REI Co-founder Mary Anderson passes away at 107

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

A visionary of both conservation and recreation, Mary Anderson helped launch one of America’s biggest outdoor gear distributors and shaped the growth of legendary climbing club The Mountaineers.

Mary Anderson, right. Photo courtesy of REI.
Mary Anderson, right. Photo courtesy of REI.

In many ways, Mary Anderson created the modern outdoor industry as we know it. She pioneered it all: the gear start-up run out of a garage. The business driven by passion, necessity, and the need for mountain air. The deep commitment to conservation and education aimed at protecting the places we play.

Anderson passed away on this week at 107, but her legacy lives on in the organizations she pushed to greatness and on the peaks that saw her first ascents.

Anderson was a Seattle school teacher when she first started buying and distributing gear with her husband, Lloyd Anderson. The Mountaineers, a long-standing Seattle climbing club, had become a second home for the Andersons, and it was for friends in that club that the couple started importing high-quality mountaineering gear from Europe.

In 1938, the Andersons looked around their living room, overflowing with crates, and decided to make their business a little more formal. The first REI Co-Op membership cards sold for $1 each and went to Mary, Lloyd, and three other Mountaineers members. (Mary owned membership card #2.)

While Lloyd worked full-time, Mary took over operations at REI — doing everything from sewing tents in their basement to hiring employees and overseeing the company’s day-to-day.

As loyal to the call of the mountains as she was to her growing business, Anderson was also a prolific climber. She scaled over 500 peaks through the 1950’s and 60’s, establishing a number of first ascents in the North Cascades.

“She was both a teacher and a woman climber in the 1930s, which is pretty amazing,” said Mountaineers Director of Development Mary Hsue. “She’s the original proof that the outdoors can be the great equalizer.”

Mary was a member of The Mountaineer’s board throughout the 1930s. She established the basic structure of their climbing curriculum, which still stands today, and helped write one of the first mountaineering handbooks in the U.S., which later became the iconic manual Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, first published by Mountaineers Books in 1960.  Anderson also brought her passion for outdoor education – which she had long used as a schoolteacher in the form of frequent field trips – to The Mountaineers where she taught climbing and botany.

Now, REI gives out Mary Anderson Legacy Awards each year to fund outdoor youth programs in honor Anderson’s lifelong commitment to environmental education. Her legacy also lives on in the form of an Oregon state holiday: Dec. 7 is Mary Anderson Day.

“The thing I most vividly remember about Mary is that even at 100 years old, she was very quick witted and full of life,” said Tom Vogl, CEO of The Mountaineers and former Senior VP of marketing for REI. “You could tell the way she talked about mountains that the outdoors were a big part of her life, and probably the reason she lived to be 107.”