In 1957, frustrated by the expense and unremovability of European pitons, the spikes one pounds into the wall to secure a rope, Chouinard bought a used forge, an anvil, and some hammers and tongs and taught himself how to be a blacksmith. He began making his own, reusable pitons, out of chrome steel, and before long he was selling them to friends and strangers, at a dollar-fifty a pop.
Eventually, he borrowed eight hundred and twenty-five dollars from his parents and had Alcoa build him a drop forging die, with which he began to produce carabiners that, like his pitons, were superior to anything then available. He set up shop in the chicken coop behind his parents’ house in Burbank, but he often travelled with his equipment, so he could surf and blacksmith his way up and down the coast during the winter, return to Yosemite in the spring, and then, in late summer and fall, go on climbing trips to Canada, the Shawangunks, and the Alps.
They were lean years: dumpster diving, cat food, “porcupines assassinated à la Trotsky with an ice axe.” Home was an Army-surplus sleeping bag. (He claims not to have owned a tent until he was almost forty.) At one point, he and a climbing companion spent eighteen days in jail in Arizona; the charge was wandering around “with no visible means of support” and “without any lawful business.”
Drafted in 1962, he was sent to South Korea for more than a year. He was not what you might call Army material, but he cadged enough free time to bag a slew of first ascents with a cohort of Koreans, in the mountains around Seoul. An honorable discharge returned him to Yosemite, where, with the big-wall pioneers, Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt, he completed a celebrated first ascent of the North American Wall on El Capitan, after nine nights on the face. Here now was fame, of a kind. He and his peers, colonizing the infamous Camp Four, called themselves the Valley Cong.
In 1966, he moved his blacksmith shop to Ventura, to a tin shed behind an abandoned slaughterhouse. He and his partners, Tom Frost, who was an engineer, and Frost’s wife, Dorene, called the business Chouinard Equipment, and, in due course, their hardware became the industry standard. (Their 1969 bamboo ice axe is now in the Museum of Modern Art.) Concerned about the degradation of rock, they stopped making pitons and instead came out with aluminum chocks that you could wedge into and remove from cracks without leaving any gear or scars behind. Their first catalogue, in 1972, opened with a clean-climbing manifesto, a rockhead’s version of leave-no-trace. A gambit for better gear had begun to extend into an argument for a better world.
By then, Chouinard had taken up with Malinda Pennoyer, an art and home-economics student, and Yosemite lodge maid. “We were hanging out in Camp Four one day when a car full of tough girls drove up and the driver threw out a beer can,” he recalled in his book. “Malinda ran over and told them to pick it up. They gave her the finger, so with her bare hands Malinda ripped off their license plate and turned them in to the rangers. I was smitten.”
In the early seventies, they started selling apparel. During a climbing trip in England, Chouinard came across a mill that made vintage corduroy, which he fashioned into heavy-duty shorts and knickers. Later, in Scotland, he found a rugby shirt that was also suitable for climbing. These caught on with climbers, and soon the Chouinards and their band of friends and metalworkers had turned the old slaughterhouse into a retail store that sold bivy sacks, wool gloves, and other workaday gear. They began sewing garments upstairs and adding new products: sweaters, rain gear, so-called standup shorts of stiff canvas.
As sales of such soft goods began to outpace those of the hard, it was determined that the concern needed a name of its own. Chouinard suggested Patagonia.