Gear Guy

What gear stands the test of time?

In the piece on Sno-Seal you said, "I'm confident it's the only product to appear in both the 1943 and the 2003 REI catalogs." I wonder if that's true. I think it would be really cool to see a listing of the items that were in the first REI catalog that are still in the current one, and the price differences. Don Denver, Colorado


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REI actually got its start in 1938, with about a dozen items imported from Europe. Sno-Seal appeared soon after that. I’m not sure exactly when the Svea 123 stove appeared—one of my contenders for the “longest run” in an REI catalog—but that stove dates back more than a century, so it was certainly an early offering as well. The REI folks tell me that Swiss Army knives, which appeared in their “modern” form in the 1920s, are likely the third item that has had a catalog life over most of REI’s history. However, these knives were not actually the kind of specialized climbing gear that the little co-op was founded to offer. In fact, it was his disgust with cheap American copies of European ice axes that led REI founder Lloyd Anderson to begin importing the real thing from Switzerland and other Alpine countries.

A stroll through any pre-1980 REI catalog (for our younger readers, probably pre-1995) is a stroll down memory lane. Jennifer Lind, an REI spokesperson, faxed me 15 pages from the 1955 catalog, one of the oldest in the company library. It has Sno-Seal (50 cents per can), but interestingly no Swiss Army knives. Primus-type stoves such as the Svea sold for $12. Thommen mechanical barometers/altimeters were $35—their descendant, the TX-20, sells at REI for $399.

For some real antiques, the shoe section is required reading. Much of it is devoted to Tricouni nails, metal cleats that mountaineers fastened to their boots for traction on slick terrain. You can imagine what it was like clambering over rocks with these metal-studded boots. In clothing, of course there was no Gore-Tex or anything “waterproof-breathable.” In those days, you could buy a “very water-repellent” Co-op Mountain Parka, made with a nylon-cotton blend (both materials are superb sponges), for $12. Wool military surplus pants—which I wore when I started to climb; they were superb, particularly the coveted Air Force summer uniform pants—went for $6.50.

Nostalgia and old-fashioned gear aside, it must be said that hiking or climbing was just as fun then as it is now. Great gear is helpful, but the main thing is to just get out there!

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