Celebrating 20 years of Ram Mountaineering
Yes it has been 20 years since Ram Mountaineering started in the garage of founder and managing director, Simon Larsen.
We have decided to interview Simon to tell us some to the story in the hope that it will give us some insight into the love, passion and dedication that has allowed Ram Mountaineering to bring us “gear for our every adventure”.
First things first, Why did you start Ram Mountaineering?
When I started in the outdoor industry in the early 1990’s – first at Varsity Sport Adventure Centre and later at Orca Industries – there were no distributors of outdoor brands. Shops that sold specialist gear imported it directly themselves. In those early days we were importing brands such as Edelrid, Wild Country, Boreal, Simond and Petzl directly. We started getting requests from other stores for gear and so started a small wholesale operation. When Geoff Ward established Outward Ventures with DMM as his flagship brand, we realized that the market was changing and that there were some opportunities to take up.
That’s when we decided to start Ram Mountaineering. I was still working at Orca Industries but took a small loan from my bond and financed the first shipment of Black Diamond. As the demand from retailers grew, I signed up other brands.
Tell us about the early days at Ram
At the time Ram Mountaineering started I was still working for Orca Industries. I was running the hiking /climbing department at Orca, managing the books for both companies and also running Cape Town School of Mountaineering. After eighteen months it all got a bit hectic and I resigned from Orca to focus on the other two companies. I moved the operations to my home in Mowbray – and a tiny 3 x 2m store room. Initially, our store rooms were all so small that when shipments arrived we had to unpack on the lawn outside & stuff the product into the store. As business grew I invited Etienne Pietersen, who was working at Abseil Africa, to join me and we were able to do some alterations to the garage at home, increasing the storage area considerably and adding a training room / office. It was an exciting time – full of new opportunities. There were more independent retailers than chain stores, the economy was being managed well and the market was growing. It was also a very challenging time – particularly in cash flow terms as we have always avoided running an overdraft. Communications were much slower – email was not that common so most communication happened by fax; there was no electronic banking so you had to go to the bank every day to do stuff. We had to do everything ourselves from building store room shelving, to repping, shipping, unloading shipments, packing , dispatching and delivering orders, doing the books and managing tax – let alone all the training activities for CTSM.
The first brands signed?
We signed up a number of American brands first because they had no representation here. Black Diamond was the first, followed shortly by New England (Maxim) Ropes and Princeton Tec lights
For those of us who had not yet experienced our first proper camping holiday let alone shopping for the gear we would need, can you give us a quick insight to what the South African outdoor industry looked like 20 year ago?
The outdoor industry was dominated by stores run by people who were outdoor enthusiasts themselves – people like Duncan Pattenden (Orca Industries), Palma (Ventures for Africa), Chris Wind (Berg Sports), Leni Hamilton (Hiker’s Paradise), Richard Turkington (Drifters) and Cesar (Outdoor Centre). The dominant (and only) chain at the time was Camp and Climb which was also staffed by enthusiastic and competent people. It was actually the company in which many of the industry leaders got started – Geoff Ward, Tony Mills, Dave Davies, John Fontyn and many others. These people were psyched about the outdoors and were keen to share their knowledge. They attracted enthusiastic young people to work in the stores – and encouraged them to get out and have adventures of their own. Most of them got involved at some level with the emergence of training programs and standards and there was a sense of passion for the outdoors. As a result – when one went shopping in those days it was easy to find good quality advice from enthusiastic people who had been there and done that. At the same time however, all the shops focused on gear and equipment. There was very little apparel available. People made do with quite inadequate clothing – and those that wanted really good clothing would buy it on overseas trips.
Who was the first registered Ram Mountaineering Client, are they still around?
Orca Industries – I was working there – so of course they were a good client ! Cesar at Outdoor Centre in Pietermaritzburg was one of our first clients and while the Outdoor Centre went bust – Cesar is still a good client working with Bush & Bundu.
Gear has improved a lot in the last 20 years, tell us about the most exciting innovation that comes to mind?
It really is difficult to pick out one particular innovation because there have been so many good ones over the years – Black Diamond Camalots, Petzl Gri Gri, Jetboil, LED headlamps just to mention a few. However I think the biggest change has been the arrival of good outdoor apparel. This trend began with Charl Gold at First Ascent and the introduction of the first polartec jacket – the Serac. It was the start of a significant shift in the market from equipment to apparel.
About Ram Mountaineering that people might not know?
Ram Mountaineering currently employs a permanent staff of 13 and two reps. Our staff includes Tony Mills and Richard Turkington – two of the original “oldies” who were part of the industry when I started. Tony Mills was involved in both Varsity Sports and Camp & Climb in the early days and Richard ran Drifters during its ascendancy to the premier specialist outdoor store in South Africa.
We are proud of the fact that our team includes folk with a real passion for the outdoors because their experiences contribute to real expertise. Our team offers a wealth of experience in outdoor from alpine, ice, trad and sport climbing on multiple continents to ultra-distance adventure racing, surfing, mountain biking, canyoneering, hiking and trail running. For more insight into our team – visit our team profile page.
Ram Mountaineering has two sister companies – Vertical Safety Systems (www.vssystems.co.za) and Traverse Outdoor Gear (www.traversegear.co.za)
As a group of companies we represent over 20 brands providing comprehensive offerings in the areas of rock climbing, mountaineering / trekking and industrial height safety. We are driven to provide quality solutions for our customers which provide the best balance between quality, performance and cost.
Two years ago we were able to purchase a warehouse in which to house the group – and while the re-development process proved to be far more challenging than anticipated (thanks to Cape Town building regulations) – we now have a very comfortable premises from which to operate. It includes a great show room space – and we love welcoming customers to show them the ranges.
We would also like to take this opportunity to celebrate you, our clients who made it possible and say thanks to each and every one of you who have supported us in one way or another over the last two decades.
We would also like to give credit to many who have inspired us in this industry – from global leaders such as Peter Metcalf (founder of Black Diamond) and Michel Beal to folk here in South Africa who have made great contributions to growing our industry – Geoff Ward (Outward Ventures) , Charl Gold BackPacker & First Ascent), Butch de Bruin (BackPacker and Hiker), John Fontyn (Eiger Equipment); the Dott brothers (Drifters); Andrew Baxter (Cape Storm); David Davies (Mountain Mail order); Robert & Patricia Breyer and the City Rock Team and Mr Krawitz and team Cape Union Mart.