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  Richmond and Outdoor Gear - George Marks' 80th
August 4, 2011

Everyone knows about Silicon Valley, but there is another valley in the Bay Area that stretches from Richmond to Berkeley. Let’s call it the Outdoor Gear Valley.

In what one writer for Backpacker called “the great gear wars of the 1960s,” there was a revolution in outdoor gear that moved backpackers from Army surplus sleeping bags and Boy Scout Rucksacks to spiffy new lightweight and colorful tents, packs, apparel and sleeping bags.

Like Bill Hewlett’s and David Packard’s garage, the birthplaces of modern outdoor gear are still scattered around the East Bay, mostly in Berkeley and Richmond, and some of the giants of the industry are still around.

George Marks, one of the high priests of the new outdoor gear, was in town last Sunday to celebrate his 80th birthday at a party put together by Charlotte Knox, who assembled a group of friends who first converged in Point Richmond in the mid to late 1960s when Marks and his business partner, Bob Swanson founded Sierra designs and set up shop in Point Richmond.
Above, George Marks at his 80th birthday party at the Knox residence in Point Richmond

Mark’s original shop is still there at 137 Tewksbury, now housing Shigoto Ya, a custom cabinetry company owned by Marks and his old friend, Gordon Hirano.

The North Face, Ski Hut, Trailwise and Sierra Designs are all labels that started or grew in the East Bay. Two outdoor gear companies, Mountain Hardware and Erickson Outdoors are still in Richmond. In fact, Mark Erickson and George Marks are old friends, and Erickson was there to celebrate along with mark’s old partner, Bob Swanson.

Point Richmond was at the epicenter when Sierra Designs seized the outdoor gear industry by storm in a spurt of entrepreneurial creativeness that marked the beginning of the billion dollar outdoor gear industry.


Above, a collection of Sierra Designs labels given to George Marks as a birthday present. Two of the three labels indicate the location as “Point Richmond, CA.”

As with many industry clusters, the outdoor gear industry is incestuous, with leaders moving from company to company. Just as Marks and Swanson came from Ski Hut, and Sierra Designs manufactured for The North Face, Mountain Hardware was founded in 1993 by a group of people including Jack Gilbert, former President of Sierra Designs and Paul Kramer and Paige Boucher, also from Sierra Designs.

The father of it all may have been George Rudolf of the Ski Hut in Berkeley, perhaps the single strongest influence and source for modern, lightweight backpacking and climbing gear during the 1950s and 1960s for persons on the West Coast. The Ski Hut was formed in 1935 in Berkeley by Rudolf and a partner Phillip Von Lublein. World War II closed up the shop until 1946.

During Ski Hut's early years, it was not so much a gear-making innovator company as it was an importer and supplier of the things that climbers, skiers and backpackers needed. But this changed sometime in the early 1950s, when Rudolph created "Trailwise," and thus began the period of Rudolf's company creating its own designs and products.  Ski Hut/Trailwise dominated the West Coast during that distant era before the birth of the twin Bay Area giants, The North Face and Sierra Designs.

Above, George Rudolph and George Marks

From See Bruce Johnson’s website on The History of Gear Project:

Around 1963 George Marks was working at George Rudolph's Trailwise/Ski Hut in Berkeley, California. Bob Swanson moved into town with job references from Holubar Mountaineering in Colorado and was hired at Trailwise, where Marks and Swanson became co-workers. 

In 1965 Bob and George left Trailwise and set themselves up at 137 Tewksbury in Point Richmond as "Sierra Designs." Soon they were sewing day and night to create enough "product" to keep a roof over their heads. Times were tough for the next several years after their October 1965 official opening. Their very first catalog was produced the following spring and entitled the "66-67" catalog; George recalls that it was printed as a "very modest run of 2,000 copies." Their first and largest account was with The North Face retail store, for which they manufactured down items that were labeled "Made Expressly for North Face by Sierra Designs."

George Marks, one of the co-founders of Sierra Designs, writes, "...that is after all where Bob (Swanson) and I met and where we got our start in the outdoor industry. Hap Klopp (North Face), too, among others." After Trailwise's Justus Bauschinger left, designer Mark Erickson took over. Meanwhile, Justus went on to found Class Five....Peter Noone was also a long-time Manager at the Ski Hut store during the 1960s, and into the 1970s; he was also involved with Trailwise and Donner Mountain Company.......

George Rudolf was affectionately known as "The Grey Ghost" and was a neighbor to George Marks in Point Richmond, California until he passed away just a few days shy of 90 on May 31, 1998. (information from George Marks interview and other ex-employees). Image of Mr. Rudolf is compliments of Mr. Marks and shows Mr. Rudolf in late life

Below, Bob Swanson and George Marks in 1958 (The History of Gear Project)

Photo One
George Marks has not had a role with Sierra Designs since he departed in October of 1984, just under twenty years from when he and Bob Swanson began the company. Bob had left previously and had established Walrus Tents which George joined. George Marks is still involved in outdoor gear and has lived in China for many years and is Managing Director of a company there. Bob Swanson is also no longer part of Sierra Designs and lives in the Northeast United States.

The modern Sierra Designs is the product of multiple buy-outs and is now located in Boulder, CO.