Inside Patagonia’s Top-Secret Gear Archive

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Photo: Terri Laine
A 10,000-square-foot facility not far from the former Hells Angels’ Ventura, California, headquarters—a former food canning operation, the address of which I am not to reveal—houses the Patagonia Archives, a project recently launched by the clothing company to chronicle its storied past. No signage betrays the identity of the building’s occupant or hints at the work that takes place within. The archives, you see, are not open to the public. But for one day last November, its doors opened to me. Here are some of the treasures I found inside and the stories about how they came to life.

The Badger Shirt

“I teamed up with my creative art director, Hal Arneson, and chief designer Kathy Larramendy, to create a refreshing new approach for kids,” writes former Patagonia clothing designer Michael Rogers. “As Yvon’s spirit-animal tag was Badger, I came up with a fun-loving badger character who devoted his time surfing, kayaking, free climbing, bouldering, and cross-country skiing wearing Patagonia-inspired apparel.

“So in about ten days, I came into the art department and showed Hal and Madelyn, then Kathy, the color comps of the Badger artwork. Hal and Madelyn signed me off immediately that I would return in a week with the finished art. In those days, before digital art software, artwork was hand painted; in this case Luma dyes on bristol vellum board with a separate black-line overlay for fabric application.

“I returned in a week with the badgers at play and the logo. I celebrated with a grand feast in the Patagonia cafeteria lunchroom. As the Badger shirt and shorts were a secret, I kept my peace about my involvement until Yvon was presented a finished prototype pair of shorts and shirt that was produced for his approval. So successful was the response that a lot of designers requested shirt and shorts for themselves. The Fall 1988 Patagonia Kids catalog had a two-page spread of the artwork, with Fletcher Chouinard modeling the graphic ensemble in Belize. It was the coolest collaborative ever.”

Photo: Terri Laine
1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog

A highly coveted piece of literature—yes, literature—the 1972 catalog (Patagonia’s first) is considered a seminal contribution to the greening of alpinism because it convinced climbers to quit pitons for passive protection, like chocks. Mountaineer and photographer Galen Rowell reviewed the catalog in the 1973 American Alpine Journal, writing, “What is a commercial catalog doing in the book review section? It contains more information on the ethics and style of modern climbing than any other publication in our language.” Copies sold for 50 cents in 1972, and they’ve fetched as much as $350 in the past few years.

Doug Robinson’s “The Whole Natural Art of Protection,” a kind of essay-cum-instructional guide that makes the case for clean climbing, leads the catalog, and his opening words were as influential as any written in the climbing canon:

There is a word for it and the word is clean. Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber. Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and the next climber’s experience less natural. Clean because the climber’s protection leaves little track of his ascension. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.
Photo: Terri Laine
Kernmantle Rope Spool Crates

These crates date back to the early 1970s. They came from Switzerland packed with spools of kernmantle rope, which Chouinard Equipment employees would measure into lengths of 150 and 165 meters and sell as individual climbing ropes. The empty crates were apparently scattered about the growing headquarters and, as a free source of wood, repurposed into tables, benches, or office shelving. Julio Varela remembers assembling the crates into a kind of outdoor kitchen for the pig roasts he would host behind the Tin Shed.

To former Patagonia sales director Ric Hatch, the crate became a gift box of sorts. He had saved all of his samples from his years with the company (1979 to 2004) but couldn’t bring himself to toss or sell them. “I don’t know,” says Hatch, “I had an intuition that old clothing might have historical value. I just kind of kept all this stuff. I had an old Chouinard wooden crate that ropes came over from Europe in, and I just piled it all in there and brought it over to Val and Terri at the archives. Now they have it, and I have nothing except the greatest appreciation from Val.”

Photo: Terri Laine
Original Patagonia Pile

In 1976, Malinda Chouinard lucked into bolts of the hard-to-find fabric in the California Merchandise Mart, marketed as toilet seat covers. The jacket was donated by one of Chouinard’s whitewater paddling pals and fellow Do-Boy John Wasson, the husband of Patagonia label designer Jocelyn Slack. Wasson tells the story of how his jacket acquired its dragon “tattoo”:

“In the spring of 1979, I was one of three kayakers on an American Sportsman trip in Nepal,” writes Wasson. “Two films would show a group of climbers making the second ascent of Ama Dablam, and then kayakers running the Arun River in western Nepal. The kayakers were invited to come to base camp and perhaps carry some loads higher up on the mountain. The day before we flew to Lukla, I got a guy in a small, dark shop in Kathmandu to put the dragon onto my pile. He literally ‘painted’ it freehand with an embroidery machine, changing thread colors in seconds.

“I chugged my way up and down the mountain mostly alone. The tricky parts all had fixed ropes. There was talk of a second summit team, but at the end there were only Doug Robinson and me interested in going higher. We met up at the highest camp and had an almost perfect summit day followed by a slow, headlamp-lit descent back to the tent. Naturally the Dragon Pile was along for the ride. Paddling the Arun was also great, but that’s another story.”

Photo: Terri Laine
The Organic Cotton Quest Board Game

Last November, Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy at Patagonia, left the company after 27 years to become the CEO of Bluesign. Before Dumain left, we asked her for the backstory behind the organic cotton initiative she championed in the mid-’90s and the game she invented to teach the company’s employees all about it.

“That was part of a kit we made when we were making a switch to organic cotton in the ’90s. It was an initiative that took the whole company to make happen. It was sort of this road show that we took to every employee in the company, and the game was the culmination of the training. They had to sit through slideshows and videos and lectures and different things. We modeled it after Trivial Pursuit, and we had little ladybugs, because they were the beneficial bugs, and the spaces were what you got sprayed on your farm—you know, go back five spaces—trying to make it like a board game. A few years later, some of the people who wrote the cards started reading them, and we said, ‘Man, these were hard questions!’ We were amazed at how competitive our colleagues got playing game.”
Photo: Terri Laine
The Freeman Payne Collection

The plaque reads: “Long-time customer, Freeman Payne (age 19), purchased these products in 1973 from Great Pacific Iron Works (Ventura Patagonia store) with an upcoming climbing trip in mind. A motorcycle injury in 1975 changed his plans and the equipment was relegated to storage for 38 years, only to be discovered years later during a move. Freeman is pleased and honored to know this equipment has found its way home to Ventura.”

Freeman Payne’s donation is like the famed 1972 catalog come to life. Pictured is an alpine hammer, Chouinard’s cleverly named Climaxe, Lost Arrow pitons, the Chouinard-Frost piolet, Millar mitts, Dachstein mitts, Schizo hats, High Altitude glasses, and Chouinard-Salewa 12-point crampons. Val Franco filled in some of the details: “Not until [Payne’s] wife died a few years ago did he know he had time-capsuled most of his purchases from the original Chouinard catalog,” she says. This includes an Ultima Thule designed by Tom Frost and most likely sewn by me.”

Photo: Terri Laine
Super Gators

In 1963, Peter Carman joined a strong Harvard Mountaineering Club team on the first ascent of Denali’s Wickersham Wall. They wore insulated overboots with strapped-on crampons over their leather climbing boots. “We realized on the Wickersham Wall that it was a difficult combination, because if you wanted to climb rock, you had to take your overboots off.” The Super Gator was a fully insulated oxford packcloth upper with a steel cable at the bottom that winched to the boot’s welt. In them, climbers were able to keep their feet warm, bare the Vibram soles on their boots for rock climbing, and attach a crampon when needed for snow and ice. The logo, featuring a caped and cramponed gator, was created by climbing artist Sheridan Anderson.

“The Super Gators actually came out of a conversation I had with [Shawangunks climber] Art Gran when I was living in Jackson, Wyoming,” says Carman. “He was out in the summers, and at some point, he mentioned how nice it would be to have a gaiter that came down around the sole that you could put a little cord around to hold it down. And that was the beginning of it. And then I started working on that idea for the next few years and made a few models of Super Gator from a shop I had near the Shawangunks, in High Falls.” Carman eventually distributed them through Chouinard Equipment; when he couldn’t keep up with demand, Chouinard took over production.

Though Super Gators worked, they never really caught on. “I succeeded in making a gaiter, but in terms of commercial success, I wouldn’t say so,” Carman says.
Photo: Terri Laine
Original Patagonia Logo

According to Patagonia freelance artist Jocelyn Slack, the magic of a logo is that it’ll work if it makes the client “feel” what’s in their head. “I felt like the core collaboration was between me and Yvon, because he definitely had an idea of what he wanted. When he saw what he wanted, that was it.”

Chouinard wanted a logo for the clothing division. It was between “Patagonia” and “The Great Pacific Iron Works,” the name of their retail store. Slack was assigned the Patagonia logo and another artist the GPIW logo. Slack remembers feeling like the two artists were pitted against one another.

For inspiration, Chouinard gave Slack a climbing guide to the Fitz Roy Range of the Patagonian Andes. “So there were these old black-and-white photos, some with routes and descriptions of Fitz Roy. I did these pencil drawings of the mountains…and the big silhouette, and I think he was the one that maybe wanted some color. At one point, CEO Kris McDivitt mocked up a bunch of fonts spelling Patagonia. She asked Vincent Stanley his opinion one day, and he said the logo looked like Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s, and she threw it at him. ‘Patagonia Patagonia Patagonia’ all over the place. They kinda hashed it out, picking a font.”

The logo was first used in the Spring 1976 collection.
Photo: Terri Laine
The Original Pataloha Climbing Hardware Shirt

Here’s what Jocelyn Slack remembers about this 1987 design, a confluence of sea and mountains, as visualized through the cracked windshield of a beater roadtrip mobile. (See if you can spot the pitons and ice ax heads in the artwork.)

“The inspiration for the bird of paradise pitons and the flamingos came from my experience of arriving in Southern California to work in Ventura, usually in winter, driving down from [Jackson,] Wyoming. The warm air, ocean, and all the flowers, the ‘tropicalness,’ was a heady sensation, never diminished by repeat visits. The pitons are beautiful pieces of design, each unique, like a flower. Their shape looked almost birdlike, so it was interesting to weave them in with the flowers, which also look like birds."

Photo: Terri Laine
Angle-Iron Die

In his business memoir, Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard credits genius machinist Harold Lefler for designing the dies that allowed him to keep up with growing demand for his pitons. This is a plate of chromoly steel that would be fed into a progressive die in the Lefler Tool and Die machinery in Burbank, California. The way Julio Varela, Chouinard Equipment pioneer and now owner of Ojai Clothing, explained it, chromoly plates were fed into the die much like a roll of paper on an old dot-matrix printer. A succession of stamps punched out the metal progressively until the piton took shape, and a press stamped the angle iron into the precise width and taper. The ends were sheared off, and the pitons were dipped into a black-oxide bath and then heat treated, creating Chouinard pitons’ distinctive black hue. Varela remembers Chouinard showing up barefoot and shirtless at Lefler’s Burbank facility to pick up boxes of pitons to ship to his customers. “He loved Yvon,” Varela said. “He’d do anything for him.”
Photo: Terri Laine
Rincon Wood Splitter

An oddity, this one, even for the archivists. We reached out to at least three people to jog their memories about the product. Here is Chouinard’s version of the story, as told to archivst Terri Laine:

“The Wood Splitter was a safer alternative for making kindling. Unlike an ax, if a user missed by a little bit or hit too hard, the lip caught the piece of wood (rather than their hand or foot) and pried it open, kind of like a can opener.

“Hong Kyu Kwak (now deceased) was the designer of this piece in the early 1980s. He was the production manager and one of the owners of Rincon Machines. He came to the U.S. as an architect, having graduated from the University of Han Yang in Seoul, Korea. He became a U.S. citizen in 1977. He was also an ice climber.

“The splitter head was produced by a company in Oxnard called Investment Casting Company, which was known for casting golf clubs. The handle is hickory and is the same handle that he used for the hammers at that time, so it was simply repurposed for the Wood Splitter.

“This was a unique design—I had never seen anything like it before or after. I have fond memories of it, and the only one that I know of exists here in the archives.”
Photo: Terri Laine
Rugby Shirt

Credit the rugby shirt for launching Patagonia. When climbing in Scotland, Chouinard bought an Umbro shirt that looked a lot like this one. Why? He sized up the tough fabric, the bulletproof stitching, the stand-up collar, and rubber buttons and recognized that rugby kit would stand up to the rigors of rock climbing. He was right. Pretty soon, Chouinard’s friends wanted them. So did all sporty guys of a certain age, for that matter. So Chouinard imported the shirts, and and sales took off. “I began to see clothing as a way to help support the marginally profitable hardware business,” he wrote in Let My People Go Surfing. The shirt pictured here was worn by Chouinard himself. The “Chouinard Equipment for Alpinists” label would be replaced with the Patagonia label within five years.
Photo: Terri Laine
Stand Up Shorts

Other than gear slings, the Stand Up Short was the company’s first Ventura-made wearable. Chouinard tried his hand at making his own bombproof shorts, but Young Sun, the wife of one of his Korean friends, sewed the originals and soon took over. Malinda told us that Young Sun graduated from a prestigious Korean woman’s university. “Her parents were aghast that she was moving to America. With our tiny original staff, Young Sun was essential when we began working in clothing. She didn’t know any more about clothing than the climbers and blacksmiths, but she was brilliant and talented.” As the story goes, the shorts were so stiff that they stood up by themselves.

In this photo, the originals are on the right: notice the diamond C logo (the Patagonia brand had yet to be invented). The version most consumers know are on the left—this pair belonged to Chouinard. These were made around 1979 using a lighter material and double-seat quarter-moon pockets with hook-and-loop fasteners. The shorts in those days were very short indeed—more so than most of today’s running shorts.
Photo: Terri Laine

Patagonia, it seems, has always produced decals. “Our stickers over the years have been as simple as the logo or have called attention to an environmental issue or as a shout-out to vote the environment," says Terri Laine. When asked about the popularity of the decals, she says, “Our customers crave to show their loyalty and pride of being part of this tribe. I believe in general there is just a thirst for this type of promotional material. Just another way to get ourselves out there.”

Photo: Terri Laine

Climbers realized pitons wreaked havoc on cracks, so Chouinard began manufacturing “passive” protection, or chocks, that could be slotted and removed without scarring the rock. Hexentrics (pictured here), along with Stoppers and Tube Chocks, all debuted in the 1972 catalog. While the stoppers were ideal for tapered cracks, and the tube chocks answered the need to protect for four-to-six-inch cracks, the Hexentrics answered the need for, say, Yosemite’s smooth-sided parallel cracks. The irregular-shaped hexagon actually cammed when placed in a skewed position. It was marketed as a replacement for angle irons, and it worked well in parallel, smooth-sided cracks. In 1974, the company offered this template for DIY lightening holes. Hexentrics were offered in 10 sizes: #1, the smallest size, sold for 80 cents, and a #10 cost $1.75.

Photo: Terri Laine
Environmental Timeline

“Oddly enough, we were very quiet about our environmental work until early 1990s,” writes Terri Laine. “Starting with 1972 Chouinard catalog and clean climbing, we were advised by a PR pro Kevin Sweeney, the campaign manager for 1984 presidential candidate Gary Hart, to start talking about our environmental work.” Included in the timeline are point-of-purchase displays, environmental essays from the catalogs, newspaper clippings, and handouts.

Laine recalls, “My goal was to tell the story of our beginning environmental activism and to show its development. Like the entire archives, it shores up our foundation of activism and demonstrates how we developed a strong sense of environmentalism over the years as we learned more and became more aware. We also got more vocal over the years.”
Photo: Terri Laine
Ultima Thule

The Ultima Thule’s provenance comes straight from the inventive mind of the late Alaskan alpinist and California guide Don Jensen. His original design, later mass-produced by Rivendell Mountain Works, was nothing short of revolutionary: a frameless pack with a fanny pack hip belt and the main compartment vertically bifurcated by a septum of packcloth. Doug Robinson showed the pack to Chouinard and Tom Frost, Chouinard’s then partner, and they ran with it.

The first version of the 1972 catalog featured Rivendell’s Jensen pack, but much to Rivendell founder Larry Horton’s dismay, it was later supplemented and entirely replaced by the Ultima Thule, which was nothing more than a larger version of the Jensen with a top pocket that had a drawstring closure rather than a zip top. The pack proved a failure: only when packed correctly would it take form and support itself, otherwise it sagged and pooched. Chouinard went on to thrive, of course, and Rivendell folded in the early 1970s. Still, Rivendell’s assets were acquired nearly 40 years ago, and the company and Jensen pack still live. The Jensen can be ordered on a bespoke basis. The Ultima Thule, meanwhile, can still be found on eBay.
Photo: Terri Laine
Funhog Fitz Roy Summit Banner

Have you ever seen the film Mountain of Storms? It’s Lito Tejada-Flores’ 1969 adventure flick featuring Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins, Dick Dorworth, and Chris Jones on their half-year road trip of surfing, skiing, and climbing from Ventura to Patagonia and back again in a used Ford Econoline van. The film’s apotheosis takes place on December 20, 1968, when the team made the third ascent of Mount Fitz Roy by a new route. (The team unfurled the above banner at the summit.) “In general,” wrote Tompkins in an account of the climb in the American Alpine Journal, “we were going to ‘hog fun’ as much as we could for six months.” Thus the Fun Hog moniker, which they loosely translated as “sporting porks” for the Patagonian locals. Word has it that Tompkins, who had founded The North Face in 1966 and sold it in 1968, had the banner made just before leaving San Francisco. (Read his memories of the adventure, which we published in December 2015.)

Patagonia’s geography made a deep impression on Chouinard, who went on to name his company for the range that captured his heart. Later, of course, Tompkins would migrate to the region and begin acquiring vast tracts of land and turning them into national parks.

Photo: Terri Laine
Chouinard Yosemite Hammer with Receipt

This hammer was returned to Chouinard in 2006 with a letter of appreciation from the owner. He had taken a climbing class with Chouinard in 1966, took a liking to Chouinard’s hammer, which was not yet in production but would be within a few weeks of the class. The customer paid for one in advance, and Chouinard shipped him a new hammer several weeks later. The customer used it on Grand Teton and in the Wind River Range before being drafted into the military. He could no longer climb after being discharged. “Fourty [sic] years ago I thought, ‘This is a guy with integrity,’” the customer wrote to Chouinard. “You proved me right. I am returning the hammer to you. It needs to be in an archive somewhere.”

Laine has wanted to make a display for the hammer for years. “When I started working at the archives, I was able to bring it home,” she says. “It still is worthy of a display, and I always call it out as one of my favorite pieces in the archives.”
Photo: Terri Laine
Gary Regester’s Photo Collection

Val Franco had this to say about the 150 rolls of black-and-white photos (and accompanying contact sheets) that accidentally document Patagonia’s beginnings:

“Gary Regester was about 20 when he knocked on the door of the Great Pacific Iron Works to ask if he could feature Chouinard Equipment for his college project at the Art Center College of Design. He was a budding photographer. Tom Frost and Kris McDivitt said, ‘Yeah, what the heck,’ and Gary hung around and captured the beginning of Patagonia and the people who started it over a period of four years. We are lucky to have Gary’s work, these black-and-white negatives that help us to recall our beginning.”

Regester would go on to have a distinguished career as an album cover photographer and would later co-found the lightbox manufacturer Chimera.
Photo: Terri Laine
1959 “D” Carabiner

Marty Karabin, director of vertical entertainment at the Phoenix Rock Gym in Arizona, has compiled one of the country’s most impressive collections of vintage climbing equipment and donated this Chouinard “D” design to the archives. According to Karabin, the carabiner was likely manufactured in 1959 by Alcoa. He can tell because of the barely legible “Chouinard” stamp to the left of the “AC” (stamped into the body of the carabiner by its original owner, Art Christiansen). The first batch of Chouinard’s pitons sport the Alcoa mark in raised lettering.