Snow Shop: Patagonia’s Backcountry Backstory

California-based outdoor brand Patagonia stakes its roots in rock-climbing—and an undying commitment to the environment. The company was founded by Yvon Chouinard, who began climbing in 1953 at age 14: He was a member of the Southern California Falconry Club, and first learned to rappel down cliffs to falcon nests.

[Above: Canadian Rockies. Photo by Honza Franta.]

A few years later, unsatisfied with single-use, soft-iron climbing pitons during multi-day ascents in Yosemite, Chouinard decided to make his own reusable hardware. He picked up a forge, anvil, tongs and hammers at a junkyard, and taught himself how to blacksmith.

[Above: Photo by Marko Prezelj from the book Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography.]

After spending several years living on slender means, traveling between Yosemite, Wyoming, Canada and the Alps in search of adventure (and supporting himself by selling pitons for $1.50 each out of the back of his car along the way), the demand for Chouinard’s gear surpassed his DIY production process—so he set up shop in 1965 with Tom Frost, a climber-slash-aeronautical engineer.

[Above: Mike Epstein from page 25 of the 1988 Chouinard Backcountry Catalog.]

By 1970, Chouinard Equipment was the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the US—but the duo also realized the toll that pitons (which had to be repeatedly hammered in and out of rock walls) took on once-pristine rock walls. They phased out the piton business completely, focusing instead on aluminum chocks that could be wedged by hand rather than hammered into cracks. It was a risky business move that displayed a deeper commitment to the environment than to financial success. Chouinard even opened its 1972 catalog with a 14-page essay on ‘clean climbing.’

[Above: Photo by Barbara Rowell from the book Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography.]

A quote from Chouinard Equipment’s October 1974 catalog on clean climbing:
“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.” Read the rest here.

[Above: Page 95 from the Patagonia Spring 1988 Catalog.]

The company began selling and later producing clothing around 1972. It began when Chouinard brought back a regulation rugby shirt from a climbing trip to Scotland. Built sturdy to stand up to abuse (on the mountain as well as on the field) and with a collar that protected from hardware slings chafing the neck, the shirts flew off shelves when Chouinard tried stocking them stateside. The name ‘Patagonia’ was adopted for the quickly growing clothing line, so as not to dilute Chouinard Equipment’s reputation as a tool company.

[Above: The cover of the 1988 Chouinard Backcountry Catalog.]

Patagonia was still in its infancy when the company began devoting considerable time and money to environmental efforts in the early ’70s. Over the years, they’ve turned their attention to cleaning up the Ventura River, de-urbanizing Yosemite Valley, and have used only organic cotton since 1996.

[Above: Company founder Yvon Chouinard kicking back and relaxing in the Chouinard Mountain Lounger in the 1987 Chouinard Backcountry Catalog. Photo by Rick Ridgeway.]

Watch the video below to learn about Patagonia’s latest environmental campaign, Our Common Waters—and visit for further exploration.

[Above: Snow camping on Mt. Hood. Photo by Richard Hallman.]




[Photos courtesy of Patagonia’s official Tumblr page. Information source: Patagonia Company History.]

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