While talking to Grant Petersen from Rivendell, he mentioned his love of decades old Chouinard climbing catalogs.

I grew up reading catalogs. The Herter’s catalogue* was the most opinionated one out there, but it was also the most entertaining. Sometimes I’ll read an online comment that, “Rivendell (or Grant) is so opinionated” and it’s supposed to be a criticism. It’s not a criticism. If you want to criticize me, there are way better ways to do it. Tell me I don’t have my facts right, or I don’t give credit where it is due, or my grammar is bad, or my jokes are stupid. That will do the job of hurting my feelings, but being accused of being opinionated is a compliment.

The best catalogues ever were the 1972 and 1973 Chouinard Equipment/Great Pacific Iron Works climbing catalogs. There will never be catalogues like those again. Everybody who writes copy or catalogs or online stuff or reads at all should read those.

coverStrong praise. Turns out the 1972 Chouinard Catalog is online. Copies of the original catalog fetch $200+ on eBay. But to understand its impact, you first need to know the context around it.

The Chouinard backstory
The backstory to the company is a “scratch your own itch” tale. It starts with pitons, the metal spikes climbers drive into cracks. They used to be made of soft iron. Climbers placed them once and left them in the rock.

But in 1957, a young climber named Yvon Chouinard decided to make his own reusable hardware. He went to a junkyard and bought a used coal-fired forge, a 138-pound anvil, some tongs and hammers, and started teaching himself how to blacksmith. He made his first chrome-molybdenum steel pitons and word spread. Soon, he was in business and selling them for $1.50 each to other climbers. By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the U.S.

But there was a problem. The company’s gear was damaging the rock. The same routes were being used over and over and the same fragile cracks had to endure repeated hammering of pitons. The disfiguring was severe. So Chouinard and his business partner Tom Frost decided to phase out of the piton business, despite the fact that it comprised 70% of the company’s business. Chouinard introduced an alternative: aluminum chocks that could be wedged by hand rather than hammered in and out of cracks. They were introduced in that 1972 catalog, the company’s first. The bold move worked. Within a few months, the piton business atrophied and chocks sold faster than they could be made.

Looking at the catalog
So what kind of catalog do you put out when you’re reversing your entire business? Chouinard went with a mix of product descriptions, climbing advice, inspirational quotes, and essays that served as a “clean climbing” manifesto. It opens with a statement on the deterioration of both the physical aspect of the mountains and the moral integrity of climbers.

No longer can we assume the earth’s resources are limitless; that there are ranges of unclimbed peaks extending endlessly beyond the horizon. Mountains are finite, and despite their massive appearance, they are fragile…

We believe the only way to ensure the climbing experience for ourselves and future generations is to preserve (1) the vertical wilderness, and (2) the adventure inherent in the experience. Really, the only insurance to guarantee this adventure and the safest insurance to maintain it is exercise of moral restraint and individual responsibility.

Thus, it is the style of the climb, not attainment of the summit, which is the measure of personal success. Traditionally stated, each of us must consider whether the end is more important than the means. Given the vital importance of style we suggest that the keynote is simplicity. The fewer gadgets between the climber and the climb, the greater is the chance to attain the desired communication with oneself—and nature.

The equipment offered in this catalog attempts to support this ethic.

art of
A guide for clean climbers.

A few pages later, there is a guide for clean climbers.

There is a word for it, and the word is clean. Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber. Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and next climber’s experience less natural. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.

An inspirational quote from Antoine de Sainte Exupery.

The influence
The catalog’s influence is often cited by others. Climber Steve Grossman once talked about the impact it had on his life:

It made a strong push for clean climbing in terms of free protection and people relying less on hammered protection. It had a lot of affect on everybody pretty much in climbing at the time in a way that’s really unparalleled. It laid out the ethics of British rock climbing…Thinking about it now, had that not happened, and had people continued to pound pins and bust flakes off and scar and damage rock, things would be much uglier out there. It’s really pretty horrifying what would have gone on if that revolution hadn’t happened.

David Breashears, climber, mountaineer, and IMAX photographer, also wrote about the influence of the catalog in his autobiography “High Exposure”:

Another serious influence on my developing style came via the Chouinard climbing equipment catalogue of 1972, a slender publication with a Chinese landscape painting on the cover. Its author, the revered rock and ice climber Yvon Chouinard, called for “clean” climbing, proposing that climbers disavow pitons and bolts that scarred or otherwise altered rock. Instead, he advocated the use of metal nuts of various shapes and sizes which slotted into cracks without damage to the rock and could be recovered by the second climber on a rope. He reminded readers of the edict of John Muir, the late-nineteenth-century poet-environmentalist: “Leave no mark except your shadow.”

This ethic of purism and self-control made a profound impact on the climbing community – and on me as well.

A product page that includes a lesson on correct driving.

The Chouinard evolution
Chouinard eventually branched out into clothing too. On a winter climbing trip to Scotland, Yvon Chouinard bought a team rugby shirt to wear rock climbing since it had a collar that would keep the hardware slings from cutting into his neck. Back in America, Chouinard wore it around his climbing friends, many of whom wanted one. Soon, the shirts became a minor fashion craze in the United States. The company decided to spin off the clothing line under a separate name: Patagonia.

Patagonia’s company history details how Chouinard continued to innovate after that. It’s a fascinating story of being inspired by fishermen and football jerseys, taking chances with bold new color schemes and organic fabrics, and a workplace culture that was one of the first to offer child care and a vegetarian-friendly cafeteria.

“The Oddball Know-It-All” is a look at George Herter, the man behind the Herter’s sporting goods catalog also mentioned by Grant Petersen. Herter wrote all the copy for the catalogs and they’re ridiculous in a good way. He also sold his own books via the catalog. Here’s the opening line to his “Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices.”

I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap and also what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack, keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.