In 1970 my first wife, Laurie, and I traveled in Mexico and returned to California with the idea of buying or building a sailboat to sail to southern Mexico. Before our trip, while attending UCLA, I worked at Kelty Mountaineering, one of the first manufacturers and retail stores for backpacking and mountaineering equipment. I returned to work with Kelty for a short time and then was offered a job as the manager of a mountaineering store in Tarzana, California, The Mountain Store.
My younger brother, Greg, was just back from an around-the-world trip that included setting foot on Mount Everest, driving across Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and India and visiting Vietnam as a tourist. He returned about the same time as Laurie and I did and joined me as a joint manager of The Mountain Store.
We started a guide service taking kids into the wilderness areas of the California's High Sierra and Laurie created our first brochure.
Wilderness Experience schedule of trips for 1971
The trips filled up and we were in business. Looking back, it is amazing that parents would let their 13 and 14 year olds go into the wilderness for a week with a couple of long haired kids still not 21 years old!
Partly because the kids trips were successful, partly because Greg and I loved climbing and mostly because we needed the money, we began classes in mountaineering, cross country skiing and rock climbing. These proved very successful and we met many people who helped us later in business.
In between trips during August 1971, while descending after making a solo accent of an unnamed peak in the Sierra, Laurie fell and was killed. She had been the driving force behind the kids trips so they ended that season. Greg and I continued to work together at The Mountain Store and Greg taught climbing classes most weekends.
These were the very early days of the outdoor industry and only a few new companies were making good equipment. From our experience climbing and working in mountaineering stores we felt that none of the manufacturers were making the right equipment for real mountaineering use.
We bought a sewing machine and Greg learned to sew. Not having any money and not knowing anything about manufacturing or business did not stop us from renting a 1000 square foot shop and putting our sewing machine in it. On January 15, 1973 we launched our new manufacturing company. With no products and no sales we continued to teach outdoor classes to pay the rent.
Our first announcement made it clear we had no idea what we planned to make. Our product line: backpacking and mountaineering equipment. Larger view
Within a few months Greg had designed a couple of backpacks and we received an order from a local mountaineering store (Westridge Mountaineering in Santa Monica owned by Don Lauria was our first account). Wilderness Experience: Packs for Mountaineers was a real brand.
The inside cover of our catalog in 1975
Every day presented a new challenge and usually required us to learn something new. We were one of the early sewing companies to have computerized systems, mostly because Jim liked computers. Everything was made in-house including small metal parts, welded backpack frames, leather accessory patches and pack bottoms. Each new project allowed us to buy new machines!
The 1970s were a very exciting time for the outdoor industry. Almost all the companies were new and owned by young enthusiasts. We were all making money and growing as fast as we could. Generally we were friends. The above catalog was created by Kris McDivitt (far right) and the crew from Chouinard/Patagonia. Kris was CEO of Patagonia for 15 years. For fun we organized a big party at the sporting goods trade shows in partnership with JanSport, Sierra West and Lowe Alpine Systems.
By 1978 Wilderness Experience was a prospering company with over 100 employees and sales representatives covering all 50 states.
1978 Factory Photo - We had so many great people working with us!
We moved a number of times until we had a building built especially for us on Nordhoff Street in Chatsworth. By 1980 we had a few hundred employees, factories in Chatsworth, North Hollywood and San Francisco, and were one of the major manufacturers in the outdoor industry. We completed a public stock offering in 1981 and were listed on NASDAQ.
Greg, already an experienced backcountry and world traveler at 18, took this picture used on the cover of the 1971 Kelty Catalog. It was one of the most important catalogs in the outdoor industry at that time.
An early brochure
The inside of our 1975 catalog explained that we owned 100% of Wilderness Experience and that we made only packs. And that we enjoyed it.
This picture was taken at Jim's cabin in the mountains. A close observer will notice we are drinking red wine and the bottle is a white wine bottle. We had already finished the white wine and had moved onto red. The papers in front were Jim's attempt at learning IBM RPG2 computer programming.
Catalog cover 1977 photo by Diane Desmond
Our first employee was Diane Desmond. Actually she was more of a very good friend that we paid very poorly for all the work she did in the early years. She stayed with Wilderness Experience and continued to grow with the company. In the 1980s she was the General Manager of the factories. She and my wife at the time, Sandy, took a trip to Nepal and hiked to the base came at Mount Everest in 1977. They returned with hundreds of great pictures and we used the above on our our catalog that year.
Ned Gillette using Wilderness Experience gear
From early on Wilderness Experience had many of the world's top mountaineers using our equipment. Above is our ad on the back cover of a major magazine showing Ned Gillette using our equipment.
In the 1970s we created the "Wildy Design Team" that included among others: Kim Schmitz, John Roskelly, Ron Kauk, Kim Moab, Galen Rowell, Steve McKinney, John Long, Dick Dorworth, Mike Graber, Leo Le Bon, Mike Covington, Jack Tackle, Scot Woolums, Carlos Buhler, Alan Bard, John Bachar, Fred Becky, Jim Donini, Ned Gillette, Beverly Johnson, Michael Kennedy, Russ McClean, Charlie Porter, Rick Ridgeway and others.
The cover of our 1976 catalog
Notice the metal buckles on this early backpack. Wilderness Experience was the first company in the world to switch to plastic buckles and hardware when they were introduced. Today that is all you can find.
One our earliest designs, The Klettersack, was always a top seller and today other companies still sell their version of the popular model.