The Rest of the Story
He died before I could get the rest of the story.
The difference between the call and the chance forever lost would be counted in days. My quest: a 45th anniversary tribute to our founders – the two men who created an enduring source of inspiration and a place where our passion for the outdoors can breathe. They brought Eastern Mountain Sports to life.
Rewind a few weeks. I’m sitting in a Dover, Massachusetts living room with Alan McDonough, co-founder of the company I’ve come to call home (along with 1300 great people who work and play together). Today was going to be big: I would get the straight scoop and ﬁnally separate ﬁgment from fact.
Alan charms me with tales and memories – he produces yellowed documents that prove some of the old stories and disprove others. He wistfully hands me a prospectus, dated 1976, detailing an ill-timed idea he and Roger once had about going public. He unravels decades of tale-weaving with this revelation: they didn’t actually win the Eastern Slope Inn in a poker game. They did, however, “bet the farm” at an auction to acquire the North Conway, NH landmark, clearing the way for our first store in New Hampshire along with our Climb School which is now the oldest in the east. I learn that our founders had a passion for ﬁshing and backpacking. He swears there was no beer truck that pulled up to the corporate office back in the day, though I have pictures to prove it. The stories spill forth.
Alan proudly points to a wall where, framed and faded, hangs the penciled ledger detailing our ﬁrst month of business. As I leave, I hand him a bag full of new EMS-brand products. He’s delighted and says emphatically: ”You need to call Roger. He has the rest of the story.” I ask for contact information. Sadly, he relays that he’s lost touch with Roger in the past few years. “When you ﬁnd him, tell him he’s a great friend, a great partner, and a decent ﬁsherman,” he chuckles. I don’t have the heart to tell him that, despite my efforts, no one I know seems to have any way to contact Roger.
The news of Roger’s passing came just days later.
I stared at my screen in disbelief, then immediately began a frantic hunt for his relatives. Soon, I found Marty Furst, Roger’s wife during the birth of EMS. She agreed to visit Base Camp, our name for our corporate headquarters, immediately and cleared the way for me to meet her fascinating family. In the weeks to come, I would “meet” the five Furst kids by phone and three of them in person.
The Fursts share several of Roger’s distinct traits. They are fearless adrenaline junkies with mischievous smiles and something that can only be described as “sparkle”. Ed is the oldest and was closest to his father at the end of his life. He feels particularly connected to EMS, even worked in the warehouse as a young man. Seeing the old building during his visit evoked memories of teenage pranks and horseplay as Dad labored away at the serious stuff upstairs. He reverently describes Roger as a 3-letter athlete (baseball, basketball and football); a brilliant, thoughtful, nature-lover who did his undergrad work at Stanford and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan.
Somewhat wistfully, Ed shares this: “I don’t know how he’d feel about me telling you how much he regretted selling EMS. It was just that, after several winters with no snow, he felt it was the right thing to do.” Later, he explained, Roger would lament “sometimes you don’t know how good you have it until it goes away.” A twinge of something comes over me. It’s the phrase I hear most often from people who work here and leave for greener pastures. The common threads come more quickly as we talk.
For Roger, it was never about money. He co-founded and grew the company because he loved the outdoors. As a gifted writer, he enjoyed crafting the incredibly detailed catalogs that people collected for years as legit gear guides. He and his family were photographic models, and so were their friends and, sometimes, Alan and his wife. The photos are hysterically serious. Product quality was very important to Roger and the EMS ice axe (our ﬁrst logo) stood for something that mattered.
I next “meet” Jason, a delightful storyteller from San Francisco, Roger’s second eldest son. Still a big fan of the company, he fondly shares memories of traveling with his dad when they’d see someone with an EMS hat or t-shirt. The stories would begin in an airport line, or on a mountain somewhere and always brought smiles. Jason’s childhood memories are rooted in idyllic settings– summer camp in the Whites and John Denver’s Colorado. He recalls that the two friends and founders “knew the mountains like the backs of their hands”. Seeing Roger through Jason’s eyes was at once comforting and sad. I suddenly wished Roger were alive – younger, closer and able to buy the company back. I know we would have loved him and he would be proud of who we’ve become. Jason agrees.
The day Marty visits Base Camp, she picks through the catalogs strewn around my office and points … “that’s me!” “there’s Roger!”, “and that’s Alan”, and goes on to identify some of the ﬁrst few employees they’d hired. Those catalogs were especially dear to her – she had helped create the earliest ones on her typewriter while sitting on the ﬂoor of their home near Boston. Her eyes catch the cover of the ﬁrst catalog, bold, bright and brandishing the then-new company logo – an enduring symbol of the upward struggle that would come to represent our company karma – the ice axe.
Sketched on the back of the proverbial cocktail napkin, to Roger it represented the soul of the company he wanted to build… something unique and powerful and necessary. Imagine the delight in the room when Marty meets Will, our CEO, wearing his new ice axe shirt – just another in a pile-up of happy accidents.
I stand back and watch time melt away as she and Will connect. This much is clear: despite 45 years of all kinds of change, we are still the company Roger and Alan intended to begin. Their DNA is present in our conversations about function and ﬁt, their legacy inked in countless iterations of the early brand logos seen all over our product, website and schools.
“Fearless. If there is one word that describes my dad, it’s fearless”. Brandon and Heidi, the twins and the youngest Fursts nod in agreement on the perfect New England day they come to Base Camp. The collection of family photos they share adds a new dimension to the man who founded us and a family of 5: he was a wonderful father. Heidi is quick to point out that there was no difference between the boys and the girls in this family – everyone did everything. She’s a replica of her attractive mother and could have been that spirited blonde in the EMS catalog modeling the funny European ski hats.
The twins generously share stories, photos and their time. As the youngest, they have fewer memories of the early days but great recall about their father. “He was a perfectionist. Driven. He did not shy away from any challenge and there was very little talking about it. He just jumped in and took action.” They talk about how proud he was of the company he’d founded.
“Dad had this ice axe baseball cap he got a while back. It was his most cherished possession and he kept it with him right up until the last.” Brandon recalls. Unbelievably, he produces the hat from a small collection of Roger’s things he brought to our meeting. Roger, called “Rocky” by those close to him, earned a baseball scholarship (an incredible batting average .679 got him scouted by the White Sox as a junior in high school). His coach at Stanford ordered him to not go skiing during winter break, but he loved the mountains and skiing so he went anyway – only to break his leg. This ended his baseball career but he ﬁnished his degree and became a member of the ski patrol.
Eventually Roger would choose a different path, pursuing a bigger dream, starting something he could call his own. He met Alan while practicing law as a trial attorney in Colorado. A friendship evolved with mutual trust, respect, and admiration. They both loved the mountains, and it was during their hiking and ﬁshing excursions that the idea of Eastern Mountain Sports emerged.
Like two far more famous co-founders from Palo Alto, Alan and Roger started Eastern Mountain Sports with an idea in a Denver garage and $5000 borrowed from their fathers. Boston was the place. Not because they knew it or had roots there, but because, to the explorers in them, it represented the untapped potential to be ﬁrst, to stand for something, to claim the “best gear” trophy for the right coast.
They quickly ascended to the Mt. Rushmore of the outdoor industry, proﬁled forever alongside the titans of the time: Dick Kelty (Kelty), Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia), Gerry Cunningham (product pioneer), and Doug and Susie Tompkins (The North Face). They started a brand in a basement on Commonwealth Avenue, still home to our store #1, with a few sewing machines and a belief that they could make our gear lighter, faster, and more affordable. They were right.
When I asked Roger’s oldest son about how Eastern Mountain Sports came to be, he said that for his dad, the mountain represented life itself. A mountain is a new experience daily. The unpredictability and constant challenge remind us simultaneously of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. One ﬁnal story, told through Ed’s youthful memory, completely captures the spirit of this man and his mountain.
“I recall a trip to Colorado up the Mount of the Holy Cross with my brother Jason; he was 10 and I was 20. We began to ascend straight up an ominous boulder pass toward Avalanche Peak. I paused midway up this incredibly steep precipice. It was a broad pass, with huge boulders, each weighing several tons. I became more cautious and measured my steps. As I looked up, I saw my Dad forging straight up the middle at 12,000 feet – I mean straight up. My brother was below and it was a frightening view. We were both scared, but nothing was going to deter my father. He remembered a particular hidden lake – a secret spot where, 15 years earlier, he had caught a huge cutthroat. He was going back for more, so I followed. After all, he was my dad, it was an adventure, and if he was going, I was going. It was crazy, but we were living large – really living life.
Kirsten is the last of Roger’s children I get to meet by phone and she adds yet another glimpse of the man I’ve come to think of as our spiritual founder. So many parallels, so much that’s relevant today. Her ﬁrst memories of her dad include camping in the Rockies on horseback, one of her ﬁrst outings at age 4. There was skiing, golf lessons and visits to Florida where Roger took the kids out to see the sea turtles laying eggs at midnight because it was something they should know about.
“I idolized him and loved it when we could go sailing. It was our private time together. Ever since I was very young, though we were doing dangerous things I always felt safe with him. He was larger than life and exuded a quiet, ever-present conﬁdence that I absorbed. He made me feel as if I could do anything. Once, while sailing in the fog towards Martha’s Vineyard, we almost hit the shore. The family didn’t realized the danger we faced but we never felt imperiled. The land just suddenly appeared and it was very close.” I can’t imagine a more ﬁtting epitome for a business so clearly imperiled by weather.
Heidi explains an important nuance. EMS was everything Roger loved: big, adventurous, uncertain. Yet, as fearless as he was facing the natural obstacles he found in nature, he still worried about the things he couldn’t personally conquer – the economy and the weather. The irony is palpable: nothing has changed.
It was Kirsten who connects the dots of the past to the Eastern Mountain Sports I know and love. She describes how the family took a walk to Crooked Pond, behind their house in Hollis, NH, and camped on a little island. Late at night, Roger took them out in the canoe and shushed them so they could hear the beavers’ tails slapping in the dark as they labored. It’s an experience Kirsten will never forget. “Right to the end, he found joy in simple things, he had a great attitude – he always found a way to be happy.”
Somehow, it feels as if Roger is with us today, handing off the torch to another generation of owners and leaders who understand the soul of the place and the larger mission we’ve accepted with outstretched hands: “Experience nature and bring people joy through simple things.”
Someday the rest of this story will be told but not by Roger Furst. And not by his family, though they are wonderful and interesting and more than happy to help. Their story is saved for the book that will surely result from the many conversations, yet to be had, about this fascinating man. For us, the rest of the story is unfolding every day. You feel it when you walk into one of the 69+ stores that grew from a dream shared by two young men on a quest for bigger ﬁsh and the pristine places that give voice to our souls. You see it in the excited eyes of the kid who is learning to ﬁx his own bike.
You hear your inner voice when you steady your gaze and realize you have become a climber, a runner, a skier… an adventurer who seeks higher ground. Today, we thank Roger Furst and Alan McDonough for giving us a place to work and play, a place to live large and build a dream that continues 45 years later. In 1967, EMS was a twinkle in the eyes of two adventurers who bonded over the idea of making the world a better place for like-minded people. Today, we build climbers and cyclists and hikers and paddlers; activists and loners and leaders. People who seek the almost unattainable. We aspire to build on the legacy of two characters who are kin to the people who meet our customers today. And it is they who will tell the rest of the story.