Wonk on the Wild Side

Want to experience the suicidal rush of trying to break into the outdoor gear biz? Join us now for the saga of GoLite, a crazy little startup with everything stacked against it—except for one featherweight idea whose time may have come.


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Demetri Coupounas hustles to get his things together after a morning hike and a quick shower. Peering out the curtains of a room at the Ramada in Salt Lake City, Coup, as he’s known, can see that the August sky is getting dark and growly. If he and his wife, Kim, don’t leave for the convention center right away, they’re going to be schlepping boxes of order forms and catalogs through the rain.

Coup is here to set up and man the booth of his new company, GoLite, at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show. The country’s largest gathering of manufacturers of adventure sports equipment, camping gear, and outdoor clothing, the OR show is where retail buyers come to decide what they’re going to stock next spring. It’s Wednesday, setup day for the show, which opens tomorrow morning at eight. But Coup, who fusses at Kim to get a move on, is already coming into entrepreneurial focus. “There’s only one thing in my world right now,” the 34-year-old businessman announces in his surround-sound baritone. “GoLite’s launch.” (Coup sang a cappella as a Princeton undergrad, and when he speaks, you’d think Mammoth Cave was doing a mike check.)

By the time Coup, at the wheel of his metallic tan 1994 Dodge Intrepid, nabs one of the few open parking spots near the Salt Palace Convention Center, the clouds have turned Wagnerian. Coup and Kim shuffle to their back-corner space (200 square feet, $6,000) in a blocklong white vinyl tent called Pavilion 2. As in years past, there’s not enough room inside the main hall for every exhibitor, so about 300 of the 860 manufacturers at the OR show display in two temporary, plywood-floored shelters. The floor plan allots real estate by seniority, so all 194 of this year’s first-timers are relegated to the hinterlands. Welcome to Darwinian capitalism, outdoor style: Fledgling companies sit farthest from the dense foot traffic and dealmaking they so desperately need to join.

Coup and Kim weave through aisles packed with kaleidoscopic kayaks, fleece wardrobes, putt-putting forklifts, and tabletop product demonstrations that look like school science projects. When they first lay eyes on their booth, which contractors have just assembled, they beam like new homeowners. It’s a $40,000 display unit—with light maple trim and eight-foot-tall mirrors under a sign proclaiming the company name—that announces a startup better-funded than most. (So far, Coup has invested $600,000 of personal and family money in GoLite.) This flashy upscale presentation will promote packs, tents, and outerwear of severely minimalist design. GoLite, as the stripped-down name implies, is a line of drastically lightweight trail products—antigear gear, you might say—based on the specifications of a graybeard Oregon hiking swami and author named Ray Jardine. Indeed, Coup has come to sell a philosophy as much as a product. “Ultralight,” booms Coup, face jutting upward as it habitually does. “I can’t make money unless I’ve taken the loads off people. I like that.”

If only Ma Nature would cooperate. Outside, the squall line coils into ominous life, and people stand and gawp. But the bustling in the tent continues, until suddenly the wind and racket intensify as a dirty helix of debris swings directly toward the temporary structure, and a woman near the door shrieks, “Tornado!” All hell breaks loose as Coup and Kim dive under a section of flooring. The twister, roaring at speeds of up to 157 miles per hour, flings kayaks skyward, pretzels parking meters, skewers delivery trucks with metal beams, and shreds the rectangular big-top like Kleenex. The tornado passes on, taking a long swipe at a residential neighborhood and reducing several brick houses to rubble before running out of juice in the foothills of the Wasatch Range.

The GoLite display is one of the few things relatively unscathed in a world gone Cuisinart. Coup’s fine; Kim has a bit of ground-glass rash on her knees. There are scores of walking wounded, a few gravely injured, and one man who later died: Allen Crandy, a 38-year-old contractor from Las Vegas who just put together GoLite’s booth. Coup and Kim help pull a beam off Crandy before the paramedics arrive. The tent pavilion has been wiped out.

A couple of hours later, the Coupounases stand fending off the omens in a Radisson Hotel room that belongs to Mark Thibeault, owner of the Bozeman, Montana—based agency that does GoLite’s ads, graphics, and public relations. Coup, voice still booming, wonders aloud about replacing his Dodge, which caught a flying traffic signal, but he looks as if he’s been pickled in his own adrenaline.

The show must go on. Two days after the tornado hit and minutes before the OR doors officially open (a day late), Coup is set up in a foster booth (#3524) in the glorious, fixed-roofed expanse of the Salt Palace’s grand ballroom. He’s doubling up with Erickson Outdoors, the contractor that actually makes GoLite’s wares. Coup fiddles with a headless mannequin decked out in GoLite clothing and positioned under an open GoLite umbrella, the shock of the tornado now gone from his face. Head-on, he looks like a manic Tom Cruise. But then you notice a nose that slews to the right and, when observed in profile, becomes an avian shocker that shoots the Cruise thing to pieces. There’s another likeness here too—Punchinello, from Punch and Judy. Picture Punch with black hair and a whisker shadow and you’ve got an official Demetri Coupounas hand puppet. One that is ready to spiel: Like most exhibitors, he has pushed catastrophe out of his mind. If he didn’t, GoLite would be sunk.

“We lost a day to the tornado,” he declares, warming up his sales fervor. “We’re not going to lose a week.”

Golite got lucky. The twister handed coup something no amount of money could buy: Good OR real estate. But there’s trouble lurking in the aisles. Despite all the media hype and big-bucks advertising centered around the presumption that outdoor gear is happenin’, GoLite is entering a flat market. Industry-watcher Bob Woodward, who consults for outdoor companies and publishes a mercilessly frank insider newsletter called SNEWS, broods over this in a near-apocalyptic “State of the Business” editorial published just before the show. “We all have to accept that the market as we know it is going away,” writes Woodward, who lives in Bend, Oregon.

The industry’s annual sales, according to Outdoor Retailer magazine’s State of the Market report, which is based on a survey of every shop attending its OR show, have dropped in recent years, to $4.8 billion in 1998 from $5.2 billion in 1995. The figure includes sales of tents, packs, outerwear, hiking boots, and climbing equipment—the bulk of the goods on display at the trade show—but not bass rods, firearms, and other hook-and-bullet accoutrements. It also does not include many of the hardgoods that most folks would consider to be outdoor gear—kayaks, bikes, in-line skates, skis, and snowboards, which together would make up a very healthy $7.2 billion market. But one that Coup isn’t targeting. No, what GoLite’s selling is high-end and wiggy backpacking gear, not the sort that Joe Sixpack can load up on at Wal-Mart, but stuff that will live or die in specialty shops, which sell about a third of what chains do. That means Coup is trying to bust into what is, at best, a $1.6 billion market.

Backpacking may have been the craze that got the masses into high-tech boondocking in the first place, but these days it’s limited in popularity. Woodward says it’s a more difficult sell now than it was in the 1970s, when he managed a shop in California. “We didn’t have to compete with mountain biking,” observes the 59-year-old pundit. “The whitewater kayak market was fledgling, and sea kayaks were a British phenomenon. Now all these things are vying for the consumer’s attention.” About 15 million Americans go backpacking once a year. But according to a study commissioned by the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, there were only 2.2 million backpacking enthusiasts in the country this year, slightly fewer than the number of avid canoeists, and a slide from 2.6 million in 1997. (ORCA defines a backpacking enthusiast as an adult who camps at least a quarter-mile from a trailhead, at least nine times a year.) Worse, opines Woodward, is that backpacking is largely a baby-boomer pastime, and the kids are buying toys to fuel their adrenaline. Woodward says he’s heard stories of young staffers at REI referring to the backpacking department as “the geriatric ward.”

The niche isn’t the only thing old about GoLite’s venture. OR vets have heard the ultralight drumbeat before and have watched companies march right into financial oblivion. Sierra West, a 1971 launch, is best remembered for its failed Lite Gear line. (The company survived by morphing into Big Dog Sportswear.) Mont-Bell faltered in the American market but lives on in its native Japan. The lone surviving ultralight purveyor, a New Hampshire mail-order business called Stephenson’s Warmlite, has its own…issues. Founder John Stephenson hates clothing altogether, and so the catalog shows its models au naturel.

Some blame big-company dominance for the failure of ultralight; others point to an ingrained perception that light equals flimsy. Consumers expect gear to evolve by accretion, which explains why we have things like three-pound parti-colored rain jackets sewn of umpteen panels, and seven-pound webbing-festooned packs that look like intergalactic wedding dresses. More is an easier sell than less. And contrarian ideas, which consumers must buy to buy GoLite, are tougher.

On the other hand, what’s wrong about GoLite could turn out to be right. “If any time is right, now is it,” says Michael Hodgson, a respected industry gear maven and former technical editor for Outdoor Retailer. He thinks he’s spotted a wave of resentment against overembellished clothing and gear, and thus a yen to buy light and plain. The fall 1999 Patagonia catalog, for instance, opens with a paean to simplicity and subtraction very much in the GoLite vein. Could it be a sign that Coup has a market wave to ride? Or is it that the big kahunas are going to get on their giant boards and plow him under?

Whatever the future holds, history says that Coup has assigned himself a hazardous mission. Mark Erickson, one-third partner and namesake of Erickson Outdoors, says that the industry offers “a high potential for self-delusion.” Wildernessy business, like wilderness itself, tends to dazzle first-timers. The outdoor market can seem like a world entire, but rookies forget that its annual sales are less than half those of Toys “R” Us. People want in for all sorts of unbusinesslike reasons. But nobody in his right mind would get into industrial lubricants, say, for idealistic reasons, or because it was sexy. Or would he?

Coup and I are sitting at a walnut table by a window overlooking a pond and a small prairie-dog town at his rented townhouse in Superior, Colorado. I’m trying to get him to answer the question, “Why GoLite?” when he bolts from the table into another room and trots back with a copy of Ray Jardine’s The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook. The self-published paperback is less a trail guide than a sermon on a belief system that has come to be called “the Ray Way,” complete with instructions for fabricating your own gear. GoLite is, essentially, the incorporation of Jardine’s exhortation. Coup, already an avid backpacker, delved into the book and discovered his new calling in March 1998. He hands his talismanic copy to me, and I turn pages while Coup relives, via penciled margin notes, how he went from reader, to believer, to mad-dog entrepreneur.

Page 29: “Thou must lighten thy load if thou would reach thy destiny.”

Page 45: “This book is excellent—I would be proud to have written it.”

Page 89: The reader learns that a hiking sock’s most important aspect is that it be thin, thus easy to wash and dry. Coup’s got it covered: “My black dress socks would work well.”

Page 167: Jardine tells of seven escaped prisoners who walked six and a half days across the Gobi Desert without water, and he uses the fact that only two died to illustrate his belief that humans can survive for quite some time without water. Coup’s reaction? “Never give up.”

Page 213: Where the book reports that the last grizzly bear spotted in California was in 1924, Coup has drawn a frowny face.

Page 276: Coup has made up his mind to backpack Jardine’s hallowed route: “Kim and I should be able to enjoy the PCT in under three months.”

Then he takes the book from me and flips back to a note up front made on his second reading. It was here that he shorthanded his destiny: “What about creating a company w/ Jardine to make his lightweight equipment!”

While his conversion sounds rash, Coup certainly had the chops to plunge into this with a straight face. After earning a degree in politics at Princeton and then working in Washington, D.C., on George Bush’s inaugural committee, he went to Harvard and earned both an MBA and a master’s in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 1992 he married Kim Riether, a native of New Jersey and a fellow Harvard brainiac Republican on the same career track. Coup’s obsession back then was deficit-reduction policy, an outgrowth of his mathematical bent. At one point in our conversation he casually tells me that as we have been talking he has been simultaneously computing an infinite additive series called Fibonacci numbers. A Fibonacci is the sum of two previous Fibonaccis: 0+1, 1+1, 2+1, 3+2, 5+3, and so on, equalling 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on. The numbers are omnipresent elements in natural design—in nautilus shells, flowers, seed pods. It’s safe to call Coup a numbers guy. Young Demetri, only child of a physician mom and a tax attorney dad in suburban Boston, ran a profitable sports book from the third grade on. He outscored all other ninth-graders in the Northeast in the American High School Mathematics Examination, after which his dad took him on as an investment analyst. His picks, among them Apple Computer, yielded returns in the seven figures, Coup says. Part of the pool is now his and at risk in GoLite.

After wrapping up his double-whammy diploma in 1994, Coup did a brief stint as a management consultant and then moved back to D.C. to be the policy director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, an organization dedicated to eliminating the federal deficit. But then in 1997 he saw that the government actually would get out of the red (as it did in fiscal year 1998), and decided he needed to move on. Balanced-budget warlord Warren B. Rudman, the former Republican Senator from New Hampshire who cofounded the Concord Coalition, remembers Coup as a wonk on the rise. “I’ve always thought that someday Coup would get into politics,” Rudman says over the telephone from Washington. “I’m not sure what the devil he’s doing out there.”

What he’s doing at this moment is drowning organic toaster waffles in maple syrup (no butter—Coup and Kim are vegans) to tide him over until dinner. Out beyond the prairie-dog metropolis stretches miles of suburbifying rangeland. Look farther, though, and you see the first of the Rockies chewing up the last of the Plains and realize that this might not be a bad place to live. Kim, a cheery Nordic type whose energy level is on par with Coup’s, listens in until she has to leave for work. Her temperament is right in sync with the image of her employer: She’s chief operating officer of Up With People, an organization of travelling performers that she likes to call “the singing Peace Corps,” and which has its world headquarters in nearby Broomfield.

The couple came here in July 1998, but they had known they’d wanted to move out West long before Coup conceived of GoLite. Back in the summer of 1995 they took a road trip and hiked the high points of 37 states. They’d already climbed New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and were gunning for all 50. Their state-topping finale was a 1997 ascent of Mount McKinley, which they proclaimed the Zero Deficit Climb.

Still, you get the sense that it was the fresh challenge that drew Coup into GoLite. He says it took him 12 hours with Jardine’s book to arrive at his epiphany. Within several weeks, he had drafted a proposal for the author, whom he’d never met. The nut: “I feel compelled to make contact to explore the possibility of producing packs, shelters, and sleeping systems along your specifications for the great mass of hikers and backpackers who would greatly benefit from reduced loads but who will not, for whatever reasons, make their own gear…. I am not just an MBA with a passing interest in turning my outdoor pursuits into profitable work. I am a passionate explorer.” On April 14, 1998, he bleemed it to Jardine, in La Pine, Oregon, via e-mail.

Coup likes to say that Ray Jardine opened the Golite R&D Department years before there was a company. Born in 1944 and raised in Colorado, Jardine worked summers in Yellowstone and took up rock climbing in the Tetons. In college at Northrop University in Los Angeles he earned his degree in aeronautical engineering, and then worked at Martin Marietta near Denver for four years before quitting in 1970 to be a full-time rock rat. In 1974 Jardine designed and patented a camming device called the Friend, a staple of rock protection that remains the prototype for all the spring-loaded cams that climbers still use today. Partly through the use of his invention, he became a climbing demigod, with such credits as the first ascent of the world’s first 5.13 route (The Phoenix, in Yosemite, in 1977). Then in 1981 he gave up climbing and dedicated himself to an omni-outdoor path that included, among other things, a three-year sailing voyage around the world with his wife, Jenny.

Starting in 1987, the Jardines embarked on a series of five summerlong through-hikes (the Pacific Crest Trail three times, and the Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails once apiece) that inspired Ray to make his own featherlight gear and to develop his anti-trail-tchotchke philosophy. Jardine’s Pacific Crest guidebook has sold 20,500 copies, and by the mid-1990s it had created a cadre of ultralight cultists who call themselves Jardinites. Even readers who had no intention of ever hiking the Pacific Crest Trail swore by the Ray Way.

When I visit him at his home in La Pine, Jardine worries that he looks sloppy from months of desk-work on his new book, Beyond Backpacking, and hours of fiddling with GoLite prototypes. But nothing shows except his strength. His cheeky face, coronaed by silver hair and beard, is elfin and mild. For a guy who is such a Calvinist on paper, he turns out to be an infectious, easy, multihour smiler.

Jardine claims he never wanted a cult following. “I don’t like being a guru,” he says in a soft lilt that contrasts the hard edge of his words. “I refuse.” Nor does he need GoLite money. He says royalties from sales of the Friend plus his book sales keep him and Jenny where they want to be—far, far from the places where money rules. Especially places like the OR show, which they both abhor even though the industry it represents pays their way. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that,” says Jardine.

The last thing he ever expected—or wanted—was for some high-octane Republican pitchman to come thundering into his quiet. Coup’s “bombshell” caught the Jardines two weeks before departure for a sea-kayak epic in the Canadian Arctic. Coup couldn’t be ignored; he had more or less hologrammed himself into their house via e-mail, and then fax. “The first five pages were credentials,” says Jardine, “which completely blew me away.” (Kim’s résumé was part of the package.) The Jardine household, immediately post-pitch, sounds like one of those Star Trek battle scenes where the shields are down and the reactor is going to blow. Says Ray, “We were going back and forth, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want this to happen.'”

But he didn’t say no. And that was all the encouragement Coup needed. Jardine agreed to a deal for two reasons, the first of which was Coup’s “business savvy.” The second is related to the first, in that Coup positioned the idea as a way to help those poor souls who needed the stuff but wouldn’t make it themselves. “This little thing in my mind said, ‘Give the hikers a break,'” recalls Jardine.

From e-mail to binding agreement took only two weeks (the Jardines did make their trip) without Jardine and Coup ever meeting face-to-face. But during the negotiations, Jardine made known an odd wish: that Coup should sew his own Ray Way backpack, using the instructions in the Pacific Crest guidebook. Coup’s reaction was equally unusual for a money guy: He did it. He drove all night from Boston to the Sicklerville, New Jersey, home of a sister-in-law who is a professional seamstress. In the course of 30 hours, Coup measured and cut fabric while she sewed; then he express-mailed Jardine the pack, which was really, Coup says, “an unwritten, unspoken contract contingency.”

If Golite was to have a prayer, its gear needed to say “buy me” to people who have never heard of Ray Jardine and who may not care to. Enter Erickson Outdoors. Among many other things, the company serves as GoLite’s elocution school. Housed in an old pump factory near San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, Erickson Outdoors is a design and sourcing outfit with revenues of $9 million a year. The average consumer wouldn’t be familiar with Erickson because its fabrications don’t bear the name, but it’s well known among the manufacturers at OR. That’s primarily due to the combined expertise of its owners: Mark Erickson, Janice Fletcher, and Tom Mann, all of whom toiled at The North Face before leaving to form their company in the late eighties. At The North Face, Mark Erickson had codesigned the first geodesic dome tent, which led to the epochal VE-24. These days, Erickson Outdoors makes packs, sleeping bags, outerwear, and tents for clients such as CamelBak, Helly-Hansen, Land’s End, L.L. Bean, and now GoLite.

Not that Coup’s enterprise has all that much in common with Erickson’s other clients. At least not yet. When he popped up at the Erickson booth during the 1998 trade show, Coup didn’t exactly look like a contender. “Quite often, people have harebrained or ill-conceived ideas for products, and they’re trying to get somebody interested in producing them,” Erickson says. “Coup was, we thought, one of those guys. He came up to our booth, started picking our brains, asking us for our perspective on things.” His suspicions were only confirmed when Coup, after a period of what Erickson describes as “haunting the booth,” asked for impressions of the pack he’d produced at Jardine’s behest. “He pulls out this stained, moth-eaten bag of nylon and proceeds to tell us about the virtues of ultralight camping,” Erickson recalls. “We were polite. We engaged him, as we do by habit. He said thank you, and we thought that was the last we were going to see of that guy.”

But Coup kept coming back, both over the remaining days of the show and afterward, and soon Erickson started to take him seriously. Two months after the August 1998 OR show, Erickson sat down with Coup and Jardine in Berkeley. (It was the first time the wonk and the swami had met in person.) The five-hour session resulted in a plan to start making stuff, thus kicking off a tristate game of Hacky-gear that’s still going. Handmade Jardine originals issue forth from La Pine, Coup checks them out, and Erickson tries to render them commercial—mass producible, attractive, salable. But Jardine retains a prototype-killer clause: Should Erickson add weight, get flashy, or otherwise stray from the Ray Way, that version will be deep-sixed. Final approval, says Coup, requires two keys—both he and Jardine have to agree on each item. Getting to a launch has been, betimes, exasperating. Jardine says he spent “a thousand hours showing them how their improvements weren’t improvements.”

They do make changes, however. Mann, the company’s materials expert and manager of overseas sourcing and production, has the greatest hands-on involvement. He also has an amazing facility for translating the nonverbal communications of equipment and clothing, to decipher the messages they’re sending to the consumer. He’s the Gear Whisperer.

Take the Breeze backpack, a cornerstone of the line. If you buy it, you’ve bought the Ray Way, because wearing a 15-ounce, frameless, hip-beltless pack with a conventional load—40 to 60 pounds—would be crippling. The $120 Breeze is intended, ideally—in Jardine’s vision—to haul just 12 pounds. Since there wasn’t much for Mann to work with in the way of amenities—he couldn’t add daisy chains, wide shoulder pads, support stays—he concentrated on making the Breeze announce its strength, thereby refuting suspicions that light equals flimsy. The message comes across in the use of a super-strong black ripstop nylon, called Spectra, with a techie grid pattern of white lines. Mark Erickson had to fight for taxicab-yellow reinforcement stitching. He fought for the yellow, not the stitching, which was there all along but nonapparent. Now the rest of the GoLite line has contrasting reinforcement bar tacks, too. Even though Jardine balked at such visual enhancements, the Ray/Tom/Mark Way pack turned out to be tougher than the original and, most important, lighter—because it uses newer, more advanced materials.

Three months before GoLite’s debut at the 1999 OR show, samples were being produced at factories in Korea, Taiwan, and China. They were followed by a first production run of, in most cases, 1,500 items for retail delivery. The GoLite starters: Breeze pack; Dome umbrella, $23; Newt rain jacket, $170; Coal insulated parka, $195; Bark shell jacket, $95; Trunk shell pants, $85; Nut fleece cap, $15; Pouch stuff sacks, up to $33; Cave two-person shelter (it’s a tarp, not a tent), $185; and Nest bugproof inner shelter, $75. Total weight: seven pounds, 4.5 ounces. As of this writing, the Fur sleeping bag-oids (two pounds, $175) are still in the offing. We’ll keep you posted.

Now comes the hard part, and Coup knows it. “There’s an ultimate reasonable chance that we realize almost no sales,” he says, savoring the risk like an Altoid. That, of course, means losing an enormous investment in time and money. Of the $600,000 that Coup committed by the eve of the OR show, $400,000 went toward the initial production run. If all of it is sold to retailers, GoLite will bring in more than $750,000—the standard factory-to-wholesale markup is 40 to 50 percent. (The markup from retailer to consumer is typically another 50 percent.) Not much left in the way of profit once you figure in marketing costs, Jardine’s royalties, and other overhead.

Coup would love to break even on run number one. Before the bulk of his money returns, though, he’ll have to shell out more on new factory orders and expenses. That’s how he figures he’ll have spent $1 million by the end of this year and why he has even more on tap to survive 2000. “In the plan, we come into the black next year. But then we go into the red again and come into the black again,” he explains. “You go into the red in the second year for very good reasons: People have heard about you and they like it. So instead of making 1,500, you’re making 3- or 4- or 5,000 products. Instead of making 12 models, you’re making 20, 30, 50…” A company could follow a more cautious, slow-growth plan, building on sales receipts rather than capital infusions. But slow, to Coup, looks like suicide, because it gives big competitors a chance to drive GoLite out of the game.

The goal for Coup’s startup is $10 million in annual sales, but he has no idea if that’s possible. The right-off-the-bat fall 1999 sales are gimmes: Merry Christmas, Jardinites. Then, things get thrilling. “If all the Jardinites there can be,” says Coup, “are all the Jardinites there are now, I end up broken and bloody.” Jardinites may, by God, be multiplying. We know for sure that marathon hikers are: A record estimated 3,000 people started the Appalachian Trail through-hike this summer, up from 1,800 last year.

Coup knows this tiny hard core won’t keep GoLite breathing, but he has great hopes for “disappointed hikers,” like himself and Kim, who once bailed out of an AT trip because they were miserable under the weight of their enormous packs. It makes perfect sense as you listen to the baritone logic, but upon further reflection, the strategy of selling something to people who hate it doesn’t seem like a surefire recipe for success. “The thrust of marketing is you need more things to talk about,” reasons Tom Mann. “They’ve turned that around and are giving a one-sentence message.” The message, he says, is: “Get over it!” The “it” being attachment to all things not completely, literally, molecularly necessary.

But while the pack and the tent may speak too stridently, Mann says, “The apparel has broader appeal.” This could be, in part, because clothes have to be, well, wearable. And if they’re any good, as GoLite’s seem to be, clothes this light—the Newt waterproof-breathable jacket, ten ounces; the Coal insulated coat, 18 ounces—are notable additions to the market. As for looks, the GoLite collection has a perverse sort of stylelessness that seems, for the moment, stylish. “We managed to sweeten it up, but still, the overall look is Plainsville,” Mann says. “You might see a guy working at a filling station in it, but it’s ultra-high-tech.”

Coup hopes GoLite’s wares will cross over into other weight-critical sports, such as climbing and cycling. But backpacking is central. The grand plan is to make hiking hew to the Ray Way, now also the Coup Way, thereby creating Coup’s own market, which he’ll dominate because he got there first with the most and the best. Of course, the outdoor world will be the judge of that.

Salt Lake City, the last quiet before the big doors open.

A fluorescent gloaming hangs high overhead in the Salt Palace. Coup, dressed Dan-Quayle casual—dirt-free tennies, off-white chinos, belt embroidered with retrievers, polo shirt—is preparing to win over all comers to booth #3524. He tells me that he knows what failure would look like: “We’re standing around and we’re standing around, talking to each other.” He’s not exactly sure how to spot success, but he says he’s more concerned about it over the long-term than here and now.

Not that he wouldn’t mind if GoLite caught some buzz this weekend. On a voodoo level, the OR show is nothing more than a vast, expensive rite to generate buzz. Buzz can bestow riches: In 1997, for example, the Canadian gear maker Arc’Teryx hit with a fiendishly clever new method of fabricating Gore-Tex outerwear in a $450-plus jacket. Thereafter, the company went from 55 employees to 270. “If that jacket had tanked at OR, I’m 90 percent sure it would have been the end of Arc’Teryx,” says Jayson Faulkner, the company’s sales and marketing vice-president.

To jump-start the process, Coup spent $150,000 with Thibeault, his promotion consultant, to make GoLite buzz. A chunk of it went to printing the slick catalogs, designed with punched-out holes toward the edges of the pages as a nod to ultralight. Some $9,000 went for a “belly band” ad wrapped around thousands of free issues of Backpacker magazine that its publisher handed out at the show. The front of the ad pictures bricks and a feather, separated by the fine-print question: “How much does enjoyment weigh?” The backside answer: “Next to nothing when it’s ‘Ray-Way’!” The GoLite logo is orange-on-black, computer-form type under a dome with a curving incision (representing a trail up a hill, I’m told). “It says, ‘Big Player,'” Coup enthuses. “It says, ‘For Real.’ It says, ‘The peacock has bright feathers!'”

And here come the first people to behold those feathers. Two guys slope down the still-quiet aisle, obviously with no commercial mission, and Coup advances to ask if they’d like to learn about GoLite. They would, either because they want to or because “no” is impossible. When a pitchee mentions someone else’s ultralight gear, Coup roars back, “No, that was LIGHTweight. This is the first ULLL-tralight.” Now and again he lets loose a cavernous laugh.

On the afternoon of the first day, Erickson says he’s impressed at the steady stream of visitors: “Somehow Coup has been able to generate more than an average amount of interest from buyers. He’s loving it.” Meanwhile, as Coup rattles on, GoLite has a change of legend. Its story becomes his, not Jardine’s. People want to know who the hell is this egghead gone feral. “How did you get into this?” one buyer asks Coup, and he looks enthralled by the answer. Michael Blenkarn, a designer at Arc’Teryx, swings by because he heard that Jardine would have some product at the show. He’s impressed with the gear, but he’s knocked out by Coup. “Had he spent the same amount of energy in the outdoor business that he did balancing the U.S. federal budget, he’d be deadly,” Blenkarn tells me. “He’s just changing mediums.”

GoLite gets its first order, worth almost $10,000, from a two-store chain in Hermosa Beach. Still, the parade of tire kickers seems like the bigger story. The assistant manager of one mountain shop stops by and takes in the performance. “I’m really excited about the clothing,” he declares. “That’s really lightweight stuff.” But he admits he’s disinclined to recommend stocking GoLite because of the effort it would take to sell it. “You’ve got to make the customer believe you believe in it,” he says.

But I see more hope in the Jardinites. I expected geezers in hiking sandals, but the truest believers I meet are two guys in their early twenties. I can’t get a read on one because he develops a beagle-eyed fixation on Kim Coupounas. The other is a multi-pierced, Caucasian hiphop wonder who’s wearing strange sneakers, black socks, mid-calf pants, and a dirt-colored T. “A friend turned me on to the PCT guide and, um, we just about worship the book as a Bible,” he says. He starts giggling when he picks up a prototype sleeping system: “Is this the one that Ray used?” He says he’s not sure whether the average consumer will bite, but he does see a possibility for the clothing that nobody had thought of: wilderness street wear.

The guy asks Coup if he sports the clothes around town. Coup looks confused: “I don’t know the answer to that question.” When the two stand close and talk, Erickson yells for somebody to get a camera. “I’m Gen X, but barely,” Coup tells me later. “I don’t get it completely.”

No, you don’t get it at all. Yet somehow GoLite has produced something this kid is dying to have. The Jardinite asks Coup to sell him a prototype Coal jacket because it’s black, which GoLite doesn’t plan to make; he can’t stand the Fruit Loops end of the palette, like Chinese red. “It just stands out too brightly,” he remarks. “If somebody were aiming a gun at me…” Good point. The GoLite universe changes entirely when he puts on the black coat. Everything plain and sturdy becomes resplendent—so bad it’s good. For the first time, something GoLite makes sense and speaks in words that didn’t emanate from Demetri Coupounas or Ray Jardine. The black Coal says “Street.” Better yet, it says, “Screw you, Boomers, with your ridiculous techie coats of many colors and zippers galore and every other feature you’ve grafted on to junk up gear.” What it says, is that this odd union of the number-gushing frontman and the ultralight-crusading guru has created a certain chemistry, one that might just make GoLite the coolest thing going at some OR show to come.

Los Angeles–based Mike Steere, a longtime contributor to Outside, climbed Mount Whitney in August with a 52-pound pack.


Which Way?

“If I need it and I don’t have it, then I don’t need it.”

—Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking (1999)

The Ray Way is only the latest salvo in a backpacking weight war stretching back decades. The publication of Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker in 1968 helped make backpacking a national rage. It also made carrying a third of your own body weight seem perfectly normal. The resulting acceptance of humping 65-pound packs gave rise to a counterforce of weight-paring zealots, who rebelled against this standard and obsessed about traveling light. Fletcher addressed them in the 1984 third edition of the Walker, mocking the compulsion to “gossamerize every item toward vanishing,” though he acknowledges that periodically updating your stock of gear with lightweight innovations can make a difference for “those of us who walk for pleasure, not…equipment nuttery.” Essentially, the grand old man argues that yes, weight carried can cause grief, but weight left behind can cause even more.

Certainly, if you were to plunge headlong into pure Ray Way—Jardine’s austere trail philosophy and gear system—with nothing but the recommended 12-pound load and a copy of Beyond Backpacking, you’d be howling with grief. That’s why the book itself suggests a blended, gradual approach. For instance, Jardine recommends that first-time tarp users might bring a backup tent (one with a floor).

That said, Jardinism still might not be your cup of herbal tea. Naturally, Ray doesn’t drink coffee, which is where I draw the line. I will never give up my Lexan French press and the “artificial high,” as Jardine calls it, induced by caffeine. To the ascetic author, making a cup of joe is simply “wasteful of time and stove fuel.” Here are some other precepts from the Ray Way path to enlightenment:

*Give up the Therm-A-Rest and sleep on “leaves, pine needles, and duff.”

*Hike in running shoes with the tongues cut out and the fronts split, which will give your feet a toughening coat of “dura-dirt.”

*Let an umbrella be your rainy-day smile. (Rain gear is for fearsome gales.)

*Make fire like the ancients. First carve your own wooden bow-and-drill. When/if fire happens, “that ember is an extension of ourselves.” —M.S.

promo logo