Trailblazer: Larry Penberthy
Like so many of those who helped shape the early years o( the outdoor business, Larry Penberthy was a talented and inventive engineer. His inventions ranged from deep-sea diving gear to industrial safety products. One particular invention—glass that protected workers from the affects of radiation—left him well off and free to tinker at will.
With time on his hands, Penberthy became an active mountaineer and climber in the 1960s. During his climbing exploits with Seattle’s Mountaineers climbing group, he began to question the reliability of the climbing gear available on the market at the time. That was the impetus to launch Mountain Safety Research (MSR) in 1969 with the specific purpose of testing existing climbing equipment and creating better gear when necessary.
The company’s first product was the Eagle ice axe in 1970, followed by a helmet. In 1973, the Model 9 stove, the first pressurized fuel canister stove, hit the market—a result of Penberthy’s research into high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). He found that dehydration played a significant pail in climbers becoming affected with HAPE and concluded if they had a reliable high-altitude stove to melt snow for water, it would go a long way in helping them avoid illness.
A year later, MSR came out with the first-ever panel-loading pack. That was followed in 1975 with MSR becoming the first outdoor gear maker to use long-lasting lithium batteries in headlamps. That year also saw the company introduce the first multi-fuel camp stove.
In 1976, Penberthy turned his attention to apparel and was the first to put underarm zippers into mountaineering jackets.
While MSR became noted lor the seemingly constant flow of inventive product, Penberthy himself became somewhat of a cult figure among outdoor retailers and consumers for his regular MSR newsletters.
In his newsletters, which had the look and feel of an underground publication, Penberthy shared test results and opinions. He also used the newsletter’s pages to take jabs at REI, which just happened to be across the street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill from the MSR retail store, as well as its president at the time—Jim Whittaker.
That was the beauty of the newsletters. For all their technical dryness, there was also all manner of very pointed and inadvertently funny material. Ironically, Penberthy would sell MSR to REI in 1981.
Just having MSR and successful patents on your resume would be enough for most people, but not Penberthy. He ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1982 and the U.S. House in 1990, and even ran for lieutenant governor of Washington state in 1992, on platforms that included the advocacy of nuclear energy. He was unsuccessful each time.
Penberthy passed away in 2001 at age 85.
originally told in 2008
Bruce Johnson has a history book on MSR that can be ordered here.
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