The Colorado climbing and retail legend imparts his wisdom on the joys of the high peaks, shares the highlights of his in-store mountaineering museum, and talks about how customers just like to hang out on his couch.
With all due respect, Gary Neptune—the owner and founder of Boulder’s Neptune Mountaineering—is built like a chimpanzee. He’s all torso and powerful arms on stick legs, and shaking his hand is like grabbing a leather claw. This man was born to climb. Over the past 40 years, the 64-year-old has managed to climb and ski across the entire planet, while helping his shoppers and staff to do the same. “Gary is one of the fortunate few who live their dreams and passions,” states his bio on the Neptune Mountaineering website. We agree. He took the time to talk to us about how he first started climbing and founded his iconic store.
How did you start climbing?
In high school in Indiana, I won a scholarship to attend Colorado Outward Bound in Marble. That trip changed my life. The big peak we climbed was Snowmass [14,092 feet]. [Outward Bound co-founder] Paul Petzoldt led the North Ridge for a small group of the better climbers, placing pitons as he led. I led the second rope team clipping those same pitons for safety. I didn’t remove any of the pitons, and I’m told that they are still there and that the route is 5th class. Ours was probably the first ascent of that route. That was in July 1963.
I also learned a lot about backpacking and some basic rock climbing techniques during the month-long course. Paul Petzoldt showed some films from K-2 in 1938. He had a lot of stories, such as bicycling from London to Zermatt, Switzerland, then traversing the Matterhorn up and over to Italy and back up and over to Switzerland in the same day. Harvey Carter was one of the instructors. He is a legendary local rock climber these days. B.D. Misra also was there. He had been on an Indian Everest expedition—all very inspirational.
The next summer I went to the Alps. Among other climbs, I climbed the Matterhorn, guideless and ropeless. I was quite poor at the time and hitch-hiked everywhere during that trip. Later, I got a degree in geology from Rice University in Houston, Texas, and got a chance to spend a summer in Antarctica, where I did some more climbing. I went on to graduate school at Texas, but I dropped out and moved to Colorado in 1969. I was hooked.
How has the sport of climbing changed since when you started?
It wasn’t as popular. You had to learn. All that’s required today is a guide and a willingness to suffer. People turn their brains over to their guides. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in climbing like that. When you don’t hire guides, climbing is not that expensive.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My father was in the oil business. We moved a great deal: Egypt and Venezuela were the two exotic places we lived. There was also Independence, Kansas. [Laughs] We never lived anywhere more than two-and-a-half years.
When you started Neptune Mountaineering in 1973, were there other similar stores in town?
There were a lot more stores in the 70s and 80s, like EMS, Holubar Mountaineering, Mountain Sports, Boulder Mountaineer. Even Macy’s sold Nordic skis back then. Everything is much more corporate now, which is an advantage and a disadvantage for privately owned stores. The chains can outprice us sometimes, but we’re not affected by a poor snow year in other parts of the country, which can pull down stores here that have stores elsewhere. Internet sales have also helped make the pricing all out of control. Business moves so fast now. It’s amazing how everyone affects everyone else.
How have things in your business changed?
The bulk of business was boot-repair work at first. We sold skis and climbing equipment, too, but mostly we repaired people’s leather hiking and skiing boots. Today, there’s no market for repair work. We stopped doing that years ago. A lot of the stuff you just can’t fix anymore. To repair modern boots, we’d need a bunch of complicated presses and hand lathes, and it just isn’t worth it. Today, people just replace old equipment with something new.
What has been the key to the success of Neptune Mountaineering?
We do a pretty good job of being a big toy store. People just enjoy coming here. It’s like going to McGuckin’s Hardware: You can’t leave without buying something. And I’ve made it a place that I’d like to work, so I attract good staff.
How many employees do you have?
Twenty to 30, depending on season and economy. We spend a lot of money on clinics and staff development, so we can help customers get what they really need. It’s the kind of place that I’d like to shop, and people seem to like just hanging out. We have a couch.
Speaking of which, how did your extensive mountaineering and skiing museum get started?
I started hanging my own stuff on the walls and it gradually expanded. I’ve always enjoyed collecting that stuff, and I basically ran out of room at home. Then people stated donating when they saw what I was up to.
What are your most treasured pieces?
We have some boots from Hillary’s expedition in 1953 that a Sherpa gave to me. We also have Peter Habler’s down suit from his Everest ascent in 1978—the first ever without oxygen. And pitons and a carabiner from Anderl Heckmair’s first ascent of the north face of the Eiger in 1938. People loan us stuff, too. For a few years, we had Joe Simpson’s [author of Touching the Void] Swiss army knife, the one he’d loaned to Simon Yates, who then used it to cut the infamous rope. When the movie came out, Joe wanted it back to help with promotion.
Where did the idea come from to self-publish your four pamphlets on backcountry ski touring and climbing? They’re very complete—and free—an unusual combination.
It’s information that I compiled over the years and finally put together. They’ve grown to 60-page minibooks. It really helps to have something to hand customers, so they can make informed purchases and learn to do things properly.
What are your proudest mountaineering achievements?
Well, on my first Himalayan expedition in 1981, I climbed 22,494-foot Ama Dablam alone in four-and-a-half days. We didn’t plan it that way, but that’s the way it turned out. I’ve also summitted Everest, Makalu, Gasherblam II. But it’s not the biggest expeditions that give the greatest joy, necessarily. I love ski touring, too. I’ve done the Haute Route [from Chamonix to Zermatt] several times. Skiing for several days out of one of the huts is really fun. It’s not just about hauling a big pack and covering miles.
Where is your favorite place to climb locally?
Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park. I love the Flatirons, too, of course, but Lumpy Ridge is a bit more my favorite. It’s nice to get up and out of the heat in the summer.