To outsiders, it must have felt like any other night in North Beach, San Francisco’s hub for the beats and the burgeoning counterculture. A loud, greasy band was cranking out psychedelic garage rock, a famous folk singer worked her way through the crowd, and a couple of Hells Angels guarded the front door, making sure no unwanted guests crashed the gig.
But even in the world of North Beach, it wasn’t any other happening. The band was the Grateful Dead, the folkie star was Joan Baez, and the venue wasn’t a club, but a store — the very first from a new outdoor-gear company called The North Face. And on the night of October 26, 1966, the owners threw an opening party that, 50 years later, is still hard to top in the annals of company launches.
These days, The North Face is a billion-dollar brand-name juggernaut whose clothing — with that recognizable logo — has been worn by the likes of President Obama and Drake. But in 1966, it was a newcomer to the hiking gear community. At 23, co-founder Doug Tompkins had already had his share of experience as a climber and adventurer. While hitchhiking three years earlier, in 1963, he’d been picked up by Susie Russell, and the two quickly became a couple. In 1965, they began selling ski goods by mail order in Lake Tahoe before deciding to open a store in San Francisco. The pair (who eventually married) called it The North Face, after the harshest route up mountain peaks in the Northern Hemisphere.
At the time, The North Face didn’t make its own products. (That would happen two years later, in 1968, when the company moved to a larger space in Berkeley.) But it was already establishing itself as a go-to spot for serious outdoor gearheads. Items in the company’s first mail order catalog included Italian Cortina hiking boots ($21.50), sleeping bags, backpacks for different trip lengths (from one day to two weeks), portable outdoor grills, moccasins, tents, climbing ropes, and ice axes. “It is our express aim to help people equip themselves with the most practical gear to fit their needs and to reduce over-equipping,” wrote Tompkins in their first catalog, adding, “… we have arbitrarily drawn the line for gimmicks and gadgetry. Hopefully, it will be noticed that we carry no such merchandise.”
“The idea of the Dead coupled with the Hells Angels being the bodyguards put a real point of view, a real feeling out there — iconoclastic," says Kenneth "Hap" Klopp, who bought the company in 1968. "This was a poke in the eye to the mainstream. The Hells Angels weren’t mainstream and neither were the Dead.”
The store the Tompkinses opened in North Beach was perched in a different kind of wilderness. It was jammed up against a strip club — the Condor Club, which featured local stripping legend Carol Doda — and catty-corner from the beat-centric City Lights bookstore. Since the store was only about 1,000 square feet, the Tompkinses were only able to carry some of their merch (ski gear and some backpacking and climbing goods, for sale and sometimes rent). One of its most popular products was a new style of plastic ski boot, more durable than leather predecessors. But that first North Face shop made up for its lack of space with woodsy quirks. The floor was covered in green carpet and the walls were made of barn wood. Glass cases displayed old carabiners (those metal loops used in climbing) and pitons (metal spikes). A sign above the door announced, “Mountaineering Specialists.”
The eccentricities extended to the launch party. A poster of Bob Dylan’s then-current album, Blonde on Blonde, hung in the front window. As Hells Angels stood guard, the packed space grew to include an oddball blend of socialites, local bohos, and sailors who wandered in either before or after visiting the Condor Club. “What a collection of people,” reported the San Francisco Examiner. “There were nattily dressed individuals rubbing shoulders with bearded, long-haired and sandal-clad beatniks from the neighborhood.”
Although a local newspaper report claimed that lemonade and animal crackers were served, beer and weed made the rounds. “There wasn’t room to do much more than elbow around everyone,” says Kenneth “Hap” Klopp, a friend of the Tompkins’ who bought the company in 1968 and then ran it for 20 years. “I remember having drinks, but I don’t remember seeing anyone servicing them. Everyone had a beer. This was before wine.”
Inside, the Dead — then consisting of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan — played in front of a mountain-landscape backdrop. Baez mingled, and her sister Mimi modeled ski gear. (Sorry, Deadheads — the set list appears to be lost to history.) According to Klopp, the choice of the Dead didn’t just make geographical sense — they were a local band who had yet to release their first album — but symbolic sense as well. “Doug was always into creating events and he had ideas that were bigger than just the product,” Klopp says. “The idea of the Dead coupled with the Hells Angels being the bodyguards put a real point of view, a real feeling out there — iconoclastic. This was a poke in the eye to the mainstream. The Hells Angels weren’t mainstream and neither were the Dead.”
“I saw those photos and said, ‘The Grateful Dead were there?’” recalls Conrad Anker, who began working at The North Face in 1983. “It was like Nirvana or Pearl Jam playing your uncle’s garage.”
The presence of a few Angels at the door wasn’t especially jarring; they were already becoming part of the Dead landscape. But as Weir recalls, their role that night had unfortunate repercussions for the tragic concert the Dead were involved with three years later. “It was a fun evening,” Weir told Men's Journal, “but the sad part about it is, we were taken with the notion that the Hells Angels were a viable security operation. And that lead to Altamont, since it was our suggestion that they handled security.”
When the party ended, the Tompkinses took the Dead out to dinner at a swanky nearby Italian restaurant. The legend of that surreal night almost ended right then, but 10 years ago, on the company’s 40th anniversary, some North Face employees set their eyes on photos of that night (taken by the late Suki Hill) for the first time. Only then did they fully realize The North Face had conducted its own acid test, albeit without the acid. “I saw those photos and said, ‘The Grateful Dead were there?’” recalls renowned climber Conrad Anker, who began working at The North Face in 1983. “It was like Nirvana or Pearl Jam playing your uncle’s garage.”