The Outside Innovators
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
In our lifetime, the outdoors has been reinvented by visionaries who opened new worlds for explorers, athletes, travelers, and dreamers. And the adventure is just getting under way—so take a closer look at the bright minds creating the next frontier.
Back in 1957, when Bob Gore was a chemical engineering major at the University of Delaware, he came up with the notion of using Teflon to insulate electrical wires. His father, Bill, took the idea and launched W.L. Gore and Associates. Then in ’69, Bob hit on something even more revolutionary: By stretching Teflon, he created a membrane that was impermeable to water but allowed water vapor to pass. Eureka! Gore realized the material could protect athletes from rain and snow while letting their sweat waft away. Gore-Tex, which debuted in 1976, has since become the gold standard of waterproof-breathable fabric. The company licenses to more than 100 manufacturers globally, generating $1.2 billion in sales last year. Now in his sixties, Gore’s latest creation is the Airvantage system—air-filled parkas that adjust warmth by inflating or deflating.
Godfather of Aerobics
“We were taught in medical school that if you went running after 40, you’d have a heart attack,” says Kenneth Cooper, M.D., author of
, the seminal 1969 roadwork guide. Disbelievers warned that dead joggers would soon litter the streets, but Cooper may have done more for our longevity than any other individual in the history of fitness. Aerobics and his 17 other books—all emphasizing disease prevention by way of intense huffin’ and puffin’—have sold 30 million copies. His Cooper Aerobics Center, a Dallas fitness complex that offers aerobic training and conducts medical research, has served more than 70,000 clients in 30 years. Now 71, Cooper is about to weigh in on the next big wellness debate: whether dietary supplements do any good.
In 1964, Doug Tompkins—a ski bum and New York expat living in California—borrowed $5,000 and started The North Face because, he griped, it was too hard to find decent climbing and camping gear made in the United States. He sold the company for $50,000 a few years later, using the sluice to launch Esprit, a sporty fashion company that made him a squillionaire and opened the door to his passion for environmental land acquisition. Since 1990, Tompkins, 59, has spent some $55 million cobbling together more than 750,000 acres for a preserve in Chile. He’s now buying up turf in Argentine Patagonia to establish a similar enclave roughly the size of Grand Teton National Park.
Oh, goddess-inspired multinational, sponsor of the mighty (Michael, Tiger, Picabo, Lance), peddler of the ubiquitous winged logo—could we have done it without you? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been half as cool. Ever since 1972, when a Portland, Oregon, native named Phil Knight teamed up with renowned University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, Nike has led the way in the development of the modern running shoe. The odyssey began with the late Bowerman’s legendary waffle sole (created in his wife’s waffle iron), progressed to the breakthrough Nike Air midsole, and finds its current expression in elastomer heel springs. The company, which made $9.5 billion in 2001, took hits during the 1990s for questionable labor practices, but Knight, 64, now pushes a more responsible agenda through products like toxin-free soccer cleats and a program that recycles your used Air Jordans into running tracks.
In 1974, on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Stanley Selengut built his first Maho Bay Camps—a series of cloth-covered cottages connected by foliage-sparing boardwalks and air-conditioned by trade-wind-catching ducts. He also started a “Trash to Treasure” program, in which artists turn discarded glass bottles into gallery-quality sculpture (available for purchase, of course). Thus dawned an eco-conscious resort style that has since become widespread. Inspired in part by three other Selengut-built St. John resorts (constructed largely from recycled materials), industry leaders from Marriott to Club Med have embraced a cleaner, greener vacation vision. “The world is changing because it has to,” says Selengut, 74, who has worked with the National Park Service on eco-friendly projects and currently consults with resort companies on sustainable design. “Now you can’t go into a hotel without a sign asking you whether or not you really want your towels washed.”
Chairman of the Boards
Back when “sick” still meant you had to stay in bed and drink soup, five bucks hooked you up with a Vermont backcountry “snow-surfing safari” led by a shaggy 22-year-old named Jake Burton. The 1977 outings allowed the curious an opportunity to surf-float down slopes on “Snurfers,” bent plywood boards you bought at a toy store and held with a rope. Snurfing was a novelty act, but Burton, peering deeply into his crystal snowball, bought power tools and set out to build something better. Twenty-five years later, snowboarding has become one of the great out-of-nowhere success stories in the history of recreation: It’s now a lifestyle, a $350-million-a-year industry, and, as of 2000, the fastest-growing sport in America, with 4.3 million boarders heading out last season—a rise of nearly 3 million since 1990.
Burton, now 48, was a self-declared “loser in shop class” who took trial-and-error to the next level with industrial machinery, even sending a few early prototypes shooting through rustic walls. His one-man construction odyssey finally led him to the then-perfect material—wood laminate with a painted base, which he fitted with rubber water-ski bindings. In 1977 Burton Snowboards‘s first model, the Backhill, went into production. Only 300 boards were sold that first season, and Burton almost gave up. “I came incredibly close in the beginning to just bailing on the whole thing,” he says.
But he pressed on, and the bet paid off: 700 boards moved the next season, and gross receipts started piling up like snowdrifts. (The company today controls 30 percent of the snowboard market.) All along, though, Burton was more than a mere buckraker—he also stood behind the fledgling sport, coddling it and marketing it during those pariah years when ski areas were skeptical and snowboarders were seen as lip-pierced scumbags. “From the inception,” says Emmet Manning, who started boarding with Burton in 1978 and now manages the Burton Factory Store in Burlington, “he knew there was something else to the sport—a way for individuals to express themselves.”
— Lisa Anne Auerbach
The Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool is a homewrecker. It came along in the mideighties, created an entirely new market, and turned monogamous Swiss Army knife lovers into two-timing Casanovas. These days it’s standard equipment for anyone who needs a screwdriver, knife, saw, file, awl, wire cutter, or pair of pliers in a tight fix.
Tim Leatherman conceived of the tool in 1975—after he and his wife Châu found themselves needing pliers to fix a balky heater in an Amsterdam hotel—and then toiled in the basement of his Portland, Oregon, home for three years creating the first prototype. He hacked the arms off a pile of pliers. He welded on crude hinges, casings, blades. Then came the crucial breakthrough: handles that folded over plier jaws, allowing for a pocket-portable version of the feature Leatherman wanted most.
“I figured some company would pay me a million dollars for the patent and we’d live happily ever after,” recalls Leatherman, now 53. If only. He shopped the thing to dozens of knife and tool companies (including Victorinox, maker of Swiss Army knives). Slammed doors all. Finally, in 1983, two catalogs took a flier on the Pocket Survival Tool; 30,000 sold that first year.
The privately owned Leatherman Tool Group Inc. enjoyed 50 percent annual growth over the next 12 years—success that can be attributed to Leatherman’s fanatical attention to detail. He’s notoriously picky about “walk and talk”—toolgeek speak for a blade’s opening tension and locking click—and he wants his wire cutters so sharp that they cut paper.
What’s next? “Customers send us ideas all the time,” says Leatherman. “Add a marlinespike, that sort of thing.” How about a laser, Tim? “If they want a laser,” says the no-nonsense CEO, “then that’s a feature we’ll have.” —Bruce Barcott
During his early twenties, Yvon Chouinard sold home-forged climbing pitons from the back of his station wagon in Yosemite. Before long, he was crafting revolutionary lightweight carabiners, curved ice axes, and “clean-climbing” cams and wedges, which reduced unsightly anchors bolted into rock walls. In 1973, at age 29, he started Patagonia Inc., and fleece was on its way to becoming a fashion statement. Now a $225-million-a-year mega-manufacturer, Patagonia gives back, too, donating millions annually to environmental causes. Chouinard’s next big thing: persuading other companies to join his “one percent [of profits] for the planet” enviro-donation campaign.
Gerard Fusil & Mark Burnett
The masochistic phenomenon called “adventure racing” began in 1989, when French journalist Gerard Fusil launched the Raid Gauloises, an off-road, multiday slog combining several outdoor sports in exotic landscapes. Six years later a British Raid veteran named Mark Burnett snatched Fusil’s brainchild and tarted it up for American TV viewers, who know the event as the Eco-Challenge. Now, some 300 adventure races exist. Fusil, 54, heads up the comparatively obscure Elf Authentic Adventure, a 16-day ordeal that lures 100 athletes each year. The 41-year-old Burnett, on the other hand, has gone platinum with his adventure-inspired reality shows, including Survivor and his newest, Combat Missions, in which contestants grind out military exercises for prize money.
Paul & Susan Schurke
Mushers for the Masses
In the early eighties, when Paul Schurke first dreamed of making a living by running dogsled tours in northern Minnesota, the prospects had to look tundra-bleak. Adventure travel was an upstart industry jockeying for mainstream appeal, and the smart bet was offering low-risk, faux-rugged trips to exotic locales: canned safaris, dude-ranch cattle drives, Italian bicycling tours. But mushing through the North Woods? “Most Americans viewed winter as an exercise in survival rather than an opportunity to explore the beauty of the outdoor world,” recalls Schurke, now 46. “I wanted to change that.” It was a tough business proposition. How do you market a sport, a season, and a region with dubious commercial appeal?
Schurke’s answer: through an intense devotion to place and an obsession with detail. After returning from a 1986 sled-and-ski expedition to the North Pole with Will Steger, Schurke purchased nine purebred Eskimo dogs from an Inuit breeder, renovated a sod-roofed log cabin outside Ely, Minnesota, and opened the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, one of the first commercial mushing outfits in the United States. His wife, Susan, cranked up her sewing machine and started custom-designing Inuit-style anoraks for Paul’s clients. “In the beginning we lived on beans and rice,” recalls Schurke. “But making money was never the goal. All I know about my business is that my bookkeeper calls me when I’m overdrawn.”
Word of mouth spread, and by the midnineties Wintergreen had nearly doubled in size, with Susan’s Wintergreen Designs maturing alongside it into a $1.5 million garment company. These days, Wintergreen’s staff of ten humans and 64 dogs introduces some 400 clients a year to the North Woods. “People often tell me Wintergreen changed their entire approach to winter,” says Schurke. “To me, that’s why we’re here.” —Mark Jenkins
Globetrotter for Hire
Back in the early 1970s, when Richard Bangs was a 22-year-old Grand Canyon raft guide with $500 to his name, he had an itch to get on rivers no one had run before. Wouldn’t it be nice, he thought, if he could take along people who would help foot the bills? Bangs lured a small group of brave souls to accompany him on a first descent of Ethiopia’s Awash River, and thus the concept of commercial, expedition-style travel was born. Eventually his company, called Sobek (the Egyptian crocodile god), grew to offer every variety of guided adventure before merging with archrival Mountain Travel in 1991. Today Mountain Travel Sobek is a $21-million-a-year dream-fulfillment clearinghouse, offering 124 trips on all seven continents.
A plastic telemark boot? Sacrilege! But in 1988 Jordy Margid, a product manager at Black Diamond, waved off the purists and ushered in the future when he joined with Italian bootmaker Scarpa to codesign the Terminator. At $400, the T1 cost less than a high-end leather boot, but it performed better, lasted longer, and was every bit as comfy. Its flexible toe permitted the traditional t-turn, but the hard shell gave telly skiers alpine-like control, reigniting interest in the sport. Sales have increased 1,500 percent since the boot’s debut, and the product line has grown to include a race boot (T-Race), a scaled-down all-mountain boot (T2), and a touring model (T3). Did plasticizing cost telemark skiing its soul? Nah—it added more. “Now there isn’t any kind of skiing you can’t do on a telly boot,” says Margid, 39, who’s currently designing a high-performance, releasable telemark binding.
In 1975, 26-year-old Jim Jannard, then a sales clerk in a motorcycle shop, started Oakley with only $300. The company was named after his English setter, and the original product line consisted of a BMX bicycle grip featuring a sticky surface compound that Jannard called “Unobtanium.” Next came motorcross goggles and then the trademark Eyeshade sunglasses, which Greg LeMond wore to victory in the 1986 Tour de France—making the insectoid shields the eyewear of choice among style-conscious hardbodies. Oakley, now a $1-billion-a-year juggernaut, claims 20 percent of the U.S. eyewear market and has expanded its line to include watches, clothing, and footwear.
Credit the French for giving us the world’s most grueling endurance events. Philippe Jeantot, a two-time winner of the BOC Challenge sailing race (around the globe solo, four stops), raised the bar considerably in 1989 when, at age 37, he created the Vendée Globe (around the world solo, no stops). Thirteen boats set off from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, for that first race; ten finished. Held once every four years, the Vendée has since become the planet’s most prestigious endurance sailing event, offering up a first-prize purse of $113,000. Only one other nonstop round-the-world sailing competition has approached its stature: The Race, a wimpy-by-comparison affair that allows full crews.
Tony & Maureen Wheeler
The snooty, luxe-obsessed travel-guidebook market changed forever in 1973, when Tony and Maureen Wheeler, young wayfarers on the international slackpacker circuit, produced their first guide to low-budget touring: Across Asia on the Cheap, a two-dollar, 96-page primer on the “Hippie Trail” snaking between Amsterdam and Kathmandu. The first printing of their second book, also on Southeast Asia, sold 15,000 copies. (Now in its 11th printing, the book has sold more than a million.) Today the Wheelers’ Lonely Planet Publications, based in Melbourne, Australia, produces some 600 titles that bring in $42 million a year. Coming soon: their first guide wholly devoted to Afghanistan. “Why not?” says Tony. “I’m sure that right now people are saying to themselves, ‘As soon as we can get in the door, let’s go have a look.'”
How fitting that a legendary climber with a leave-no-trace ethos and a memorable name would launch the country’s love affair with outdoor clothing. Royal Robbins, the company named after the man, sold its first shirt in 1968. Decades later, apparel designers like Columbia and The North Face still draw inspiration from classic Royal Robbins products like the Billy Goat Short, a tough-as-leather cargo short that stands up to years of backcountry abuse. Robbins the man, now 66 and an avid whitewater paddler, sold his majority share of the business in 1999 to another entrepreneur in the company’s hometown of Modesto, California. He’s currently at work on his autobiography—a book we eagerly await.
Rich Johnston & Dan Cauthorn
In 1987, growing antsy—and soft—during Seattle’s long, wet winters, two buddies scraped together $14,000 and built America’s first indoor climbing gym. Rich Johnston, a 29-year-old paralegal, and Dan Cauthorn, a 30-year-old alpine guide and window washer, rented an abandoned warehouse, glued rocks to the plywood walls, and dubbed their creation The Vertical Club. In short order, indoor rock gyms sprouted across the country, even in topographically challenged locales like New Orleans and Milwaukee. In 1997, Cauthorn became an account manager at W.L. Gore and Associates, but Johnston remains as president of Vertical World (renamed in 1994), which now has 2,000 members.
Once upon a time, climbers had no Friends. That is, they lacked the spring-loaded camming devices that Ray Jardine concocted in 1973, when he was a 29-year-old aeronautical engineer looking to apply his skills to the outdoors. Friends, sold through the British climbing-gear company Wild Country, became standard-issue rock-climbing protection. They also gave Jardine enough financial security to pursue the “Ray Way,” a low-impact philosophy made manifest in superlight camping and trekking gear sold through GoLite, founded in 1998 by entrepreneur and devout Jardinite Demetri Coupounas. In his spare time, Jardine is a paddler known for designing and building graceful Kevlar and carbon-fiber boats. Watch for his new lightweight kayak for ocean travel.
Man of Iron
In 1978, marathoner John Collins challenged 14 of his male friends to an unorthodox race in Hawaii that he called “the Ironman.” He wanted to settle a dispute about who was more fit—swimmers, cyclists, or runners. Now the granddaddy of endurance races, the Hawaii Ironman attracts 1,500 participants from more than 48 countries, high-profile sponsors like Gatorade and Timex, and 50 million television viewers who tune in every October to gawk at the self-flagellation. But perhaps more important, the Ironman gave triathletes a unique identity, paving the way for the sport’s Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000. Collins, now 66, lives on a boat in Panama and remains an active Ironman competitor, though he gave up the clerically strenuous job of race director back in 1980.
Gear Made Just for Women
Hunkered down in Mount Everest’s Camp II at 21,500 feet on a harrowing October night in 1987, with winds sinking the temperature to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, Sally McCoy had a dream: never to be this cold again. “My sleeping bag was designed for negative 40, but there was so much icy air whooshing into my hood that I was rapidly losing body temperature,” recalls McCoy, a veteran mountaineer and businesswoman who is now president of Sierra Designs, the Emeryville, California-based gear maker. “I couldn’t help but think how stupid it was that a sleeping bag designed to fit women’s smaller-proportioned bodies didn’t exist.”
McCoy was in a position to do something about it—she was a design executive for The North Face at the time—and she vowed to solve the problem of ill-fitting unisex gear that was the norm back then. When she landed at Sierra Designs in 1994, her first priority was to create and market female-specific sleeping bags—shorter, narrower, and warmer; 18,000 Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley mummy sacks sold that first year. Building on McCoy’s success, Sierra Designs broke the industry mold by creating separate R&D teams for its men’s and women’s apparel lines, microtailoring each garment with gender specifics in mind—down to insulation, hood size, and pocket placement—to minimize hassles, increase efficiency, and promote safety.
McCoy experienced the safety issues firsthand a few years back on Mount Shasta. Wearing a pair of men’s pants with baggy ankles, “I caught a crampon in them, and did a slide for life before I managed to self-arrest,” she recalls. “I came within half a knuckle of totally losing it, so I swore Sierra Designs would make pants for women without any extra material in them.”
The result—Sierra’s M8 streamlined black nylon stretch pants with internal gaiters at the ankles—will debut in fall 2002. “You won’t catch a crampon in those,” McCoy promises, “and they look good, too.” —Natasha Singer
Taking the Cold Out of Wet
Back in the 1940s, surfers tried everything to stave off hypothermia in San Francisco’s 50-degree water: stuffing their little bun-hugger bathing suits with foam insulation, smearing themselves with petroleum jelly, flopping around in rubber frogman suits. One guy even sprayed a Navy jumpsuit with Thompson’s Water Sealant. “I remember him sitting off by himself in his own little oil slick,” recalls entrepreneur Jack O’Neill, the man who eventually offered a shivering tribe of surfers—and the world—the first fully functional wetsuit.
Using his own handyman skills and some college physics, O’Neill, then an itinerant surfer from SoCal, deduced that thermal salvation lay in unicellular foam, with its air spaces that trap heat from the body. He settled on a synthetic-rubber pipe insulator called neoprene and went to work in his garage, cutting and gluing sheets of the stuff to make the first short johns, with Bermuda-length legs and vest tops. He’d begun experimenting with board making, and in 1952 he opened the world’s first “surf shop”—a phrase he coined and then trademarked.
Alas, wetsuits did not immediately take the mucho-macho surfing world by storm. “It was slow and steady for a while,” O’Neill says with a chuckle. “The Southern Cal guys used to drive up and say, ‘Well, maybe you clowns need ’em here, but we’re too cool.'” But for every blue-lipped, barrel-chested son of an abalone diver who scorned the rubber, a legion of eager shiverphobes awaited.
O’Neill’s company was soon swept up in the leisure revolution of the 1960s. Frigid waters became the year-round playgrounds for skinny-legged, towheaded grommets, as well as kayakers, windsurfers, wakeboarders, waterskiers, and millions of recreational divers, whose collective will-to-chill now accounts for $100 million in annual wetsuit sales in the United States alone. In pursuit of the perfect skin, the O’Neill Company, which holds a commanding 50 percent market share in wetsuits, is experimenting with computer-aided laser-scanning for unique custom fitting, and a new hollow nylon thread for extra-toasty insulation.
O’Neill, 79, semiretired but still at it, can be found paddling a longboard out to his local Santa Cruz breaks. Does he regret his role in opening the oceans to every Shane, Seth, and Cory? “Nah,” he says. “It just means more friends to go surfing with.” —Bucky McMahon
Perfecting the Art of Parts
At the risk of sounding like a geezer who hoofed five snowy miles to school, I’d wager that two-thirds of you whippersnappers have never friction-shifted the gears on a bicycle. Half of you don’t even know what I mean. You have a Japanese company called Shimano to thank for that, and thank it you should: For idiotproof shifting, for the whole notion of mountain-bike components, and for click-in mountain-bike pedals, road-bike brake levers that also shift gears, and a host of esoteric advances in bicycle metallurgy and whiz-bang minutiae that have changed the way we ride.
Understanding the Shimano saga requires crawling around in a big family tree, but here’s the short version: In 1921, family patriarch Shozaburo Shimano entered the bike biz by developing a ratcheting freewheel for the Japanese market. His son Shozo took over in 1958, and the company’s pleasantly functional components started showing up stateside on Huffys, Schwinns, and Murrays. In 1973, though it seemed laughably quixotic for Shimano to enter the high-end racing-bike market (taking on Campagnolo, the much-worshiped Italian company), its Dura-Ace group, a superb cluster of components, hit the stores and gradually overcame the “made-in-Japan-equals-junk” mentality.
Throughout that decade, Shozo’s brother Yoshizo, dispatched to America, was monitoring trends between our shores. In the late seventies he noticed that fat-tired frolickers in the hills north of San Francisco were grafting road-bike components onto cruisers, and that the parts broke down under off-road duress. He proposed a line of tougher components in 1980. “The phenomenon had been strong for several years,” says mountain-bike pioneer Gary Fisher, “but Shimano was the only company that really paid attention.” Shimano introduced its Deore XT mountain-bike group in 1982, which led to what Fisher calls “a beautifully worked-out system of components.”
Then came a series of innovations spearheaded by a third brother, the late Keizo Shimano—among them SIS, the Shimano Index System, in 1984, and dual-control brake levers in 1990. Both debuted in the pricey Dura-Ace line. But their subsequent ubiquity represents Shimano’s most impressive trait: trickle-down technology. Within a couple of years, even entry-level riders were blithely click-shifting. And as road-racing bikes progressed from ten speeds to 12 to 18 (and mountain bikes from 15 to 27), everyone soon got to share in the bounty of gear ratios.
Today Yoshizo runs the show in Japan, while 39-year-old Kozo Shimano (pictured) serves as president of Shimano American. Lately they’ve introduced pneumatic shifting for downhill mountain-bike racers, plus components for “comfort bikes,” which perform tricks like automatic shifting. On the drawing boards: high-performance components with tiny CPUs controlling suspension and shifting. Kozo calls it “intuitive riding—so you don’t have to think as much.”
The $1.5 billion Shimano empire has critics, who claim it rules the components market the way another well-known, little-loved behemoth rules computer software, that its “total integration” approach—parts made to work exclusively with other Shimano parts—often bigfoots the little guys’ innovations. Fans counter that Shimano’s size and R&D clout move the whole bike industry forward. Count me among the latter. I’d rather ride than tinker, and the last time I even adjusted my Shimano mountain-bike derailleurs was two years ago. —Robert Earle Howells
Frustration is Mark Thatcher’s muse. In 1982, stuck lugging toilets and scrubbing dishes for a whitewater outfitter in Flagstaff, Arizona, he fantasized about creating a river shoe that wouldn’t get waterlogged or pebble-infested—and that would stay on his feet better than flip-flops. A former geophysicist, Thatcher, now 47, hit the workshop and secured nylon ankle and toe straps to a sturdy rubber sole, naming his shoe and company Teva, the Hebrew word for “nature.” Teva took in $81 million last year. Imitations and knockoffs, available everywhere from Wal-Mart to Niketown, are common, but at least 15 million bona fide Tevas stride the earth in pursuit of Thatcher’s mantra: “You go, you do, you be.”