to REI in 1993,” he said.
“Trust me, it was a tough go and we were in bad shape near the end, but REI paid off all our creditors. I went to work for them in Seattle for seven years, while George got a one-year contract work in China where he eventually stayed.”
These days, Swanson lives in Friendship, Maine, where he does the design work for Big Agnes along with repping Ruff Wear in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. He stays active outdoors by sea kayaking and hiking.
Remembering the history of the outdoor industry, its individuals, its products and its companies, is very important we believe. There is strength in history and heritage. SNEWS® has been covering the outdoor industry since 1983, and a number of our team have been members of the industry since well before that. Realizing that no other industry publication is better suited to remembering and documenting, correctly, the history of our still relatively young industry, SNEWS® is committed to building the definitive historical archives with our regular series — SNEWS® Looks Back. This article is Part 2 of a continuing series that is published first in GearTrends® Outdoor magazines, and then appears here, in longer format. Part 1 appeared in the GearTrends® Summer Outdoor magazine, 2006.