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.

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
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."

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