Remembering Dave Chantler

Dave Chantler, the longtime REI buyer and visionary, dies at 84. He was an early advocate of cross-country ski trails in Washington and founded Novara bikes, but best known for his generosity and mentorship.

Dave Chantler knew what people wanted even before they knew they wanted it. 

When almost nobody else in the country was cross-country skiing, Dave showed them how to ski—scooching around a gravel pit above Seattle, of all places—and he somehow left them excited to do it again (and wanting to buy the skis on which to do it). Later, Dave put mountain bikes beneath folks before they’d scarcely heard the term “singletrack.” He helped invent one of the earliest gravel bikes. He was the first guy to give dome tents a chance to succeed, in 1972, and he changed camping in the process.  

Dave worked for REI for 38 years. Most of that time, he was a buyer. But it’s just as accurate to say he was in the vision business. And Dave had excellent vision.  

Dave Chantler is climbing up a snowy slope with pine trees in the background. He is using ski poles and carrying a large metal frame pack with skis. He is wearing brown gloves, brown pants with belt and a long sleeve brown plaid shirt.
One of Dave’s favorite images. Christmas Day, 1964 in the Olympic Mountains.

Dave passed away in early November in Washington’s Methow Valley at the age of 84. He led the kind of adventurous life that most of us want but never achieve. His career began when founders Lloyd and Mary Anderson still walked the floor of the co-op, and it stretched until REI had become a national retail powerhouse. But for Dave, whose hallmark was generosity, the job was never simply about selling stuff. He shared his enthusiasm. He wanted people to get excited about being outdoors the way he got excited, and he wanted people to try new ways to do it. And they did, buoyed by his enthusiasm. 

Dave discovered the outdoors early. He was born October 12, 1938, in Seattle to Cord and Martha Chantler, and he was raised in West Seattle along with his younger brother, Wayne. When his local Boy Scout troop’s idea of an outing involved puttering around town, he and nine other boys formed their own Scout troop. Soon they found an adult to lead them into the Cascades to have real adventures: backpacking, rock climbing, ski touring.  

That passion for adventure continued in college in Seattle. Dave was a regular at the co-op’s store above the Green Apple Pie restaurant on Seattle’s Pike Street. It was the only place around to buy good gear. There he struck up a friendship with employee Gary Rose. The two became adventure partners. 

REI was 20 years old in the early 1960s. The co-op was still tiny. But change had begun. The co-op had recently opened a place where it could fill orders, so it no longer filled them from the attic and basement of the Andersons’ house. Jim Whittaker, who was the general manager at the time, had just been selected to join the team of U.S. climbers attempting Mount Everest. With Jim leaving and the shop needing more help, Gary recommended that the co-op hire Dave in 1962. Both men would work their entire careers at REI and become lifelong friends. 

Dave was drafted into the Army the next year. When Dave returned to the co-op in 1965, Jim was famous. Outdoor recreation had begun to boom, and the co-op was growing faster than ever. The founders were ready to hand more responsibility to the next generation. REI was at an inflection point, and Dave and Gary stood at the nexus of these currents. The two were young, smart and capable. Lloyd began grooming Dave to be the foreign goods buyer, choosing everything from Sigg pots to Edelrid ropes and Raichle boots, as Dave recounted to outdoor writer Bob Woodward in 2007. Gary would become the domestic buyer. 

REI's 1970-71 Winter Catalog featuring Nordic ski equipment.
REI’s 1970-71 Winter Catalog featuring Nordic ski equipment.

In the early 1970s, the Andersons returned from a business trip in Finland. They’d heard that cross-country skis were being imported to the East Coast. They asked Dave if he wanted to experiment with buying some skis and boots for the co-op to see if people wanted them. Dave bought a dozen pairs and sold all of them. He also tried cross-country skiing, and he fell in love with the sport. He ordered more skis. He sold those too. Soon, eight precious pages of the REI catalog were devoted to cross-country gear. Sales ballooned.  

Dave began organizing Nordic ski clinics to the mountains above Seattle. The lessons were popular, even though they were held in the rear of an old gravel pit. One ski event he organized drew 300 attendees. People clearly wanted places to kick and glide. Dave chaired a commission that eventually expanded the state’s sno-parks to accommodate skiers and not just snowmobilers. Some in the Nordic skiing community took to calling Dave “The Grand Poobah” for his influence on the country’s nascent Nordic scene, wrote Woodward. 

Dave also would become the driving force in introducing people to winter skiing in Washington’s Methow Valley, bringing the first busloads of REI customers to eastern Washington in the early 1970s. Later, he built a log cabin in the valley and helped cut some of the first ski trails. Today the valley boasts the most extensive Nordic trails system in North America. In 1997, the ski industry honored Dave with the first Dagfinn Ragg award for his outstanding contribution to the advancement of cross-country skiing.  

Also in the early 1970s, Dave took a chance and ordered a newfangled tent for REI’s shelves. This “dome tent” was based on the design of an igloo, and it stood on its own. He bought 50 of them from its designer, a small Seattle backpack company called JanSport. Dave had spent a lot of wet nights in saggy A-frame tents, and he sensed that people might love the dome tents. “He was deeply respected by people in the industry because he had this sense of what people would want next,” said Ben Johns, who considered Dave a mentor at REI, and a friend. As REI later became larger and more complex, Ben was one of many employees who took over responsibilities for what Dave alone had once handled in a younger, smaller co-op. 

Dave Chantler on Ingalls Peak with blue skies and mountain peaks in the background. He is wearing a short sleave red plaid shirt, blue grey knickers, tall white socks and brown leather mountaineering boots.
Dave Chantler on Ingalls Peak, Washington, 1967.

Dave also loved to ride bikes. He’d taken epic rides with friends across the Canadian Rockies. Starting around 1980, he sniffed a growing hunger for bicycling. And he wanted the co-op to sell bikes. There was a problem, though: demand outstripped supply. Also, some brands wouldn’t sell to REI. “Dave was struggling to source bikes in the quantity and quality that he wanted,” said Ben. “So Dave said, ‘We’re gonna create a brand, and we’re gonna be masters of our own destiny.’” By this time, REI had grown enough that the co-op had the clout, and the checkbook, to try something big.  

Dave teamed up with “Cozy” Yamakoshi, a well-regarded product development guru and bicycle sourcing expert from Japan. Novara began in 1982. And the two men would become fast friends, bonding over the intricacies of bicycles. At first, the co-op simply bought bikes from a factory and branded them Novara. Quickly, though, they located a factory in Asia, and the right components, to make bikes to their specifications, said Steve Gluckman, a longtime REI employee who considered Dave “my sensei.” (Steve later took over Novara product development, retiring after 29 years.) Dave didn’t design the bikes’ architecture, but he frequently had the vision for what a Novara bike should be and do. “He conceived it. He built it. He named it. He nurtured it,” said Ben, who recently retired from the co-op after 32 years. 

One visionary bike in particular is worth mentioning. Dave knew from his own riding that cyclists could use a bike that could go anywhere—from pavement to rough dirt roads. He recruited Scot Nicol, founder of Ibis Cycles and already a revered bike designer, to design a different kind of bike: a robust machine but with wide, smoother tires, and handlebars for comfy, all-day riding. Called the X-R (for “crossroads”), the bike was a mutt. Today, we’d perhaps call it the first gravel bike. “It was so ahead of its time,” said Steve. “It wasn’t a top seller, but it was kind of a visionary product.” The bike won Novara its first national award. People still write to REI saying they bought an X-R at a garage sale and love it, and they ask for information about it. 

Novara ended about four years ago. But Co-op Cycles stands on the shoulders of its legacy.  

“Dave was a character,” said Steve. That character was marked by generosity and graciousness. He relished the role of mentor. But “he could have a very sharp tongue,” Steve added. “And he didn’t put the filter on very often.”  

Dave retired from REI to the Methow Valley in 2001. Even in retirement, though, he could not resist sharing his enthusiasm or his urge to be a buyer. He convinced the owner of his local grocery store to carry a startlingly extensive cheese and charcuterie selection, completely unexpected at the time in such a rural place. Dave himself curated the selection; you might find him frequenting various fromageries of Seattle, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, as he sussed out seriously stinky Camembert or salt-flecked Gruyere. Don Portman, who Dave taught to ski in that gravel pit and who went on to be a godfather of Methow skiing, dubbed Dave the Cheez Whiz. (Dave himself preferred Freddy Fromage.)  

Few know that Dave had been a gifted pianist who had played on public radio. He also was an avid birder who traveled to 60 countries and had a life list that stretched to nearly 7,000 birds.  

Dave did not marry. He is survived by that cosmopolitan cheese case and its myriad fans, and by admiring former REI colleagues, and by many, many grateful lovers of the outdoors who enjoy his legacy daily, whether they know it or not.  

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