Berkeley Backpacking Biz - Old School, New School, No School

George Rudolf: The Ski Hut, Trailwise, Donner Mountain

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Among those who supplied the growing number of outdoor enthusiasts early on was George Rudolf, arguably the father of the modern outdoor industry.

In 1935, schoolteacher Rudolf and his regular skiing buddy, engineer Phillip Von Lublein, opened a small ski shop in Berkeley, California. They called it The Ski Hut and it cost them $750 to open the doors, albeit with limited business hours since the two men kept their day jobs.

At the time, California’s Sierra Mountains were a popular spot for ski mountaineering, an activity Rudolf described as, “touring out to the neighboring peaks and, after lunch, making one glorious run back to the lodge.” To satisfy skiers’ demands, Rudolf and Von Lublein started importing gear from Europe.

Hoping to expand their customer base, the two men approached the Southern Pacific Railroad with the idea of selling ski gear on the regular weekend ski trains from the San Francisco Bay area to Sierra ski areas.

The plan was approved and as their Southern Pacific ski train sales flourished, rival Western Pacific Railroad asked them to start selling on its ski trains, as well.

By 1941, business was so good that Rudolf quit teaching and devoted all his time to The Ski Hut. Ironically, the United States declared war a few months later, and Von Lubkin was whisked off to Washington, D.C., to work in the Pentagon, while Rudolf stayed close to home working at the Alameda shipyard south of Oakland, California. The Ski Hut was shuttered.

The two men re-opened The Ski Hut postwar in 1946. A year later, Von Lubkin was paralyzed in a skiing accident, causing Rudolf to take over complete control of the store.

In a 1991 interview, Rudolf recalled those early days: “The late ‘40s and early ‘50s was a very creative period. Gerry Cunningham, Alice and LeRoy Holubar, Dick Kelty, and Eddie Bauer— all these people were working on gear. And all kinds of consumers wanted to get into the mountains after the war.”

During the early ‘50s, The Ski Hut retail store became a fixture on Berkeley’s University Avenue, and expanded its offerings to include sleeping bags made to the company’s specifications by Thomas Black and Company of Scotland.

Importing sleeping bags ended when Rudolf formed Trailwise, his own domestic sleeping bag, tent and apparel manufacturing company. Among many Trailwise landmark products was the ultra-slim, ultra-light and warm Slimline down sleeping bag.

Domestic production in hand, Rudolf turned to importing and formed Donner Mountain Company to bring in European-made gear and apparel. Among the brands the company made famous in the United States market was the Italian-made Pivetta Boots. Years later, Donner Mountain would produce boots and shoes abroad under its own label, including some of the first boots to use Gore-Tex linings.

Over the years, Rudolf’s various enterprises served as the training ground for many individuals who would become the second-generation leaders of the outdoor industry. Those people included Bob Swanson, George Marks, Peter Noone, Kate Larramendy, John Schelling and Allen Steck.  A nice reunion photo of the two Georges—Rudolf and Marks—can be found here in George Marks' Sierra Designs history.

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Paul Stoermer (not verified)
Great article! I worked at
Great article! I worked at the Ski Hut from 1956 to 1958 while in high school in Berkeley. I have a lot of good memories working there for George and Alan.
dan burby (not verified)
thank george for the pivettas
thank george for the pivettas he imported from italy
Howard May (not verified)
I worked at the Ski Hut in
I worked at the Ski Hut in 1970-71. My first and only sales job taught me a lot about dealing with people and was a great confidence booster. The staff was friendly and gung ho on the outdoors. We did a winter camping trip together in the Sierras. The shop had top of the line skiing and mountaineering equipment, including revolutionary climbing gear from Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia. I remember him coming to the shop. 40+ years later I still use a buck knife from there. Great memories.
Douglas Keachie (not verified)
Worked at Ski Hut
Worked at Ski Hut intermittently 68 to 70 while a student at UC. Upstairs, in the back, stuffing down sleeping bags, and stringing backpack mesh frames. Occasionally see my work in thrift stores. Allen Steck was the manager, and my immediate supervisor I think was Peter. He was going to move to New Zealand. I also worked at Sierra Designs, and I thought I did so under Doug Tompkins, but I have yet to verify that he ever worked there. This was at the store down by the Berkeley train depot. Went on to learn and sell computers and software, built stuff for Lee Felsenstein's Golemics. Wound up teaching computer science at Lowell high school in San Francisco. Skied everywhere and passed it, and windsurfing, on down to children and grandchildren. During early 1970's, got a 1912 Singer, made and sold daypacks at San Francisco State University. You can verify me very easily. I live in North San Juan, CA.
gudrun parker (not verified)
Leave a Comment. (Please,
I was there in the 60ies
Yoni (not verified)
I found my dad 80’s trail
I found my dad 80’s trail wise navy puffer. He passed away in 2005. I’ve been wearing it every time I shovel snow or need a super warm coat. (Every Friday night and Saturday I walk about a mile so in the bitter cold this coat cannot be matched.) It’s 2024 and the coats still perfect, warm, lightweight and now super vintage puffer stylish. Someone offered me $250. I said $10,000 they said they’d seriously consider based on the nostalgia (for $10,000 my dad would kill me if I didn’t sell it )

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