Wolverine Publishing survives and thrives in a tiny corner of Colorado | AspenTimes.com

Wolverine Publishing survives and thrives in a tiny corner of Colorado

Cameron M. Burns
For The Aspen Times
Wolverine currently has nearly 40 rock climbing titles and books covering other sports. Publishing house owners Amber Johnstone and Jeff Achey admire one of their latest, about climbing around Independence Pass.
Courtesy photo

Any small-business owner can tell you how tough it is to keep a company going, especially in rural Colorado. But when your business sits in one of the most fickle sectors in the economy, it’s always something of a pleasant surprise when it succeeds.

That so far has been the story for Wolverine Publishing, a small — some might say tiny — private book publishing business based in New Castle. Run by longtime local couple Amber Johnstone and Jeff Achey, the business is gradually spreading its wings and starting to soar.

“The reality is that yes, you have freedom and control owning a small business, but you also have responsibility,” Johnstone said. “You have to be detail-oriented and high-functioning. There is no room for procrastination. I have gained so much respect for small-business owners, especially those who have been at it for decades.”

She and Achey – who are both avid rock climbers and longtime area residents – publish climbing books, or mostly climbing books. They also publish books on a small selection of other topics ranging from skiing to running and even a few specialized travel guides. They also reprint other publishers’ and individuals’ work and do distribution for a range of clients.

One of Wolverine Publishing’s latest titles.
Courtesy image

“For whatever reason, Jeff and I adore our jobs, and our passion for the business keeps us ticking,” Johnstone said. “We married right after acquiring the business, and as our business grows, so do we as a couple. I look forward to many more years together and more guidebooks in the pipeline!”

Modern English

Wolverine was launched in 2002 by English writer and climber Dave Pegg and his wife, Fiona Lloyd. He had worked at Climbing magazine in the mid-1990s when it was based in Carbondale. Working there helped him secure a green card. He soon quit the magazine, so he could devote more time to climbing. He wrote a guidebook to Rifle Mountain Park — one of the nation’s early limestone climbing areas — for Rockfax, a British publisher. Soon after that, he and Lloyd started Wolverine.

According to Achey, the name comes from a reported sighting by Lloyd of a wolverine in the Main Elk Canyon north of New Castle, near Pegg and Lloyd’s home at the time. There was some skepticism in the sighting, and friends questioned if it was really a wolverine.

However, “she is a horse trainer, veteran outdoorswoman, and a pretty astute wildlife observer,” Achey said. “She eliminated weasel, pine marten, fisher, racoon, bear, and fox from her list of possibilities. So, there you have it! Real or mythical, a wolverine sighting was the origin of our name.”

Between 2002 and 2014, Pegg published 38 titles. Not all were first Wolverine editions. Some were second and third editions of older books, and some of the older books saw significant revisions. Many of the books he and Lloyd created are no longer in print.

The business, according to Achey, was run out of Pegg and Lloyd’s home, which was initially located near the Main Elk Creek trailhead, a half dozen miles north of New Castle. They later moved to Silt Mesa near Harvey Gap. Over the years, they stashed their piles of books in warehouses in Silt, New Castle, and Rifle.

Then, in November 2014, Pegg committed suicide.

Lloyd and her then-employee Johnstone worked to find a way to keep the business going until they could sell it. They recruited Achey, who had also been a Climbing magazine editor, as “creative director.” After two years and with no successful bids for the company, Johnstone and Achey, who were by this time a couple, bought Wolverine from Lloyd.

“Of course, Fiona had to finance the sale,” Achey recalled. “Our house was the collateral.”

(Hand)holds in the Presses

Wolverine currently has nearly 40 rock climbing titles and books covering other sports. About 28 are original Wolverine products, Achey said. The others are books that Wolverine distributes for other small publishers and self-publishers. Initially, Wolverine added others’ books “to pad out our small catalog,” but Achey said the company continues to distribute other companies and individuals’ books because his wife Amber “is really good at it.”

“It’s shockingly complicated to work with a large retailer such as REI!” he said. “But we can provide a range of advice and assistance for people — usually climbers — trying to publish books that we don’t necessarily want to take on and brand ourselves.”

Wolverine’s new-book output varies, but three or four new books per year is about average. Last year, it pushed out six new titles and did three reprint runs, which Achey called “a huge year.”

One especially interesting book Wolverine distributes is a guidebook to rock climbing in the Yangshuo region of southern China. The area became a mythical and legendary place for American climbers in the 1980s when the late American climber Todd Skinner visited the area and climbed a number of routes.

At the time, American climbers were searching for limestone crags because limestone is a better medium than other rock types for extremely difficult sport climbs. The book was written by an American who lived in the area for 10 years. And, surprisingly, it’s written in English and Chinese.

Wolverine took it on its publisher as a distribution client.

“We have none of our own that are to areas outside the United States,” Achey said.

Another not quite climbing-centric area Wolverine has taken on is travel guides, of which the company has done two of note: a visitors’ guide to New River Gorge in West Virginia and a visitors’ guide to Joshua Tree National Park in California.

“We take those projects as they come up but don’t really seek them out,” Achey said. “Our Joshua Tree National Park visitors’ guide was authored by the same guy who does our rock-climbing guides. For the New River Gorge, we know that area well, have several climbing guidebooks to the area, and knew the author who approached us with her idea.”

Climb Local, Publish Local

This month, Wolverine released a new book that will undoubtedly be of interest to Roaring Fork Valley climbers: a guidebook to the rock climbing of Independence Pass by Carbondale climber-author Jason Brown and Glenwood Springs outdoor educator and guide Mike Schneiter.

“The Pass: A Climber’s Guide to Independence Pass and Monitor Rock” is 320 pages. That’s about 50% bigger than the last guidebook published to Independence Pass in 2006. While the old book (by Tom Perkins) did a good job of recording climbing on the pass, which essentially started in the late 1950s, the new guidebook is in full color and has additional areas of information, notably a detailed history of climbing on the pass, a description of the geology, suggestions on activities for “rest” days (when you’re not climbing), and other tidbits.

It also includes a section on the rock climbing at Gold Butte near Aspen, an area on Pitkin County Open Space land that was closed to climbing for many years. A handful of local climbers worked for years to obtain access to the unique climbing at Gold Butte.

For Independence Pass, the new book’s size represents the growth and popularity of the sport.

“Yes, pretty fat, huh?” Achey said. “In fact, if it was possible to decipher Harvey Carter’s old notes, there would probably be a few dozen more covered — maybe 100!”

Carter was a renowned climber who moved to Aspen in the 1950s to work on the Aspen Mountain ski patrol and whose climbing career spanned five decades. He was known for his boldness. He was the first person to climb many of the rock routes on Independence Pass.

“We dug as deep as we could, but many crags or parts of crags have been reclaimed by the elements, so there was no real public service digging up everything,” Achey said. “And as you know, people put up new things every year!”

No book launch party has been scheduled yet, although Wolverine officials — both of them — are working on options.

So, what have Wolverine’s authors thought of their hard work in the hands of this gritty little publishing house in New Castle?

“The book turned out superb just like their other products,” author Brown said. “I got good direction from Jeff in all the areas, and it wasn’t super difficult or anything considering I’m not a writer per se. In the end, I’m most happy about giving the people who love to climb up there a nicely organized, informative, and entertaining guidebook.”

“My biggest challenge with the book was trying to get all of the info accurate,” Schneiter added. “I haven’t climbed every single climb on the Pass, and even on climbs, I’ve done many times my memory was hazy, or it was difficult to describe it in such a way to help others. Jeff was great in helping get things clear, fact checking things, and seeking out others for help. He got ahold of Harvey Carter’s old climbing journals, so that was really cool to reference. I know there’s going to be some mistakes in the book; it seems inevitable. But I feel good knowing that they are likely to be minimal, and overall, I think people will appreciate the new book for a beloved place.”

Editorial challenges aside, Johnstone and Achey suffer no illusion they’re in an easy line of work.

“Running a small business has been much more of a challenge that I anticipated,” she said. “Growing up, I witnessed my dad get more and more disillusioned with his nine-to-five job …. I ended up with a fear of the constraints of the nine-to-five and worked a series of casual and low-paying jobs most of my life, barely scraping by, always dreaming of owning my own business and endless creativity.”

But Wolverine keeps rumbling along, and with 2022 being their biggest year yet, it looks like they’ll be reaching higher. The company allows its owners to thrive creatively and commercially, which are the most rewarding aspects of any business.

Maybe the existence of that mythical creature in the nearby canyon many years ago was a actually talisman for success.