MSR, Defying Tradition in the History of Gear (two pages)

...The Story of an American Engineer with a better idea, aka The Ralph Nader of Climbing*

Time: the late 1960s and into the 1970s..... A Seattle-area resident who later ran for US Senator from Washington seems an unlikely gear innovator, but Larry Penberthy was a multi-talented guy... As an engineer, he made a personal fortune as the inventor who perfected a process for manufacturing lead-impregnated glass used as radiation shielding for handling nuclear materials. As an active climber in the Washington Cascades in the late 1960s, he turned his keen attention to the weaknesses in several key pieces of gear which climbers depended upon with their lives. And as an American iconoclast of major proportions, Mr. Penberthy was not afraid to demolish European traditions that were deeply embeded in both the American and European climbing communities. .....Ed Tieman, an MSR employee/gear tester from the very early days, admiringly says, "Larry set the standard for equipment testing and safety." For more on Penberthy's commitment to Testing, please click here.

(* Ralph Nader famously kicked off the consumer safety movement by his analysis/expose' of the Chevrolet Corvair, "Unsafe at Any Speed." In Penberthy's case, it would have been "(that rope, ice axe, carabiner, etc) is Unsafe on Any Mountain.")

By By 1968 Penberthy (deceased Dec. 2001) was already writing his sometimes-controversial "MSR Newsletters" about gear safety. In 1969 he used his own fortune to more formally begin MSR, and was soon found competing face-to-face with REI-- the new MSR store was opened right across the street from the REI Seattle store on Capitol Hill. (however, the address given on the early MSR Newsletters circa 1970 is 631 South 96th St., which is nowhere near the big REI store at 1525 11th. Ave; it was probably the MSR factory/office )..... Eventually, Penberthy sold the MSR name and product designs...... On my MSR pages I will illustrate three categories of Penberthy gear that changed the climbing world--- mountain stoves, helmets, and ice axes. The image above is of a Model 9 stove dating from about 1975 (my own stove).

MSR BOOK NOW AVAILABLE: "MSR: Defying Tradition." I was blessed with much help in writing this book from Penberthy's two daughters Laura and Louise, as well as current and past employees of MSR/CDI (Cascade Designs Inc). To view some book reviews, click here... To view my Biography as a writer, click here....For ordering, continue below and be aware that I now offer an inexpensive $15 PDF download version.

HOW TO ORDER: If you want to preview the book or order it as a softcover or hardcover book, you will visit the website of my publisher, Blurb Books. Here's the direct link to the book:

The book is in 8x10 format, 80 pages in length and crammed with high-quality full color pictures. The paper and bindings are all top-notch. As a traditional book, it's available in either softcover or hardcover for about $40 and $50 respectively. Note: Due to the high prices of self-publishing, I've begun offering the MSR book directly from me, as a $15 PDF download ( .. For a discussion of my book pricing and quality, click here.... Want an autographed version, or other Questions, contact me at


In the History of Gear, MSR rock climbing helmets departed from tradition and were both loved and hated. Below is a picture of Ed Tieman's MSR helmet. This helmet was part of the first production run of five helmets in 1972. Insiders at the time named these bright orange, bulbous helmets "Punkins."


Please Note: All Material below, and in all my "History of Gear" webpages, is copyrighted, and no usage of my material is permitted unless explicit permission is granted by me, Bruce B. Johnson, owner of ..This copyright extends to protect the work of Mr. Ed Tieman in its entirety, as seen in these two pages... Editors: Please contact me if you have interest in publishing....Others: if you were involved with one of the old-line, vintage gear companies and have a story to tell in these pages, please contact me soon.....Sponsors: if your outdoor company is interested in sponsoring this site, please use ( for details.


The following was contrbuted by a reader in England who had made a major effort to research MSR. His remarks illustrate the scarcity of information about MSR that existed prior to the recent collaboration of Mr. Tieman and myself: "I have found very little on the early history of the company. MSR was founded in 1969 by Larry Penberthy to market his inventions. First product out the door was the Thunderbird ice axe - or was it the Eagle ice axe. Have seen references to both? He also developed and marketed the Model 9 stove with the pressurized fuel container. MSR was sold to REI in the 80's, and in 2001 it was sold to Cascade Designs..

MSR was founded to test why gear purchased by the Mountaineers (a Washington climbing organization) was failing. Their first tests were of climbing ropes, but while testing the climbing ropes, they broke carabineers, and ice axe shafts. The creation of the aluminum shafted Ice axe was not based on the invention of a cool new ice axe, but rather on understanding that mountaineers, (Larry was a prolific climber) needed gear that didn't break. The stove was developed because dehydration was a huge problem in expedition style mountain climbing, and there was a hypothesis that this might increase the risk of HAPE. This led to an overall dissatisfaction of Larry with the European climbing gear companies, as they didn't improve their products after they were found to have faults. He then designed gear he, and his climbing partners wanted, but could not find elsewhere." End of quote.

CLIMBING ROPES: in the History of Gear, there's been a continual effort to improve all aspects of the climbing rope. The Manila ropes of pre-WWII had a whole list of basic flaws and weaknesses... After WWII, pioneering companies began to find new materials for ropes, chiefly nylon, and the race to improvement was on! Holubar Mountaineering's Roy Holubar championed his own brand of nylon rope by 1950. It was called "Columbian," and was carried exclusively by Holubar; it was about a 9mm rope. The rope in the middle of the picture is a section of early 1953 vintage Columbian rope. Above that is a section of Edelrid Perlon from about 1968, an 11mm kernmantel rope, in much- used condition. And at the bottom is a section from a light-duty 10mm climbing rope that Larry Penberthy created and sold, called I think "MSR rope" circa 1972.

ICE AXE ICONOCLAST: Penberthy overthrew forever the classic wood-shafted ice axes. His engineering research and field-testing analyzed their flaws. Then he manufactured a better ice axe. There was resistance to the change from many, including Yvon Chouinard himself for awhile. Shown to the left is the weathered pick side of my circa 1975 MSR "Thunderbird" ice axe. The T-Bird was MSR's first product, it was the creation of Larry P., with input from a few other climbing friends and acquaintances, such as Bill Sumner, founder and co-owner of Seattle's "Swallows Nest," a climbing gear shop. Sumner worked with Penberthy to add a curved droop and teeth to the pick of the axe. Combined with Penberthy's original innovation of a positive hooking angle, the Sumner axe had tremendous arresting power compared to other ice axes of the time, and its metal shaft was much stronger and less subject to breakage.

Overall, the Larry Penberthy ice axes changed forever the design and materials of the timeless mountaineer's ice axe.... (Ed Tieman, a former employee, believes the "Eagle" was the very first MSR ice axe, with the Thunderbird following soon after, and becoming the most well-known of the early MSR axes). Ed also shared his memory that the orange paint used by Penberthy on the axes was derived from the ultra-durable street painting formulations in use on Washington roads at the time! Write-ups about, and ads for, these ice axes would appear in OFF BELAY magazine, edited by Ray Smutek during the 1970s..


MSR-- page two. Larry Penberthy image and story

Here is a short and very modern site that I've created that focuses on all six of my books

Several of the modern MSR tents are really Moss tent designs!



Main Page: Essays and pictures about the Pioneers of the Outdoor Gear Revolution, 1935-The Present, 45 pages, five books published. The fourth book details MSR's early history under its founder, Larry Penberthy.

See Monte Dodge's great collection of Vintage Camping/Backpacking Stoves and Lanterns:

Fire and Light




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Page last revised 5/31/2023