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Climbing Fashion in the Stoned Age: Those 1970s Rock Climbing Clothes

The 1970s were a momentous time in not only American history but also rock climbing fashion. It was a time of sweeping out the stogy fashions of mom and dad and the post-war 1950s and embracing the late 1960s hippie ethic with bright clothes, headbands, painter pants, and rugby shirts.

In the 1970s, climbers dropped the old climbing style of protecting routes with archaic piton pounding from the 1950s and 1960s, which destroyed the rock and cracks. Instead, climbers embraced a new rock ethic that emphasized climbing free and clean, slotting nuts like Hexentrics and Stoppers in cracks and attempting to do routes all free, without resorting to aid climbing and gear trickery, to get from the cliff base to the top, all without damaging the rock surface.

Eric Bjornstad and Ken Wyrick in a clash of climbing clothes styles on the summit of Echo Tower near Moab after its first ascent about 1970. Photograph courtesy Eric Bjornstad

1970s Climbing Clothes: Freedom of Movement

Climbing clothes in the 1970s were all about freedom of movement and really, just plain freedom from tradition and blah. If you look at photos of rock jocks in Yosemite Valley, a crew which included Jim Bridwell, John Long, and John Bacher, they are usually wearing short gym shorts and muscle shirts or no shirts at all. They look more like surf bums than the sixties climbing bums. That surfing free-and-easy lifestyle was in fact part of the seventies climbing scene. As gear guru and 1960s master climber Yvon Chouinard once said, “If we weren’t climbers, we would all be surfers.”

Yvon Chouinard (right) and Chuck Pratt, Royal Robbins, and Tom Frost after the first ascent of the North American Wall on El Capitan in 1964 wearing traditional Sixties climbing clothes. Photograph courtesy Tom Frost/Wikipedia

Yvon Chouinard Brings Style to the Seventies

Speaking of Yvon Chouinard, the man, who was an icon of Yosemite climbing in the sixties, also left his claw marks on climbing equipment and clothing. It was Chouinard who started Great Pacific Ironworks in the 1960s to make durable chrome-moly pitons and then in the early 1970s the Hexentric and Stopper nuts, which are still made, sold, and used today. But it was Chouinard who introduced fashion to climbing in the 1970s. Prior to then, climbers wore plain functional clothes, often scarfed up from Army surplus stores, like cut-off chinos, military khaki pants, and white cotton and flannel shirts.

Jimmie Dunn wears a rugby shirt, painter's paints, and headband in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in 1977. Photograph courtesy Dennis Jackson

Rugby Shirts, Cagoules, and Stand-Up Pants

In 1970 Chouinard bought some colorful rugby shirts on a climbing trip to Scotland and his buds back in California liked their style and durability so he began importing them under a new clothing division of his business, which he simply called Chouinard Equipment, which later became Patagonia.

He also began selling waterproof cagoules and anoraks, reversible knitted hats called “schizos,” and the famed stand-up pants and shorts made of sturdy canvas with double seat and knees for crack climbing and big walls. One of Chouinard’s catalogues called their rugby shirts “the most practical shirts we have found for rock climbing.”

Climbing punks hang out at The Cobbler Mountain Shop in Colorado Springs n 1978. From left to right: Dennis Jackson, Brian Delaney, Leonard Coyne, and Pete Williams. Photograph @ Stewart M. Green

Climbing, Surfing, Skateboarding, and Punks

A lot of climbing fashion as well as the climbing dirt-bag culture that manifested in the 1970s sprang from not only the pot-smoking freedom of late 1960s hippie culture and the California surfer subculture but also from skateboarding, which began in the mid-seventies after a long drought in California left swimming pools empty. A bunch of surfers called the Z-Boys crew from Santa Monica began concrete surfing the dry pools on their wheeled boards, creating modern skateboarding. Their restlessness, coupled with the burgeoning urban Punk movement from boredom and anger with mainstream culture and the greedy bourgeoisie, pushed a lot of disaffected young people into nature, away from society and into their own social hierarchy of rock climbing.

Marty Karabin, collector of antique climbing gear and clothes, models my 1970s Chouinard rugby shirt, Whillans harness, and assortment of old climbing nuts and cams at Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. Photograph @ Stewart M. Green

The Dirt-Bag Climbing Culture

Climbing fashion in the 1970s more or less came from the dirt-bag climbing culture. A lot of climbers escaped home, mom and dad, university, and work by heading out into the world and staying for months at a time at places like Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite Valley, doing, as my friend Dennis Jackson says, “climbing your brains out!”

The climbing lifestyle was about making do with what cash you had or could earn by working as a guide, part-time dishwasher at Curry Village, or selling pot collected from a crashed Mexican drug-plane in the Yosemite backcountry and living for months in a tent or ’69 VW bus. Life was about freedom, nonconformity, friendship, and, of course, climbing.

Henry Barber, one of the best 1970s free climbers, sports a flat-top cap and painter's pants at Turkey Rock in 1979. Photograph @ Stewart M. Green

Utilitarian Climbing Clothes: Painter's Pants & Bandanas

Climbing clothes were a reflection of that dirt-bag, climb-all-the-time ethic. Clothes were utilitarian, like white painters pants and cool t-shirts, either plain or with designs, and, of course, the ubiquitous bandana tied around the head. There were few specialty climbing clothes except those sold by Chouinard Equipment.

The big outdoor manufacturers like North Face and others simply didn’t see a market in making and selling sport-specific clothes to poor climbers. That really didn’t begin to happen until the 1990s with the advent of climbing gyms and the promotion of rock climbing as a more mainstream sport rather than the arcane and esoteric brotherhood and sisterhood that it was in the 1970s.

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