May 12, 2020

A Life In The Backcountry With Doug Robinson [EP 216]

Doug talks about his many backcountry adventures, product design, the outdoor industry, and tells a couple of stories too.         Please give us a rating and review    Show Notes   This episode with a very good…

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Rick Saez
A Life In The Backcountry With Doug Robinson [EP 216]
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TOBP 216 | Life In The Backcountry

 

Doug talks about his many backcountry adventures, product design, the outdoor industry and tells a couple of stories too.

 

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The Outdoor Biz Podcast

 

Please give us a rating and review HERE

 

Show Notes

This episode with a very good friend of mine. We’ve been buddies for over 30 years. He’s been a backcountry mountain guide, rock climbing guide, ski guide, been in the industry for many, many years doing all kinds of cool things. He’s a great author. Welcome to the show, Doug Robinson.

 

How were you introduced to the backcountry and the outdoors?

I am an unbelievably lucky kid. At five years old, my parents moved me from Washington, DC where I was born to California and we went almost immediately that summer to the backcountry and Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park and camped out. Back then you drove across Tenaya Creek and pulled your car up next to the Lake and we could camp right on the Lakeshore. And we did. And so at five years old, I’m building rafts and paddling out to the islands on the Lake, I could not believe the Sierra. The road was one and a half lanes, 15 miles an hour. It was a dirt road except where it went over granted slabs. So it was like, two hours from Crane Flat to Tenaya Lake, which is 40 minutes now.

There were a few other people who camped by the Lake and you could tell they came back every year. We all felt like this was the luckiest thing that could possibly ever happen to us. And as time went on, we started hiking and then backpacking and you know, little by little getting into the Sierra backcountry.

When I was 13, I got rescued off of Pywiack dome, which was across the Lake from our campsite. I had a pair of lug sole boots and I knew that made me a mountain climber. So I went up on the side of this dome and 400 feet up I realized that maybe I wasn’t as secure. I couldn’t go ahead and I couldn’t back down. Some tourists stopped on the road and said, are you okay? I shouted NO, but here’s where you find the Rangers and tell them to come and get me. And they did. They repelled down from the top of the dome and tied me on. So that was the first time I was ever on a rope in the backcountry.

 

Your folks ended up buying one of those forest service lease backcountry properties by Rock Creek up here in the Sierra

Another incredibly lucky thing. I ended up in Rock Creek because of Norman Clyde, who I had the good fortune to meet in the late sixties. Everybody knows Norman as quite a climber, but, he was also a backcountry skier. So I asked him okay, where are the good spots, you know, where should I go? And he goes, Oh, Rock Creek. That’s the best place on the East side of the Sierra for backcountry skiing.

So I moved in the next winter. Then the summer after that I found this one-line ad in the Inyo Register for a cabin for sale. And I mean, it sent me back $4,500. But I moved in and ended up living there many winters, cross country and backcountry skiing were just in its bloom in the seventies. There was a ski touring lodge two miles away and I could teach there and, and live up the Canyon and ski up under Bear Creek Spire every day. It was paradise.

 

Did you stay up there in the summers or did you go back to work or back to school?

Well in the summers I’d go into the Palisades. Cause in the mid-sixties I lucked into a job guiding there at the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Which was the first climbing school in California.

You’ll get tired of me saying this, but I’m one of the luckiest people alive. Lucked into that job. And then I lucked into having a place to live in Rock Creek in the winter and, it goes on and on.

 

So before we get too far into this, let’s let everybody know you are somewhere in Wyoming, is that right?

I am somewhere in Wyoming and we won’t pin it down exactly because I am caretaking a backcountry guest ranch in Wyoming. The closest clue I’ll give you is that when I ski up to the Ridge several hours away, I can see the Grand Teton off to the Northwest. It’s amazing. We, I say we, my partner Eva Eilenberg is with me here and we lucked into this caretaking opportunity.

We’ve been here over a month and we’ve got another month to go. I just came in from, we were doing some work with the batteries that run off the DC hydro and, and kind of keep place electrified off the grid. We’re way off the grid. I’m talking to you by satellite phone.

 

Let’s circle back around to the Palisade School of Mountaineering How did you start there? You saw an ad in the paper or how did you get involved with those guys?

So I’m 20 years old. I’m in Yosemite. I pack up my backpack and I’m going to go up to the High Sierra because that’s where I started, right? Tenaya like I told you. And I just love going in the backcountry, rambling around, backpacking, scrambling up peaks. So I was getting a little more advanced. I mean technical climbing because I’d been in Yosemite after all. That was the cutting edge place in the world for rock climbing in the sixties. And, you know, we were kind of hot shit and we knew it.

So I walk up into the Palisades, I’d never been there. My buddy John Fisher and I had been climbing together since we were 13. He ended up owning the school later on. So I walk in there and I walk all the way up to the edge of the glacier. There’s a little obvious backcountry campsite up there. And I dropped my pack and look around and there’s nobody there. Now I had just come from camp 4, I mean, you could pick up a climbing partner in 30 seconds down there and I just kind of assumed there would be a scene up there too.

So I soloed a couple of easy backcountry peaks and a few days later this pile of lumber appeared on the slabs below the camp and was coming up upwards me. It turned out to be a guy named Don Jensen. And he was getting ready to build a little hut up on the edge of the glacier, or the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Don turned out to be the chief guide, so we made a deal. He went climbing with me. I helped him build his hut.

The first day we went climbing, we went out and across the glacier up Starlight Peak down into the notch, up North Pal down the U Notch. And we were back at camp at 10 in the morning. And he offered me a job guiding. I go, wow, I’m 20 years old. I’d never thought about being a mountain guide, but, um, okay, if Don thinks I can do it. So I have been guiding ever since. That was just another one of those really lucky things. And you’re right, I was ready for it cause I’d been climbing for years. Right. Dirt bagging before that was a thing. That was 1965.

 

Then after Palisade School of Mountaineering, you got involved with the clean climbing movement and wrote the manifesto, tell us about that.

Here’s how it started. Royal Robbins kicked it off. He went climbing in England. He saw, clean climbing there with pebbles stuffed into cracks and then machine nuts that were already on a runner. And he got all excited and came back and put up Nutcracker in Yosemite, which was the most popular route in the Valley, and is still a classic. He did it as a demonstration, Royal and Liz, his wife. Then he wrote about it in summit magazine because we were reading summit every month. None of the backcountry focused magazines that are out now existed then. It was a basically a hiker magazine, but there was occasional climbing stuff in it. So it was the only game in town.

I got turned on by this and went straight down to the hardware store and bought brass machine nuts in a whole range of sizes and filed the threads out of them so they wouldn’t cut the runners and strung them on runners. This was 1965 or 66. So I was guiding in the Palisades then. So I had my backup Pitons and a hammer, but I took the nuts long too. Well, it turns out that the backcountry Alpine granite is just perfect for holding nuts. You can almost throw them in the crack. So some of the very earliest all clean climbs were done there and all the other guides got turned onto it too. We’re all in this together and realized that we could do things clean. We didn’t need the hammer or the pins and it was lighter so we left them in camp.

Then we started going to Yosemite in the spring and the fall and starting to try to climb in the backcountry clean also. So I did the East buttress of Middle Cathedral rock all clean. That was the first grade four that was done in that committed style. And then the next year did the Steck, Salathe on Sentinel without carrying hammers. And you know, we’re just very gradually progressing up.

Meanwhile, I had met Chouinard, we had gone ice climbing together in the Palisades, did some first backcountry ice accents of routes like the V notch. And I started going and hanging out in Ventura at the tin shed and being a laborer. I started out there, my first job was being an assistant bong bender is what they called it, but people don’t even know what a bong is anymore. And we’re talking about clean climbing, we’re having fun doing it. Um, and um, and Chouinard and Frost got interested in it and you know just innovate equipment before breakfast.

So pretty soon they’re making the aluminum nuts that are really good and I’m contributing to the design. So in the end, and this is a hats off to Chouinard too, cause he’d started making Pitons in 1958 in that chicken coop in his parents’ backyard in Burbank, he’s a teenager and selling out of the trunk of his car. And that business was built on pitons and hammers and all the unclean stuff to go climbing.

So these piton makers, they’re making a living, they’re being able to hire us. Thank you very much. But we’re understanding that these pitons are so good at being removable, which we thought was clean and they’re chipping away at the rock and destroying the cracks and then they’re getting ugly looking. And so this clean climbing is the solution to that. And they bet the farm on clean climbing and it ended up eliminating the piton business.

Pretty scary though because they’re making all their money off pitons and they’re doing all right. But we think this is the right thing to do. So anyway, I ended up writing a piece for the catalog. It was the first real catalog of the company. It was called the Great Pacific Ironworks at the time. So in the 72 catalog is my manifesto called the whole natural art of protection and it really changed things.

 

Val Franco is doing some pretty amazing archival work that is keeping all those times alive, talk about that.

You walk into that archive and this is only a couple years old but it’s phenomenal. I mean there’s examples of every piton on that Chouinard Equipment ever made and she has the newer equipment that is now called Black Diamond Equipment, but it’s just this like the lineage is right straight through. And all of the clean hardware and some fascinating prototypes that I remember making with a file and a bench vise down there.

And they are doing taping sessions too. I got to sit in on some sessions with Tom Frost before he died where he was talking about his part in all that. He’d been an aircraft designer, aeronautical engineer, and quit all that. He’s a Stanford trained engineer, smart guy. The mechanical drawings that he made for the nuts that we were designing are phenomenal. They’re just beautiful. And those are in the archive too. And so are the interviews with Tom where he talks about his role. Um, it’s very cool. Val Franco is the head of that and she was a sewer at ironworks when I was there. We knew each other when we were in our twenties and she’s still there and putting this thing together and she’s so excited.

 

What was your first backcountry ski experience?

I started downhill skiing when I was seven years old at Goldridge and Sugar Bowl. And I had these Hickory skis, little segmented metal edges screwed onto them. But the bindings were interesting cause they had a cable on the heel and there were two hold-downs on the sides. And I hope you can visualize this cause, you snap the cable underneath one to hold your heel down onto the ski, right? That’s the rear one. The forward one snapped from the rear. It’s a walking mode and these are my downhill skis. But this is 1952 and skiing hasn’t advanced that far, so it’s still like walking on skis is important. It’s a backcountry sport that happens to have some ski lifts and hasn’t evolved into plastic boots and all that.

Um, so in a sense having that gear was my heritage and I realized that you could walk on it and that meant that I could go uphill on my skis. Jeez, no big deal. They were built for it. So in a sense, it started right there and by the early sixties, I was going into the backcountry skiing Pyramid Peak. I got to move to Bishop in 1969 fresh out of college. I’m already a guide and lucky again, I had a client for the entire winter. We rented a cabin up Bishop Creek and I taught him how to backcountry ski and winter climbing in the Palisades. We ended up the next spring, spring of 1970, skiing the John Muir Trail, which we thought was a first. But it turns out that we were scooped in 1928-29 by Orland Bartholomew. And that’s another whole story.

Well, nothing like skiing the whole length of the range to give you some ideas of places to go and things to just do. in 1975, David Beck and some friends pioneered the Sierra High Route in the backcountry, which goes from roughly Independence across to Sequoia National Park for six days. Or I like to take eight or nine days to do it cause, once you’re out there, well why rush back to the city?

I was guiding that every spring or maybe even twice every spring. And by the mid-eighties, there was a time when I skied across the range, guiding it for a week and then rested a day or two. And I had another backcountry ski tour to guide starting on the Eastside. So I skied back in 22 hours. This is like a six or eight-day trip but you know, I’m really fit and by then and I have set my own track across the top of these high basins. But what a day, you know, to be out there all by myself.

 

I’m sure all this time in the backcountry gave you plenty of time to think about gear.

The Ultima Thule Pack evolved out of a pack that Don Jensen had designed. He was brilliant. He gave us the plans for them and for our Muir Trail backcountry ski trip we built packs that weighed 17 ounces and carried 70 pounds. I built those packs and a tent that Don Jensen designed for that trip. And then while I was working in Ventura I knew that I could improve on the Jensen pack. So Tom Frost and I ended up crawling around on pattern paper on the floor and laughing to ourselves. It was so much fun to work with him as a designer and we came up with a truly better version of that pack that carried better. And so that was wonderful and decades later I designed another carrying system for a pack for Montbell when you and I were working there.

That was the Wishbone system. I mentioned that the Ultima Thule dragged on your shoulders just like the Jensen backcountry pack did. We hadn’t figured that out. And so it was figuring that out over the years with essentially some internal stays in the pack that rose above the shoulder straps, like lift straps, which everybody’s got now. But there was a time when that was a big deal. It was a new way and the new hybrid materials that I came up with without going way into it.

 

When did you write your first book?

Writing for magazines like Outside, which I helped start, another whole story. I wrote some cover stories and was having such a good time. That was the first really professional magazine that I’d ever been around. I ended up moving to San Francisco to hang out with them and I was making enough of a pest to myself that they gave me a desk and a phone and ended up staying the winter.

Then I wrote cover stories and I was writing for backpacker and already mentioned Powder. So that was half of my career and guiding was the other half. By the nineties, I had all these magazine articles that I had written that I liked and other people liked so I pulled them together into a book. So my first book was really just an anthology of my own writing. Things I liked the best going back to the sixties. And it was a big success actually. It was recently named by climbing magazine as one of the 33 must-reads climbing literature of all time.

 

You were thinking about the listeners of the podcast, what do you want to say to them?

I was thinking about the people who might be listening to this podcast. And I’m imagining that some of them are shop people working on the floor, some are designers, some are marketers, you know, we’re all in the same industry, this outdoor industry, which is so great. It’s given us such great friendships and good times.

I was thinking about the customer that walks into that shop and you’re the guy on the floor saying “hi what can I do for you”? And that what you can do for them is not just talk about the qualities of the packs that you’re selling, that they want to buy, but also the experience. You’ve been out in the backcountry more than they have. You have the experience they admire that and they would love to soak it up and hear some of your stories. And if you’re a customer just walking into your local mountain shop, yeah you wanna walk back out with a parka and a pack and a sleeping bag, but you also want to rub shoulders with the experience itself. And so don’t you guys out there sell yourself short on, on that. You got a lot to give people besides the tech specs.

 

Do you have any other suggestions or advice for someone wanting to get into the outdoor business or grow their career if they are already in the biz?

Follow your bliss. I mean, that’s how basically all of us got in here. And I have one other sort of oddball piece of advice too. Don’t think that you can get that degree from Oregon and be a product designer without the outdoor experience with it, cause you gotta be out there in the rain with the water somehow finding its way to drip in around the hood of your parka, you know, and you have to have that experience before you can know how to design around it, how to fix it.

 

If you could have a huge banner at the entrance to the OR show these days, what would it say?

My banner would say “take care of the planet because if you don’t, nothing in this show is going to mean anything.”

You can follow up with Doug at his website Moving Over Stone

A Life In The Backcountry With Doug Robinson

I am excited about this episode with a good friend of mine. We’ve been buddies for over 30 years. We’ve worked at a brand or two in the outdoor industry. He’s been an outdoor backcountry mountain guide, rock climbing guide and ski guide. He’s been in and out of the industry for many years doing all kinds of cool things. He’s a great author and a good friend of mine, Doug Robinson. Welcome to the show, Doug.

Thank you, Rick. We do go back quite away. Maybe there will be some stories from that.

I always like to start out with how folks got introduced to the outdoors. How did you get introduced to the outdoors? I’m sure I know this story but I’d love to hear it again.

I am an unbelievably lucky kid. At five years old, my parents moved me from Washington, DC where I was born to California. We went almost immediately that summer to Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park and camped. Things are so different then. I’m going to have to emphasize some of that as we go along here. You drove across Tenaya Creek, pulled your car up next to the lake and we could camp right on the lakeshore and we did. At five years old, I’m building rafts and paddling out to the islands and the lake. I could not believe it in 2021.

It’s a pretty daunting trip, I imagine.

The road was one and a half lanes, 15 miles an hour. You had to pull over into the dirt. It was a dirt road separate. I went over granite slabs. It’s two hours from Crane Flat to Tenaya Lake, which is 40 minutes.

Probably, nobody else is around.

It was remote. There were a few other people who camped by the lake. You could tell they came back every year. We all felt like this was the luckiest thing that could possibly ever happen to us. As time went on, we started hiking and then backpacking. Little by little, getting into the Sierra. When I was thirteen, I was rescued off of Pywiack Dome, which was across the lake from our campsite because I had a pair of lug sole boots and I knew that made me a mountain climber. I went off of the side of this dome 400 feet up. I realized that maybe I wasn’t as secure. I couldn’t go ahead and I couldn’t back down. Some tourists stopped on the road and said, “Are you okay?” I go, “No. Here’s where you find the Rangers. Tell them to come and get me,” and they did. They rappelled down from the top of the dome and tied me on. That was the first time I was ever on a rope.

Your folks ended up buying one of those Forest Service lease properties over by Rock Creek up here in the Sierra.

Another incredibly lucky thing. I ended up in Rock Creek because of Norman Clyde, who I had the good fortune to meet in the late ‘60s. Everybody knows Norman Clyde as a climber but he is also a backcountry skier. I asked him, “Where are the good spots? Where should I go?” He goes, “Rock Creek is the best place on the east side of the Sierra for backcountry skiing.” I moved in the next winter and then the summer after that, I found this one-line ad in the annual register for this cabin for sale. It set me back $4,500. It’s steep at the dock. I moved in and I ended up living there many winters. Backcountry skiing was in its bloom in the ‘70s. There was a ski touring lodge 2 miles away and I could teach there, live up the canyon and ski up under Bear Creek Spire every day. It’s paradise.

All the climbing in the summer. Did you stay in the summers or did you got to go somewhere and go back to work or back to school?

In the summers, I was going to go into the Palisades because, in the mid-’60s, I lucked into a job guiding there at the Palisades School of Mountaineering, which was the first climbing school in California.

It’s been mentioned on the show a few times.

You’ll get tired of me saying this but I’m one of the luckiest people alive. I lucked into that job and then I lucked into having a place to live in Rock Creek in the winter. It goes on and on.

Sometimes we make our own luck though. You got to be in the right place at the right time. Speaking of the right place at the right time, before we get too far into this, let everybody know you are somewhere in Wyoming. Is that right?

I am and we won’t pin it down exactly because I am caretaking a backcountry guest ranch in Wyoming. The closest clue I’ll give you is that when I ski up to the ridge up here several hours away, I can see the Grand Teton off to the northwest.

That must be beautiful.

It’s amazing. My partner, Eva Eilenberg, is with me here. We lucked into this caretaking job.

Appreciate the pristine wilderness.

You make your own luck. There you go.

Long before isolation. We were doing some work with 2 tons of batteries that run off the DC hydro and keep this place electrified off the grid. I’m talking to you via satellite.

This is an amazing connection. This is phenomenal for a satellite phone. I don’t think this is the first interview I’ve done via satellite phone but this is the best. You must have clear skies. Let’s hope the satellite stays up.

So far, so good. I can give you two glimpses into what it’s like here. We don’t just go skiing every day. We have chores. There are chores here in the ranch that I’ve never done before but I’m learning about now, which are making me grateful for the wilderness ultimately. I’ll come back around. The best line I ever heard about ranch chores was from that novelist, Tom McGuane. He got himself a ranch up in Paradise Valley, Montana, which is not too far north of where we are past Yellowstone. He says, “Most days, I do the chores. These days, what that amounts to is writing screenplays to pay the mortgage.”

He had a smooth ranch job then. Most chores around a ranch are not that fun as you can attest.

Two quick stories about being a caretaker because I had no idea I would be doing this stuff. A few days ago, the DC hydro system was starting to act up. It wasn’t putting out enough power. We skied half an hour up the hill and found a little dam intake. It’s partly clogged up. Eva’s working on the intake right where the pipe is and I go, “We need more flow.” I started tiptoeing around the water. The next thing I knew, I’m over the top of my ski boots with an avalanche shovel marking out this dam so that we can have enough head for the hydro. I ski back down with my feet squishing in my boots and put them out in the sun to dry. I never thought that would happen in my life.

Here’s the other one. This is going to end up being a shout-out of appreciation for the real underclass in this country, the probably undocumented immigrants who wash the dishes in the back in nice restaurants, greasy spoons, whatever. Once a month, we have to clean out what’s called the grease traps. It’s a humbling experience and it was two hours’ worth. The one part of it that I cannot convey to you over this show is the smell.

It is gross.

It makes me think about all the polite, nice restaurants and even the greasy spoons. Every place like that has a grease trap and somebody has to clean it out and it’s the lowest person on the totem pole. You laugh but I feel privileged that I got to do this because I know the lowest of the low of work that happens in this country. Some people do it every day. Twice in my life is plenty for me. It’s some appreciation for people that I share this planet with who are so much less fortunate. They are glad to swim the Rio Grande and be in the US illegally and have a job. You can fill in the whole rest of it.

It gave me that appreciation. I’m looking out the window at this pristine wilderness. That’s why I’m here. I didn’t come here to clean the grease trap but I got to do that and got some appreciation for it. When we’re in the wilderness up here and we ski most of the day every day, in a way, we’re riding on the backs of the underclass in this country, in this world. People who are less fortunate but are thrilled to be able to have work and feed their families, fill in the blanks.

You’re right, it’s been going on. My grandparents were immigrants and it’s been happening for eons in this country. We’re all privileged to be here based on those that came before us. That’s well said.

I’m descended from immigrants too. They put that Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor for a reason. We’re welcome.

I’m glad you got that experience. Everybody should do that once in their life, if not more than once. It only takes once for you to know what it’s like.

We’re going to talk about selling $500 parkas here, making them and how cool their designs are. They are amazing. Hats off to that. All of that stuff is a sign of the privilege that we have to be in the wilderness and climbing, skiing, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking or whatever.

Working in the retail shop, all of it.

I had a thought related to that. I don’t know who’s out there reading this but I imagine some of you work on the floor in retail in the outdoor industry. Some of you are designers and some of you are marketers and all that. I’ve done almost every one of those jobs myself and loved it. I’m privileged to be able to do that.

Let’s circle back around to the Palisade School of Mountaineering because that’s come up a bunch from other folks that have been on the show. If you have spent any time here on the Eastern Sierra, you know that it’s the iconic mountaineering school in the area, if not the country. A lot of folks that have come up in the industry and are still here locally in Bishop started there. Tell us about that. How did you start there? You saw an ad in the paper. How did you get involved with those guys? Did Norman introduce you to somebody?

TOBP 216 | Life In The Backcountry
Life In The Backcountry: A few other people camped by the lake, and you could tell they come back every year. We all felt like camping by the lake was the luckiest thing that could ever happen to us.

 

I got introduced to Norman in a different way. I’m twenty years old. I’m in Yosemite and I pack up my back. I’m going to go up to the High Sierra because that’s where I started, Tenaya Lake. I told you the story. I love going in the backcountry, rambling around, backpacking and scrambling up peaks. I was getting a little more technical in climbing because I’d been in Yosemite after all and that was the cutting-edge place in the world for rock climbing in the ‘60s. We were very good and we knew it.

Let’s take this up into the High Sierra. I walk up into the Palisades. I’ve never been there. My buddy, John Fisher had. He and I had been climbing together since we were thirteen. He ended up owning the school later on. He’s been up there and even had survived a bivouac on North Palisades and come back to tell the tale. I couldn’t believe that I knew somebody who had done that.

I walked in there and I walked all the way up to the edge of the glacier, 12-5. There’s a little obvious campsite up there. I dropped my pack and look around and there’s nobody there. I had come from camp four. You could pick up a climbing partner in 30 seconds, 50 feet away. I assumed there would be a scene up there, a bunch of climbers hanging out but there weren’t.

I soloed a couple of easy peaks and a couple of days later, this pile of lumber appeared on the slabs below the camp and was coming upwards. It turned out to be a guy named Don Jensen and he was getting ready to build a little hut up on the edge of the glacier for the Palisades School of Mountaineering. Don turned out to be the chief guide. We made a deal. He went climbing with me and I helped him build his hut.

The first day we went climbing, we went out across the glacier, up Starlight Peak, down into the notch, up North Pal, down the U notch and we were back at camp at 10:00 AM. It was fast. He offered me a job guiding. I go, “I’m twenty years old. I’d never thought about being a mountain guide. Don thinks I can do it.” I have been ever since. That was another one of those lucky things. You’re right, I was ready for it. I’ve been climbing for years and dirt bagging before that was a name.

What year was that approximately?

That was 1965.

How long were you at Palisades?

Forever. I wrote a history or an introduction about the Palisades for Alpinist. The editor there, Katie Ives, says, “How long have you spent in the Palisades?” I go, “I don’t know.” I went away and figured it out. It was three years that I’ve lived up in that Canyon. It ran way into the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I quit guiding. I’m retired from that.

When was the last time you were there?

Two summers ago. I didn’t make it in 2020. I got this secret climbing project on Temple Crag, so a new route.

Let’s keep it a secret. You’ve seen the glaciers starting to recede and all that. You’ve been there to witness that. I bet it’s changed dramatically since you first went up there.

It’s maybe half the size it was in the mid-‘60s. Climate change is not a theory.

None of this stuff is a theory. That’s a different podcast.

I’m sure you’ve talked about that plenty.

Not too much but it’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down. When did the Clean Climbing Movement start? You’re one of the pioneers of that movement. Was that before or after that you wrote the manifesto on that?

We’ve been working on it for 5 or 6 years before that. Here’s how it started. Royal Robbins kicked it off. He went climbing in England. He saw clean climbing there with pebbles stuffed into cracks, and then machine nuts that were already on a runner. He got all excited and came back and he put up Nutcracker in Yosemite, which was the most popular route in the valley still. It’s a classic. He and Liz, his wife, did it as a demonstration. He wrote about it in Summit Magazine. We were reading Summit every month and none of the magazines that are out now existed. There was a hiker magazine but there was occasional climbing stuff in it. It was the only game in town.

Climate change is not a theory.

I got turned on by this. I went straight down to the hardware store and I bought brass machine nuts in a whole range of sizes and filed the threads out of them so they wouldn’t cut the runners and strung them on runners. We tied our runners with nuts in them and started practicing this. This was 1966. He was in England, ‘67 was the article. I was guiding in the Palisades then. I had my backup pitons and a hammer but I took the nuts along too. It turns out that the Alpine granite is perfect for holding nuts. You can almost throw them in the crack.

Some of the earliest all clean climbs were done there. All the other guides got turned onto it too. We’re all in this together. We realized that we could do things clean. We didn’t need the hammer or the pins and it was lighter to leave them in camp. We were doing that. We were going to Yosemite in the spring and the fall and starting to try to climb some of the things there clean also. I did the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock all clean. That was the first grade four that was done in that committed style. The next year, I did Steck-Salathé on Sentinel without carrying hammers. We’re gradually progressing this thing up.

Meanwhile, I had met Chouinard and we had gone ice climbing together in the Palisades. We did some first ice accents of routes like the V-notch. I started going and hanging out in Ventura at the tin shed. Being a laborer, I started there and my first job was being an assistant bong vendor is what they called it. People don’t even know what bongs are.

They do but it’s something different is what they remember.

It’s old school. You can leave it at that. I helped manufacture them anyway. We’re talking about clean climbing. We’re having fun doing it. Chouinard and Frost got interested in it. Those guys innovate equipment before breakfast. Pretty soon, they’re making aluminum nuts that are good. I’m contributing to the design and I go, “How about if we change it this way?” We’re all working together on it. This is hats off to Chouinard too because he’d started making pitons in 1958 in a chicken coop in his parents’ backyard in Burbank. He’s a teenager. He’s selling them out of the trunk of his car.

That business was built on pitons, hammers and all the unclean stuff to go climbing. At that point, he had a decent business. It was a going concern.

I could drop in and work. Dennis Hennek was there and there are half a dozen other people who worked part-time. We all partied together. It’s a tight pool group. They were all surfing. The reason that Patagonia is in Ventura is that Chouinard is a surfer. It’s his actual favorite sport and not climbing. These piton makers are making a living. They’re able to hire us.

They go, “Thank you very much, but we’re understanding that these pitons are good at being removable, which we thought was clean then, that they’re chipping away at the rock and destroying the cracks. They’re getting ugly-looking. This clean climbing is the solution to that.” It ended up eliminating the piton business. It’s scary though because they’re making all their money off the pitons and they’re going, “We think this is the right thing to do.” I ended up writing a piece for the catalog. It was the first real catalog of the country. It’s called Great Pacific Iron Works at the time. The ’72 catalog is my manifesto called The Whole Natural Art of Protection. It changed things.

Everybody talks about business pivots these days. It was a pivot before pivot was a thing. They shifted focus into a new direction. The business continued to grow and probably got even bigger because of all the clean climbing stuff that you guys were doing and continued to do. That’s all we do. There are still some folks that put bolts up in various places. For the most part, it’s clean, hopefully.

Bolting is a different deal. We don’t have time to talk about that. Sport climbing depends on it. Sport climbing is a good thing, although it was controversial in the ‘80s.

There’s been plenty of controversies in the outdoor space over the years, that’s for sure.

We love to argue about stuff. What are we going to do when we drink beer?

If we get done telling stories, we got to argue about something. How long were you down there in Ventura at Patagonia? You’re off and on for years. How long was that period of your life spent there working?

Maybe a five-year period. I was there a third of the time.

They’re doing some amazing archival things that are keeping all those times alive. I was down visiting a couple of years ago. It’s phenomenal what they’re doing.

You walk into that archives and this is only a couple of years old but it’s phenomenal. There are examples of every piton that Chouinard Equipment ever made. Chouinard Equipment is called Black Diamond but the lineage is right straight through. All the clean hardware and some fascinating prototypes that I remember making with a file and a bench vise down there, “We got to chip this thing and cut the angles a little more. Let’s go try it.” That stuff is all preserved. It’s very neat.

They are doing taping sessions too. I got to sit in on some sessions with Tom Frost before he died where he was talking about his part in all that. He’d been an aircraft designer, aeronautical engineer and he quit all that. He’s a Stanford-trained engineer. He’s a smart guy. The mechanical drawings that he made for the nuts that we were designing are phenomenal. They’re beautiful. Those are in the archive too and so are the interviews with Tom where he talks about his role. It’s cool.

TOBP 216 | Life In The Backcountry
Life In The Backcountry: What you can do for the customers is not just talk about the qualities of the packs that you’re selling but also the experience.

 

Also, professionally done. It’s like walking into a museum out of DC. It’s curated beautifully. The stories are well crafted and well interviewed. She’s doing a great job all the way around.

Val Franco is the head of that. She was a sewer at Iron Works when I was there. We knew each other when we were in our twenties. She’s still there and putting this thing together. She’s excited. Terri Laine was her assistant.

I met them both. I was down there. We had a California Wilderness Coalition board meeting down there and it was at one of the Patagonia offices. I went in the day before to see all the cool stuff they were doing. It was super fun to catch up with those guys. I got to get Val on the show too someday. In addition to climbing, you spent a lot of time ski mountaineering in these parts. You did some phenomenal stuff. You gave a great presentation up in Mammoth a couple of years ago about some of the speed runs that you guys were doing and stuff. Tell us a little bit about that. What was your first ski experience or first experience on skis?

I started downhill skiing when I was seven years old at Dodge Ridge and Sugar Bowl. I had these Hickory skis, little segmented metal edges screwed onto them. The bindings on them were interesting because they had a cable on the heel and there were two hold-downs on the sides. I hope you can visualize this. You snap the cable underneath one to hold your heel down onto the ski. That’s the rear one.

The forward one unsnapped from the rear is a walking mode. These are my downhill skis. This is 1952 and skiing hasn’t advanced that far. Walking on skis is important. It’s a backcountry sport that happens to have some ski lifts. It hasn’t evolved into plastic boots and all that. In a sense, the gear was my heritage and I realized that you could walk on it. That meant that I could go uphill on my skis. It was no big deal. They were built for it. In a sense, it started right there.

By the early ‘60s, I was going into the backcountry skiing Pyramid Peak up near Lake Tahoe. I got to move to Bishop in 1969. I was fresh out of college. I’m already a guide. Luckily, I had a client for the entire winter. We rented a cabin up Bishop Creek. I taught him how to backcountry ski and we went winter climbing in the Palisades. In that winter, I met a guy. We ended up in the spring of 1970 skiing the John Muir Trail, which we thought was going to be a first. It turns out we were scooped in 1928 or ‘29 by Orland Bartholomew. That’s another whole story. That guy is amazing.

He scooped a lot of people.

We did the second ascent, the second traverse. I was 25 years old and it was the best expedition in my life. I never left California. It’s 36 days and food caches we put in ahead of time.

It must have been phenomenal.

It’s fun and phenomenal. We survived it too which was important.

You lived to tell the story. Who went with you on that?

Carl McCoy. Peanut was his nickname. He’s the fifth son of Dave McCoy, the founder of Mammoth Mountain. Peanut was a ski racer and he’s good. He’s in the National Talent Squad until he ran off of a downhill course at Aspen and broke his leg. It slowed him down a little bit. He said that he was looking for something a little mellower to do on skis when we met. He cooked up this idea of skiing the John Muir Trail. Thirty-six days in the wilderness qualified as a little mellower to him. It seemed pretty outdoor to me.

Did you have decent weather? What was the weather like? You must have had a couple of storms anyway, 36 days.

We started in the middle of March and we ended at the end of April. When we started, it was spring-like weather the whole first half of the tour. Later, we set back in. We ran out of food, got hungry and were lost. We had some epics before we got into Yosemite.

You ski and mountaineer all around. That show you guys were talking about a couple of years ago, with that slideshow you did, there was some amazing stuff that you guys did, traverses across the range, up and down the range, it’s everywhere.

Nothing like skiing the whole length of the range to give you some ideas of places to go and things to do. In 1975, David Beck and some friends pioneered the Sierra High Route, which goes from roughly Independence across to Sequoia National Park for six days. I like to take 8 or 9 days to do it because once you’re out there, why rush back to civilization?

What’s the rush?

I remember, it coincided with this big surge of interest in Nordic skiing. Pretty soon, I was guiding that every spring or maybe even twice every spring. By the mid-80s, there was a time when I skied across guiding it for a week and then rested a day or two. I had another ski tour to guide starting on the east side. I skied back in 22 hours. This is a 6 or 8-day trip. I’m fit. By then, I have set my own track across the top of these high basins. What a day to be out there all by myself.

Revolutionize your industry.

You ski a lot in Rock Creek too with the Rock Creek group. That was a whole scene too.

It was a great scene. The best country to ski bombs and operating a lodge. All these people would come up from the city for the weekend and rent a cabin that had a wood stove in it. We would take them out and teach him how to Telemark.

A lot of characters went through that scene too. I was there with our good buddy Gary Bard. The guys from Bear Valley had a reunion there, which is quite an experience. That was fun. Paul and Diane invited me along, which was generous of them. It was fun to hang out with those guys. I’m sure all this time in the backcountry, climbing, skiing, hiking and doing all these things, your mind had plenty of time to continually think about how you can make the gear better, improve the gear and so forth. What was your first product design other than the pitons and things you were doing down at Chouinard?

It was also with Chouinard.

Was it one of those packs?

Yeah, the Ultima Thule Pack. It evolved out of a pack that Don Jensen had designed. He was the guy who hired me into the Palisades School of Mountaineering. He was brilliant. He gave us the plans for our Muir Trail ski trip. We built packs that weighed 17 ounces and carried 70 pounds. Ultralight goes way back.

It’s the exact opposite of some of those packs we were carrying.

His packs carry well. They’re comfortable but 7 pounds on your back, no, thank you. There were some disadvantages to this pack too. It dragged on your shoulders and we hadn’t figured that out until later. I built those packs and the tent that Don Jensen designed for the Muir Trail trip. Almost immediately after, I was working in Ventura and what would become Patagonian and Chouinard Equipment. I knew that I could improve on the Jensen pack. Tom Frost and I ended up crawling around on pattern paper on the floor and laughing to ourselves. It’s so much fun to work with him as a designer. We came up with a truly better version of that pack and it carried better. That was wonderful. Decades later, I designed another carrying system for a pack for Montbell when you and I were working there. You remember all that.

That was the Wishbone system. When did you first come up with that Wishbone concept? Was that the ultimate tool? It had a little bit of that component designed to it.

I mentioned the Ultima Thule dragged on your shoulders as the Jensen pack did. We hadn’t figured that out. It was figuring that out over the years with some internal stays in the pack that rose above the shoulder straps like it has lifter straps, which everybody’s got now. There was a time when that was a big deal, “We could have lifter straps.” It was a new way and new hybrid materials that they came up with at Montbell to be the frame for that pack without going way into it.

What were some of the other products that you developed over the years, packs, tents? Did you work on skis and bindings? Did you do anything in that range? You already had the pitons and clean climbing equipment, nuts and bolts.

I designed ski boots with Dan Asay who is a master bootmaker in Bishop.

He’s still here. I run into him every once in a while.

He’s cool. He would make a mold of your feet, plaster cast your feet and then start with that and build a boot that’s truly custom. He would do mostly hiking boots for people with weird feet. I got into carbon fiber. I made carbon fiber stays for a Gregory Pack that was half the weight of the aluminum ones that you could get at the time. I could see how cool this material was. I hooked up with a company in Erie, Pennsylvania that made carbon fiber stuff. They build sheets of this stuff.

Dan and I cut it out and made it the midsole of a boot and then he would build this elegant leather boot on top of it. We knew we were onto something because it was light, flexible, strong, etc. We go down to Chouinard Equipment and they’re getting into skiing. We walked into a design meeting with our boot. We thought, “We got it here. We’re going to revolutionize the industry.” We didn’t know that these other guys walked in the other door into the same design meeting with the first prototypes of plastic backcountry boots.

You missed it by that much. That was a whole revolution there too in footwear for skiing.

I designed stuff that never left the design room.

TOBP 216 | Life In The Backcountry
Life In The Backcountry: Don’t sell yourself short. You got a lot to give people besides the tech specs.

 

You had your share like the Wishbone pack. We met at Montbell. We connected up with the group that was bringing Montbell to the US for the first time. They’d been in Asia, Japan for many years. Tatsuno, the founder is a great guy and a great friend of ours. How did you connect with the Montbell guys? Did you have a relationship with Tatsuno? Was that the connection?

No. I met him through them. I moved to Santa Cruz and started a family. I’m commuting to the Sierra as a guide and I’m writing at home. These guys were in Santa Cruz and they were getting ready to start this franchise of Montbell. I got to take the American franchise part. I remember meeting them at Denny’s one afternoon.

Knowing those two guys, I can picture that.

Things went on from there.

It got rolling.

I’m going to turn the tables on you for one second, Rick, because I’m curious. I couldn’t remember how you got involved with Montbell.

I didn’t have the mountaineering guide and experience that you had. I was a river guide. I was working at age sixteen on the floor with a bunch of folks down there at the store in San Diego. I was teaching at a sixth-grade camp on Palomar Mountain all winter long. One of the guys at Palomar that I was teaching with said to me one day, “What are you going to do in the summer?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I’m working at age sixteen. I’ll hang out and do that.”

He said, “I’m going to run this outdoor adventure camp for this whitewater company up in the Kern Plateau and I need some help. Would you want to do that?” I was like, “Yeah, that sounds fun.” He said, “The only requirement is you have to go to their guide school first.” I’m like, “That sounds fun too.” I went to their guide school up in the American River. Long story short, I fell in love with river guiding. I came back and said, “I want to do this river guide thing. I don’t want to do the adventure camp.”

It turns out the adventure camp didn’t have a lot of signups so it got canceled anyway. We both ended up river guiding. After a couple of years of doing that, one guy, John Stallone, was a mountain bike guide. I was river guiding. Mike Lane was also river guiding. Mike Lane was the manager of the company. We all three got together and decided to go our own way and opened our little retail shop and guiding business there in Kernville.

John is still running it to this day. He has a campground up on the upper Kern River. He’s doing great things with that thing. It’s called Mountain River Adventures. That first summer, we were guiding and having a blast. We had this little retail thing and they didn’t know what to do. They said, “You worked at age sixteen. You know about this stuff. Why don’t you go to the show and do some buying and get some stuff that we can sell?” That’s how I ended up with the trade show, it was buying for our shop.

Long story short, at the trade show and through Bob Gross, I met you and some of the Santa Cruz crowd, Vicki Boriack and Mark Lord. Mark Lord has passed. That was a sad thing. Here’s to you, Mark. Mark connected me with Kenny Ken. I can’t say one can catch. You were looking for a California rep. Long story short, they hired me to become the rep. I got to drive that motorhome up and down the state, which was a whole other experience. Do you remember that thing?

Yeah.

That thing seemed like it broke down every other trip I was on. We ended up getting a van. I’ll never forget going to see Summit Hut. There’s a little shop in Flagstaff, I’m blanking on the name. I had to keep my thumb on the auxiliary battery button pushed in while I was driving, otherwise, it would die. Ken still was on the phone. I had one of those dash-mounted cell phones. I’m on the phone and he’s guiding me to some motorhome repair shop that’s going to fix it.

I was stuck in Chico for a week one time. I was stuck at Yosemite one time. Finally, I told him, “Ken, this is not working.” I’m looking for this place and I pull up to what looked like at one time a motorhome place. It was an empty lot and I said, “It’s empty. There’s nothing here. You got to do something about this.” He flew down and got the motorhome and drove it back. We ended up getting a van. That’s how I got connected to those guys. That was fun.

I was thinking about the day on our way to Outdoor Retailer when it was back in Salt Lake City. We’re all riding in the motorhome and we’re pulling this giant trailer with our 60-foot booth inside. We’re over to the side of Interstate 80 near Elko standing on the shoulder and scratching our heads going, “It’s broken again. We were supposed to start building this booth yesterday.”

That happened frequently. That was an amazing motorhome. It was an FMC motorhome. It’s sleek and clean. They kept it immaculate. When it ran, I was passing cars going up to Grapevine on my way down to LA in that thing. That thing hauled fast. It was amazing. It was custom that when something broke, you had to get a custom part. Nine times out of ten, you broke down somewhere and waiting for a part. It was challenging. Those are fun times. That’s when we brought your Wishbone pack to market. Was that the first time that came to market?

Yes, it was. We were going to Osaka every six months for a big meeting where they would show us all their new goods. We would talk about what we wanted. The next thing I knew, I was crawling around on the cement floor in the basement of a pack-making shop in Seoul, Korea in the middle of the winter cutting patterns for the Wishbone pack.

The reason you get high is that your brain releases psychedelic compounds.

That was fun. Those were some good packs. We did a good job with those. Launching a new brand back then was different than it is now. We had our challenges in several different ways. We sure had a lot of fun. It was a cool product and they’re still around. I don’t know what they’re doing on the wholesale side of things these days. I know they have a couple of retail shops and they still make beautiful equipment. Shout out to Tatsuno. His son is running the thing these days. They still make beautiful equipment, lightweight, well-manufactured and it’s cool stuff.

The ski pants that I’ve been wearing every day out here are Montbell. Nobody else makes anything like it.

The shell that I wear around is still a Montbell shell. It’s great. I’ll always have some of that stuff. Let’s shift gears back to some of your writing. Was that clean climbing manifesto the first thing you had ever written? Had you written some things before that? I don’t know that story.

I was in college at San Francisco State and living in Haight-Ashbury in the winter. This was the late ‘60s. It’s another piece of serendipity. I wrote a piece in 1967 called Tuesday Morning on the Lyell Fork with Eliot’s Shadow. It was about taking a long hike to mount Lyell and wondering if I’d be able to pull this off and get all the way back to Tuolumne Meadows in one day. It was an enduro thing.

I sent it off to Ascent Magazine, which was a very literary high tone, beautiful paper with great black and white photos. It’s a classic. They surprised me by accepting it and putting it into print. I had about zero self-confidence as a writer then but I thought, “This is a flyer. I’ll send it to them. If nothing happens, it’s okay.” I then wrote the Climber As Visionary for them a couple of years later and then the Chouinard Equipment Catalog and then a piece for Powder Magazine about skiing the Muir Trail. Powder was brand new. It did one issue a year. It was about 2 millimeters thick.

We did a shoot with those guys. What was Dostal working for back then? Which magazine was that? Was that Backcountry?

It was Powder.

He came out and we came over here to the Sierra with Allan Bard and a bunch of yahoos. We went up into the Sierra. I had them all decked out in Montbell gear. Back then, the Montbell gear was brightly colored. I remember the eggplant that we did, these shiny eggplant pants, jacket and some pink stuff. I had Allan’s wife, Kate, in some pink stuff. We’re roaming around the backcountry. We had a blast. It was fun.

I remember the shots from that. Some of those colors were part of the reason that our American franchise failed. They were not exactly American colors. This is germane too. We put our hearts and souls into trying to make it. Another reason that we didn’t make it was we came onto the market during a small recession in the early ‘90s and there wasn’t much open to buy out there. The shops were all hunkering down with the brands that they knew they could sell.

We got Patagonia here and we know people will buy that. This Montbell stuff looks good but it’s not taking any chances. It’s germane at the moment because we got a giant recession or depression going on and it’s probably going to take years to come back. I feel for anybody who’s out there trying to pop out of their garage with, “Here’s the best new design for X backcountry gear.” It’s tough if you’re one of those people, good on you and good luck.

Keep hammering at it. You’re right, you could come up with a better mousetrap. At that time and these times, people are going to go with what they know, tried and true. We made a few inroads. A few folks tried some of our stuff because it was unique, well crafted and lightweight. Lightning-fast was our thing. We made a few head roads but not enough to launch a company. The Kens had some big plans. If they would have had a little bit more modest plans out of the gate, we might have made it. We had some pretty big numbers to hit and grandiose plans.

In the short time that I was there, we had three different offices. Remember those beautiful melamine desks? It was gorgeous. Those are fun times. Veronica, Vicki and the whole crowd. It was a cool tradeshow booth but it was difficult to set up because it was unique but it was beautiful. It was a gorgeous piece of furniture. It’s amazing.

It was striking to walk down the aisles and come up on that booth. It made you stop and stare.

Those were fun times. When did you write your first book? What was your first book?

I was writing for magazines for Outside and I helped start Outside Magazine. It’s another whole story, San Francisco in 1977 but we won’t go there. I wrote some cover stories for them. I was having such a good time with those guys. That was the first professional magazine that I’d ever been around. I ended up moving to San Francisco to hang out with them. I was making enough of a pest myself that they gave me a desk and a phone. I stayed in the winter. I wrote cover stories. We had a good time.

I was writing for Backpacker. I already mentioned Powder. That was half of my career and guiding was the other half. By the ‘90s, I had all these magazine articles that I had written that I liked and other people liked. I pulled them together into a book. My first book was an anthology of my own writing, the things I like the best going back to the ‘60s. It was a big success. It was named by Climbing Magazine as one of the 33 Must-Reads Climbing Literature of All Time.

I was reading that and that’s why I wanted you to tell the story. That’s awesome.

TOBP 216 | Life In The Backcountry
Life In The Backcountry: The shots from some of the colors were part of why our American franchise failed; they were not American colors.

 

It was pretty great. It wasn’t even my idea to make it into a book. I owe it all to Gilberto D’Urso from Mountaineer Books. He came to me and said, “Why don’t you pull together a book out of your writings?” I go, “I’m busy.” He persisted. Finally, I began to see that it was a good idea and did it. It still took me two years to pull the pieces together and write introductions and all that but it was worth it.

It’s never easy. That’s awesome. You have 2 or 3 books, right?

I have two books. I have a third book that I’m looking for a publisher for. The third one is another personal best writings from the past several years that have been published in magazines but not put into an anthology. I’m excited about that. In the meantime, in 2013, I finally published something I’d been working on for 40 years. It’s a joke.

I mentioned that way back in 1969, I wrote The Climber as Visionary. In it, I speculated about the relationship the climbers experience with psychedelic drugs and marijuana on the one hand. Here comes the guy who’s living in the Haight-Ashbury every winter. On the other hand, the experience of getting high from climbing, skiing or boating. It’s all relatively the same that way. The ‘69 article was mostly speculation.

Over the years since, I taught myself biochemistry. I read a lot of research papers. I put together what I think of and a lot of the scientists do too as proof of that speculation. The reason you get high is that your brain releases psychedelic compounds. We know that there’s a natural hormone that mimics marijuana too. The things we were doing to get high were so much like the experiences in the backcountry. It turned out to be almost the same.

The first book was A Night On the Ground A Day in the Open. The second one is The Alchemy of Action. I’ve read A Night On the Ground A Day in the Open. That’s one of my favorite books, one of my top ten. I haven’t finished The Alchemy of Action yet but it’s on the list with about four others.

Here’s a clue about that. Honestly, don’t worry too much about finishing it because the last chapters are technical. They’re about making scientific proof. You can dip in and out of those but feel free to skip stuff.

I do that with books anyway. I dip in and out. I’m still going through Doris Kearns’ book about Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft. It’s a massive book. I do that a lot. I read a little bit of that and then I’m going to clear my head on that and go somewhere else. Maybe a lot of other people do it.

I read that way too.

Some of these books are so great. You don’t want to not finish them but at the same time, you need to take a break. It sounds like you still get out a bunch. You were out skiing. Do you still backpack or mostly skiing? What’s your form of outdoor activity?

Honestly, I started climbing so much that backpacking fell away. When backcountry skiing came along, I realized, “Here’s a chance to go backpacking again.”

Do both. That’s fun.

I’ve got hundreds of days of camping out in the Sierra in the spring and getting sunburned.

It’s a beautiful time. I can’t ski anymore but I still can backpack. I still cannot do that.

You’ve got to do what you can.

You can’t stop going, that’s for sure.

That’s not an option.

The outdoor industry is so great because you gain great friendships.

For guys like us, that’s true, we can’t stop. It’s ingrained in us. It’s part of our life. It’s part of our being.

I was thinking about the people who might be following this show. I’m imagining that some of them are shop people working on the floor, some are designers, some marketers, whatever. We’re all in the same industry, this outdoor industry, which is great. It’s given us such great friendships and good times. I was thinking about the customer that walks into that shop and you’re the guy on the floor saying, “What can I do for you?” What you can do for them is not just talk about the qualities of the parkas and packs that you’re selling and that they want to buy but also the experience.

You’ve been out in the backcountry more than they have. You have experience and they admire that. They would love to soak it up and hear some of your stories, the there-I-was stuff that we all have. If you’re walking into your local mountain shop, you want to walk back out with a parka and a pack and a sleeping bag. You also want to rub shoulders with the experience itself. For you guys out there, don’t sell yourself short on that end of things. You got a lot to give people besides the tech specs.

A lot of the more traditional specialty outdoor stores still do that. There’s a lot of great shops around the country that still do a lot of that. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced world and online world, some of that gets lost in translation. Even some of the online stores do a great job curating product stories as opposed to product specs. There’s a fair amount that goes on still to the day.

We used to have so much fun at age sixteen. Age sixteen back then still had a guiding program, the outings program. We’d be out on the weekends. Mike Wallenfels is teaching rock climbing. I’m teaching maps, compass, backpacking and all those things. During the week, we’re on the floor, “I used this stove last weekend.” It was fun. We had a blast.

I’m not sure if Mike remembers this. Maybe I’m misremembering it. I was teaching a backpacking course for age sixteen out in Joshua Tree. It was a wintertime backpacking course. We couldn’t go to the local mountains because they’re full of snow. Mike and I were roommates at the time. Mike was driving and picking me up at McDonald’s in Temecula. It was a four-stop bump on the map back then. I finished the backpacking course. Those guys dropped me off at McDonald’s. Mike picked me up because we were going to the ski show for the first AMGA meeting. Do you remember that? Who knows when that was but that was a long time ago.

It was 1980. It’s in Las Vegas.

That makes more sense. The old ski show days. That’s a whole other story.

Nowadays, if you walk into OR, it’s big that you don’t even know where to start. Back in 1980, the outdoor industry was small enough that it was like a sidelight to the ski industry show. That’s why we were there.

Our first show with Montbell when OR broke off from SIA and had their own show, Outdoor Retailer formally, it was in the basement of the Reno Hilton or Reno Marriott or one of those Reno things. Do you remember how small that was? It was tiny. Do you have any other suggestions or advice for someone wanting to get into the outdoor biz or grow their career if they are already in the biz? That was a good piece of advice you gave.

Follow your bliss. That’s how all of us got in there. There are more avenues now. Do you know that you can get a college degree in designing outdoor gear?

Yes, I know that. There are a couple of places you could do that.

I learned about it because they wrote to me about putting some stuff in their archives. I got all excited. I want to go and talk to the students there.

Is it in Oregon State? Which place?

This is Logan, Utah. The University of Utah State.

Oregon State started one several a few years ago. It’s up in Bend. There are a couple of places. One of the things I tell everybody is my outdoor rec degree served me well over the years. It’s one of my entrances into the alternatives. Don’t be afraid to get an outdoor rec degree, a product design degree or something. There’s a bunch of places now.

I have one other oddball piece of advice too. Don’t think that you can get that degree from Oregon and be a product designer without the outdoor experience with it. You got to be out there with the rain, somehow finding its way to drip around the hood of your parka. You have to have that experience before you can know how to design around it or how to fix it.

TOBP 216 | Life In The Backcountry
The Alchemy of Action

When you do get in there, make sure you go out and field test it because there’s nothing like it. Dawson Westenskow was on the show. He’s starting an independent product management program. It’s out of Utah. He launched that right after he came on the show. He’s been a product guy with Oboz and other people over the years and he went out on his own. There are a lot of places to go and get educated. We were making up as we went.

It’s formalized. The opportunities keep expanding because the outdoor industry keeps expanding.

Speaking of gear, do you have a favorite piece of outdoor gear under $100?

Let me come back to that.

How about some favorite books? What’s your favorite book or books, a couple of books for us?

I have a soft spot for the book Annapurna. I read it when I was thirteen and it helped inspire me, “You can go out and get frostbite and have your toes amputated.” I’m being sarcastic.

That’s funny because a lot of us read those books. It’s the same thing. If you read that Shackleton book, Endurance, it’s like, “I want to go do that.” “What? They almost died. Do you want to go do that?” “Yeah.”

Yet, those things stick with you. The fact that I read that book at thirteen, it popped into my mind. If you want favorite books, there’s one.

That’s a good one. If you could have a huge banner at the entrance to the OR show these days, what would it say?

My banner would say, “Take care of the planet because if you don’t, nothing in this show is going to mean anything.”

That’s true. Well said. We’ve only got one planet. It’s amazing. One of the positives that are coming out of this Coronavirus is it’s cool to see the way and how fast the planet is coming back from all the years of abuse that we’ve given over the eons that we’ve been on the planet. You can see the Himalayas from Katmandu or India for the first time in 30 years. There are coyotes running around on the Golden Gate Bridge. The bear population is out and about over Yosemite. It’s awesome. The skies are clearer than they’ve ever been probably in my lifetime. That’s cool.

It’s setting a good benchmark for us. The high-tech folks who can design solar panel systems, go for it because we need it.

As we put this thing to bed, is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers before we wrap up?

Can I go back to your $100 gear?

Yes.

I’m going to cheat it upwards a little for $150. I’ll get a used pair of the skis that I skied on. They’re Fischer Out of Bounds Crown. It’s a new version. It’s a fatter Nordic ski with camber and a half and fish scales on the bottom. I haven’t used skins for years. I climb stuff with fish scales because it’s easier, simpler and lighter-weight. It can run back up the slope without stopping to put skins on and then ski back down without stopping to take them off.

You don’t have to carry them to and fro.

Take care of the planet because if you don’t, nothing in this show is going to mean anything.

These are simple skis. Retail, they are $350 or something. Mammoth Mountaineering has the best-used gear shop in California right there in Bishop. It’s called the gear exchange. They’re offloading their rental gear from winter. That’s where I’ve gotten my three pairs of those skis. If I had to have one pair of skis for the rest of my life, it’s those Fischer Out of Bounds Crown. They’re simple, light, low-tech but they do everything I want to do.

That’s phenomenal. Anything else you want to say to the readers before we sign off? Where can people find you?

My website is called MovingOverStone.com. It’s named after a video that I made in 1988. There’s not even time to tell that story.

TOBP 216 | Life In The Backcountry
Life In The Backcountry: Don’t think that you can get that degree from Oregon and be a product designer without the outdoor experience with it.

 

There are a lot of things we left out. We can come back.

This has been fun, Rick. Thank you.

Thank you. We keep saying in passing when you come to Bishop, “We got to get together.” We still got to get together but at least we got some stories out. We’ll do it again and get some more out. It’s been super fun, Doug. I appreciate it.

Me too. Thank you for the venue.

When are you going to be here next?

I’m going up to the Palisades. I’ll work on my secret first ascent.

I will catch you for a beer and maybe walk in with you. That’d be a blast.

That’d be cool.

I appreciate it, Doug. It’s been fun talking to you and we’ll talk soon.

Good deal, Rick.

Take it easy.

Keep it going.

 

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About Doug Robinson

Doug Robinson is a professional mountaineer known internationally for his climbing, guiding and backcountry skiing, as well as his poetic writings about the mountains and why we climb them. Closely identified with California’s High Sierra, Doug has been called “the modern John Muir.”