At age 14, Yvon Chouinard became a member of the Southern California Falconry Club.
It was his investigations of falcon aeries that led him to rock climbing.
At 19 he wanted to save money on climbing hardware. Chouinard learned blacksmithing and started making hardened steel pitons for use in Yosemite Valley. He sold his steel pitons to other climbers out of the back of his station wagon.
Revered climber, successful entrepreneur
Chouinard was one of the leading climbers of the “Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing.” He was the first on ascents in the Canadian Rockies and Patagonia.
Chouinard became the most articulate advocate of the importance of style, the basis of modern rock climbing.
By the late sixties Yvon Chouinard was a revered rock and ice climber. His tools and methods were widely adopted by the climbing community. His innovative designs and grassroots efforts led Chouinard Equipment to become the largest seller of climbing hardware.
Trouble in paradise
In the late sixties Chouinard began to see a new and serious problem. The combination of climbing activity and the use of steel pitons was scarring the climbing faces.
Climbers were using the same routes over and over. They repeatedly hammered steel pitons into the same fragile cracks in the rock face. The disfiguring was severe, often visible from the base of the rock.
Chouinard designs new, less damaging hardware
Even though it would cannibalize his main piton business, Chouinard invented new, less damaging hardware. He introduced aluminum chockstones that avoided the need for pitons.
The new metal nuts of various shapes and sizes slotted into cracks in the rock and left it undamaged. The chockstones were then recovered by the second climber on a rope.
In 1972 Yvon Chouinard published a catalog of the new climbing hardware. He became a passionate advocate of the new tools and a style he called “clean climbing.”
The catalog included several essays
Chouinard explained in his essays the dangers from overuse of equipment. He emphasized the importance of individual responsibility on the part of climbers.
As we enter this new era of mountaineering, re-examine your motives for climbing. Employ restraint and good judgement in the use of Chouinard equipment. Remember the rock, the other climber ——- climb clean.
In another essay his climbing partner Doug Robinson explained clean climbing:
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 next climber’s experience less natural. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.
These essays inspired a new ethic of climbing for his generation. Within two years the climbing community had converted from the damaging pitons to less harmful metal nuts. Climbers today continue to practice his ethic on the mountain faces around the world.
How did Chouinard persuade the climbing community to change?
What made the Chouinard Equipment catalog successful? How did he convert an entire community to a new way of climbing?
And most important, can his practices be replicated?
Let’s take a look.
Chouinard stuck to three core principles of marketing and selling
First, he addressed the needs of a tightly focused community of customers: the community of climbers. Chouinard wrote about the subjects that mattered to him and his fellow climbers. He wrote about what he knew.
Second, Chouinard encouraged climbers to face a significant problem and created a sense of urgency. He made a strong case that desecration of the rock face was inconsistent with the climbing ethic. He appealed to mature climbers to mentor the next generation of young climbers on how to use clean climbing techniques.
And finally, the climbing community trusted Chouinard. They admired his experience and pioneering efforts in rock and ice climbing. They respected the values he brought to their calling. They knew that he put their needs and the integrity of the rock wilderness ahead of his own personal needs when he sacrificed the lucrative piton business.
Chouinard appealed to climbers’ sense of group identity. He asked them what they wanted to be about as climbers. He encouraged them to be people who climb with a sense of style and who “climb clean.”
But wait, I’m not a world-famous climber…
You may not be a renowned climber. But you can still do what Chouinard did in 1972.
Like Chouinard, you can focus on the community you know best. Chouinard didn’t try to address the needs of all outdoors lovers, he focused on the climbing community.
You can encourage your community to face an important problem you’ve identified. You can help them understand the urgency of fixing it.
You can build trust by showing leadership, by exemplifying the values of your community, and by demonstrating that you are willing to put their needs ahead of your own.
The 1972 Chouinard Catalog shows that people pay attention when you become a person that people trust, when you make a compelling argument that takes people to “who they want to be,” and when you help them feel themselves to be part of something bigger.