Great conversation on episode 217 of the Outdoor Biz Podcast with previous JanSport president and the master of Fun Every Day, Paul Delorey. Paul talks about the growth and fun he experienced at JanSport. The inspiration everyone received from Skip Yowell His involvement with the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy, and his new venture Polycore, manufacturers of sustainable fabrics and coatings for the Outdoor Industry.

Let's start off with how you got introduced to the outdoors.

Growing up in a big family, my mom and dad had eight kids and it was an unusually small house. So being outside was a big deal and family vacations were camping. If you wanted your own room, you had to get a small tent. So as a kid my dad got me a pup tent. When we'd go, I'd find a spot off by myself and pitch my tent and have my own space.

What kind of activities did you do?

You know, kid camp stuff, fishing, and making pancakes on the Coleman stove. That kind of thing, just exploring state parks. Growing up in Wisconsin, there were some beautiful state parks that there to this day.

How did you connect with Skip Yowell and JanSport?

In 1977, I had gone back to school to finish a master's degree. When I went back one of the things open at the time was the bookstore. They were looking for a bookstore manager. So I took the job and one of the benefits was free tuition. So in 1977, I'm going to a college bookstore trade show in New York City. And I was really familiar with the JanSport brand from my local outdoor store. I saw they were on the list of vendors. So one of the first places I went to was the JanSport booth. I told them who I was and they said, well, we'll have somebody with you in a minute. And this guy comes out and he's wearing a fringed buckskin jacket with a Bolo tie and pressed white shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.

He's got long hair and a foo man choo mustache. He kind of stood out you know? And it was Skip Yowell. I was immediately impressed and, I looked at Skip and I really had a feeling this is one of the reasons this brand is so cool. So we started talking and they were basically there just to take a look at the market and see if they wanted to start selling in it yet. At the time there were other brands selling backpacks in the college bookstore market. I told Skip, I said, man, I'll give you an order right now. And he said, well, we're just not sure we’re gonna sell in this market yet.

So, you know, a few months went by and I called him up and I said, Hey Skip, I don't know if you remember me. I met you in New York. He said, yeah, yeah. I said, you know, I'm still interested. And he said, well, we just don't have the capacity right now. He said, so we're going to have to pass. So one thing led to another, I stayed at the university for about two or three years. And in 1979, I met this guy who was running a company up in Wisconsin that sold tee shirts and sweatshirts to the colleges. We had kind of struck up a relationship and he asked me if I'd come up and go to work for him to start a division to sell colleges. You know, I was ready for a change.

So I went to work for this company called Downers. Kim Vander Heiden and Dan Spalding owned it. In any case, I got up there and got started. I told the guys that owned the business, I said, you know, we really should be selling day packs in addition to T-shirts and sweatshirts. So we ended up going over to China or someplace in the orient and trying to source packs and basically looked at JanSport day pack designs and tried to copy them.

In 1982 JanSport was owned by Sitka corporation, which owned K2 skis and a bunch of other outdoor businesses. And they had gone through a real bad ski season. They were short on cash. So their bankers told them they need to raise some money, so they put JanSport up for sale. And at the time the guys that own Downers were starting to realize Downers was a very difficult trade name to try to peddle. So JanSport had come up for sale, they decided to buy it. And one of the first assignments I had with that, they sent me out on a diligence team to Seattle to study the business and see what was going on.

The first office I walked into was Skips. And I looked at him, I said, Hey man. I said, do you remember me? And he scratches head sitting here. And he says you look familiar. He says, but I'm really not sure. I said I tried to buy backpacks from you in 1977 in New York City, you wouldn't sell me. And I said, buddy, it looks like I'm going to get all I want now Skip and I hit it off and just became forever friends. And you know, all through the years we had a lot of adventures all over the world and a lot of fun too.

This was 1982. So at the end of 1986, the guys that bought JanSport had gone through two corporate takeovers. In 1984, JanSport was bought by a corporation called Bluebell. Then in 1986, Bluebell was bought by VF Corporation. So the guys that originally owned the company stayed around a little while but eventually decided they didn't want to be there anymore and they made me president.

How many years did you end up staying with JanSport?

A little over 22 years and then they had me consult for them for a couple of years as you know. So the thing for me, especially at that time, Rick was the guy that had preceded me was really just a business genius. He had a great mind for numbers and math was never my strong suit. So, you know, I'm sitting in his office the first day after he left and I thought, how am I going to do this? And you know, we all use what we have in the toolbox. My toolbox included, I just want to have fun. So you know, I just figured if I could make the environment enjoyable and everybody has fun, you know, good things would happen. And they did, they really did.

picture of Mt Rainer, location of the JanSport annual dealer climb
Photographer: Lucas Davies | Source: Unsplash

JanSport went through some really significant growth. Those were some pretty heady times. Was the biggest challenge trying to make enough packs?

Well, yeah, I mean, absolutely. You know, we expanded our sewing capacity domestically for many years and built several plants in Washington. But then as you know, the competitors started to go offshore to Mexico or China. We had to follow suit as well, just to keep up cost-wise. But it was an exciting time trying to keep up with warehouse facilities and making sure we had enough space. The JanSport business went from the like under 20 million to, by the time I left was over 300 million in total.

I was working at A16 at the time with Tim McGuire and was a huge JanSport fan. All the packs I carried were JanSport packs. When you did the Everest program I had all the T-shirts and stuff, It was great.

When you mentioned A16, I met Timmy in 1984 on the JanSport dealer climb. It was the first time I tried anything like that. So, you know, you're a little unsure of yourself. You've trained and you think you're ready to go. So Skip told me, come on, let's go. We got me all the gear that I would need to get up and get down. And so the first day you go from Paradise up to Camp Muir and it's a long slog. You know you get, get up there and get settled. So I get up to Camp Muir and I look around and there are two young guys from A16, and they've both carried a full case of Rainier to Camp Muir. I'm sitting there, I'm saying, man, it'd be great to have a beer. So Skip walks by and a kid says, you know, Mr. Yowell, would you like a beer and Skips says sure. So he takes it, grabs a Caribiner, and snaps off the top and drinks it.

And I'm standing there and I'd say, Hey, you know, you guys, uh, would you mind sharing another beer? The kid says, well, no, we, uh, we really don't have enough for ourselves. No, we're not gonna. We're not gonna do that. So many years later, uh, we had recruited Tim McGuire to come work at JanSport. And so I’m sitting in my office and, uh, he doesn't remember this, well, he does now. I'm looking at him and I said, Hey man, I said, I know you. In 1984 up at Camp Muir, you were from A16 and you wouldn't give me a beer. Well, I had a picture of that climb up on my wall and so I pointed to him, I said, there you are. And I sit there. There I am in the back row and I'm really looking like I could have used that beer.

Your mission now is to convert the outdoor industry to totally sustainable fabrics and coatings through your Polycore venture, how'd that come about?

Another old JanSport connection from the time I was there. I got a call a couple of years ago from a guy named Arthur Chen who had done a lot of work for us back in the day. And in addition to doing sourcing and manufacturing, Arthur was also a material scientist. His expertise is he studied the solidification process of polymers for over 40 years. So he had patented a process to coat fabrics that are water-based as opposed to solvents. And the first thing he talked about was the fact that it would make the fabrics up to 500% more abrasion-resistant. So, immediately you think about it in your world and JanSport. You know, we sold millions of bags that little kids would drag on sidewalks and rub holes in them. You think about warranty service, but the bigger issue with it was it was a water-based PU as opposed to solvent-based. And I like to explain it in the sense that, when you used to paint and you opened a can of paint and it was solvent-based, those fumes filled the house and you know, would make you sick and that type of thing. But it changed and it all became latex or water-based. So you didn't have the fumes escaping into the environment.

So you guys go to the trade shows, you have a booth there. Okay. I didn't know about this until, uh, I was looking up your, your bio. That's great.

Yeah, we were at the last three outdoor retailers and it was a good start and things were really rolling along. Then the virus hit and it changed a lot of people's plans.

So have any of the brands adopted your products?

They're starting to. We've come up with a couple of other products through those conversations. You know you sit down with people and they say, well could you do this? And one of the things was some people want to just to reinforce certain areas. So we came up with this process of turning the PU into a film that can be heat sealed onto fabrics, into different stress spots. We call that spot welding if you saw it on the website.

I love your fun everyday philosophy, where did that come from?

When I was a kid, my mother used to ask me if I wanted to grow up and be a big man and go to work every day like my daddy. And, uh, I’d always tell her, “Mom, I don't want to, I want to just be a little boy and just play”. But the thing there, especially all of those years at JanSport was, I mean it was a real company and it made a lot of business, made a lot of profit. But one of the things for us as a group, we had a lot of fun. If you think back to some of those parties, the ‘Shake n Bake’. I think back to some of those times, Rick, and I don't know if you remember the one we had in Salt Lake at the Delta Center? It was a thing where they always say, it never rains in Salt Lake at that time, in the summer. And so we got up there and we'd had a lineup of like three or four bands and the opening act was John McCune, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. So they had played their sets and then The Fabulous Thunderbirds were due to come up on stage and the skies just opened up. And if you recall next to the Delta center was a parking garage and people started rolling barrels of beer into the parking garage. I went and asked Jimmy Vaughn, I said, Hey, you know, we found some power over there, would you consider coming over and playing? And he says, no. He says, we're not doing that, but John McCune was standing there and he says, hell, he says, we'll play. So he came over with his band and played for probably an hour, hour and a half. I don't know how many people we had in that parking garage.

We used to have them at a place called the Little Waldorf Saloon there in Reno. And the owner's name was Louis Chatel. And one of the things that I always liked to do with those deals was become a bartender and just stand behind the bar and serve people. Get to know people. And so a lot of the times it was somebody you didn't know and they'd be standing there at the bar and they'd order something and tell you to hurry up or whatever. And somebody would say, Hey, you know who that is? No, it's the bartender. They’d say, no, it's the President of JanSport. And embarrass them a little bit.

Tim McGuire wanted me to ask you about your high school football career. Did you play high school football?

I did. As a matter of fact. I went to a pretty small high school, I think it was about 175 kids in total. My freshman year I was five foot one and 86 pounds. You know, it was a tradition in my family that you play. I was definitely the runt of the litter. My next oldest brother was six foot. My coach would say, you know, you're not big but you're slow.

So that first year the smallest cleats I could find were seven and a half. And I think I wore about five and a half or six. So I stuffed paper in the toes and you lace them up real tight. And I can tell you there were several times that year that I got knocked right out of my shoes, hold the tackling dummy. At the end of my freshman year, I'm sitting on the bench, which was my normal spot at the end. And the coach, you know, turns to me. We're winning like 48 to nothing. Uh, the coach, he says Delorey, get in there and he says, I want you to be mean. I want you to growl at somebody. So it ended up I got in there, I start growling and we lost, 48 to 70. The next play went right over the top of me and all I remember was the bottom of cleats. My older brother told me, he said, you know, if you're going to do this, you're going to have to get bigger and stronger. So that summer I ate, ran, lifted weights. And I grew to the height I am now, which is short at five, six, but I put on almost 50 pounds of weight, now 135 going back my sophomore year, I was still slow, but I thought I was a world beater and my best friend was about six, five and he was almost 300 pounds and he was the right tackle. So I was the right guard. Anything I couldn't handle, we used to call him gentle Ben, he would just lean on my guy, knock him down, and tell him to stay down.

You're also involved with the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy. What is your role there?

The big thing with that is, you know, just making sure that Skip's memory stays alive. And so at the start of every class the past couple of years at the leadership Academy, they asked me to come in and give a talk to people about Skip. And you know, he was my friend, but he was also probably one of the most unique people I think I've ever known in my life. I mean, Skip had a mind like a rusted trap. Once he knew your name, he never forgot it. Then if he, if he did for a second, he had a lyric or used to say Hey Slugger or something like that, then all of a sudden memory would kick in.

He’d get up and just give presentations to people and I sat there and I think, how can he just be so calm and cool about this as he's doing it? And a wide variety of groups, right? I mean it's like how does he know what to say to these people? You know, he just did it off the cuff. I watched him do it in groups of two or three as we'd go around doing clinics and in shops. I saw him do it in settings where he'd be in front of thousands of people, you know, so pretty amazing guy. We stayed friends right up until the end. The year or so before he died, we were out in St Peter with him and had a party at the saloon, invited everybody in the town, all nine of them. And I think seven of the nine showed up. The other two were mad at somebody else in the town and so they didn't come. But you know, just had a, a good time just hanging out together. But we did that with he and Winnie, you know, all over the world.

photo of Skip Yowell, JanSport founder
Skip Yowell, Outdoor Industry Association, JanSport founder

I have another wildcard question that came in from somebody else who wanted to know if you really got rousted by security in a five-star hotel in Paris because they thought you were a homeless guy sleeping in the lobby.

Who asked that? Do you sense that person's initials would be Jim Thomsen? Jim and I also had a number of great adventures all over the world. And, you know, some of them included late-night pub crawling around certain cities and, you would not get much sleep. So I can remember falling asleep in a chair. You know, they came and told me that, uh, no sir, you cannot do this. You must go to your room. And I was just waiting for Jim to come down to get ready to leave for a flight, I think. So they, they rousted me. But the deprivation of sleep was well-deserved by hanging with Jim Thomsen.

What outdoor activities do you participate in these days?

You know, we're there paddling on the Lake and down here. I like to think of the little area that we live in, As I tell people, it's like a geriatric JanSport. A lot of my neighbors remind me a lot of those people. And so we started playing a form of tennis that we call funiss. Funniss is full contact tennis. And the object of the game is to hit, the opponent on the opposite side of the net, as hard as you can, physically with the ball, rocket shots each other. We play five days a week, and usually, at the end of the season, which would be around now, we have an annual banquet where we hand out awards. There are usually six or eight guys that play through the course of the winter, but there are usually 20 or 30 people that show up to the banquet to see the awards and, watch us do an exhibition match after we drink beer and eat pizza. Some of the awards we always have most injured, you know, there's one of the guys for the past few years was on Coumadin, so if he got hit, he would bleed. So, you have most home runs for who hits them out of the court, you know, you have a most improved player, those kinds of things.

Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get in the outdoor biz or the adventure biz?

Well, the thing I would tell you, and you know this Rick, from being in the industry, it's, probably one of the greatest places that you can go to work because the fabric of the people involved in the outdoor industry is everybody's cool. And you know, usually, everybody will help everybody else out. And, those are the things that, for me when I started it just impressed me, you know, and it's an impression that has never gone away. I mean, there's that core of those people that I worked with that I'm still friends with. I've been retired now 19 years basically, you know, other than these consulting jobs, and there's a whole group of them that, you know, will be friends for life.

It'll be five years now that Skip passed, and they had me come out and do a eulogy type tribute, you know, for him. And I had not been back to the show in those 14 years. But you know, you start walking around and it's like, Oh my God, Paul and I say, yeah, I'm what's left of him. You know, you, you just walk around and all of a sudden like no time has passed, right. Because you're seeing all these people that you hung out with and those events and had a lot of fun. And it's the same thing, you know, doing this Polycore thing. There was a little pause there for a couple of years and then, you know, you come back, you're walking the show or you're in a booth, people say, Oh my God, it’s Paul Delorey.

What's your favorite outdoor gear purchase under a hundred dollars?

I have two, both of them surprisingly enough given my history, have to do with drinking. One is my LifeStraw. You know, you think about when you're outdoors and you need something to drink, more than anything, you need good water. So that is a great tool. That, and then the other is just a good Yeti mug. Which, you know, in the morning you can have a cup of coffee or tea and then at night you can have a martini in it and the ice doesn't melt for days.

If you could have a huge banner at the entrance to or what would it say?

Well, I would tell you, Rick, it would be a picture of the planet and it would say over the top, “We Gotta Fix This”. And for so many years a lot of people ignore the signs. I've told a lot of people that I think there's truly a connection between, you know, what's going on with things like this virus and a change in the climate. I mean, you watch species are starting to migrate differently and you know, germs are morphing. It's like, guys, we gotta do something about this. And we all have a part a, so, you know, the sooner the better and the more the better. So yeah, we got, we gotta make some changes. I think one of the things, especially these last couple of years going back to OR, that I find encouraging, I see all these new young companies, they get it. And you know, are consumer-focused and are gonna deliver on that promise. Making a product that's more sustainable, doing it right. Start to finish. Those are the companies that, if we make it as a world are going to be the ones that are gonna lead the way.

As we wrap up here, is there anything else you'd like to say to our listeners?

Get outside and enjoy it. And support companies that reflect your, your personality, and your causes. And right now, support your local businesses. Cause there's a lot of 'em that are struggling. We have a couple of them here, there's a favorite breakfast spot called Mrs. Mac's and a couple of the guys in the neighborhood and me, we have a little band. So we go down there every Wednesday morning and play for an hour in the parking lot for breakfast and get the waitresses and the people coming by for pickups singing and you know, just try to make sure they're still going after this is all over.

If people want to find you, what's the best way to reach out?

I’ve got a website which is fun-every-day-dot-org. It's got all my information on it. And you can also reach me at Paul D at poly core dot net.

This episode with a very good friend of mine. We've been buddies for over 30 years. He's been a backcountry mountain guide, rock climbing guide, ski guide, been in the industry for many, many years doing all kinds of cool things. He's a great author. Welcome to the show, Doug Robinson.

How were you introduced to the backcountry and the outdoors?

I am an unbelievably lucky kid. At five years old, my parents moved me from Washington, DC where I was born to California and we went almost immediately that summer to the backcountry and Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park and camped out. Back then you drove across Tenaya Creek and pulled your car up next to the Lake and we could camp right on the Lakeshore. And we did. And so at five years old, I'm building rafts and paddling out to the islands on the Lake, I could not believe the Sierra. The road was one and a half lanes, 15 miles an hour. It was a dirt road except where it went over granted slabs. So it was like, two hours from Crane Flat to Tenaya Lake, which is 40 minutes now.

There were a few other people who camped by the Lake and you could tell they came back every year. We all felt like this was the luckiest thing that could possibly ever happen to us. And as time went on, we started hiking and then backpacking and you know, little by little getting into the Sierra backcountry.

When I was 13, I got rescued off of Pywiack dome, which was across the Lake from our campsite. I had a pair of lug sole boots and I knew that made me a mountain climber. So I went up on the side of this dome and 400 feet up I realized that maybe I wasn't as secure. I couldn't go ahead and I couldn't back down. Some tourists stopped on the road and said, are you okay? I shouted NO, but here's where you find the Rangers and tell them to come and get me. And they did. They repelled down from the top of the dome and tied me on. So that was the first time I was ever on a rope in the backcountry.

Your folks ended up buying one of those forest service lease backcountry properties by Rock Creek up here in the Sierra

Another incredibly lucky thing. I ended up in Rock Creek because of Norman Clyde, who I had the good fortune to meet in the late sixties. Everybody knows Norman as quite a climber, but, he was also a backcountry skier. So I asked him okay, where are the good spots, you know, where should I go? And he goes, Oh, Rock Creek. That's the best place on the East side of the Sierra for backcountry skiing.

So I moved in the next winter. Then the summer after that I found this one-line ad in the Inyo Register for a cabin for sale. And I mean, it sent me back $4,500. But I moved in and ended up living there many winters, cross country and backcountry skiing were just in its bloom in the seventies. There was a ski touring lodge two miles away and I could teach there and, and live up the Canyon and ski up under Bear Creek Spire every day. It was paradise.

Did you stay up there in the summers or did you go back to work or back to school?

Well in the summers I’d go into the Palisades. Cause in the mid-sixties I lucked into a job guiding there at the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Which was the first climbing school in California.

You'll get tired of me saying this, but I'm one of the luckiest people alive. Lucked into that job. And then I lucked into having a place to live in Rock Creek in the winter and, it goes on and on.

So before we get too far into this, let's let everybody know you are somewhere in Wyoming, is that right?

I am somewhere in Wyoming and we won't pin it down exactly because I am caretaking a backcountry guest ranch in Wyoming. The closest clue I'll give you is that when I ski up to the Ridge several hours away, I can see the Grand Teton off to the Northwest. It's amazing. We, I say we, my partner Eva Eilenberg is with me here and we lucked into this caretaking opportunity.

We've been here over a month and we've got another month to go. I just came in from, we were doing some work with the batteries that run off the DC hydro and, and kind of keep place electrified off the grid. We're way off the grid. I'm talking to you by satellite phone.

John Muir Trail secluded campsite, Sierra Nevada Backcountry
Photographer: Jasper van der Meij | Source: Unsplash

Let's circle back around to the Palisade School of Mountaineering How did you start there? You saw an ad in the paper or how did you get involved with those guys?

So I'm 20 years old. I'm in Yosemite. I pack up my backpack and I'm going to go up to the High Sierra because that's where I started, right? Tenaya like I told you. And I just love going in the backcountry, rambling around, backpacking, scrambling up peaks. So I was getting a little more advanced. I mean technical climbing because I'd been in Yosemite after all. That was the cutting edge place in the world for rock climbing in the sixties. And, you know, we were kind of hot shit and we knew it.

So I walk up into the Palisades, I’d never been there. My buddy John Fisher and I had been climbing together since we were 13. He ended up owning the school later on. So I walk in there and I walk all the way up to the edge of the glacier. There's a little obvious backcountry campsite up there. And I dropped my pack and look around and there's nobody there. Now I had just come from camp 4, I mean, you could pick up a climbing partner in 30 seconds down there and I just kind of assumed there would be a scene up there too.

So I soloed a couple of easy backcountry peaks and a few days later this pile of lumber appeared on the slabs below the camp and was coming up upwards me. It turned out to be a guy named Don Jensen. And he was getting ready to build a little hut up on the edge of the glacier, or the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Don turned out to be the chief guide, so we made a deal. He went climbing with me. I helped him build his hut.

The first day we went climbing, we went out and across the glacier up Starlight Peak down into the notch, up North Pal down the U Notch. And we were back at camp at 10 in the morning. And he offered me a job guiding. I go, wow, I'm 20 years old. I'd never thought about being a mountain guide, but, um, okay, if Don thinks I can do it. So I have been guiding ever since. That was just another one of those really lucky things. And you're right, I was ready for it cause I'd been climbing for years. Right. Dirt bagging before that was a thing. That was 1965.

Then after Palisade School of Mountaineering, you got involved with the clean climbing movement and wrote the manifesto, tell us about that.

Here's how it started. Royal Robbins kicked it off. He went climbing in England. He saw, clean climbing there with pebbles stuffed into cracks and then machine nuts that were already on a runner. And he got all excited and came back and put up Nutcracker in Yosemite, which was the most popular route in the Valley, and is still a classic. He did it as a demonstration, Royal and Liz, his wife. Then he wrote about it in summit magazine because we were reading summit every month. None of the backcountry focused magazines that are out now existed then. It was a basically a hiker magazine, but there was occasional climbing stuff in it. So it was the only game in town.

I got turned on by this and went straight down to the hardware store and bought brass machine nuts in a whole range of sizes and filed the threads out of them so they wouldn't cut the runners and strung them on runners. This was 1965 or 66. So I was guiding in the Palisades then. So I had my backup Pitons and a hammer, but I took the nuts long too. Well, it turns out that the backcountry Alpine granite is just perfect for holding nuts. You can almost throw them in the crack. So some of the very earliest all clean climbs were done there and all the other guides got turned onto it too. We're all in this together and realized that we could do things clean. We didn't need the hammer or the pins and it was lighter so we left them in camp.

Then we started going to Yosemite in the spring and the fall and starting to try to climb in the backcountry clean also. So I did the East buttress of Middle Cathedral rock all clean. That was the first grade four that was done in that committed style. And then the next year did the Steck, Salathe on Sentinel without carrying hammers. And you know, we're just very gradually progressing up.

Meanwhile, I had met Chouinard, we had gone ice climbing together in the Palisades, did some first backcountry ice accents of routes like the V notch. And I started going and hanging out in Ventura at the tin shed and being a laborer. I started out there, my first job was being an assistant bong bender is what they called it, but people don't even know what a bong is anymore. And we're talking about clean climbing, we're having fun doing it. Um, and um, and Chouinard and Frost got interested in it and you know just innovate equipment before breakfast.

So pretty soon they're making the aluminum nuts that are really good and I'm contributing to the design. So in the end, and this is a hats off to Chouinard too, cause he'd started making Pitons in 1958 in that chicken coop in his parents' backyard in Burbank, he's a teenager and selling out of the trunk of his car. And that business was built on pitons and hammers and all the unclean stuff to go climbing.

So these piton makers, they're making a living, they're being able to hire us. Thank you very much. But we're understanding that these pitons are so good at being removable, which we thought was clean and they're chipping away at the rock and destroying the cracks and then they're getting ugly looking. And so this clean climbing is the solution to that. And they bet the farm on clean climbing and it ended up eliminating the piton business.

Pretty scary though because they're making all their money off pitons and they're doing all right. But we think this is the right thing to do. So anyway, I ended up writing a piece for the catalog. It was the first real catalog of the company. It was called the Great Pacific Ironworks at the time. So in the 72 catalog is my manifesto called the whole natural art of protection and it really changed things.

Val Franco is doing some pretty amazing archival work that is keeping all those times alive, talk about that.

You walk into that archive and this is only a couple years old but it's phenomenal. I mean there's examples of every piton on that Chouinard Equipment ever made and she has the newer equipment that is now called Black Diamond Equipment, but it's just this like the lineage is right straight through. And all of the clean hardware and some fascinating prototypes that I remember making with a file and a bench vise down there.

And they are doing taping sessions too. I got to sit in on some sessions with Tom Frost before he died where he was talking about his part in all that. He'd been an aircraft designer, aeronautical engineer, and quit all that. He's a Stanford trained engineer, smart guy. The mechanical drawings that he made for the nuts that we were designing are phenomenal. They're just beautiful. And those are in the archive too. And so are the interviews with Tom where he talks about his role. Um, it's very cool. Val Franco is the head of that and she was a sewer at ironworks when I was there. We knew each other when we were in our twenties and she's still there and putting this thing together and she's so excited.

What was your first backcountry ski experience?

I started downhill skiing when I was seven years old at Goldridge and Sugar Bowl. And I had these Hickory skis, little segmented metal edges screwed onto them. But the bindings were interesting cause they had a cable on the heel and there were two hold-downs on the sides. And I hope you can visualize this cause, you snap the cable underneath one to hold your heel down onto the ski, right? That's the rear one. The forward one snapped from the rear. It’s a walking mode and these are my downhill skis. But this is 1952 and skiing hasn't advanced that far, so it's still like walking on skis is important. It's a backcountry sport that happens to have some ski lifts and hasn't evolved into plastic boots and all that.

Um, so in a sense having that gear was my heritage and I realized that you could walk on it and that meant that I could go uphill on my skis. Jeez, no big deal. They were built for it. So in a sense, it started right there and by the early sixties, I was going into the backcountry skiing Pyramid Peak. I got to move to Bishop in 1969 fresh out of college. I'm already a guide and lucky again, I had a client for the entire winter. We rented a cabin up Bishop Creek and I taught him how to backcountry ski and winter climbing in the Palisades. We ended up the next spring, spring of 1970, skiing the John Muir Trail, which we thought was a first. But it turns out that we were scooped in 1928-29 by Orland Bartholomew. And that's another whole story.

Well, nothing like skiing the whole length of the range to give you some ideas of places to go and things to just do. in 1975, David Beck and some friends pioneered the Sierra High Route in the backcountry, which goes from roughly Independence across to Sequoia National Park for six days. Or I like to take eight or nine days to do it cause, once you're out there, well why rush back to the city?

I was guiding that every spring or maybe even twice every spring. And by the mid-eighties, there was a time when I skied across the range, guiding it for a week and then rested a day or two. And I had another backcountry ski tour to guide starting on the Eastside. So I skied back in 22 hours. This is like a six or eight-day trip but you know, I'm really fit and by then and I have set my own track across the top of these high basins. But what a day, you know, to be out there all by myself.

backcountry view from the Alabama Hills, CA
Alabama Hills Storm, Rick Saez

I'm sure all this time in the backcountry gave you plenty of time to think about gear.

The Ultima Thule Pack evolved out of a pack that Don Jensen had designed. He was brilliant. He gave us the plans for them and for our Muir Trail backcountry ski trip we built packs that weighed 17 ounces and carried 70 pounds. I built those packs and a tent that Don Jensen designed for that trip. And then while I was working in Ventura I knew that I could improve on the Jensen pack. So Tom Frost and I ended up crawling around on pattern paper on the floor and laughing to ourselves. It was so much fun to work with him as a designer and we came up with a truly better version of that pack that carried better. And so that was wonderful and decades later I designed another carrying system for a pack for Montbell when you and I were working there.

That was the Wishbone system. I mentioned that the Ultima Thule dragged on your shoulders just like the Jensen backcountry pack did. We hadn't figured that out. And so it was figuring that out over the years with essentially some internal stays in the pack that rose above the shoulder straps, like lift straps, which everybody's got now. But there was a time when that was a big deal. It was a new way and the new hybrid materials that I came up with without going way into it.

When did you write your first book?

Writing for magazines like Outside, which I helped start, another whole story. I wrote some cover stories and was having such a good time. That was the first really professional magazine that I'd ever been around. I ended up moving to San Francisco to hang out with them and I was making enough of a pest to myself that they gave me a desk and a phone and ended up staying the winter.

Then I wrote cover stories and I was writing for backpacker and already mentioned Powder. So that was half of my career and guiding was the other half. By the nineties, I had all these magazine articles that I had written that I liked and other people liked so I pulled them together into a book. So my first book was really just an anthology of my own writing. Things I liked the best going back to the sixties. And it was a big success actually. It was recently named by climbing magazine as one of the 33 must-reads climbing literature of all time.

You were thinking about the listeners of the podcast, what do you want to say to them?

I was thinking about the people who might be listening to this podcast. And I'm imagining that some of them are shop people working on the floor, some are designers, some are marketers, you know, we're all in the same industry, this outdoor industry, which is so great. It’s given us such great friendships and good times.

I was thinking about the customer that walks into that shop and you're the guy on the floor saying “hi what can I do for you”? And that what you can do for them is not just talk about the qualities of the packs that you're selling, that they want to buy, but also the experience. You've been out in the backcountry more than they have. You have the experience they admire that and they would love to soak it up and hear some of your stories. And if you're a customer just walking into your local mountain shop, yeah you wanna walk back out with a parka and a pack and a sleeping bag, but you also want to rub shoulders with the experience itself. And so don't you guys out there sell yourself short on, on that. You got a lot to give people besides the tech specs.

Do you have any other suggestions or advice for someone wanting to get into the outdoor business or grow their career if they are already in the biz?

Follow your bliss. I mean, that's how basically all of us got in here. And I have one other sort of oddball piece of advice too. Don't think that you can get that degree from Oregon and be a product designer without the outdoor experience with it, cause you gotta be out there in the rain with the water somehow finding its way to drip in around the hood of your parka, you know, and you have to have that experience before you can know how to design around it, how to fix it.

If you could have a huge banner at the entrance to the OR show these days, what would it say?

My banner would say “take care of the planet because if you don't, nothing in this show is going to mean anything.”

You can follow up with Doug at his website Moving Over Stone

I think that the thing that's most inspiring is just the really good outdoor industry retailers, the really good brands and the really good factories are all linking arms and realizing that we all need each other.” – Joe Vernachio, Mountain Hardwear

Thukla Memorial Everest Base Camp Trek
Photographer: Ananya Bilimale | Source: Unsplash

Tell us about your attempt to climb Mt Everest, did you top out?

No, we didn't. We went in the fall, last October. The mountain hadn't really been climbed in about six years in the autumn. The conditions are tougher, it's getting colder, it's getting windier, and the Icefall was in really rough shape. It took us almost a month just to get through the icefall. And then when we did, there was a huge Serac overhead, right in the same spot that took out many of the Sherpas a few years prior. It was just way too risky. So we backed off, but it was awesome to be back in the mountains and on that mountain specifically.

The Mountain moves around a little bit more, I think than it does in May. We're just looking at the jet stream and just seeing when it's not on the top of the mountain. So we could time our summit attempt for when we had a good window when it wouldn't be so windy. We'd never really even saw that window. So it just made the most sense to not put anybody at risk more than we needed to. What was amazing was that there was nobody on the mountain. It was just three of us. There were maybe 20 people in base camp versus a thousand people.

How were you introduced to the Outdoors?

The classic story. My dad was a woodsman, a hunter, and a fisherman and we'd go canoeing as a family. So I was introduced to the outdoors that way. When I was about 13, this guy named George Willig climbed the twin towers in New York City. And I lived just outside of New York City. There were lots of articles in the newspaper about this guy and this thing called rock climbing. And this place that he climbed called the Shawangunks up in New York. Being close enough to it, I made my way up there and got exposed to this thing called rock climbing. I just became fascinated with it and did what I could on my own as a kid. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin, and there was a climbing area out there called Devil's Lake, which is just a nice little top roping area that I was able to hone my skills and, and learn quite a bit about it.

How does a guy with degrees in biochemistry and biology get into the outdoor industry?

After I got out of school, I just had no idea what I was going to do with any of those degrees. I got a job at Erehwon Mountain Shop in Madison working for Jeff Weidman. He was the store manager and I loved it. I just loved being around the product. I love opening the boxes when they came in and I just couldn't wait to see all the new stuff. I think our Patagonia rep at the time was Rock Horton, who's a long time outdoor industry employee with Black Diamond. I think he just retired just recently. He made some introductions for me. At the time Patagonia and Chouinard equipment were very, very small. Peter Metcalf said come on out and I'll give you a job. I think there were about 12 of us at Chouinard equipment at the time. I worked in the area attached to the original Patagonia store.

The view of the Sierra Nevada from highway 395 outside of Bishop, California. Mount Basin is located in the centre and Mount Tom on the right. The Eastern Sierra and the Ownes Valley is a magiical place.
Photographer: Ross Stone | Source: Unsplash

You've been with an impressive list of brands, which of your roles has been most inspiring?

I would say my education in business and how to make great product was Nike, no doubt about it. I was there from ‘89 to 2000. It was just the skyrocket of growth and just the culture and how to make great products while still growing business very rapidly. The culture there was, was fantastic

I've always admired Mark Parker. I think he just recently stepped down as president, CEO. But Mark was part of the team back then. It was just an amazing group of talented, people there that I got to work shoulder to shoulder with.

I definitely learned the product side of it and the design and the respect for the process of design from Nike. My time at Spyder was really valuable and just understanding the financial side of it. Running a company on a line of credit, going deep in debt, and then coming out of debt, much like a retailer operates was really valuable. And then there really isn't a day that goes by that I don't rely on some of my memories at outdoor industry retailer Erewhon working on a store floor and what that feels like. Having a rep come in and, and engage with you as a store kid and how it really just grabs you and makes you a brand champion.

How is Mountain Hardware navigating the current environment?

We're all working from home. We're on video conferences all day long. We were able to do a couple of weeks of prep prior to it. We could kind of see it coming. So we did some prep. So it was a nice transition. It wasn't that abrupt. Our motto to ourselves is we're not surviving. We're preparing. We're not just trying to figure out how to survive this thing. We're actually trying to make sure we use this time to hone our outdoor industry product positioning and our brand messaging and our values to make sure we come out of this really strong, really sharp. We just feel strongly that people are actually going to probably have more of a connection to nature and to the outdoors and appreciation for it than they did going into this. I don't see any indication that it's going to go the other way

What are you hearing in the last weeks or six weeks as we've gone through this that inspires you?

I think that the thing that's most inspiring is just the really good outdoor industry retailers, the really good brands and the really good factories are all linking arms and realizing that we all need each other. And if we are mean to each other and disrespectful to each other through this process, it's not going to work. I think in situations like this, the best come out and people, and that's what we've seen. We've seen mostly cooperation and understanding, and everyone just trying to find stable ground to stand on and I feel like six weeks into it, it's kind of where we are. And today, we're starting to hear about some stores that are starting to open around the country. So we'll take a look at what that looks like and see what this feels like. I don't think we're under any impression that outdoor industry doors are just gonna be wide open and everyone's gonna rush in. Just some movement, I think we'll start to make people feel a little bit better and set us up for probably early next year to start to get a little closer to whatever the new normal is.

How do you think it's gonna impact the outdoor industry supply chain?

I lived in Asia for seven years, work directly with the factories while I was with Nike. So I've had a number of years in Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan and know the factory side of things as well. If I learned anything during that time, it's just how resilient and how customer service focused the factories and mills are. We certainly had some disruption when China shut down and now some of the other countries are shutting down. But boy, their ability to recover is miraculous. And, while we've had some disruption in the supply, it's not that impactful. I'd say it's just a little bit worse than a normal season where you always have some problems somewhere in the world that you're dealing with. But nothing we can't recover from. The biggest challenge in this whole event will be inventory and where does it pile up and how does it get dispersed? That's the game. I mean, retailers, they're trying to reduce their pile. Brands are trying to reduce their pile and factories are trying to reduce their pile

What about the future of outdoor industry trade shows?

I was in the sports and fitness industry when the super show is going on in Atlanta. That was a show was maybe the biggest and everyone thought that would never end. And it did and the industry went on and you worked out other ways to do it. I think there's a much bigger cultural component to it for us in the outdoor industry. So, on a personal level, I would hate to see it go away. On a business level, I think there are ways to do it. They're not as personal and there's not as much comradery around it, but it still gets the business done. I mean, we're going to do it this year. But I really, really hope it comes back and that we can all get together again and, create that culture that really existed. I mean, you just get to see so many more people than you would have otherwise.

Suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor adventure business or grow their career?

I think my advice to get in the outdoor industry is just to get in with a retailer or a brand that you respect and admire. What I say to young people is to be sure you understand the company's values before you join. Because if you don't align with their values, then you're not going to like a lot of the decisions they make. So that, and a lot of companies won't be able to articulate their values, if they can't articulate them, then that tells you something too.

Other things we talked about

Favorite Gear under $100: Mountain Hardwear Kor Pre Shell

OR Banner: “Be nice to each other”

Find Joe on Linkedin

Subscribe HERE to The Outdoor Biz Podcast and get every episode delivered right to your inbox.

The current sales model is broken. It really hasn't adapted. And small outdoor retail brands are always last out of the bag if even mentioned at all. So many traditional sales reps are based on schedule and ROI and that's why a lot of these brands just really never get a chance” – Lauren Web, Bullish Endurance

photo of Lauren Webb
Lauren Webb

Bullish Endurance describes their solution for last out of the bag Outdoor Retail Brands.

We work with small outdoor retail brands on their marketing and sales solutions. There are so many great companies, that really don't have the bandwidth or the budget to be able to have an in-house sales team or a big marketing campaign budget. We're here to share their story and fill that role.

We work with the Outdoor Retail brands to come with campaigns and activities to execute.

We attend outdoor retail events, consumer events, it just really depends. Every company is different and everywhere they see their customer is different, whether it's a consumer or retailers. So we just really get to know the customer and how best to give them their best return on investment.

How do you create and execute a solution for a last out of the bag Outdoor Retail Brand?

We communicate. They know what we do best and they know what they do best. And by collaborating and getting to know what and where their best return on investment is we build a solution for the customer that fits their needs. Maybe they need exposure in a certain area. For example a lot of the West Coast outdoor retail brands that maybe you and I have relationships with because we were based on the West coast but in the Southeast, nobody's ever heard of them.

Photo by Tom Conway on Unsplash

What kind of Outdoor Retail Brand Solutions do you create? Is it different per brand, different per shop? Is it all bespoke stuff?

Things like going to outdoor retail events for some lead generation at a trade show that they may be interested in, but don't have the support staff to be able to do that. Or attending consumer events to build the brand and engage with their direct to consumer. Maybe it's a little bit more of a tactical brand that's looking for some connection with some outdoor retailers because, you know, we have great retail and event partners nationwide. Tt just really depends on the company. Some companies prefer the traditional retail model, some are happy working with distributors and the distribution model. So we basically connect them with partners and increase exposures. We just do it all.

What are some of the results you've achieved for Outdoor Retail Brands and Retailers

Increased sales and we've been able to showcase great outdoor retail brands that make sense for our retailers. We're able to share their story. And I think that that's the biggest thing. There are so many brands that retailers might have seen through Instagram or on social. So we're able to connect those partners.

What has been the response from Outdoor Shops and Brands?

The biggest thing is that brands are just looking for a solution. This is what has really resonated. Outdoor Retail stores want to hear about any product or a new approach, as long as it's cost-effective and has a customer for them. Since we're compensated by the solution package and not necessarily going in with a bag of 15 lines and maybe we get into the last few, the retailer isn't constantly being sold. We're working on whatever solution works best for them. So a better relationship is being formed through the retailer and the brand and our agency. This collaboration being formed. At the end of the day creating collaboration between small brands and retailers is the overall solution. That’s great!

How can folks follow up with you?

You can check out our website at or contact us via email at

Other things we talked about

Zoic Clothing

Lizard Skins

Moon Sports USA

Huma Gel

Orange Seal

Afton Shoes

Favorite Gear under $100 Zoic Piper Jersey

Moon Sports Headlamp

Subscribe HERE to The Outdoor Biz Podcast and get every episode delivered right to your inbox.

He began his outdoor career in the '60s working for Dick Kelty, he started a couple of outdoor businesses with his brother, was an executive with VF for quite a few years, has taken numerous adventures near and far with his wife Katie and is now helping small businesses navigate these challenging times. Jim Thomsen discusses the current business environment in this pandemic and offers advice and strategies for taking action.

the most critical thing that you should be doing right now is conserving cash and make sure you save that cash.

An photo of US Dollar bills, small business cash
Photographer: Sharon McCutcheon | Source: Unsplash

You're helping a lot of small business owners sort through the SBA programs, how did you get involved with the SBA?

The Small Business Development Center has locations all over the country funded by the SBA. What they offer is in normal times is really excellent business consulting. They'll help you do business plans and cash flow statements and they have experts in all the offices to help you. If you wanted to work out a social media program or marketing plan, finances, they have people who specialize in that. Not just SBA loans but all kinds of different financing. And the work that the small business development centers do is totally free to businesses.

I had known about it but never really worked with it. It's a super great group of people and every business should sign up with them because you don't have to listen to anybody. You could ask them anything. They have all kinds of resources and it's 100% free.

The group in central California also includes the Eastern Sierra. Since the main offices are in Bakersfield, Inyo and Mono county are not a convenient place for them to come over. But Once a year they do a big economic conference here explaining different offerings that they have. At this last one, they asked me to be a speaker there because they wanted a section on crowdfunding. I had just done the Kickstarter program for Wilderness Experience, and since I had done it all myself, I learned all the little parts of it. So I was one of the speakers and I got to know the director and a few other people. He kept saying, you know, you would be perfect, you gotta help us over here in Eastern Sierra because we have plenty of small businesses that could use some help. I said, well you know, it sounds perfect.

I helped one store for about an hour or two and was thinking I’m never going to be a very good consultant just because I'm not going to be around. Once we got back from Patagonia, all of a sudden we're stuck. You know, inside our condo with nothing going on and every small business in town is having a problem. So they called and said would you start helping on these? A lot of people are stuck at home with nothing to do right now. And, and I'm busier than I've ever been.

How are you helping, what are you doing with small business owners?

Most of it over this last month has been trying to get the different SBA loans because those are ones that have been pushed. There's a lot of money behind them. The loans are actually really good for businesses but it's still government loans. So it's not easy. It's not something that you could just apply for. So I'm helping the different businesses first understand the different loans and why one may be better for them than another, the good points of them, the bad points of them, and then how to apply and how to get all their information together and get the loan. That's been what I've really spent most of my time doing.

How many different types of loans are available, three or four right?

There's actually more, but there are two main ones and it's the ones you probably, nobody would've ever known before. Now they're in the news a lot. One is called the economic injury disaster loan. It's actually part of the SBA disaster program, which normally is used after an earthquake or a hurricane and they come in and help rebuild. They use that same program for this, except the record number of loans previously was I think for Katrina. They had 11,000 applicants over a three day period. This one they had 3 million in four days. So when people say, Oh, it's impossible to deal with them, you can't thru. They probably were unprepared for that.

The other one is the payroll protection plan. And that's to try to keep businesses paying their employees. From a government point of view, it's goal is to keep people from getting laid off and collecting unemployment. From the business perspective that allows them, if they've got good employees, to keep those people. Keep paying them, if they offer health insurance keep that going. If they get the money and actually keep people employed and paid, the loan is 100% forgiven.

And some businesses, like one of the ones I’ve worked with, at one of his locations he was trying to do some remodeling inside and it was always a problem cause they were open. Now he has two of his employees working, doing work inside rebuilding one of their buildings. There are two people in there, they can make it safe and no problem. He's actually getting value out of the employees while paying them. I've got a couple of other ones that have young employees that are here in Mammoth because they want to ski and play. They are really good at computer things and setting up web sites and things. So they're getting a lot of work from these guys, helping them finally get a good website, which they'd never had before.

Small Business Restaurant closed sign - stay safe
Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

What should small business owners be doing now besides trying to get loans?

To me, the most critical thing that you should be doing right now is conserving cash and make sure you save that cash. That means calling everybody you owe money to every payment you have and trying to get them to either, defer the payments or forgive some or to give you longer terms or something. I know it's really hard and I've had retail stores where I've had trouble paying bills. It's hard calling people, but you just have to do it. At least at this time, nobody's going to ask you what really happened cause they know what happened, right?

The second most important thing tied in with that is to do a true cash flow statement. Something that I always tell everybody in business that you have to do. Because that's the critical thing. Keep your cash flow statement updated as things change. So you know what position you're in and now it's more critical than ever. It is really hard to guess what your revenue is going to be this month or next month. But you should be able to get to the point where you have an idea of what money you're going to have going out. The first time you do a cash flow statement, it's not going to be accurate, but you should be updating that every few days just if nothing else. It makes you think about your business.

Things We Talked About

Small Business Development Center

Economic Injury Disaster Loan (currently it is closed as of 4/26, but should reopen sometime, hopefully soon)

Payroll Protection Plan Loans

Eastern Sierra businesses to sign up with the Small Business Development Center

Jim LinkedIn: James Thomsen LinkedIn Profile

Jim Email:

Wes grew up on a working Cattle Ranch outside Cody, Wyoming. Currently the principal at the outdoor retail shop Sunlight Sports, Co-Founder of the Argot Agency and former president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance

"They want to be able to tell a story that local Outdoor Retail customers will relate to. That's the whole concept behind the Argo Agency"

Find out more about Sunlight Sports and the Argot Agency here:
Sunlight SportsArgot Agency

view of the Grand Tetons at sunrise
Photographer: Jesse Gardner | Source: Unsplash

You have a wide range of experience in the outdoor retail space. Tell us about a little bit about your background.

I do have a wide range of experience. My first formal job in the outdoor industry was here at Sunlight Sports. Cody was the nearest big town to the ranch. After I graduated from college, I came in for an outdoor retail summer job because I had purchased stuff here before. I wound up staying and then, a year later or so the woman who owned Sunlight with her husband . . . her much younger sister came back from college in New Zealand and I wound up getting married to her. So yeah, I kinda got into the family that way.

How did the Argot Agency come about?

Argo is something that's a little bit newer. Argo agency is a specialty agency that works on building out bespoke marketing programs between Outdoor Retailers and brands. These retailers have been identified as key outdoor retail specialty accounts by the brands. And obviously, from my background, I really believe in the power of specialty outdoor retail.

We've worked with quite a few brands in the outdoor industry. When people go into a specialty outdoor retail shop, there's kind of this ambiance and Summit Hut is a great example. You go in there and it is definitely an Arizona outdoor store and they sell snake gaiters and they've got cactus on the wall. It's not, you know, it's not a Pacific Northwest outdoor retail store. And you know, brands want to tell great stories that resonate with customers. They want to be able to tell a story that local Outdoor Retail customers will relate to. That's the whole concept behind Argo.

Tell our listeners how Argo works with outdoor retail brands and stores to execute these campaigns.

So we go in and we actually customize it for every single outdoor retail shop. The vast majority of retailers that we work with, we do a photoshoot with the brand. Then we create brand signage and pop and everything in the store for the brand. So for example with Summit Hut, when we did the signs it was pictures of people in the mountains right outside of Tucson. The fonts and the colors and everything was localized but it was very much a Nemo branded campaign.

view of an Arizona Sunset
Photographer: Emily Campbell | Source: Unsplash

What suggestions or advice do you have for folks wanting to get into the outdoor retail biz? Or grow their career if they're already in the biz.

I think that the outdoor retail industry, even though it's gotten bigger and there are big multinational corporations involved, it is a passion industry. Very few people are in the outdoor industry because this is the only job they can find right? They're here because they care about it. And I think my one suggestion I would give to people is I'd wear your passions on your sleeve a little bit more, whether it's for your job or for the outdoor activities that you enjoy. I think we all respond to that and find it a positive thing. And we like being around people who are passionate about something. I think in your career if you can be passionate about your job and passionate about your activities, other people in the outdoor industry are more inclined to help you with your career.

Things We Talked About

Sunlight Sports

Argot Agency

Summit Hut

Nemo Equipment

Grassroots Outdoor Alliance

Cody, Wyoming


Favorite Outdoor Gear Under $100

Dana Design Bangtail hip pack

Espro Coffee


Outdoor Retailer Banner

Do your job well and understand where it fits in the big picture of the industry

Connect with Wes- Argo Agency, Linkedin

Published with StoryChief

The man behind Mystery Ranch outdoor packs, Dana Gleason, has seen many pack trends and brands come and go during his forty years of designing and sewing outdoor packs. Several of the brands were his own, including Kletterwerks, which he started as a young ski and climbing bum in 1975, later revived by Dana’s son in 2012. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dana and business partner, Renee Sippel-Baker, threw their creative energy into Mojo Systems and Quest camera bags. Dana’s namesake brand, Dana Design was established in 1985 quickly becoming the outdoor packs to trust for uncompromising durability and a comfortable carry among mountaineers and backpackers. As is often the case with entrepreneurial brands, cash for growth was needed and Dana and Renee ended up selling off their interest in each of those brands. In 2000, after some time off, Dana and Renee once again crafted a small selection of durable packs for a new endeavor, Mystery Ranch.

“The fact that we’ve succeeded in this is more than luck. ‘Luck’ consists of holding on to the good stuff and letting go of the bad,” explains Dana as he recounts his history building outdoor packs. After 40 years, Dana has observed dozens of load-carrying systems come and go. He’s seen trends like the superlight movement catch the interest of consumers and he’s seen the pendulum swing in the opposite direction for professionals whose highest priority is a comfortable carry. As the majority of US factories were shut down, and production moved overseas, Dana has observed quality become inconsistent. He’s seen fabrics and materials evolve from the original thick rust Cordura to the high tenacity lightweight versions available today. All this experience has found significance in the new 2016 Mystery Ranch outdoor packs, which like all of Dana’s packs are Built For The Mission.

view of outdoor camping
Photographer: Lionello DelPiccolo | Source: Unsplash

How did You get interested in the Outdoors

It was definitely as a kid and I have to thank my parents. It wasn't purely backpacking, I was raised just outside of Boston and my parents who were florists had their own independent business, a flower shop. They always took time off in the summer, which actually as florists is easy to do. It's a slow time of the year and we would go up to New Hampshire and camp in all sorts of places. For the most part, we were dragging a tent camper and we'd be up there a couple of weeks at a time and doing all sorts of day trips, climbing Mount Washington or Mount Jefferson. It just was normal, very fun. And, then at age 12 they then badly warped me when we did a six week trip across the country, out to the Rockies and then up through Yellowstone. And we got to out with a cousin of mine do some stupid things in the Tetons.

After College, I wanted to stay connected to the outdoors and I had an opportunity to start working at a shop. Admittedly, it was a shop in the Chicago area, which is not exactly what one would think of as, Hey, I'm in the mountains. Right. But basically people in Chicago, they badly need a trip when the opportunity comes up. So, you know, helping out at a shop there, the first year or two got me into what we grandly call show business.

After designing and building outdoor packs for over 40 years, what inspired your first design?

Pain and frustration. I was using the gear of the time and there were some improvements that were clearly needed. I had graduated from using Kelty outdoor packs, and trying to use it for all things including ski touring, climbing and other stuff. And while they are a hell of a pack on the trail, they are a hideous torture machine when it comes to actually trying to do approaches or climb or ski.

I started applying some further thought to that. And this was after I'd been doing a couple of years of mods and custom work and had a decent heavy-duty machine. This was during a time when I was shifting from managing an outdoor store to becoming a sales rep, which was utterly important because you can get great ideas and feedback.

Dana design pack was one of the outdoor packs to have in the eighties and nineties except for the first three years. No one had heard of us. No one wanted to see it, I couldn't get it going in a store, I even tried to hire reps. It was such a unique design.

A person I hired back in 1978 at Kletterwerks as a seamstress that came to work with me and came to become the obvious choice for the manager of the sewing floor. Two years in, we had a rather historic meeting at a picnic table where we had bag lunches and I confessed that “I'm screwing this up. I recognize I'm screwing this up and how do we make this go?” That person's name was Renee Sippel Baker. She then became my business partner through three of these things over the last 40 years.

view of outdoor hiking and camping
Photographer: Arthur Poulin | Source: Unsplash

Mystery Ranch Outdoor Packs has been around for 20 years. What was the inspiration for that brand?

I had no intention of doing an outdoor pack company or even something in the outdoor industry. I still had some sewing machines and my eldest daughter Alice asked me for something that she claimed I hadn't really built during her lifetime, which was a simple hip sack. We had built big, complex ones, ones where you could put 10 kilos on your waist and carry reasonably comfortably, but you needed a few extra straps and you kind of had to operate it. She wanted something simple. So I did three, four days worth of work and it kind of felt cool to be doing something from scratch. I still built something we call lumbar wrap and I handed it to her and she put it on and it worked. And she turned around and looked at me and said, “thanks, dad. That's just what I wanted” with a big smile.

We have some really pretty darn good tricks and the thing going from the birth of Mystery Ranch, which was entirely about getting back into the outdoor industry and working with specialty shops and building outdoor packs that would matter for them.

Advice for someone wanting to get into the other business or grow their outdoor career

First off, working in a retail store. You need to not just get into what you would like, but to see what other people are after and how it is to in fact interact with them. It's really kind of necessary to learn what makes the frog jump.

Welcome to episode 209 of The Outdoor Biz Podcast. Today I'm talking about Fly Fishing, Podcasting, Stewardship and more with Nico Sunseri and Ben King of the BearFish Alliance. Nico and Ben believe that by enabling multilevel stewardship via unified communication channels, it is possible to preserve the integrity, legacy, and future of the Truckee River as a wild rainbow and Brown trout fishery for the community to enjoy and generations to come.

"So here's a little thing about the Truckee River. We've given it a nickname, The Big Two Faced River"

Find out more about the Bear Fish Alliance here:

What are some of the stewardship activities that you guys are working on right now?

Nico- "In early June, and we're having a River Clean-Up in cooperation with Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy".

underwater view of a golden trout
Fly Fishing for Golden Trout, Highway 108

How did you get introduced to Fly Fishing and the outdoors?

Ben-"I surfed my whole life. That includes many trips down to Mexico. My grandpa's the real true outdoors and my dad has same passion. Growing up camping and in the boy Scouts we did a lot of backpacking, hiking, and I just most connected to the Outdoors in so many different ways."

Nico- "I was more of an inland kid growing up in San Dimas, California and started fishing probably about five years old. From the time I could ride a bike after school or before school or in summers I went fishing. A trip to Lake Powell really got me hooked into fishing and it just kinda carried on. The transition to fly fishing didn't really happen, Oh my gosh, I mean maybe about seven years ago."

When Was the first time you went Fishing together?

I introduced Ben to Fly Fishing and to his credit he pays attention. He picked up on some things. I would say within a month of us going out constantly, one day he just geared up and hopped in his car. After a bit, he gives me a call and says "I'm fishing on my own". An hour later he sends me a picture. Probably it was a little Rainbow or Brown or something, but he started Fishing by himself.

Tell our listeners about the bear fish Alliance. How did you, what inspired you to create that?

It kinda came from number one- being self-taught on the river. It’s kind of an enduring hardship, you know, getting into the sport of fly fishing. You go out and see all these people doing it, you're watching all these YouTube videos reading books, and seeing people being successful and that's a lot.

This river is not easy, you basically learn through trial and error. So I was thinking there has to be a way for us to collectively get all this information together and available to people that want to get into the sport. And for people from out of the area. There isn't one single collective place that you can go to in this region to find information on the Truckee River.

There are a few different groups here like trout unlimited, they have a great presence. Nature Conservancy's done a phenomenal job on the Eastern Truckee doing restoration work and a couple of few other groups doing good work. But the challenge was everyone had their own little stake and they have their own communication channels. So I thought well, maybe we could just step in and fill that void.

We came up with the name BearFish Alliance, which gives a historical nod to the Truckee River. During the time of the settlers, the California grizzly was common in this area and the Lahontan Cutthroat trout ran freely between Pyramid Lake and the Truckee River. The Truckee does maintain the propensity to grow very large Brown and Rainbow Trout.

Aerial view of a burrito with salsa.
Photographer: Bret Kavanaugh | Source: Unsplash

So what’s with the burrito part of a fly fishing show?

We like our guests to be comfortable, you know? If you can get in their environment, it relaxes them. Ben and I both were born and raised in Southern California. And you have two main types of burritos, Carnitas and Carne Asada. We also have a Jurassic park scale we use, you must get close to legitimate food poisoning to be considered a real burrito. The only other requirement is the horchata, you know if they have the machine they're legit, if they have the jar, that’s next level. Locally here in the Eastern Sierra up in June Lake near June Lake brewing there's a trailer called Ohanas. It's absolutely the Best burrito in the Sierra. They use pork in that Jurassic Park burrito shell and Wow! It's just an experience. Like everything's wrong about it and you want somebody to drive you home cuz you're going to have a food coma.

Things We Talked About

BearFish Alliance

Burritos, Breaks, and Flies– Podcast

Reno Fly Shop, Reno

Sportsmans Warehouse Reno

Trout Unlimted

The Nature Conservancy

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

Ohanas 395 June Lake

Favorite Podcasts

Favorite Outdoor Gear Under $100

Ben-Magnetic Net Keeper

Nico- Quick Silver Sun Hat

Connect with Nico and Ben- BearFish Alliance

Published with StoryChief

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