Royal Robbins: “This importing business is a real can of ---

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Fritz

Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 27, 2009 - 04:08pm PT
The quote was in a mid-1970's newsletter for his imported climbing gear company: Mountain Paraphernalia.

Royal Robbins: “This importing business is a real can of annelids.”

Royal Robbins imported climbing gear from Europe starting in 1969. He brought in Galibier boots, Edelrid ropes, Ultimate Helmets, Salewa, Peck nuts and pitons, and a host of lesser known products. He also stocked many British climbing books and was the U.S. distributor for Mountain Magazine.

Unfortunately there isn’t much history available on the internet about the time line of his business or the gear he sold. One problem is that although his business did have catalogs, they were mainly for use by the retail stores Robbins sold to. So instead of many thousands being printed, likely only a few-hundred were each year. I have not been able to find any Mountain Paraphernalia catalogs and hope fellow ST posters will help fill in the history.

“Royal Robbins-Spirit of the Age”, the 1991 bio by Pat Ament does not dwell much on Royal’s business history. He notes that Royal had recommended Chouinard to Galibier boots as a U.S. distributor. Somewhere in the late 60’s, when Royal wanted to start importing Galibier: “It was cause for slight consternation now that they had given the distributorship of their own ’Robbins boot’ to Chouinard. It made sense to get it back. They struck a deal with Chouinard and Frost, an offer that Royal and Liz almost had to refuse---but didn’t.”

In a May 1985 “Backpacker Magazine” article several interesting facts about the business come out. When Royal started importing Galibier, he was asst. manager of a paint store (Liz's family’s store) in Modesto. The original business was in the basement of the paint store in 1969.

With success in selling the RR rock shoe he had designed for Galibier, within a year he was able to add other Galibier boots, climbing helmets, and camping gear.
Royal's original product, which he had designed for Galibier.  The fam...
Royal's original product, which he had designed for Galibier. The famous RR's. Photo and shoes from Gordon Williams
Credit: Gordon Williams

The wholesale branch of business name became “Mountain Paraphernalia.” In 1979 the name changed to “Robbins Mountaingear”, then to “Royal Robbins” in 1982.

In “Spirit of the Age” Pat Ament adds that “kayaks were added to the wares of Mountain Paraphernalia. From other references, it appears that this was in 1973 or 1974. Interestingly the book indicates that selling Kayaks came first, then Royal decided he had better learn the sport.

From “Spirit of the Age:” “In 1979 Liz started to design clothes. The first of these were the ’Billy Goat Shorts’ cut for freedom of movement.-------The business was growing, and it was not long before Royal and Liz would quit the sales of climbing equipment altogether and devote all of their sales to clothing.”

“Royal and Liz had suffered a lawsuit when a climber was injured by the failure of a piece of climbing equipment. They won the suit when they were able to establish that the person had misused the gear, but the incident further convinced them of the wisdom of going to clothes solely.”

Galibier ad in Seattle area climbing magazine: "Off Belay" Oct. 1972
Galibier ad in Seattle area climbing magazine: "Off Belay" Oct. 1972
Credit: Fritz


Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 27, 2009 - 04:20pm PT
Interesting thread, Fritz!
Do you recall the piece of gear that failed? Carabiner, I bet.

The blue RR's were my first shoes and I used them until the footbeds just about rotted out. A good friend of mine managed the last resole and handed them back saying with disgusted finality, "this is the LAST time!" LOL

RR also designed a version of the verappe style climbing shoe that a lot of people really liked.
jstan

climber
Nov 27, 2009 - 04:33pm PT
Personal protective equipment is a major hot button. Has been so for some decades now and the continuing emphasis on safety in the society at large has only begun to run its course. The CEO's I have seen don't know anything about their business but they do understand the impact liability can have on the bottom line. In the midst of major problems whole staff meetings are dedicated to "safety."

Heads up kids.
Fritz

Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 27, 2009 - 04:47pm PT
Steve: No idea what the lawsuit was on. Carabiner or rope makes sense to me.
However I did find this notice in the June 1976 issue of Off Belay about a Ultimate Helmet recall.
From Off Belay June, 1976
From Off Belay June, 1976
Credit: Fritz
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 27, 2009 - 06:08pm PT
That would certainly make sense. Helmet performance liability would be a spooky proposition.
Roger Breedlove

climber
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Nov 27, 2009 - 06:27pm PT
I never liked RRs and, at least after EBs came out, I don't think Royal did either. I asked him about the design of RRs and he said that "They didn't turn out the way I designed them." I seem to remember something about him wanting something you could use to stand in slings. EBs were hard to get at the time, and I needed a new pair. Royal said he had an extra pair which he offered to me. He told me where they where in his closet. Someone let me in and I picked them up.

Royal was hopping mad at me for taking the wrong pair. The pair he offered me was too small for him (and me) and I had taken the pair that fit him (and me). I offered to give them back, but he muttered that I didn't need to do that. They became more available soon after that.

In those early, uncertain years, I asked Royal how Yvon's business was doing. He said, "The last I saw Yvon, he wasn't complaining how bad business was, so I would guess he is doing very well." Both Yvon and Royal (and Liz) were tenacious in getting their business off the ground.

The whole issue of liability for both climbing gear and guiding were serious issues for someone with a family or lots of time and money tied up in a new business.
Fritz

Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 27, 2009 - 06:29pm PT
Steve: You mentioned "RR also designed a version of the Verappe style climbing shoe that a lot of people really liked."

Here is a Jan 1977 ad from Climbing for a newer Verappe. Is this the one?
Credit: Fritz
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Nov 27, 2009 - 06:40pm PT
Thanks Fritz. All true.

Vandiver and I worked in the basement of Valley Paint off and on for a couple of years (70-73) back in the very early seventies. Although we were both sort of stationed in Berkeley and Alameda, we would drive out to Modesto when Royal called. The Mountain Paraphernalia business was fledgling of course and a big part of what took place back then was peridodically receiving large shipping containers full of climbing gear sent over from Europe. So briefly there would be just one hell of a lot of inventory, a huge part of which had already been earmarked for the many many accumulated backorders from retailers all over the US. The two of us would unload the containers parked temporarily on the street and bring the gobs of items into a vacant building just down the street from Valley Paint and start sending it out frantically. I think it was owned by his father-in-law or an associated, this space. What was left over after all the backorders were filled then went into the basement under the paint store where a makeshift “store” was set up. A large part of the bulk of course was comprised of Galibier boots and shoes. Edelrid ropes and cordage, Peck crackers and Clog nuts were also part of the business. There was not a large number of manufacturers at first; the business was not very complex.

The big issues were handling the importing and also handling suspicious retailers who would at times accuse RR of playing favoritism in selectively filling long-awaited backorders, and too, handling the expected tedium of the earlier years in tiny distributorship in the basement of a Central Valley town. From what we could tell, RR did not play some evil game of favoritism with the limited amount that Richard-Pontvert/Galibier sent us: you see, there never was enough to completely fulfill the backordered demand so no one got all that they had ordered but rather an allotment. Alfter all we were on alotment as well; why I don’t know. But RR had to handle the accusations, sometimes personal ones even.

But the best part of Chris’ and my experience working for Liz and Royal was their hospitality at their home on Durant: Liz’s great cooking, the endless dinner table fun and wine, the many engaging discussions and of course their frequent interesting and usually legendary visitors from all over. Endless tennis was also part of our regimen, even in three-degree Central Valley heat; we would go for hours.

A couple of times, Royal and Liz would take trips and leave the house in my care. There was a trip to Baja California--- I think the Sea of Cortez with Linnea and Joe Fitschen, I am recalling. And I would babysit the house. They did not have kids yet but would soon and were able to really get around a great deal. They were always incredibly good about keeping up their outdoors interests and seemed never to let the business drag them down into a hole. Liz’s mom and dad would frequently visit too during the day.

Yeah, kayaking. He had me come up and stay with him for awhile and he put a couple of us through the rollover training for kayakers in the country club swimming pool prior to actually going on the Upper Stanislaus River the next day. That outing went well with no wipeouts although a group of guides who lived on that stretch of the river in a makeshift kayakers’ camp rushed onto a bridge to watch our group of newbies face our first class-3-4 or something rapid right off the bat.

RR explained how eddies worked and how the river actually often has powerful currents that, counterintuitively, run back up the river, not just always down, and how to use these currents for various purposes. He also demonstrated ferrying across the main current and some other seemingly magical aspects of rivers. And he warned us about some of the hazards. I had a great time and because I had about 6 years of relentless surfing in the chilly 52 degree waters of Santa Cruz by this point, the river seemed actually warm and the sport just really fun. When I was to go again with him some weeks or months later my $50 1952 chevy pickup up blew up on the freeway and had to call in a no-show to him; I fell off his list of Johnny-go-to’s. It never was the same afterwards. Time just ripped right on by.
Fritz

Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 27, 2009 - 06:54pm PT
Peter: Thank you for a great post on this little explored subject. I really was fascinated by your insider history.

What do you know about Royal sponsoring "Climbing slide shows?"

Royal showed up in Moscow Idaho in 1973 for a "slide show" on his British crag climbing. My buddy Bruce Franks loaned him a couch and a sleeping bag. We got to go drink and play Fooz-ball. Of course Royal was a fierce competitor.

Next year John Cleare showed up, stayed longer and even climbed with us.

John was back within a year or two, then Doug Scott (who insisted we buy he and his wife a motel room).

It appeared that Royal sent all these people "out to the sticks" based on the fact that we were a good customer? We did pay moderate "lecture fees" for John Cleare and a larger one for Doug Scott. Can't remember if we paid Royal, but there was probably a little money involved, even though we were buying stuff from him. Seemed like a bargain at the time.
Mighty Hiker

climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Nov 27, 2009 - 06:58pm PT
Thanks for the stories! It seems that Mountain Paraphernalia had two arms, the wholesale/distribution, and the retail. The latter seems usually to have been advertised as "Robbins Mountain Shop", rather than MP. Or perhaps they were nominally or actually separate businesses, for whatever corporate/financial reasons may have applied?

In his account of the first solo ascent of the Muir Wall (1968), Robbins talks about taking two weeks off from his job selling paint in the central valley in spring time (busy season), and the job being with his father in law. Must have been interesting arranging that.
Tami

Social climber
Vancouver, Canada
Nov 27, 2009 - 07:07pm PT
On the other hand I LOVED my bluesuede shoes. They were also the boots used at Squamish for early heinous slab routes. I know the FA of White Lightening was done in RRs and I believe the FA of the horrendous Grim Reaper was also done in RRs

I bought a pair the summer of '78 and my first adventure with them - doing Outer Space on Snow Creek Wall in Icicle Ck - was a TOTAL epic. I had blisters to choke a horse from 'em. But, after they were broken in , they were gold. I eventually murdered them treeplanting in northern BC in the summer of 1986. By this time they were only fit to be eaten by goats.

It was nice to be able to have procured a pair of RRs in my size ( about mens size 5 ) . Half the length was their width & that fit my paws PERFECTLY.

Royal ? If yer lurkin? THANKYOU !!!

AND what a GREAT THREAD!!!!!

Fritz

Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 27, 2009 - 07:10pm PT
Another Mountain Paraphernalia ad or two for the timeline.
Wonder lights.  Other than Galibier, the oldest Robbins Ad I could fin...
Wonder lights. Other than Galibier, the oldest Robbins Ad I could find in Mountain Magazine Nov. 1972
Credit: Fritz

And an article from Off Belay Oct 1972, on Peck Pitons: which Robbins was importing. (Who owns a Peck Piton or remembers anything about them?)
Credit: Fritz

Rokjox

Trad climber
Boys I'dunno
Nov 27, 2009 - 07:20pm PT
In maybe 75 I buzzed the VW down to Robbins Mountain shop to watch Harding's slideshow. Can't remember a single slide. Couldn't take my eyes off the little guy, he was so compelling to watch talk. Best coupla dollars I ever gave a store-owner.




The blue suede's were great in the desert. Authoritative toe/heel jamming and tough enough to walkoff for miles back to the car. Not everything is friction. And I thought they worked fine in aiders, at my weight they felt like standing in saddle stirrups. After I wore mine to death, I bought Hargis's from him.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 27, 2009 - 07:22pm PT
I never thought to take a photo of the Robbins Mountain Shop in Modesto because it seemed the picture of permanence. I recall mustering up my courage and sticking my head into the back office to ask Royal if any bashies were needed on the NA Wall. He gave me a slightly irritated look before politely declining to answer by saying that it had been quite a while since he had been up there. Funny to see the situation more clearly after so any decades.

Lance- Do you remember the Batso slideshow that included some Porcelain Wall slides that he gave in Tucson?
Ray Olson

Trad climber
Imperial Beach, California
Nov 27, 2009 - 07:33pm PT
Beautiful thread Fritz.
Great stories and pics.
Rokjox

Trad climber
Boys I'dunno
Nov 27, 2009 - 07:43pm PT
I think I was out of town for that one.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Nov 27, 2009 - 07:45pm PT
Fritz, RR was very careful with his slide collection. They were stored in one of the spare bedrooms on Durant, along with the climbing gear, just up the hall from the dining room. Where the pullup bar was installed in the doorway. It was well organized and pretty damned impressive. I think it is clear that one of RR’s greatest strengths was his ability to prepare and organize and to mobilize the men and materials necessary. And when he would encounter personal inadequacy he would set out to bring that area up to par as well. Just a really hardworking coping person and motivated. When he would “relax” it was by “checking out”, sort of, and going on autopilot for brief minutes or by even more play but in a different endeavor, like tennis and travel. His writing was also a complementary process. If he was in the heat of a writing spell he would stay up all night picking words and trying sentences, all very slowly and with long moments of thought. Writing was hard for him. I would wake up the next morning on the beanbag in the living room and find that he had not left the dining table the whole night. He was sitting there papers at hand, ready for another day of it, coffee at hand.

Yeah I do remember Peck pitons. I think I have some still! They had their uses but weren’t quite as tough and all pitons were rapidly going out of use anyway.

I think I went through only two pair of RR’s although back in the early seventies RR’s were not bad at all for offwidth and wall climbing. And when they were not totally worn out they could edge like crazy especially if you came out of the sixties and were used to most all climbing shoes being board-lasted, stiff, and with major heel counters and actual tread. I think the rubber was slightly stickier than PA’s, my chosen freeclimbing shoe. The huge-ass toe-box on RR boots was unbelievably inapropriate for the thin crack climbing that was coming up however. And it is true that the results from Galibier were not totally what RR had hoped for. Even back then RR and eventually many of us had feet that were just getting really blown out by climbing with increasingly worse results so some comfort was becoming attractive and most climbing also involved lots of approach/retreat work where super-tight climbing slippers and shoes were almost unthinkable to wear. Carrying a second pair of shoes was not something we saw until the mid-seventies.

Yeah, Anders. The initial thrust of RR’s and Liz’s business was modestly-scaled wholesale distribution but climbers actually could stop by Valley Paint and get a fit or pick stuff up, too. It was a friendly, transitional situation. It did not happen a great deal in comparison to the wholesale receive-and-send-it-out business that was the real activity. RR’s relationship with his parents-in-law was a great one. Mr Burkner was a gas and pretty impressive too. Strong person.

They did not want to be too fastened down in the earlier years but pretty quickly they took the fantastic old water department building (where Damon’s cafe is now on 10th st) and began an actual retail venue. Then there was a store in Fresno they opened. Russ McLean worked there for a while even. Meanwhile Rockcraft was going on and the many trips and the slide shows. A lot.

The “rag business” was really attractive to them and they were watching how well Doug Tompkins and Susie Tompkins had done with Esprit de Corps and the North Face. Plus Dougie was constantly on both of them and Chouinard to do clothing--- the margins were fantastic and you could have stuff made abroad, depending. And it was a lot of fun, especially for Liz. They got into design and manufacture. Royal was in to it too, of course.
Pate

Trad climber
The Lost Highway
Nov 27, 2009 - 08:19pm PT
Keep going Peter, don't stop.
Fritz

Trad climber
Hagerman, ID
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 27, 2009 - 08:49pm PT
Peter: I really believe we are working on a chapter in the history of climbing. Thank you so much for your posts.

Some more Robbins ads from the early 1970's.

Galibier/Robbins Ad from Off Belay, Feb 1973
Galibier/Robbins Ad from Off Belay, Feb 1973
Credit: Fritz

From Mountain, March 1974
From Mountain, March 1974
Credit: Fritz

Pate

Trad climber
The Lost Highway
Nov 27, 2009 - 08:51pm PT
That goes for you too Fritz- I could read this stuff forever.
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