Located in the sweet spot between the Cascades and the Rockies, Mountain Gear became the most distinguished outdoor gear shop in the Inland Northwest after opening its doors in 1983. Sadly, their doors are closing for the last time in the coming weeks, and it’s time to celebrate how much Mountain Gear contributed to the great adventures and quality of life we’ve enjoyed in this region.
Paul Fish, founder and owner of Mountain Gear, started sewing backpacks when he was in high school. Demand for his products grew, and in the early 80s, tired of having customers come to his home, he opened Mountain Gear in Spokane. From the start, Fish worked tirelessly to sell product and promote the store, but he also rolled up his sleeves and invested blood and sweat into the outdoors community. For starters, he funded numerous rock-climbing guidebooks in the area including the original Bob Loomis guide, as well as rock climbing guides from Rick Labelle, Jim Speaker, and many others.
Beyond climbing guidebooks, Fish set a course to promote nationwide outreach and advocacy for Leave No Trace ethics and the Access Fund. Mountain Gear introduced UClimb learn-to-climb clinics, the Red Rock Rendezvous rocking climbing festival in Las Vegas, and assisted several conservation fundraisers and auctions. Paul worked closely with land conservation groups, and he served on the Access Fund Board for 10 years. Mountain Gear contributed to efforts that secured Big Rock for the Dishman Hills Conservancy, contributed to a much-needed toilet at Frenchman Coulee, and continues to donate to the Bower Climbing Coalition.
Over the years, Mountain Gear has been much more than an outdoor gear shop; it’s served as a common gathering place for many like-minded backcountry enthusiasts to connect with the greater community. Back in the mid-90s, Fred Beckey occasionally stopped in Spokane, picked up any available Mountain Gear employee, and charged into the mountains. It wasn’t uncommon for Himalayan veterans and 5.14 crushers to show up at the retail store for a slideshow from Alex Lowe or Steve House. Mountain Gear worked hard to promote the genius Banff Mountain Film Festival around the country. And you could always count on posters and flyers promoting upcoming fundraisers, clinics, presentations and group outings adorning the walls and checkout counter.
Outdoor fanatics from near and far grew to love Mountain Gear for dozens of reasons, and the company prospered for over 30 years as the fast-changing outdoor retail world evolved around them. From the beginning, Mountain Gear always differentiated itself from other traditional outdoor shops. When the location on Division first opened, it featured the first indoor climbing wall and indoor kayak pool in Spokane so customers could genuinely test and demo their purchases. Mountain Gear also launched a kids’ cross-country ski trade-up program, so parents could buy cross country gear for their kids and upgrade as they grew. And for many years, Mountain Gear was the title sponsor for several paddling and Nordic ski races.
In 2004, Mountain Gear built a 112,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and distribution center in Spokane Valley that was LEED Gold-certified for its sustainability-minded construction. More importantly, the company bundled value in many gear purchases. They were among the first shops to provide a six-pack discount for carabiners or quickdraws, a discount for full sets of cams, and they were among the first catalog retailers to provide free mounting and tune-up if you purchased skis and bindings together. Mountain Gear also embraced Internet sales early on and developed a decent online retail presence long before other online outdoor retailers began dominating the market.
Looking ahead, Fish doesn’t want to dwell on the passing of the shop. The decision to close was incredibly difficult and very emotional. Quite frankly, Amazon and other online giants played a role. However, Fish is eager to emphasize his wonderful employees, and he estimates he has employed over 800 people over the years. He piles on the praise for many long-standing customers and outdoor groups that continually promote the outdoor lifestyle everyone in the Northwest enjoys. Cumulatively, Mountain Gear employees have centuries of outdoor experience, and they work just as hard as they play.
Like many long-time fixtures in the outdoor adventure community, I also worked at Mountain Gear. During those 12 years, I climbed and backpacked as often as possible and I worked with a number of Mountain Gear characters who were as passionate about getting outside as I was: Gramps, BC, Epic Shane, Pookie, The Monk, Schenk, Timon, Hugh Georbanks, Mr. Phillips, Use-The-Schwartz, and a number of other employees that went on to great success throughout the outdoors community; I probably wouldn’t be an Out There Outdoors editor today had I not spent those years with Mountain Gear.
When Mountain Gear wraps up its final sale and closes up shop in the coming weeks, the entire outdoors community will feel the repercussions. Until then, Fish promises that the shop’s Going Out of Business Sale will be gigantic. Discounts will continue to drop throughout the month, and it’s important to note there is inventory for all four seasons, which means you can find great deals on summer and winter gear. Most importantly, stop by the store sooner than later to get the right size and killer deals on some of the best gear in the Northwest. Moving forward, Paul Fish will continue to work with advocacy groups and non-profits that champion the outdoors community and the recreation lands we love. The Spokane retail store will close, but the Mountain Gear legacy and contributions will continue for generations of future climbers, skiers, hikers, trail runners and others who enjoy the outdoors.