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.
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 takes guts to kill off your old product and to produce a manifesto introducing a new way of doing things — but climbers have guts.