On a crisp Sunday morning in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the streets are abuzz with shoppers headed to the local farmers market, clutching steaming cups of coffee and pastries from the many coffeehouses that line the block. But on the corner of Market Street and 24th Avenue, a powder blue ’71 Volkswagen minibus with a surfboard strapped to the roof sits in the parking lot of the gas station; the words “Carabiner Coffee” stamped proudly across the door.
While the immaculately restored minibus at first looks like a piece of 1970s nostalgia, a closer inspection reveals a bar, an espresso machine, and the booming energetic voice of the bearded Erik Gordon, welcoming guests with a seemingly permanently fixed smile. This is Erik’s coffee stand and his dream made reality, combining small batch roasted coffee with a love for an outdoor lifestyle.
Gordon, a Colorado native who is also a climbing instructor at Ballard’s Stone Gardens climbing gym, parks his bus at various corners around Seattle during the week, but you can just as easily find “Ol’ Blue” at crags and trailheads across the West. I sat down with Erik to talk about how his love for adventure fueled his business, the meaning of his motto, #FindYourLine, and how something as simple as a cup of coffee is a symbol of inspiration.
The Clymb: Let’s start with the beginning. How did Carabiner Coffee start and where did you find Ol’ Blue, the Carabiner Coffee van?
EG: Carabiner Coffee was started during the classic “ski bum” phase of my early 20s while I was living in Summit County, CO. I was sick of working for other people and knowing that it wasn’t my passion. I thought to myself, “I love climbing, I love coffee and I love the community that both coffee and climbing create.” I wanted to start a business that was about more than just a product; something that would inspire people and bring them together around the things in life that have given me so much happiness. I wanted it to be straightforward and simple, and the name Carabiner Coffee embodies that vision.
As for Ol’ Blue…well, I’m dirtbag climber at heart and no dirtbag is complete without his van! I found her where you can find pretty much anything these days—Craigslist. After talking with the seller and hearing the story of how he found Ol’ Blue in a field and fixed her up to be the sexy lass that she is today, I knew she was the one.
The Clymb: Where does your coffee come from? Do you roast the beans yourself?
EG: Carabiner Coffee is roasted in Boulder, CO. The logistics of roasting in the van just weren’t there so I sought out a private small batch roaster who has been roasting for over 30 years in the Boulder area. I started to work with them to develop Carabiner’s three signature roasts, known as “The Skooch” (Medium), “The Business”(Dark) and “The Dream”(Light), our latest creation. I work with one of the best roasters in the business, which has allowed me to travel, explore and spread all the love I possibly can with Ol’ Blue while knowing I’m giving people good vibes and the best coffee possible.
The Clymb: The motto of the company is #FindYourLine. What does this philosophy mean to you?
EG: “Find Your Line” embodies the way I want to live and run Carabiner Coffee. Whether you’re doing an alpine ascent, weaving through trees on a pow day, or deciding what you want really to do with your life, I think we all need to put our own style into everything we do. Life is not about becoming what you think everyone else wants you to be or thinks you should do. Life is about staying true to who you are, how you want to spend your days and finding your line through it all. I keep reminding myself, and hope to always inspire others not to be afraid to step out onto your own path, otherwise you’ll spend your whole life following someone else’s.
The Clymb: What hardships did you overcome in the early years of the company?
EG: There are more than I care to remember, and that is all I can really say for this one. I dealt with everything from pipes bursting in the van, to fighting for business permits and getting kicked out of scenic roadside pull offs where I would sell coffee to locals. I ran a guerrilla-style operation for months while I was working out the kinks with Carabiner and making sure I didn’t compromise my dream for the business for a bit of local politics. Things have since come together a little more smoothly, but I think every entrepreneur should have a few good horror stories about the early days; they make for a good laugh down the road.
The Clymb: You liken Carabiner Coffee to being more than just a mobile coffee shop, and a way to inspire others to live their dreams. How did you end up where you are today?
EG: I definitely think of Carabiner Coffee as more than just a mobile coffee shop. In many ways, Carabiner has always been about more than just the coffee. It has been a way for me to put more encouragement, inspiration, and love into the world. I want to show people that if you have a passion for something, there is no reason that you shouldn’t be doing it. I ended up where I am today because I simply wouldn’t accept that my life was going to be spent working for someone else’s dream. Every person who comes up to the van gives me another chance to connect with someone new and brighten their day, even if its just for a minute. I have met people in my life that I’ve only spent mere minutes with, yet they have changed the entire way I look at life. More than coffee, that is what Carabiner is all about.
The Clymb: On your site, you have a photo of a bike tour from Minnesota to California. Can you tell me a little about that trip?
EG: I’m glad you asked, because that bike tour is actually one of the main reasons Carabiner Coffee exists. A week after I graduated from college with a degree in fine art and oil painting, I pedaled out of the small town I’m from in Minnesota and headed west. I biked from Minnesota to Glacier National Park, then Portland, OR and down the entire length of Highway 1 to Encinitas, California. It took me almost 3 months to pedal my way across the Great Plains, over the Rockies, through the Columbia River valley and then down the entire west coast. Five days in, my bike frame snapped because I was over-enthusiastic and brought over 100lbs of equipment including my climbing gear, slack line, oil paints and countless other things I had no energy to use after biking 70–100 miles a day.
That didn’t stop me though; I was going to do this trip. I bought a new bike that night, fitted it the next morning and was on the road again before lunchtime. Countless other things happened on this trip too, including over 25 flats, multiple days of 105-degree heat with no shade in sight and witnessing an armed robbery. By the end of the tour all of my gear racks were held together by zip-ties. I actually wasn’t even a coffee drinker until about half way through the trip.
One day on the Oregon coast, I was so cold that I couldn’t bike anymore, so I stopped at a little barn that was a general store and the only warm thing they had to drink was coffee. That was when I had my first real cup and it literally changed my life. When I felt what a warm cup of coffee could do for a lonely biker out in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t help but smile. I could talk for hours about that trip, but the main thing really is that it showed me that if you truly put your heart into something, you can make it happen. I think of that tour and all the things that I have taken away from it nearly every day.
The Clymb: This year you’re going to be travelling with the Reel Rock Tour. Where can we expect Ol’ Blue to pop up?
EG: I couldn’t be more excited to be touring with Reel Rock this fall! Ol’ Blue and I will be starting the tour in Seattle on 9/23 and then we’re heading to Bozeman, MT for a screening on 9/30. After that we head down to Ft. Collins, CO on 10/8, and we’re wrapping it up by cruising all the way back to Portland, OR to finish the tour on 10/14. I’m planning a lot of coffee tastings and cragging days along the way, leaving a little room for some yet unplanned adventures too. Part of my dream is to be able to take Ol’ Blue almost anywhere in the country, pop up shop, serve some coffee, make some people happy and connect with the local outdoors community. I can’t wait to hit the road and put this dream into action again.
The Clymb: What’s your favorite story from the road? Who are some of the interesting figures you’ve met?
EG: I would have to say that the trip from Colorado to Seattle has been the craziest of them all. Blue was loaded down to the limit and then some. After a glorious 6-day adventure that took me through Moab up to Salt Lake City and finally got me within 150 miles of Seattle, the brakes went out as we were going down the western slope of the Cascades. There was a problem with the brake boosters and every time I touched the brakes they would seize up and the engine would kill. I drove the van like that the last 100 miles and had to negotiate downtown Seattle traffic (an ugly, ugly beast) for the first time, with a crippled bus. Ol’ Blue got us there though! We have fights like that every once in a while, but we always work it out.
The people I’ve met in that van make it all worth it. One winter day in Colorado, Olympic gold medalist Danny Davis rolled up to the van with his crew on their way to ride Keystone for the day and ended up doing a photo shoot in the van on the side of the road. I made them all coffee and sent them on their way—that was a fun one. I have met some amazing climbers. Zak Silver (an incredibly strong up-and-coming climber) and I met at the van and he is now an official Carabiner Coffee athlete. I have even had the privilege of meeting the world record holder in the sport of speed walking…you just never know who is going to wind up walking up to the door of that van for a cup of coffee. It never gets old.
The Clymb: What advice would you give to someone who dreams of starting a business like yours?
EG: My best advice would simply be: Don’t be afraid to start working hard for your dreams! I struggled through five months of Colorado winter trying to keep the van from freezing over or sliding off the road before I even sold my first cup of coffee. Great things do not come easily, but if you love what you are doing, it will be one of the greatest adventures of your life. The amount of money that you make in no way reflects the success of your life. If you work hard to spread happiness, money will never be an issue.
The Clymb: What are your aspirations for Carabiner Coffee?
EG: I want Carabiner Coffee to inspire and encourage others to follow their passion. It is my goal to be able to use the success of Carabiner to support other adventurers who are trying to make life into something genuinely amazing. If the world put as much importance on being happy as it does on making money, there would be no such thing as a bad day. I have been shown so much love and been encouraged by so many people that I simply just want to keep giving and putting that love back into the world.
Sustainability, preservation and leaving this planet better than we found it are huge elements of the company as well—qualities I want to embody and represent no matter how much Carabiner Coffee grows. I simply never want it to lose the power to connect people in a meaningful way. Every bag of coffee I’ve ever sent out into the world has been accompanied by a handwritten note telling each and every person who supports this dream how much I appreciate them and that I am sending that positive energy right back at em’. I think we could all use a little bit more of that.
all photos © Brett Holman & Austin Fassino