NOLS Equipment Timeline
Thanks to Don Webber and Kevin McGowan
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2000, Vol. 16, No. 3, NOLS 35th Anniversary Insert
Most of the clothing issued to NOLS students in the 1960s was U.S Army surplus, or was designed and manufactured by Paul Petzoldt for use by NOLS students.
After many trips to Denver and Cheyenne surplus warehouses, Paul returned to Lander loaded with army surplus sleeping bags, wool pants, wool gloves and mittens, surplus wool underwear, wool hats and overcoats, and wool blankets. The wool blankets were cut for seat patches sewn onto the seat of the wool pants to increase their durability. Students wore their wool pants constantly, hence the need for an extra layer of fabric, the seat patch. Students were encouraged to search through their attics or visit local Goodwill or Salvation army stores to find felt hats, wool sweaters and wool pants that they would need for their course. They were also encouraged to send two wool sweaters and a pair of lightweight wool pants to Lander in advance of their course. The pants pockets were removed and sewn up and the cuffs taken out, making the pants into wool long underwear. One sweater was cut in half and the bottom half was sewn on to the bottom of the complete sweater to form a "double" sweater, which would stay tucked in through all activities. The sleeves were made into socks or mittens and the top half was made into a wool cap. The "double" sweater and the wool pants with the seat patch became the unofficial NOLS "uniform" for the '60s and the first half of the '70s.
Since the few pack bags available were too expensive and only available for retail sale, out of necessity Paul developed the concept of the three bag system, lashed to British army pack frames. The pattern for the prototype bag was a 10 1/2" dinner plate from the kitchen in the NOLS Sinks Canyon office. Each bag in the system had a specific purpose: the bottom bag was the sleeping bag stuff sack and was made of ballistics cloth with a waterproof lining; the middle bag was the "zip-zip" bag, (so-called because the bag had two compartments with two separate zippers) which contained clothing and other essentials. The top bag, also made of ballistics cloth, contained food and some cooking and eating utensils.
The rain jacket used in the '60s and through the early '70s was designed by Paul Petzoldt and manufactured by NOLS, then later by Petzoldt and Hellyer's Outdoor Leadership Supply. It was a simple design: a pullover without zippers, snaps or hoods. Paul didn't like hoods because he claimed that they limited peripheral vision and the ability to hear climbing signals when on a climb. The large button closure around the neck, when used in conjunction with a felt hat, provided adequate rain protection. The jacket was totally waterproof, and oversized to permit layers of wool to be comfortably worn underneath.
The first boots used by NOLS were army surplus combat boots with Vibram soles glued on to them. The first real mountaineering boots purchased by the school were manufactured in Europe. Le Trappeur boots were purchased in the earliest years, followed later in the decade by Garmisch, Roll and Voyageur boots.
What little climbing equipment NOLS had came from army surplus warehouses. Students were each issued three army surplus carabiners: a ring angle piton, a horizontal blade and vertical blade piton. The first ice axes used by NOLS were long wood-shaft, considerably longer than those in use today, and were used as much for walking staffs as they were for snow and ice work. One of the few items of equipment purchased new by Paul in the early years was Goldline climbing rope and tubular sling webbing which was used for rock climbing purposes.
Because Paul Petzoldt was not satisfied with the design or types of materials used in the manufacture of commercially available equipment, PPWE (Paul Petzoldt Wilderness Equipment) manufactured much of the equipment used by NOLS during the early 1970s. NOLS first tested Du Pont's new synthetic insulation, Dacron 88, followed a couple of years later by Fiberfill II. Test items included sleeping bags and winter parkas. Tents, wind shirts, wind pants, "zip bags" (used to organize and transport food rations), pack bags and gaiters, were all manufactured for NOLS during most of the 1970s by PPWE.
Insulation layers through much of the 1970s were much the same as the insulation layers in the 1960s. The most notable exceptions to this were the Dacron fiberfill insulated parka and pants which were developed in the early 1970s, specifically for NOLS's winter courses. The wool double sweaters were used throughout the first half of the decade; army surplus gloves and mittens, wool pants with seat patches and wool jackets were used throughout the 1970s and were still issued through most of the 1980s.
The first few aluminum pack frames came into use at NOLS in 1969, but it was not until the early 1970s that they became standard issue for all students. NOLS purchased Camp Trails frames for which Outdoor Leadership Supply and, later, Paul Petzoldt Wilderness Equipment, manufactured custom-designed packbags, which replaced the 1960s-era three bag system. A favorite of instructors in the early '70s was the now-classic Kelty "BB5" pack. As a result of this popularity, the Kelty Expedition frame replaced the Camp Trails frame in the NOLS issue room by about 1975. Boots in the 1970s were, for the most part, still manufactured in Europe. They were heavy leather mountaineering boots, made for the snow and ice climbing common to the Alps. NOLS used boots such as the Galibier Vercors and Peutereys, and the Lowa Civetta and Alpspitz. In the latter years of the decade, NOLS began to issue somewhat lighter weight mountaineering boots, such as the Pivetta 8's, Vasque, and the Kastinger Tarn.
Prior to the early '70s, all cooking was done on open fires, after which stoves were issued on many courses. The first stoves in use by the school were the Optimus 80L, the 8R and the 111B. Another stove that was quite popular with instructors was the Phoebus 625, the "stove in a billy can." Cooking pots were #10 "billy" cans, and the fry pans had the new "Teflon" coating, and were deep enough to allow students to bake breads and biscuits as well as fry their trout.
Rock climbing in the 1970s underwent a great deal of change at NOLS, as well as in the climbing community at large. Climbers in the early '70s were still hammering pitons into the rock. (Pitons resemble nails or spikes of different thickness and shapes, and are driven into cracks in the rock to provide an anchor to hold the climber's rope in the event of a fall.) Then, in 1974, in response to the development of a "clean climbing" ethic, manufacturers of climbing equipment, most notably Chouinard, developed the use of hexcentrics and stoppers (artificial chockstones) that effectively replaced pitons. The "clean climbing" ethic was a response to the increasing number of climbers on popular climbing routes, especially in California. Thousands of climbers, all using pitons, were leaving scarred rock and wider cracks wherever they had placed their pitons. Hexcentrics and stoppers are placed, not hammered into cracks, are easily removed, and leave no marks on the rock. The climbing rope used in the early part of the 1970s was Goldline, a laid nylon rope that was heavy, stiff and subject to kinks, which sometimes made it difficult to coil. Later in the '70s, NOLS began to use a softer nylon rope, Skyline II, that was more supple and easier to coil than Goldline.
In response to the increasing demand, many new manufacturers of outdoor equipment came onto the scene during the decade. Equipment was of better quality, and with a wider range of equipment choices. During the latter part of the decade, NOLS began to find that commercially available equipment was more suitable for use on courses than ever before. The school began to purchase equipment from suppliers instead of relying on in-house production, and the quality of the equipment being issued to students was constantly being upgraded each year.
The 1980s saw many equipment advances at NOLS. The gear was better quality, better design, and was becoming more specialized than ever before. Polyester pile pants and jackets were used increasingly at NOLS since the mid-1980s and had all but replaced the wool pants and jackets for standard issue.
In the 1980s NOLS continued to develop and produce customized gear. While it was OLS or PPWE that manufactured most of the custom gear for the school in the early years, today, much of NOLS's custom equipment is produced by outside manufacturers. The wind pants were produced for NOLS by Lander-based Travelite, as were the insulated winter parka and pants. The Cagoules (rain jackets), sleeping bags, gaiters and pack bags were NOLS custom designs, produced by other commercial manufacturers. Some custom gear was still designed and manufactured in the issue room by NOLS seamstress, Thelma Young, most notably the winter booties, winter overboots and the rain fly.
The early '80s saw a trend away from the heavy mountaineering boots common to the 1970s. The lighter boots were comfortable to wear hiking, yet were sturdy enough for snow and ice climbing.
Stoves replaced open fires for most NOLS backcountry cooking. During this decade, the Optimus 111B was the stove of choice. This stove was redesigned in 1986 and was called the Optimus 111 Hiker.
Several major advances involving rock climbing at NOLS occurred during the latter part of the '80s. These included the introduction of specialized rock climbing shoes for use by NOLS students. The hexcentrics and stoppers were lighter weight and had been modified slightly to provide better contact with the rock surface. Another development in climbing hardware during the '80s was the introduction of spring-loaded camming devices, such as the Wild Country Friends and the Chouinard Camalots. These camming chocks were easier to place in the cracks and covered a wider range of crack sizes. Climbing ropes were no longer the Skyline or Goldline of years past, but braided kernmantle nylon ropes that handle better and do not kink.
The soaring popularity of outdoor activities brought many innovations to equipment and clothing. In the middle of the decade, NOLS switched to using internal frame packs almost exclusively. NOLS also started using MSR Whisperlite stoves on courses. Winter camping took a new turn and saw many changes. Plastic boots for skiing were used for the first time during the 1999-2000 season. The skis were updated to shaped skis.
NOLS began to take advantage of new and alternative tent styles (i.e. the tipi). The Asage Stronghold, Mountain Hardwear Kiva and the Dana Design Nuk Tuk were all being introduced to the outdoor industry. They were tested on NOLS courses and continue to be used today.
Finally, the new technology affected climbing and caving camps as well. NOLS began using quick draws and bent clip carabiners, parabiners and bouldering pads, in addition to the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) belay device made by Black Diamond. Electric headlamps were also introduced for use in caving. And by the late 1990s, propane stoves were in use at base camps for both activities.
Today NOLS still has some gear custom made, such as wind pants and wind shirts. Increasingly, however, we are finding existing vendors who can meet the needs of NOLS for durable, quality equipment.