Invisible on Everest - innovation and the gear makers
Published 6 May 2003
Mary Rose launched her new book Invisible on Everest, co-authored with Mike Parsons, at a special event at Rheged, the National Mountaineering Exhibition near Penrith in Cumbria on Friday 2 May 2003. The book explores how mountaineering and outdoor gear has evolved over the past 150 years and examines some of the myths that have developed around it. The photograph below shows Mary and Mike with some of the guests at the launch.
John Innerdale, curator of the Helly-Hansen National Mountaineering Exhibition and a director of the Mountain Heritage Trust, began by introducing the authors to the large audience, which included many people from the mountaineering world, the outdoor equipment trade and delegates from Lancaster University. Maurice Kirby, Head of the Economics Department at Lancaster University Management School, also announced that Mary had just been awarded a personal chair and would become Lancaster University's first Professor of Entrepreneurship. Mary and Mike then gave a detailed presentation on the book, covering its main themes and findings.
Invisible on Everest is a history of the development of mountaineering gear. But it's a lot more than that too. In their presentation the authors explained how Mary's initial research grew into a collaborative effort with Mike spread over three years; research that focused above all on the individuals whose innovations drove the growth of the mountaineering manufacturing industry.
The book explores how climbing gear has developed over the last 150 years – from the simple but effective tools used by Victorian mountaineers in pursuit of first ascents in the Alps, to the highly technical fabrics and hardware used in outdoor activities now. It's also the story of the specialist outdoor equipment manufacturers we are familiar with today: Karrimor, Berghaus, Mountain Equipment and many others.
The authors examined some of the mistakes we make when we look back at the equipment used by early Everest climbers and judge it amateurish. Mike referred to a quote from George Bernard Shaw, who famously wrote about the clothing worn by mountaineers on an expedition to the Himalayas in 1921, likening the clothing to that worn at a 'Connemara picnic surprised by a snowstorm'. Photographs of Everest climbers in scruffy tweeds reinforce this impression of inadequacy. But as Mike and Mary's research shows, these are myths: some of the clothing used in the early years of Himalayan exploration was very effective indeed.
Similarly they showed that the real innovation in gear development in the early part of the twentieth century came from the German-speaking countries – rather than from the UK, as many British climbers had previously supposed.
Chapters in the book focus on specific activities or time periods, including polar exploration, big wall climbing and the emerging role of women. The story line is supported by product histories of the key pieces of outdoor equipment from tents and stoves, to warm clothing and breathable waterproof jackets. All the key mountain hardware is covered including ice axes, karabiners, ropes, and abseil devices.
Mary Rose is a business history scholar in the Department of Economics. She was awarded a personal chair in May 2003 and will become Lancaster University Management School's first Professor of Entrepreneurship. She is a keen and active mountain walker with a love of wild places. As consultant historian for the Quarry Bank Mill Museum, she wrote: The Gregs of Quarry Bank Mill: The Rise and Decline of a Family Business. She also edited a prize-winning volume entitled The Lancashire Cotton Industry: A History since 1700 in 1996. She has recently completed Firms, Networks and Business Values: The British and American Cotton Industries 1750.
Mike Parsons has spent over 40 years in the outdoor equipment trade. Formerly Managing Director of Karrimor International, he now runs KIMMlite and is an Entrepreneurial Fellow in the Entrepreneurship Unit at LUMS. He has an active and enthusiastic interest in all outdoor activities including mountaineering, fell running, mountain biking, kayaking and skiing. His expertise in designing and developing lightweight hiking and mountaineering gear has inspired him to take a passionate interest in the history and development of adventure-sport equipment.