Last year, two of the Southeast’s outfitters landed among Outdoor USA’s top 100 outdoor retailers in the country: Mountain Crossings in Georgia and Water Stone Outdoors in West Virginia.
Amid a world of big box stores and internet behemoths, these two outfitters have managed to keep their doors open for over 20 years. How have these shops evolved over the past two decades?
Mountain Crossings est. 1983
The original founders of Mountain Crossings—Dorothy and Jeff Hansen—were no strangers to adventure by the time they arrived in Georgia. Dorothy had thru-hiked in 1979 and Jeff worked within the outdoor education field and had studied under such legendary figures as Paul Petzoldt. He came to Georgia as a requirement for completing his degree in outdoor recreation, but once he got a taste of North Georgia and met his future wife Dorothy, Jeff never left.
“That place and that area meant so much to us,” Jeff says. “Our life together was in the outdoors there.”
Their love for the area was tangible, as real as the love they shared for each other, but they didn’t fully realize what that meant to them until they were sitting on the terrace of the building at Neels Gap that would later become their shop. The year was 1982, and the place could only be described as, at best, decrepit.
“The state of Georgia’s original intention was to bulldoze the place,” Jeff says. “It was out in the middle of nowhere, so it kinda fell through the cracks.”
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, the original building still remained—but just barely. There were loose tiles, a leaky roof, pipes that were literally tied together, and no running water.
But the Hansens didn’t mind. They saw potential, and not just for a business, but for building a home away from home. After assuming ownership of the building in the fall of 1983, the Hansens moved to the gap to live there full time and open up shop. Through brutal weather, a collapsing infrastructure, and the practically unheard-of challenge in raising two children without the convenience of running water, the Hansens persevered.
Isolated 30 minutes on either side of the mountain from the nearest town meant growth for the outfitter was slow. Through the tried and true method of providing quality customer service, particularly when it came to decreasing pack weights of thru-hikers, the little outfitter on the mountain gained a reputation that trickled out around the world.
“I think that maybe the greatest unexpected surprise was how well [the outfitter] was accepted by everybody and the wonderful, extended community that happened in this place that was really not close to anything,” Jeff says.
Though the Hansens no longer run the outfitter, they feel that Mountain Crossings is in good hands. Georganna and Logan Seamon of the thru-hiking class of ’09 recently became the new outfitter owners. According to the couple, the future for Mountain Crossings lies in the revival of its roots.
“So many people have memories of this place and this building means so much to so many people,” Georganna says. “That’s one thing we’re really working to maintain and preserve.”
Water Stone Outdoors est. 1994
Though the New River Gorge is now perhaps one of the most iconic climbing destinations in the country, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, when Gene and Maura Kistler first moved to Fayetteville in the spring of 1991, you could count the number of regular climbers on one hand.
The Kistlers both had been climbing in the New River Gorge since the early ‘80s and were part of a small, second wave of climbers who journeyed weekly to the then-undeveloped sandstone cliffs. Gene was a carpenter by trade, Maura a teacher. They teamed up with another climber friend, Kenny Parker, to create a climbing shop.
Interestingly, Water Stone Outdoors began not as Water Stone, but as Blue Ridge Outdoors (sound familiar?), a Roanoke-based outdoor outfitter with a sister store in Blacksburg, Va. The Kistlers and Parker all found themselves working for the outfitter at some point, but by 1993, Gene was ready to buy the business and open up a third store in his new hometown of Fayetteville.
For nearly a decade, Gene and Kenny slowly built the credibility of the Fayetteville store while chipping away at the building’s much-needed renovations. Finally, in 2001, Gene sold the two Virginia businesses to focus his efforts solely on his pride and joy, which, he decided, was in need of a new name.
“We asked for suggestions and got over 400 of them, but they were all kinda ridiculous,” Gene remembers. “As I was driving to Charleston to incorporate the damn thing, I just said screw it, we’re gonna call it Water Stone, which works. I guess we could get into kayaks if we wanted to.”
But they didn’t. They stuck to their climbing roots. Kenny and the Kistlers did more than simply run a business, too. They walked the talk. They organized volunteer-run events like the New River Rendezvous and the Craggin’ Classic. They developed routes, built trails, advocated for access. They got involved with the local planning committee, created environmental committees of their own, and stood on their soapbox when something threatened the place they love.
They created the New River Alliance of Climbers and established a working relationship with the National Park Service. They hosted climbers from every walk of life in their own homes, hosted potlucks, slideshows, crag cleanups. They were, and are, the face of climbing in the New River Gorge, and now, 20 years later, Water Stone Outdoors is one of the most internationally recognized core climbing outfitters in the country.
“We definitely see our job as more involved than simply selling gear,” Maura adds. “We see it as our job to help climbers connect and to be a welcome wagon for the community. We’re really proud of the vibe here.” •