People often ask, “What have you been up to lately, Don?”
He smiles a humble smile that hides behind his gray mustache. He’s not one to toot his own horn. In fact he’ll just as likely begin with a disclaimer before anything: “I’m kind of a boring guy. I just climb and hike and ski. I’ve lived in the same house for 35 years. And I’ve owned the same business all these years.”
Don’t be fooled. Don Scharfe is anything but humdrum.
Since opening an outdoors sports store called Rocky Mountain Outfitter almost 40 years ago on Main Street in Kalispell, Scharfe has become a go-to guru for exploring the great outdoors in Northwest Montana.
He has summited many of the highest mountain temples throughout Glacier National Park, the Rocky Mountains and Europe. He has toured the backcountry frontier and hiked the spine of the Continental Divide for weeks at a time.
But equally impressive, Scharfe has also sustained a small store through national recessions and local downturns. He survived a business exodus to the burgeoning north side of town and adapted to the rise of Internet commerce.
What Scharfe opened in 1976 as a simple shop offering gear and equipment for backpacking, Nordic skiing and climbing has become a beloved mainstay and trusted institution for generations of explorers and recreationists.
“Don has helped a lot of people and changed a lot of lives by getting people in the wilderness,” said Chris Evans, a well-known local kayaker.
Scharfe has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s peaks and drainages, and he freely shares any advice that could help a fellow explorer. He also is just as likely to ask someone if they want to join his next adventure.
“I try to be inspirational for young people,” Scharfe said. “Maybe they see me doing these peaks and then they get involved.”
He stays involved with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation and was there in the beginning when the Glacier Country Avalanche Center was founded.
Scharfe and his community stewardship and outdoors involvement have shaped RMO’s identity. He surrounds himself with skilled and knowledgeable staff members who are also active and involved.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re a travel agency in here,” Scharfe said. “But that’s how we really make it. We really know this country.”
Customers can also rely on a consistent style inside RMO. It’s true-to-roots vintage.
The selection of gear and apparel has grown over the years, but in a very particular way. Most people would think the emergence of larger stores would threaten a small locally owned shop like RMO. But Scharfe has taken an optimistic point of view instead.
“I’m not too worried about (the large retail stores). They’re great and so big, they’re going to do great,” Scharfe said. “But when you have these really big stores that get bigger and bigger, it so defines a store like this.”
The Internet has proven to be a larger concern. Equipment and apparel can be sold online for cheaper than what Scharfe pays. For a small business, there’s no competing against that. But he learned to adapt over the years, which explains why RMO features brands that are more specialty than mainstream. Instead of scouring the Internet for a particular high-quality ski binding, customers can trust that Scharfe has already found it for them.
The lineup of merchandise also helps define the identity of RMO.
“My customers want to put a coat on and not see every high school kid wearing it,” Scharfe said, laughing.
At 60 years old, Scharfe remains RMO’s restless dean. Ask him what he’s been up to lately outside of work, and you’re likely to hear an adventure story that rivals an episode featuring Bear Grylls or Survivorman.
To celebrate his 60th birthday in March, Scharfe set a goal for himself: bag 60 different peaks. He achieved a similar goal when he turned 50, but the stakes were higher this time around and his body certainly wasn’t any more nimble.
“When I set a goal like that, it forces me in a positive way to go bag peaks and see new country,” he said. “I’ve had unsuccessful hikes and had to turn around. I have a lot of them that I spent eight to 10 hours on but couldn’t count them if I didn’t reach the peak.”
With less than two weeks left in 2012, how many peaks had he successfully summited?
Hiding that smile behind his mustache, Scharfe quickly responded with his disclaimer — “I really don’t want to toot my own horn.”
Well, did he at least reach 60?
“I’ve done 79 so far,” he said.
Forty of his climbs were first ascents, including 14 in the Canadian Rockies. He successfully reached Vulture Peak – the 13th tallest in Glacier Park at 9,638 feet – and many of the other alpine skyscrapers.
Scharfe’s wife Colleen joined on several milestone hikes and so did friends. But on some of them Scharfe went alone.
In his younger days, he was very goal oriented, trying to attack mountains faster and more aggressively.
“But I see something different now that I didn’t see then,” he said. “It’s hard to explain.”
As an example, he shared a story about skiing the day before. He went up a drainage that he’d been up countless times and he found himself suddenly stopped in his tracks, his mouth aghast.
“It was just so beautiful. I kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this. I can’t believe how beautiful this is with the trees and the colors and the mountains,’” he said. “I might have missed that when I was (younger). It might not have penetrated as much.”
Rocky Mountain Outfitter is located at 135 Main St. For more information call 752-2446 or visit www.rockymountainoutfitter.com.
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