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Originally published October 14, 2010 at 10:48 AM | Page modified October 14, 2010 at 9:31 PM

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After 50 years, Mountaineers Books still on the rise

The Mountaineers Books is on solid ground as it prepares to observe its 50th anniversary: Sales at the nonprofit club's publishing division rose 15 percent to more than $3.3 million for last fiscal year, and the 15-employee operation earned a profit of about 8 percent that will be plowed back into publishing new books and, increasingly, digital content.

Special to The Seattle Times

50th anniversary celebration

The Mountaineers Books, 7-10 p.m. Friday, 7700 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-223-6303 or www.mountaineersbooks.org).

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Serving readers who dream of scaling lofty pinnacles or dangling toes over a view-filled precipice, The Mountaineers Books is on solid ground as it prepares to mark its 50th anniversary, says publisher Helen Cherullo.

"It hasn't been easy in this environment," says Cherullo, "but we've had a really good year."

Sales at the publishing division of The Mountaineers, a nonprofit club founded in 1906 to advance outdoor recreation and conservation, climbed a healthy 15 percent to more than $3.3 million for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. The 15-employee operation, which generally is financially self-sufficient, earned a profit of about 8 percent that will be plowed back into publishing new books and, increasingly, digital content.

Not that its older books — a catalog of 500-plus titles — are being ignored.

The eighth edition of "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills" — the first title ever released by The Mountaineers Books (in 1960) and still its all-time best-seller — reached stores last month.

Published in 10 languages with more than 600,000 copies of past editions sold, "Freedom" is mountaineering's seminal textbook. The new edition offers the most up-to-date thinking from more than 40 climbers and outdoor educators on hundreds of topics, from knot-tying to waterfall ice climbing.

Renowned climber Ed Viesturs has said he picked up his first copy of "Freedom" in 1976 and read it more than once before his first climb. Other climbing greats, from Jim Whittaker to Conrad Anker, cite its influence on their careers.

"I don't know if I ever talked to a climber who hasn't brought up on their own, 'Oh, I learned to climb with "Freedom" ' — and then they'll tell me which edition," Cherullo says. "Jim Wickwire, the first American to stand on K2, shared with us that he learned to climb using the first edition. That's a real source of pride for us, knowing that the book has been an important part of so many climbers' tool kits."

Wickwire, 70, and Whittaker, 81, will be among climbing luminaries attending an anniversary celebration Friday night at The Mountaineers' Seattle program center.

"Freedom" endures, Cherullo says, in the same manner The Mountaineers Books has endured for 50 years — by staying relevant and adapting to an evolving readership.

Some of TMB's most popular titles of the 1980s and '90s — the 100 Hikes series by the late writer-photographer duo of Harvey Manning and Ira Spring — are out of print, replaced by a day-hiking series reflecting a prevailing preference for excursions on shorter timetables.

Cherullo, in her 10th year as publisher, says TMB has flourished in a tough economy by reducing new titles from 30 per year to 20. "It allowed us to concentrate on what we thought would be the 20 best books to serve our readers," she says. "That turned out to be a good move."

TMB has added two separate imprints, Braided River (a pet project of Cherullo's, focused on conservation and outdoor advocacy) and Skipstone (a lifestyle-oriented lineup that targets topics such as health, green living, foraging and sustainable gardening).

TMB's mix of trail guides still offer a national, not just Northwest, perspective. Muscle-powered sports of all types get exposure, and electronic avenues of distribution are being pursued. (TMB already has agreements with Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook; the iPad is getting a look.) Adding video and audio embellishments to e-books especially intrigues Cherullo.

But Chief Financial Officer Art Freeman says TMB is careful not to become financially dependent on its nonprofit parent organization: "We're a conservatively run business with no debt and expect to be at it for at least another 50 years."

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