CHOUINARD ICE AXE HISTORY & IDENTIFICATION 1969 - 1989



  • I want to share information on the history of Chouinard ice axes. Much of what I know has come from my collection of Chouinard & Great Pacific Iron Works catalogs dating from 1967 – 1989, but I also want to thank Dane Burns, Marty Karabin, Steve Grossman & all the others, who shared information on Cold Thistle & the now defunct climbing blogsite supertopo. Based on my being a climber since 1969, an outdoor retail store owner from 1973 -1983, who sold Chouinard gear, my friendship since 1973 with one of the original Chouinard sales-reps, & my being a Chouinard gear & catalog collector since 1975, I take full responsibility for the accuracy of this information. Ray Brooks Nov 28, 2019.
    My photo of Dane Burns & a Chouinard Piolet. North Ridge Mt. Deborah, Hayes Range Alaska, May 1976.
    Dane Burns Deborah small.jpg

    In the mid-1950’s, Yvon Chouinard learned blacksmithing from a book, and began making his own pitons out of chrome-molybdenum steel. He was likely inspired by Yosemite climber, John Salathé, inventor of the modern piton. Unlike the European soft-iron pitons, Salathe & Chouinard pitons would not bend and come out of the rock if a climber fell. He made pitons on a portable coal forge, and sold them from his car at rock-climbing areas he visited on climbing trips.

    In 1957 Chouinard borrowed a little over $800 from his parents and bought a forging die. He set himself up in a shed behind his parents' house in Burbank and also manufactured aluminum carabiners. This backyard venture became Chouinard Equipment.

    Chouinard Equipment's first mail-order catalog came out in 1964. It was only a one-page list of equipment and prices, with advice not to expect speedy delivery during the climbing season. As demand for his climbing equipment grew, Chouinard moved his workshop to a shed near the beach in Ventura, California, because Chouinard was also fond of surfing, and he took on a partner, Tom Frost. Frost was also an avid climber, and he had a degree in aeronautical engineering. Frost's expertise allowed the company to take on more complicated designs, and to make more pieces by machine.

    Sales in the first few years were only several thousand dollars, and Chouinard and his employees took off frequently to climb. But the company grew in spite of itself. The quality of Chouinard's products was clearly better than that made in Europe, and even though the cost was substantially more, climbers would pay for the quality & durability.

    The Chouinard/Frost wood-shaft Piolet ice-axe, manufactured by Interalp Camp in Italy, hit the market in 1969, & helped to revolutionize ice climbing with its drooped-pick design.

    From my 1970 Chouinard brochure, where the Piolet was introduced. It has a Ventura CA postmark dated April 21 69 & some Piolets were shipping to important customers in 1969.

    1970 catalog piolet.JPG

    1970 catalog Piolet 1969 2.JPG

    The shorter ash handle axe retailed for $32.50 in 1970 & the longer hickory axe sold for $34.00

    Chouinard’s sales doubled each year from 1966 to 1972, and the 1972 catalog became more impressive. The catalog was full of climbing instructions, discussions of the ethics of removing your pitons from the rock versus leaving them in, quotations from experts, and in-depth descriptions of each piece of equipment. It resembled a book more than a commercial catalog, and the 1972 catalog was even reviewed in The American Alpine Journal book review section, because it was considered the finest literature available on climbing. Chouinard & Frost renamed their company The Great Pacific Iron Works in 1972. They kept the same catalog cover & format 1972 -74 & occasionally changed around catalog pages, with dropped items deleted, & new items added. My thanks to Black Diamond, for allowing me to post Chouinard catalog images on Redpoint.

    1972-74 Chouinard catalog cover..JPG

    1972 catalog piolet.JPG

    1972 Piolet 2.jpg

    In the Great Pacific Iron Works 1975 – 77 catalogs, with a Tom Frost photo of Macapuchare in Nepal on the cover, new notches on the Piolet pick were added next to the shaft. An alternate material to laminated bamboo for the shaft was added, Rexilon. The Rexilon shaft on Chouinard ice axes was made of a laminate of 18-layers of beech ("faggio" in Italian). It was originally used for pole-vaulting poles in the days before fiberglass composites. Price was now $60.00 for bamboo & $55.00 for the slightly heavier, but stronger Rexilon.

    1975-77 Chouinard GPIW cover..JPG

    1975 catalog.JPG

    1975 catalog 2.JPG

    My 60 Cm. laminated bamboo shaft Chouinard Piolet, working as a belay point, while I place a Warthog ice screw. Feb. 1975 up Icicle Creek, near Leavenworth WA.

    Wind_02_061-small.JPG

    In 1977 Chouinard ended his partnership with Tom Frost & took FROST off of the pick, per the axe at far right in this photo. This also show Chouinard Piolet shaft materials from 1969 - 1979. From left, Ash, Hickory, Rexilon, Laminated bamboo.

    hickory, ash rexilon, bamboo..JPG

    The first edition of the 1978-79 Great Pacific Iron Works catalog, which features a photo of the Cerro Torre group of peaks in Patagonia, shows only laminated bamboo shaft Piolets & introduces the new Zero ice axes, & North Wall hammers, but by later editions of that catalog, the wood shafts had been replaced with a composite shaft.

    1978-79 Great Pacific Ironworks cover.jpg

    1978 Chouinard cat bamboo Zero.jpg

    And the real thing. Chouinard's last models of wood shaft axes.

    IMG_6654.JPG

    OK! We are at the end of the wood shaft Chouinard axe era, but there is much more to follow!



  • So when did the bamboo tools stop being produced (1979?)? Mine is post 1977 as it just has Chouinard's name. The tools in your pics have holes in the spike. Mine doesn't.



  • @johntp The exact date is hazy, since the bamboo shafts were phased out. as inventory dwindled. Late 1978, early 1979. Per this 1978 catalog photo of a bamboo Piolet, only the Zero & North Wall Hammer had holes in their spikes.

    1978 chouinard piolet.jpg



  • @FritzRay

    Thanks



  • By the late 70’s, other manufacturers were stealing market share from Chouinard with synthetic-shaft axes & it was finally time for Chouinard to move on. The 1979 Great Pacific Iron Works catalogs featured the below pages of new “carbon-glass” shaft ice tools. Insiders have mentioned the below catalog pages, from late 1978 or early 1979 catalog, were somewhat rushed & the photos are of painted-over Chouinard wood shafts.

    1978 catalog fiberglass piolet page.jpg

    1978 catalog fiberglass zero n North wall hammer page.jpg

    By the 1980 Great Pacific Iron Works - Chouinard catalog, the classic CAMP Interalp Italian- produced Piolet head design is also gone, replaced by an entirely American-made axe with an ugly welded head, that lacked aesthetics, but worked just fine. Dane Burns is certain SMC (Seattle Manufacturing Co.) made the welded heads for Chouinard.

    1980 Chouinard.JPG

    1980 piolet.JPG

    1980 north wall and zero.JPG

    It appears CAMP Interalp continued to manufacture Chouinard Zeros & North Wall hammers in Italy, with their classic forged head, after 1980. This is based on products marked Chouinard from Europe showing up on EBay, that are similar to, but not the same as the pre-1980 Zero & North Wall hammers sold in the U.S. by Chouinard.
    Here’s an example with the U.S. style at left.

    Chouinard U.S. vs European North Wall hammers 2.JPG

    Chouinard U.S. vs European North Wall hammers..JPG

    And here is a photo of a post-1980, made in USA axe head, and the classic Italian made, Chouinard axe head.

    Interalp Piolet head compard to US made Chouinard head..JPG



  • Just thought

    Wouldn't it be something if CHOUINARD himself weighed in with a comment?



  • zbrown! Per your thoughts!

    Just thought

    Wouldn't it be something if CHOUINARD himself weighed in with a comment?

    It would be a "first" on a Chouinard ice axe thread.



  • Climbed Buck Mtn in the Tetons and a few other things with my Blue chiounard in the summer of 2018. Its semi retired now. replaced with a Much , Much lighter BD Raven Pro. IMG_4011.jpg

    This was a pretty cool peak in Beartooth pass.
    IMG_4295.jpg

    and Glory Mtn Teton pass
    IMG_3706.jpg



  • Nick! Thanks for posting up those scenic Chouinard X-tool photos. When they were introduced in 1983, I was out of my retail outdoor shop & no-longer ice climbing, so I never owned any. But I have lots of Chouinard catalog copy.

    In 1981, Chouinard produced separate Chouinard climbing gear catalogs & Patagonia Software catalogs, as well as a combined Great Pacific Iron Works catalog. After that, there were no more Great Pacific Iron Works catalogs. He introduced a new ice axe in 1982.

    1982 catalog axes (1).JPG

    In 1983 Chouinard’s new X-Tools, with interchangeable picks, are introduced.

    1983 X-tools catalog axes (2).JPG

    1983 catalog axes (4).JPG

    In the 1984 Chouinard catalog, the X-Tools are changed to a single-bolt, with a mechanical lock, attachment for the picks & are more fully explained. Other new axes are added.

    1984 catalog axes (6).JPG

    1984 catalog axes (7).JPG

    1984 catalog axes (8).JPG

    1984 catalog axes (9).JPG

    1984 catalog axes (10).JPG

    1984 catalog axes (11).JPG

    And a new Basic Ice axe is added.

    1984 catalog axes (13).JPG

    In the 1986 catalog Chouinard introduces a new budget-priced axe, the Piolini.

    1986 new Piolini.JPG

    The 1987 Chouinard catalog identifies the Basic Ice Axe & the Piolini a little better.

    1987 catalog Basic & Piolini.JPG

    My friend Chris Hecht gave me this Basic Ice Axe for my collection last year. Thanks Chris.

    1989 Alpamayo 1.JPG

    1989 Alpamayo 2.JPG

    In the final Chouinard climbing gear catalog in 1989, another new axe is introduced, The Alpamayo. It appears the X-Tools did not change substantially between 1984 & 1989.

    1989 Alpamayo axe 1989.jpg

    The End.

    By 1989, Chouinard’s clothing company Patagonia was a huge money maker for Chouinard & the climbing & ski hardgoods division was not. There was also a substantial liability risk with selling climbing & ski gear. Chouinard Gear declared bankruptcy & his gear employees formed Black Diamond with Chouinard’s blessings. Black Diamond initially used the Chouinard tools & machinery & much of what they sold for the first two years was still marked Chouinard. Chouinard continues as chief owner of Patagonia.



  • That blue Zero with the reverse pick that I origionaly bought it with was state of the art when I pulled the trigger in 83 or 84?? though eventually I mostly retired it because the 60cm length was not ideal for waterfall ice that I was climbing with my Simond Chakal and Cassin Anteres both in 45cm and my 43cm humming bird. later in life the blue Zero came back into service as a mountain ax. Me soloing damnation Gully in possibly 85? spring conditions. Cheap plastic ski gloves from the $5.00 bin in the Ski Shack. clip on sunglasses over my prescription rigs with duct tape and cardboard hoods. Poor mans glacier goggles.

    old stuff0018.jpg



  • this was my kit in 1998 When I met Isa. I have the chiounard Zero in my right hand. Likely the Simond Chakal in my left. The Hummingbird is holstered for starting screws and pounding snargs. Isa must be on borrowed gear.
    0002img.jpg
    this was Isa's rig. when we met. I think her outfit looks better 😉
    0004img.jpg



  • Nice piece of work putting this history together.


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