Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, got his start as a climber in 1953 as a 14-year-old member of the Southern California Falconry Club, which trained hawks and falcons for hunting. After one of the adult leaders, Don Prentice, taught the boys how to rappel down the cliffs to the falcon aeries, Yvon and his friends became so fond of the sport they started hopping freight trains to the west end of the San Fernando Valley, to the sandstone cliffs of Stoney Point. There, eventually, they learned to climb up as well as rappel down the rock.
Chouinard started hanging out at Stoney Point on every weekend in the winter, and at Tahquitz Rock above Palm Springs in the fall and spring. There he met some other young climbers who belonged to the Sierra Club, including TM Herbert, Royal Robbins, and Tom Frost. Eventually, the friends moved on from Tahquitz to Yosemite, to teach themselves to climb its big walls.
The only pitons available at that time were made of soft iron, placed once, then left in the rock. But in Yosemite, multiday ascents required hundreds of placements. Chouinard, after meeting John Salathé, a Swiss climber and Swedenborgian mystic who had once made hard-iron pitons out of Model A axles, decided to make his own reusable hardware. In 1957, 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.
Chouinard made his first pitons from an old harvester blade and tried them out with T.M. Herbert on early ascents of the Lost Arrow Chimney and the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite. The word spread and soon friends had to have Chouinard’s chrome-molybdenum steel pitons. Before he knew it he was in business. He could forge two of his in an hour, and sold them for $1.50 each.
Chouinard built a small shop in his parents’ backyard in Burbank. Most of his tools were portable, so he could load up his car and travel the California coast from Big Sur to San Diego, surfing. After a session, he would haul his anvil down to the beach and cut out angle pitons with a cold chisel and hammer before moving on.
For the next few years, Chouinard forged pitons during the winter months, spent April to July on the walls of Yosemite, then headed out of the heat of summer for the high mountains of Wyoming, Canada, or the Alps, and then back to Yosemite in the fall until the snow fell in November. He supported himself selling gear from the back of his car. The profits were slim, though. For weeks at a time, he’d live on fifty cents to a dollar a day. Before leaving for the Rockies one summer he bought two cases of dented, canned cat tuna from a damaged-can outlet in San Francisco. This food supply was supplemented by oatmeal, potatoes, and poached ground squirrel and porcupines.
In Yosemite, Chouinard and his friends were called the Valley Cong. They had to hide out from the rangers in the boulders above Camp 4 after they overstayed the 2-week camping limit. They took pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value, that they were rebels. Their heroes were Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, Gaston Rebuffat, Ricardo Cassin, and Herman Buhl.
There was soon enough demand for Chouinard’s gear that he couldn’t keep making it by hand; he had to start using tools and dies and machinery. So in 1965, he went into partnership with Tom Frost, who was an aeronautical engineer as well as a climber, and had a keen sense of design and esthetics. During the nine years that Frost and Chouinard were partners, they redesigned and improved almost every climbing tool, to make them stronger, lighter, simpler, and more functional. They would return from every trip to the mountains with new ideas for improving existing tools.
Their guiding design principle came from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French aviator:
Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent working over draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?
It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of the human breast or shoulder, there must be experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.*