Clean climbing changed both the art of the sport and the ethos of the community. It’s an important part of climbing’s history—and an important part of climbing’s future.
The 1960s marked an awakening in American climbing characterized by a vast increase in climbing activity, closely paralleled by a corresponding improvement in technique and equipment. Significant climbing advances have resulted. On the other hand, this combination is producing a serious problem – deterioration of the climbing environment. The deterioration is twofold, involving the physical aspect of the mountains and the moral integrity of the climbers.
No longer can we assume the earth’s resources are limitless; that there are ranges of unclimbed peaks extending endlessly beyond the horizon. Mountains are finite, and despite their massive appearance, they are fragile.
—Tom Frost and Yvon Chouinard, excerpted from the 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalogRead the Full Story
“It was a total failure.”
In the early ’70s, the Chouinard Equipment catalog advocated for a new kind of climbing, one that called for restraint in order to protect the rock. Rather than using brute force to climb routes by any means necessary, Yvon Chouinard and others argued that good style mattered more than the send. They called it “clean climbing.” Practically speaking, clean climbing would replace pitons and other bash-in gear with chocks and hexes, new kinds of protection that were easily removed and less damaging to the rock. But the more ambitious goal of clean climbing was to encourage an ethic where the climber relied on their judgment and skill, rather than gear, and left no evidence of their ascent. Emerging around the same time in the United States and Europe, clean climbing soon changed the way climbers protected routes. But when asked today what effect the movement had, Chouinard is unequivocal: “The only appropriate answer is zero.”
—Mailee Hung, excerpted from “Bring Back Clean Climbing,” our 2022 reflection on the state of the movement.Read the Full Story
For much of climbing’s history, pitons were the primary piece of safety equipment in the mountaineer’s toolkit. Pitons were initially made of soft iron, but Yvon Chouinard began forging his own out of tough chrome-moly steel and selling them out of the back of his car in the 1950s. Driven into the rock with hammers by the leader and then removed by the follower, their widespread use in the early days of rock climbing has left nasty pin scars from the Shawangunks to Yosemite Valley. Pitons are still used today, but are now mostly relegated to remote alpine ascents.
The 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog
The clean climbing movement arguably began across the pond on UK gritstone as early as the 1920s, with British climbers eschewing pitons for what they considered better style. But from the ’30s to the ’60s, pitons were the primary form of protection for climbers in the States. By the late ’50s Chouinard was making the best of them, and by 1972 Chouinard Equipment was the premier manufacturer of climbing gear in the US.
But through the ’60s, the golden age of Yosemite climbing, Chouinard and his cohort realized that the damage pitons did to the rock was irrefutable, and worse, irreversible. Chouinard and his business partner Tom Frost opened their 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalog with a note urging their customers to stop using pitons and start using removable protection, such as hexentrics and nuts. Accompanying their letter was a 14-page article by Doug Robinson that was part clean climbing manifesto, part how-to guide for this new gear. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for the company Patagonia is today.
Hexentrics: “Metal chocks for climbing evolved from the use of machine nuts originally collected alongside the Snowdon Railways tracks as climbers hiked up to Clogwyn du'r Arddu. Now, 11 years later, the irregular hexagon-shaped Chouinard Hexentric is created specifically with cracks in mind … The Hexentric presents a profile much like a wedge-shaped nut (the Chouinard Stopper), but is shorter for tight settings. To take advantage of the tight settings resulting from piton holes a fine gradation of Hexes in the small to standard angle piton size range is provided. Hopefully, these piton scars need not grow.” —1972 Chouinard Equipment catalog
Stoppers: “To place a nut you must begin by thinking about the shape of cracks. Right from the start clean climbing demands increased awareness of the rock environment. Consider the taper of a crack. Is it converging, that is, flared in reverse, wider inside than at the lip? Or it may be parallel-sided with an even width. Or at the other extreme, flared …” —1972 Chouinard Equipment catalog