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How a Humble Berkeley Shop Called Ski Hut Became the Center of California's Mountaineering Boom

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Half a century ago, Field & Stream magazine dubbed Berkeley “the backpacker capital of America.”

A big reason? A store at 1615 University Ave. called Ski Hut.

For nearly 40 years after its opening in 1935, the Ski Hut dominated the outdoor equipment industry.

“It was the command center for hiking, camping, skiing, canoeing, etc. – snowshoeing, back country and rock climbing, peaks and all,” said ecologist Paul Hawken , who worked at the Ski Hut in the early 1960s.

The Ski Hut made some of its own equipment, such as tents, backpacks and sleeping bags. Customers also came for boot fittings, for troubleshooting and even to ask questions like what the weather would be like at Donner Pass over the weekend, recalls my aunt, Louise Dunlap, who worked part-time at the Ski Hut from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.

“People came there for information, and they pretty much assumed that if I was working there, I knew the answer,” she said.

The Ski Hut was started by a Stanford graduate named George Rudolf and his ski buddy Phillip Von Lublein. They invested $750 and started selling ski gear imported from Europe during the Great Depression.

The timing turned out to be excellent. Two years after the ski hut opened, the Sierra’s first major ski resort, Sugar Bowl, opened in 1937. Shortly thereafter, a railroad company began operating high-speed trains. ski that carried Bay Area skiers to Donner’s Summit. Rudolf and Von Lublein carried skis to the trains and rented them out to riders.

The Ski Hut closed during World War II – both men joined the army. It reopened after the war, but Von Lublein became paralyzed in a skiing accident, and eventually Rudolf took over sole management of the business.

The 1950s were something of a peak for mountain expeditions, with the first technical ascents of El Capitan and Half Dome. Most Ski Hut employees were themselves climbers, hikers or skiers. Allen Steck, a manager there from 1952 to 1968, was a world-renowned mountaineer whose exploits included creating a route on the north face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite in 1950 (the route still bears his names and those of his climbing partner). Famous Sierra climber and author Steve Roper spent winters in the 1960s and early 1970s fixing skis at the Ski Hut, while leaving other seasons free for climbing.

During the 1960s, interest in the outdoors quickly spread to circles beyond the Sierra Club and the alpine elite. Other ski resorts are opening and interest in the environmental movement is growing. Another factor in the growing interest, Steck says, was the ski hut itself: its catalog allowed people to order their gear by mail order.

“Our catalog was going out nationwide,” Steck said.

Unusually from a modern perspective, the Ski Hut had its own manufacturing line, called Trailwise, making it “America’s first outdoor outlet and manufacturing facility,” as the Backpacker magazine. Gear designed by Trailwise like tents, backpack frames and sleeping bags suitable for mountain enthusiasts – lightweight and durable. (Other products were imported from Europe.)

“The best thing they ever did was make sleeping bags – beautiful down sleeping bags with a bewildering interior, which was pretty rare until then,” Roper said. (Baffles are divisions in the sleeping bag to hold the insulating material in place.)

Steck, who led Trailwise and used his climbing ingenuity to invent and perfect products, remembers the challenges of handling down.

“A big problem in sleeping bags is filling them with down,” he said. A broken down truck was driving and Steck and his colleagues were inspecting it to check its quality. Then the contents went into a down room – which was so dusty the room needed a fan to keep the air clean, and people working with down sometimes had to wear a mask. Measuring quantity was important but extremely difficult; Steck has devised a new method. Getting down into sleeping bags, which were often sewn by women, was yet another difficulty.

In some ways, the Ski Hut may have helped plant the seeds of its own demise. It was there that “many the brains of other Berkeley teams got their basic training,” Field & Stream wrote in 1975.

Some former employees went on to found other notable outdoor businesses in the Bay Area, such as Sierra Designs, Class 5, and Mountain Traders. Ken Klopp, former president of North Face, a Bay Area company until several years ago, also worked at the Ski Hut.

Losing employees “was a problem we faced,” recalls Steck, 96, laughing. “But we got used to it and they did a good job.”

Over time, the Ski Hut faced more competition – and not just from its offshoots. REI – which was founded around the same time as Ski Hut – opened a store in Berkeley in 1975. It was the cooperative’s first store outside of Seattle.

Ultimately, Steck said, owner George Rudolf suffered health issues and began closing the store. According to Field & Stream, Rudolf sold it to Saska Sports Industries of Brisbane in 1973. What happened after that is unclear, but an online historical plaque in Berkeley suggests an end date for the store. 1978.

But in its heyday, the Ski Hut was the hub of a booming industry. At its annual sale, “people lined up very early on the streets of University Avenue,” recalls Sara Steck, Allen’s daughter.

She and her friends would go out to dinner and then sleep on the streets, she recalls – “so that we would be the first in”.

Kate Galbraith is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: kgalbraith@sfchronicle.com

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