Neptune Mountaineering: Boulder’s legendary mountain shop

OG Boulder climber and skier hub reborn + thriving

By Tatyana Sharpton Jul 2 2020

For the past 47 years, Neptune Mountaineering, located at 633 South Broadway, has wedged its stake in Boulder’s adventure scene as a legendary gathering spot for climbers and skiers, with its far-spreading reputation as the valley’s one-stop shop — and community — for everything outdoors.

Owned by husband-and-wife team Andrew and Shelley Dunbar, Neptune Moutaineering gives South Boulder a lively hub filled with colorful gear and tents set up in nooks around the shop, a rock climbing wall, a coffee shop (which also serves beer!) and Neptune’s famous mountaineering museum. A kid could literally get lost and have a ball. But honestly, so could we.

Shelley and Andrew Dunbar

The 17,000-square-foot store carries brands such as La SportivaPetzl, and Western Mountaineering, and houses a full-service ski shop as well as the Colorado Mountain School’s Boulder office, a local guide service teaching rock climbing since 1981 that runs avalanche training and courses throughout the winter.

For backcountry skiers it sells anything you need for AT, cross-country or telemark skiing — from skis and boots to bindings, skins and avalanche safety gear. And, whether you’re trad or sport climbing, bouldering or ice climbing, they offer an impressive selection of harnesses, ropes, shoes, helmets, and all the hardware.

Neptune’s colorful, fun-house vibe makes adventure sports feel welcoming to even a newbie like me. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

First opened by Gary Neptune in 1973, the shop primarily held a role as a repair shop for climbing boots and skis where he also installed edges on wooden skis and re-shafted ice axes.

Gary Neptune in the OG 500-square foot Neptune Mountaineering Store. Image: Neptune Mountaineering.

It quickly became a hot spot hangout, and Gary expanded from its place at 30th and Pearl to the Table Mesa Shopping Center, first moving into the building which now houses Southern Sun Pub & Brewery before moving in next door where kids once went crazy at Chuck E. Cheese.

On December 31, 2012, Gary sold Neptune Mountaineering to Texas-based retailer Backwoods, but with its new owner focused on expanding its first business to 10 stores plus an online shop, Backwoods simply lacked the bandwidth to operate Neptune properly. With no actively present ownership and Backwoods not doing well financially, the shop was placed on credit hold with nearly all its vendors and hardly had inventory to sell. The town’s beloved hangout spot slowly disintegrated and slumped into bankruptcy.

“We have hundreds if not thousands of caribiners in stock here,” said Shelley. “Back then, they had like, two!”

Neptune’s Revival

In 2017, the mountain shop got another shot when former Boulder-based Sea to Summit North America owners of 22 years Andrew and Shelley Dunbar purchased the shop. (The pair just closed the sale of the North American company to Sea to Summit’s Australian manufacturer on June 9.)

Local climbers and skiers entrenched in the Boulder adventure scene, Andrew and Shelley rescued Neptune out of bankruptcy and revived the shop to its full potential, bringing back the hyper-local and independent vibe that makes it a unique and powerful hub.

“Neptune had been such a part of the fabric of the outdoor community here in Boulder over the years,” said Shelley, a customer ever since she first came to Boulder. “This place was iconic and was our place. When we heard about the bankruptcy — and it didn’t just happen overnight; people knew because we really couldn’t get any gear — we were like oh my gosh, are we going to lose this place?!”

The thought that such a huge outdoor activity capital like Boulder could lose its legendary hang out spot seemed devastating to many in the community, and hard to imagine.

Neptune’s legendary adventure institution, from its vibrant rock wall to Gary Neptune’s Heritage Wall. Images: Taty Sharpton, Neptune Mountaineering, Neptune Mountaineering, Taty Sharpton.

Shelley and Andrew, who at the time owned Sea to Summit’s North American distribution center, managed the wholesale warehouse, which shipped goods to mountain shops across the country; Neptune Mountaineering had been one of their customers for 20 years. Though they had never before owned a retail store, they knew they needed to rescue Neptune.

“Really it was a passion project,” says Shelley, who first met Gary while climbing in Yosemite National Park before even moving to Boulder. “I almost want to say some people call it a community service. We didn’t do it for the money; the motivator was to bring back a place local and special. Sure we have other shops like R.E.I, but that’s a big corporate chain and can’t be as specialty as a store like Neptune.”

The first thing they did when they bought the shop in 2017 was completely gut it, undertaking a $1 million-plus remodel effort. Part of a shopping center built in the 1960’s, at the time the store still had low 9-foot ceilings, florescent lighting and tan flooring. Andrew and Shelley worked with an architect and created a completely different, open plan with high ceilings and striking architectural accents throughout the space. They wanted to create an inspiring and cool space where people wanted to hang out.

I can attest to its success; I had never actually stepped foot in the mountain shop before, and suddenly found myself wanting to stay all afternoon to work.

Neptune’s giant coffee-shop conference table, which holds part of Gary Neptune’s famous mountaineering collection. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Today the shop once again buzzes with life, and its Heritage Wall, as well as other sections of Gary’s mountaineering museum dispersed throughout the store, attracts people from all over.

Though the shop’s famous weekly adventure events and slideshows that become a regularly hosted staple in 1981 have halted with Covid-19, its roster included films, fundraisers for local nonprofits, speakers and famous authors or photographers doing presentations and book signings.

“We want Neptune to be more than just a place to buy stuff,” says Shelley. “We want to be a home for people in the outdoors, a place to gather and meet friends either before climbing or have a beer after skiing.”

Neptune on Covid

In our 2020 Covid-19 paradigm, Neptune currently lets 10 people in at a time, with a sign-in sheet at the front to keep track of who enters.

The shop closed a few days before Governor Polis’s first Stay-at-Home order and reopened just four weeks ago. During the time it shut its doors, like many other Boulder businesses, the company had to furlough most of its staff and kept only a very limited, skeleton crew for website work and home + curbside delivery.

While the store has currently paused its rental gear offerings due to the pandemic, it still offers ski shop work on a limited scale, including tuning and mounting service, as well as individual boot fitting appointments.

Loyal customers waiting outside the shop with its 10-person limit. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.