March 12, 2013

After the Golden Age

Sunset lights Horsetail Falls in
Yosemite each mid-February;
discovered by Galen Rowell, 1973
Last year, I was reading up on all the artisanal food companies in Brooklyn these days, and I commented in passing:
In a couple of decades, a few of the people who were in on the Brooklyn artisanal food scene in, say, 2007, will be billionaires, and will, no doubt, be greatly resented as sell outs by all the people who were there with them and didn't make it big. But, such is the way of the world.

I find this an interesting phenomenon of who among the people who got there early manages to cash in on a golden age. 

For example, the two dominant personalities among Yosemite Big Wall climbers in the late 1950s-1960s golden age were Warren Harding (not the President, but a Northern California surveyor who took up climbing at age 30) and Royal Robbins (a wunderkind from Tahquitz Rock in Southern California). Robbins climbed the 2000' face of Half Dome in the summer of 1957, so Harding climbed the 3000' El Capitan that fall. They traded off firsts for years, teaming up with dozens of other climbers, although, as far as I know, never with each other.
Half Dome

Harding finally became a celebrity in 1970 when he and a partner took 27 days to climb the Wall of the Early Morning Light on El Capitan. After about three weeks, the National Park Service attempted to rescue them, but they finally managed to convince the rangers they were in no need of rescue. (I followed the story in the newspaper every day for the last tend days or so of the climb.) Harding went off to do the talk shows in New York, where his wit made him a hit, and got an agent who set up a lecture tour. But he managed to spend more money on it than he took in, so he went back to being a surveyor.

(One of Harding's many climbing partners, an auto mechanic named Galen Rowell, went on to become the top mountain photographer of his era, the closest thing to a color photography successor to Ansel Adams.)

Robbins, the more talented climber and the more intellectual writer, was more influential within the climbing community: he put down Harding for drilling bolts into the rock, helping develop the dominant aesthetic of only wedging metal to anchor the safety rope into naturally occurring cracks. Robbins eventually founded a clothing brand that is still around.

But the big winner out of Golden Age climbers was one in the second tier right below Harding and Robbins: Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the big clothing and gear company. Chouinard was more part of Team Robbins than Team Harding. Chouinard was a San Fernando Valley boy who started rock-climbing at Stoney Point (where I spent much of the summer of 1977 until I realized I was scared of heights).

I think you'll find fairly similar patterns in most golden ages. They always make a good story. (Now that I think of it, that's the basic idea behind the musical Dreamgirls: In the Supremes, why did Diana Ross become a legend and Florence Ballard, the better singer, die on welfare?)


Anonymous said...

"will be billionaires"

Think Ben and Jerry. But more likely rents will go up and they go out of business when they cannot get a new lease. Or rents go down due to a poor economy and they go bust. Or without cheap immigrant labor, they cannot stay in business.

Five Daarstens said...

"I think you'll find fairly similar patterns in most golden ages. They always make a good story."

I think that is right. I used to read alot about the history of the computer industry in the 1970's and found it was very good reading. It was amazing that people could be in the same situation, and one would end up as a multimillionaire, and another would become a semi-hippie.

Xenophon Hendrix said...

Diana Ross's voice was flirty.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but Matt Yglesias wrote today about that article "The Missing "One-Offs": The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students" that you wrote about awhile back. Only he misquoted the article. He said "about 70 percent are white, 15 percent Asian, and 15 percent black or Hispanic."

When the original article said:

"75.8 percent of high achievers say that they are white non-Hispanic and another 15.0 percent say that they are Asian. The remaining 9.2 percent of high achievers are associated with an underrepresented minority. They are Hispanic (4.7 percent), black non-Hispanic (1.5 percent), Native American (0.4 percent), or mixed race/ethnicity (2.6 percent). "

So the actual figure for blacks and Hispanics is 6.2%, not 15%. I'm sure this was an accidental error.

By the way, 1.5% for blacks is a mind-bogglingly low proportion. Bet they have it made.

Anonymous said...

I could not get through the post. The fact you did not close out a parentheses killed me.

Anonymous said...

Most of the successful businesses will be bought out by conglomerates. If you're not at the forefront of creating a new industry (outdoor gear, personal computers, internet, etc.), chances are you will be bought out(Snapple, Odwalla, etc.) or out competed by conglomerates(Nobody remembers your name).

diana said...

" In the Supremes, why did Diana Ross become a legend and Florence Ballard, the better singer, die on welfare?) "

Because you can't hurry love.

Anonymous said...

Royal Robbins makes the best khaki shorts!

x said...

i love the yosemite valley! i got to see it last year and the memories i have of that placwill be wit hme for a life time. being australian, i am not too used to particularly 'impressive' or at least sharp, jagged, steep and high topography, only really encountering softened, sloping mountains and mesas on this ancient, eroded countinent. yosemite absolutely blew me away.

CJ said...

That last guy's name is actually spelled Chouinard. It's a very common Quebec French name pronounced something like Shwee-nar.

John M said...

I met Yvon Chouinard outside the Post Office in Moose, Wyoming back in the eighties. Moose is the little village just under the Grand Teton. I'm sure I was wearing something with a Patagonia label at the time. He basically invented modern ice climbing with the hardware he designed as well as inventing, or co-inventing much of the hardware designed to allow rock climbers to place fall protection without harming the rock they climb. He sold his equipment company, Chouinard Alpine, to a group of his employees after a lawsuit or lawsuits forced him into bankruptcy. As I recall, a lawyer fell to his death on the Grand Teton while on a guided climb. No one saw the fall, but as I recall, the lawyer apparently undid his harness to relieve himself when he fell. the harness of course was a Chouinard item. The employees formed Black Diamond equipment in Salt Lake, which I think is still a going concern.
Yvon continued with Patagonia. I suppose it's harder to be sued if your hundred dollar flannel shirt comes off while climbing the Grand. On a side note, I met Alex Lowe that same trip. He was doing a three hour roundtrip of the Grand one day. Up the North Face and down the Owen-Spaulding route. It took me 14 hours to get to the summit on the Owen Spaulding route and back down. In my defense, I didn't bring a rope either. Alex was killed a few years ago in an avalanche. His widow married Conrad Anker, who led the expedition to Everest that discovered the body of George Leigh-Mallory. Mountaineers form a very small community.

Anonymous said...

My ex-wife's maiden name was Chouinard. Of often joked that she should change it to Canyouspellthat.

BrokenSymmetry said...

A bit like Jeff Beck, arguably the best ex-Yardbirds guitarist, being wayyyy less well-known than Clapton and Page.

JPchico61 said...

Speaking of "cashing in", Robbins' clothing company made a brilliant decision in the early 2000s to market some of their climbing apparel, specifically their pants, to law enforcement and military. This resulted in a spin-off company called 5.11 that has been incredibly successful. All that khaki gear you see worn by military contractors and non-uniform cops is 5.11. I don't know how much of a piece Robbins maintained of the spin-off, but that company is huge.

Anonymous said...

How many Hispanic high achievers look like Juan Carlos? Like Montezuma?

r. daneel goatweed

jody said...

also, you can be better than the guys from a golden age, but remain obscure. the only time alex honnold is gonna be a household name is when he finally falls to death. but watch his free climb videos and you will look back on these "famous" rock climbers and laugh. he obliterates them to such a degree that they are jokes. he turns the whole thing into a mockery.

once the golden age ends and attention drifts elsewhere, there's nothing you can do to gain a similar level of fame. i think what matters here is the undulating waves of culture, which are beyond the control of any one person.

something for steve to check out would be like, the bone wars.

wow, are these captchas HARD TO READ sometimes. 4 or 5 attempts necessary to post sometimes now.

not a hacker said...

Royal Robbins makes the best khaki shorts!

Nonsense, just about all his clothes suck. The materials are always much heavier than they should be, as if everyone lived in Greenland. In Berkeley, his store has a perpetual "sale," and they still can't get anyone to go in.

Anonymous said...

A bit like Jeff Beck, arguably the best ex-Yardbirds guitarist, being wayyyy less well-known than Clapton and Page.

If he's so obscure, why do I keep confusing him with Glenn Beck?

Marc B said...

The golden age of Yosemite climbing is spoken of with religious reverence among modern climbers. One of my favorite stories is how they were living so cheap that they didn't have cars or bus fare, so they rode boxcars on trains to get between climbing areas.

They ended up waiting days for a westbound train, so they decided to sneak onto the back of a truck trailer that was transporting automobiles. They each got their own car, and mentioned feeling like kings being transported in style in brand new cars while eating pet food straight out of a can.

Steve, did you ever run into Bob Kamps at Stoney Point during the Summer of 77'? He was still showing off his masterful foot work there until the mid-2000's, right up until he passed away.

TD said...

In the Supremes, why did Diana Ross become a legend and Florence Ballard, the better singer, die on welfare?

Because Berry Gordy was utterly infatuated with Diana Ross.

Behind every great woman, remember, there's almost surely a man who's actually making the whole thing happen.

Anonymous said...

I read a book almost thirty years ago - I think it was titled "The Ninth Wave." Anyway, it starts with a friendship in the California surf between a couple of guys who end up going to Berkeley back in the day when you could go for free if you had the brains and the git.

So one of the protagonists, or maybe he was the antagonist, takes a class with a professor who labors his students with stories of those who took second or third although their ideas were primary.

The antagonist is angered by this and burns the candle every night to acquire counter-tales in order to humiliate his professor. I believe the antagonist goes on to become a moral compromist and political figure of sorts.

As I remember, his buddy the protagonist fractures with drink and disillusion.

Neil Templeton

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