Monday, September 21, 2009

The 1972 Chouinard Catalog

If you take a fundamentally moral man, add Buddhist ethics, and a reverence for nature in all its aspects, you get Yvon Chouinard -- a blacksmith by trade -- who in his youth loved falcons.

Eager to see falcon nests, he learned to climb rocks. Eager to save money, he used his 'smithing skills to make his own equipment. Along the way,  he became one of the most famous mountaineers in the world, founder of the Chouinard Equipment Company, and arguably the father of modern rock climbing as it is understood today. He also managed to found and operate one of the most environmentally conscious companies in the world: upscale recreation clothing manufacturer Patagonia.

But, when all is said and done, perhaps his most notable achievement was the 1972 catalog for his mountaineering equipment company. Yes... an equipment catalog actually changed the face of mountains all over the world.

In 1957, Chouinard began forging hard-steel pitons, which he sold out of the trunk of his car at Yosemite. The improved pitons led to the genesis of big-wall climbing at Yosemite, yet by 1970 Chouinard began to notice that the steel was damaging the rock faces.  Chouinard was an impressively mature adherent to the Buddhist concept "do no harm." Although the sale of these pitons comprised seventy percent of his income, Chouinard pulled them from the market. Instead, he developed hexagonal chockstones and other gear which led to the advent of "clean climbing."

Clean climbing completely revolutionized the sport of climbing all over the world, and saved countless rock routes from serious damage. Had Chouinard not done what he did, most popular rock would look like pincushions by now, with cracks damaged beyond use.

His 1972 catalog set it all in motion -- as one commentator says, it was more a collection of essays than a sales catalog -- and now this historic document has thoughtfully been placed on the web for all to read.

So, why the heck am I sawing away at mountain climbing, and old catalogs on Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar? Simply because I think it is instructive to begin assessing the impact that Buddhism had on America in the second half of the twentieth century -- most particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s. I am also particularly interested in the impact it had on the modern environmentalism movement.

These sorts of things happened in California all the time in those days, and nobody thought very much about it --- one just tried to do the right thing, following one's ideals, or romantic notions, or both, to wherever they wished to go.

Tarthang Rinpoche used to have a saying that he repeated over and over: "Whatever you wish to do, strongly do."

When I look at Yvon Chouinard, I think of those words.

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