Compass: Charting the Evolution of Outdoor Gear

Early Winters Profile

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Bill Edwards Recollections

Omnipotent 1151

Early Winters was for several years a one trick pony. But it was a very impressive trick.


That trick was known by the grand name of the Omnipotent. This was a radical tent design. Developed for mountaineering and ski touring it was a four

poled tunnel tent that employed integrated double walls. For all its incredible complexity of manufacture it was remarkably simple to pitch. Shock-corded

poles made of the same spun fibreglass used in high end fishing rods were slid chopstick like into slots at the top of the tent and formed into an arch by

sliding across an extra ferrule joiner. The breathable inner wall was sewn to the coated outer shell, and both went up simultaneously drum-tight, as the

Omnipotent was staked out. Only two pegs (stakes) were required in light wind - one at each end.

Another 16 staking out points were available, depending on the severity of the weather. An Omnipotent was designed to survive being buried by snowfall.

And when well anchored it was impressively wind resistant. It’s design was a reaction by its inventor, Bill Nicolai, who’d nearly died during a violent storm

in in the North Cascades of Washington, USA, when his conventional A-frame tent had been destroyed. The Omnipotent was designed to be almost


Yet, it was not a heavyweight, weighing in at a little over six pounds, whereas the famed North Face VE24 Dome was almost nine pounds.

Ventilation holes were hot cut into the deep eaves at each end of the tent, to allow condensation between inner and outer to escape. When Gore-Tex

Nexus tent fabric came along this was substituted for the doors at either end, to further reduce condensation. The Omnipotent may have been the first

tunnel tent where the inner and outer were permanently sewn together. (Sweden's Hilleberg claim to have the first joined tent -- the upright pole Keb --

in 1973, but the Omnipotent was released in 1972

The Omnipotent also allowed for the provision of an optional zip-on vented vestibule to provided for storage of gear and foul weather cooking. Although

‘bell ends’ were popular in the UK and Australian tents of the day, vestibules were a very rare sight on US tents at this time. The Patent shows that it was

intended that two Omnipotents could be even linked together by joining their front tension flaps.

[ Two variants later appeared. The one pound lighter Omnipotent SL (Superlight) with its three hoops in beige and green. And later the two hoop

Paradigm, which was a hybrid design - having a foot cone section of Gore-Tex. ]

Gore-Tex Tents

But as cool as the Omnipotent was, Early Winters' real claim to fame was that it placed the first commercial order for Gore-Tex fabric.

The material was used to craft a single skin, waterproof, breathable tent known as the Light Dimension, that was launched in May 1976. The three layer

Gore-tex laminate was known as Nexus. It had a nylon ripstop outer, with a brushed polyester lining. This not only protected the inner Gore-Tex

membrane, but the fluffy, brushed surface hung onto excessive condensation until the heat differential was adequate enough to allow the water vapour to

pass through the membrane. Also, if it was rainy or windy outside, there was less chance condensation would drip back down on tent occupants. (at one

point Early Winters even sold Gore-tex Nexus by the yard $10.95 USD for a cloth 43"  (1.09 m) wide, 3.2 oz/yd with a thread count of 86 x 110. )

The two hooped poles were inserted, chopstick style, as per the Omnipotent. The entrance was via a zippered front door, but as the door was on an

exposed sloping angle dual zips were employed to provide a weatherproof seal. The tight tapering tunnel shape of the Light Dimension looks remarkably

like that of the Stephenson Warmlite 2 Tent, which was prototyped in the late 1950's. Indeed, I discovered this reference on the NWHikers online forum

from 2003. "Jack Stephenson said that he gave them some advice on improving the Omnipotent and instead of taking his advise [sic] they knocked him

off and produced the Light Dimension."

But whether they 'borrowed' the tent's shape or not, Early Winters were certainly pioneers in embracing Gore-Tex fabric, (which according to a note on

Wikipedia had already been passed over by The North Face, REI and LL Bean). And such was their success with the Light Dimension they had soon rolled

out the fabric into three pole mountaineering version with a second rear door - the Winterlight. There was also a bivvy bag. Plus a cute, if claustrophobic,

two pole hooped bivvy tent - the Pocket Hotel. Additionally they released what I believe was the first Gore-Tex geodesic dome tent, in the Starship.

Product Diversification

It wasn't long before they had cut the fabric into apparel also, arguably making the world's first Gore-tex jacket and anorak. Not just shell jackets, but

then running suits and cycling outfits, down to Gore-Tex riding booties, hats, gaiters. Anything that remotely made sense to use Gore-tex for.

Then they were off and running. The Early Winters mail order catalog (108 pages in 1983) was crammed packed with the coolest, (and, it must be said,

wackiest,) collection of outdoor gear to be found anywhere on the planet. One-person submarines; the world's fastest commercial, fully-faired recumbent

bicycle; hot air balloons; right down to llamas as pack animals for backpackers. But setting aside the weird stuff, the company also sold useful gear that

it was hard to find anywhere else. Pens that wrote under water, waterproof notepads, tent floor reproofing agent, merino wool socks, Gore-Tex lined

boots, aluminium lined radiant barrier warmwear, solar powered watches and the list goes on. I'm pretty sure they were the first to really promote LED

lights, back in the early 80's via their Lightning Bug. They also pushed lithium batteries for longer life. And produced a 1 kilogram, synthetic filled

sleeping bag. The focus did stray though, from purely lightweight, utilitarian gear, towards outdoor luxury and knick-knackery. But they'd confuse you by

now and then introducing new functional stuff. For example, there was, at one point, an innovative, ultralight tent, the Moonwing, with curious ventilation.

(I no longer have the catalog in whech this first appeared, but see Moonwing photos and scans of manual kindly provided by Kerry Bannister)

The catalog copy gushed about how much you'd enjoy all this gizmos, but they did back it all up with a solid guarantee, (some products, like the Last

Watch, were warrantied for life), which gave customers to confidence to spend $20 million USD with them each year. Which was rather impressive for the

mid 80's and considering the bulk of their sales were mail order. They didn't do much distribution and only had one (or was it two?) retail stores. The

company was sold in 1984 after declaring bankruptcy. It has been written that their generous warranty contributed their demise. Apparently the Last

Watch, which was guaranteed to last forever, was "a backcountry Edsel, with a whopping 50 percent defect rate." Seems 80,000 were sold, and the

repairs/replacement to half that many watches was  more than the original Early Winters could sustain. Their name and mailing were sold to Orvis in

1984, and the brand seemed to run out of steam not long after.

However, after changing hands several times over, the company lives on through its renamed version, Sahalie, who allude to the company's heritage in

their marketing.


Bill Nicolai has been described as an errant genius, a doer, mentally creative, rude, cheap, a conversation dominator, fascinating, lovable and difficult but

worth he trouble. He apparently spent six years studying Sanskit, history and mathematics, but dropped out 10 days before graduation to go climbing in

Yosemite. At the time of staring up Early Winters he was said to be a mountain bum, earning $2 and hour at a government job and driving a Cadillac

hearse. He is credited with climbing Mt Rainier in the nude.

Nicolai helped transition Early Winters to Orvis, and then set out on his own with Nicolai and Associates consulting. He worked with mail-order companies,

like J. Peterman and Smith and Hawken. In 1992, he formed the Good Catalog Company, which he sold, after ramping sales up to $25 million, to

Readers Digest in 1999. Today, he is a consultant with Lenser Multi Channel Marketing.

For many years Bill Nicolai was also a competitive sailplane

In 1998, Bill joined the partnership of Lenser and Associates, which was started by his colleague John Lenser, who founded San Francisco Music Box

company. In the early years of Lenser and Associates, Mr. Nicolai became an innovative force behind the development of Co-Op Databases in terms of

their effectiveness and usability within the direct marketing and catalog industry.

Today Nicolai is senior managing partner of the same firm, now called LENSER (, based in San Rafael CA. He continues to reside in the

state of Washington.

Ron Zimmerman

I have climbed all of the major volcanoes in Washington state; made the 12th assent of Mt. Sir Sandford in Canada; and was on the first nude assent of

Mt. Rainier, though I wore clothing.

I have a degree in writing from the University of Washington and was named the best catalog copywriter in America in the 1980s by the Direct Marketing

Association. My company, Early Winters, created and sold the first Gore-Tex products in the world. I have been an advertising and direct marketing

consultant to many firms: The Sharper Image, Smith & Hawken, SyberVision, Orvis, and a host of now-forgotten firms. I helped create and launch the

first airline in-flight catalog, Discoveries, through United Airlines. I also helped create overseas meals for Delta Airlines back when airlines still served


At The Herbfarm I oversee one of the largest wine programs around: 4250 different wines and over 25,000 bottles. The Herbfarm is America’s only 5-

Diamond Restaurant north of the Bay Area and west of Chicago. The Washington Wine Commission honored me last year with their Walter Clore

Honorarium for lifetime achievement and the promotion of Washington state wines. It seems a bit early to be getting lifetime awards, but who am I to

turn them down? Buses may like me, too.