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The adventurous life of outdoor writer Andrea Gabbard

She didn't just retell other people's stories; she lived her own.

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Andrea Gabbard wearing glacier goggles on an expendition
Andrea Gabbard pictured in glacier goggles and expedition gear on Mt. Rainier.Keith Gunnar

Andrea Gabbard, one of the most influential and prolific outdoor industry trade writers, who not only retold stories of others, but lived them herself, died on July 15 after a fall. She was 71.

Gabbard got her start as a writer after two of her colleagues at Pacific Mutual Life Insurance in Newport Beach, California, started a small publishing and trade-show production company in the 1980s. She was named the editor of emerging magazines, Outdoor Retailer and Action Sports Retailer. As a lover of the outdoors, it was only natural that she wrote about her favorite sports, including surfing, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, mountaineering, and skiing.

“Andrea was an important part of the Outdoor Retailer family and always generous with her intellect and humor,” said Darrell Denny, EVP of sports for Emerald Expositions, parent company of Outdoor Retailer. “A great writer, she was particularly keen at using detail to weave a relevant, relatable bigger picture. She brought approachability to women, in particular, with her books on climbing and surfing and preached the value of inclusivity well before that was an oft used term. “

Invested in her work

It wasn’t like Gabbard would jot down a few notes and churn out a so-so story. Those who worked with her said she would wholeheartedly and fully immerse herself into whatever she was tasked to write, and it was clear in every piece she penned. She produced hundreds of articles for the two monthly trade magazines, and also wrote for Shape Magazine, Living Fit, Women’s Sports and Fitness, and Canoe & Kayak.

“Her writing was not only funny and interesting, but you looked forward to reading it,” said Patty Duke, co-founder of Point6 socks and Smartwool.

Duke remembered Gabbard as being instrumental in testing gear from emerging brands and giving them fair and honest coverage, so they could grow into the iconic brands well-known today. Duke said she got to know Gabbard during Expedition Inspiration. Led by mountain guide Peter Whittaker in 1995, Gabbard chronicled the journey and individual stories of 17 breast cancer survivors on their climb of Argentina’s Mt. Aconcagua—the highest peak in the Western hemisphere at 22,841 feet—to raise awareness of the deadly disease. She wrote a book about it called No Mountain Too High: A Triumph Over Breast Cancer: The Story of the Women of Expedition Inspiration.

“Gabbard was really the perfect rope mate and teammate, mainly because of her personality and just the way she was—caring and approachable and motherly,” Whittaker said.

As an example, Duke said that as they were descending the mountain—in two days instead of three because of lightning danger—Gabbard came alongside her and asked, “What can I carry? Give me your shoes, give me something.” Duke said, “She just was always there to help.”

Industry veteran Sally McCoy said, “Andrea was a rock. She was one of those foundational people in the outdoor industry who you could trust to call it like it was. She covered women pioneers in extreme sports and beloved industry legends like Lou Whittaker. She seemed quiet at times but was tough, smart and had a great sense of humor. I always listened to any advice she had for me.”

Photo of Andrea on Mt Rainier, Washington 1992.

Mentor to budding writers

Also treasured and admired by other writers, Gabbard was a mentor to Nancy Prichard Bouchard.

“Her passion was helping other writers and there was never any negative competition or turf wars,” Prichard Bouchard said. “When I first started writing, I was in my late 20s. She would call up and say, ‘Hey Nancy, I have too much work. You’d be a great person to write this. Can I give you stories that have been assigned to me?’ She raised the industry by embracing the development of young writers.”

SNEWS Editor-in-chief Kristin Hostetter had a similar relationship with the writer. Hostetter and Prichard Bouchard agreed that she was a role model for them at a time when not many women were writing about gear.

“When I was brand new to this industry as BACKPACKER’s gear editor, Andrea befriended me on a press trip and proceeded to show me the journalistic ropes,” Hostetter said. “At that point in my career, she was one of the few female mentors I had. Her gentle quiet way belied a tough trade journalist. She always encouraged me to ask hard questions and take chances. My fondest memory of Andrea was from sometime in the late 90s when we went on a JanSport Rainier climb together with Lou Whittaker. They were great friends and had just completed a book together (Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide) so nighttime in the bunk room at Camp Muir was filled with stories and laughs.”

Skip Yowell and Andrea Gabbard with a llama
Skip Yowell and Andrea Gabbard with Cecil the llama.Keith Gunnar

Full of life

Laughs were also had during a trip to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. In his book The Hippie Guide to Climbing Corporate Ladder and Other Mountains, JanSport Co-Founder Skip Yowell recounts traveling with Gabbard, and accomplished photographer, Keith Gunnar, and his wife Antje, in 1986.

“We were part of the first commercial llama-packing excursion into the canyon – sort of a test drive, prototype trip authorized by the park,” Yowell wrote. “It was believed that llamas were more environmentally friendly and would do less damage to the trails…Keith and I would be shooting photos of JanSport gear for an upcoming advertising spread, while Andrea would be penning an article for Outdoor Retailer.”

Yowell goes on to describe how one frisky llama named Cecil inspired the photo of him stealing a kiss, later used in a JanSport ad. Yowell wrote that Gabbard and Antje were “hooting and hollering to break [the llama’s] concentration.”

Keith Gunnar said before they embarked on the trip, when they were looking for a fourth companion, their friend Pam Montgomery (now Pam O’Sullivan) suggested Gabbard. 

“We were nervous about inviting a stranger but contacted her and she was up for it,” Gunnar said. “Lucky us! She was fantastic, always full of high spirits and up for adventure. The four of us had nine or 10 great days in the canyon—great scenery, wonderful food, awesome campsites by the and perfect weather. It’s one of the best trips she and I have ever done in our 55 years of adventure travel. After that, we did a lot with her. We climbed St. Helens, did local hikes and climbs, canoed the Green River in Utah. and I spent a lot of time with her on Mt. Rainier with Rainier Mountaineering and JanSport. She was always the perfect companion.”

Gabbard’s adventures are recounted in her other books, Da Bull: Life Over the Edge, co-authored with big-wave surfer, Greg Noll; Mountaineering: A Women’s Guide (1999); and Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women in Surfing (2000).

When she wasn’t writing, Gabbard fed her love for the outdoors, whether it was surfing her long redwood board, sea kayaking or bird watching with her partner of more than 34 years, Francey Blaugrund, or hiking and climbing big mountains. She stopped writing for Outdoor Retailer in 2006. Later in life, Gabbard developed rheumatoid arthritis.

Moments before she passed away, Gabbard told Blaugrund that she was on to her next big adventure.

Andrea Gabbard and her life partner, Francey, pose in front of aspen trees.
Andrea Gabbard and her life partner, Francey Blaugrund, pose in front of aspen trees in a picture from 2012.Courtesy