Unpacked: Bill Forrest

Mountain Gazette, 2005

It’s a cold, quiet December day in Salida, Colorado, when Bill Forrest rummages through his pack for Mountain Gazette. I’m instantly struck by how almost every object he pulls from his old Kelty has so much thought behind it, even though, as he admits, the 17-pound pack he carries for day snowshoes is “way too much.” Known in climbing circles as an obsessive ounce-counter when it comes to his pack, Forrest lets his guard down for snowshoeing since he figures it’s not a big deal just for the day – and the extra weight translates into good exercise.

Now in his mid-60s, Forrest has been slowed down only by a bout with amoebic dysentery he picked up about a dozen years ago while preparing to climb Everest. The illness sidelined him not only from that expedition but from any of the big-wall climbs he’d become famous for, but it also pushed him in a different direction: It’s given him more time to turn his considerable skills as a designer to snowshoe manufacture.

Originally, it was all about climbing. Forrest started doing technical climbs in 1959, and pioneered numerous routes over the next four decades. The kind of guy who’s always looking to improve on what gear he has to work with, it didn’t take long for him to start identifying things he didn’t like … and designing his own.

“They say with real estate it’s all ‘location, location, location,’ but for me and gear it’s all about ‘modify, modify, modify,’” Forrest says. That is, of course, unless he’s creating something from scratch, which he’s done time and again. He founded his own climbing gear company in 1968 and ran Forrest Mountaineering for 20 years. He has dreamt-up, designed, field-tested and overseen the manufacture of over 100 new gear designs and holds 17 U.S. patents. Climbers know the Forrest name is synonymous with innovation, and they’ve made him famous in the sport by making some of his designs must-haves in their gear arsenal, among them: the Forrest Climbing Harness; the Daisy Chain anchoring strap; the Mjollnir Ice Hammer; and the Fall-Arrest shock absorber for lead climbers.

The wall in Forrest’s garage shop is something of a mini-museum, illustrating his years not only as a designer but as a user of stuff he’s made. When he points to something he created, he’s also pointing to something he’s heavily used. For Forrest, the process is as much about self-testing as it is about simply making the stuff, and that component of his designs has not gone unnoticed among people who’ve literally entrusted their lives to him.

But even though many things on Forrest’s wall  came into being through the epiphany-R&D-manufacture process, I can’t help notice things like the duct-taped Hershey’s chocolate syrup bottle hanging amidst the carabiners, harnesses, helmets and other gear. “Best water bottle in the world,” Forrest says simply. For big-wall climbs when weight is everything, he says the Hershey bottle fit enough water for the day and its slim design accommodates the lean profile he likes on the big climbs. “You’re a little thirsty at the end of the day,” he shrugs, which I take to mean that thirst is a small price to pay for efficiency.

So, the man responsible for so much innovation in the sport of climbing – and now snowshoeing – isn’t terribly concerned, in some respects, with where or how the right gear comes along; just so long as it does. He shows me the jacket he favors when snowshoeing and grins widely when he tells me it’s a cheapie he got at – gasp – Wal-Mart. He explains that he doesn’t like waterproof clothing much since it doesn’t breathe (“No matter what they say”) and found the single-ply nylon windbreaker from Wal-Mart to be just about perfect. He bought two.

But he’s not always so practical. It was when preparing for Everest, testing snowshoes, that he says he became disillusioned at the price and quality of what was available – and so decided to build his own. “About $75,000 later I had my snowshoe design,” he says, with another shrug. He sold the design to MSR and snowshoeing, to a certain extent, was revamped in the Forrest image: deceptively simple design addressing a simple problem. When you walk across slopes – especially ones with packed snow or ice – on tubular-framed snowshoes, you slide. Forrest’s design corrected that by adding additional traction front and rear. Later came a ‘shoe with 360° traction – the Lightning Ascent – which was introduced just this past fall and has won a number of accolades, most recently in the pages of Time Magazine as one of the “Coolest Inventions of 2004.”

The Lightning Ascent, Forrest explains, is designed like a cookie-cutter, which means it gains traction on all sides. He shows me a long aluminum strip – straight but for an arc in the middle – then swiftly bends it so the ends meet, elegantly and succinctly describing how the Lightning frame works. He’d experimented with different materials but struggled with a one-piece design that would give him the rise he needed for the front of the ‘shoe. And then, one day while working at his desk, he saw in his mind how he could do it with one piece of aluminum.

Forrest and his wife, Rosa, have had a busy winter so far this year, testing the next incarnation of the Lightning Ascent in some heavy snows. Together, they’ve snowshoed over 1,700 miles in testing over the years, and while they’ve gone as far afield as Chile, they’ve discovered there’s no place like home in the hills and mountains around Salida. With such a vast playground nearby, it only takes a day pack, but the belief is they’d darn well better be ready to be stuck out overnight in an emergency. That idea drives much of what he puts in his pack, with a worst-case scenario being very much at the forefront.

With luck and skill, Bill and Rosa won’t ever need much of what he carries in his pack. Feeling healthier these days, Forrest says he’s got an eye on returning to climbing but also acknowledges the fateful turn that his illness gave him: not only a door to a new arena of design and sport, but something that’s given him more time with his wife. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Rosa snowshoeing, which is time I would’ve spent climbing without her.”

The twinkle in his eye makes it plain this is most definitely a good thing.

Unpacked: Bill Forrest

Snowshoe day trip

-Pack: An old Kelty with the stays removed and a few other modifications like an extra pocket sewed on and elastic bands attached to the bottom to hold sitting pads.

-Camera case – modified with Velcro straps for easy on-and-off from the pack straps. In winter, Bill keeps a small digital camera in his shirt pocket and uses the camera case for “Picks of Life” ice picks. This emergency device would allow a snowshoer who’s plunged into a frozen lake to haul himself out.

-Whistle (on pack strap) — For bears

-Glasses case

-Compass

-Headlamp

-Tiny Channel Lock pliers for repairs — and also for a pot holder

-Sunscreen

-Emergency bag. This tiny bag was developed years ago by Forrest for 1-day climbs, and he keeps it with him most of the time even though some of the items are redundant. Contents include the “10 essentials plus”: compass, whistle, safety pins, firestarting materials, flagging to mark trail, waterproof paper with paper clips, pencil, bandages, tiny headlamp, fingernail clippers, sewing kit, Gerber LST knife, P38 Army can opener

-Water bottle with insulator (to prevent freezing)

-OR Seattle Sombrero hat

-Plastic bag for wallet

-Parker’s Perfect Anti-fog stuff for glasses

-Thermometer

-Toiletries bag w/TP, handwipes, etc.

-Boot chains – used for lower part of trail where snow is packed down and snowshoes aren’t needed

-Food bag (gorp, Quaker chewy granola bars, fruit)

-cold weather hat

-Pill kit (Advil, etc.)

-Water scoop for collecting trickles

-Winter firestarter kit – the heavy artillery “torch” kit

-Winter overnight pack – small pot for melting water with some food and drink items inside; spoons

-First Aid kit

-Spare clothing – “say you fell in a lake…”

-2-person bivouac sack/emergency shelter

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