History of Gear: Don Jensen and the Softpack Revolution

1963: First Ascent on Mt. McKinley, Alaska: "Don and Partners Wickersham Wall 1963,"an ascent route named the "Harvard Route," which has apparently never been repeated

Donald Cook Jensen (1943-1973) is the first climber on the left in this 1963 picture donated by Don's close childhood friend Peter H... Don had graduated from Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, California in 1961, where he was well known as an all-around nice guy and football guard. After graduation, Don moved east to college at Harvard University. Soon he was an avid member of the Harvard Mountaineering Club ("HMC"). His friend and fellow gear-designer Chris Goetze is the climber on the far right. Several of the other climbers in the picture are quite noteworthy; eg. Richard G. C. "Rick" Millikan, the grandson of George Leigh Mallory (famous Mt. Everest climber) is there, noted mountaineering author David Roberts is there, as is Pete Carman. Renowned mountain photographer/climber Bradford Washburn, himself an old HMC man, had counseled the young men to attempt the Wickersham route. .. The seven young climbers made the successful first climb of the Wickersham Wall route, in the process also becoming first to climb both of McKinley's twin summits on a single climb. For shelter, they carried early versions of Goetze's "Bombshelter" tent (later to become the Rivendell Bombshelter tent).

1964: Mt. Deborah attempt: Don and repeat climbing partner David Roberts returned to Alaska, targeting the difficult 12,290' Mt. Deborah. They failed to summit, and on a return trip a year or two later, again failed. The peak's only other ascent at that time was its original 1954 first ascent, by famed Northwest peak bagger extraordinaire Fred Beckey.

1965: Mt. Huntington, success, but at great cost. Two years after McKinley, Don Jensen scored a first ascent of a new route on 12,240' Mt. Huntington, the route named again the Harvard Route (Huntington's first ascent was just one year previous, by famed French climber Lionel Terray). But the Huntington climb was marred with a fatality. On the descent, at 10,300 ft.. Ed Bernd did something in arranging a rappel in the arctic dusk, falling to his death, his body never being found... The four-man Huntington party included writer/climber David Roberts. Below is the front page from Robert's book, "The Mountain of My Fear," 1968. The signature is Don Jensen's, inscribed to his California friend and climbing associate Ray Willems, whom he met through his Palisades climbing school in 1968. Ray supplied this picture; the climber is Don Jensen in classic bug-eye aluminum climbing goggles:

Rivendell Mountain Works was founded in 1971, in Western Washington in the small foothills town of Snoqualmie.... Don Jensen was a central figure in the Rivendell story, even though Rivendell's founder Larry Horton, never actually met him... Don was the climber with the vision of improved packs and tents that would enhance the climbing experience. In the image above, Don is happy, off on one of his big Alaskan expeditions. He's in the shadow of the infamous Wickersham Wall on the north side of Denali (Mt. McKinley).... In the history of gear, Don's brainchild, the Rivendell/Jensen soft pack, ranks as the prime exemplar of the original heretical departure away from tried and true frame packs and into the realm of the Future: Soft packs and frameless packs of infinite variety.

Rivendell's classy 1976-77 color catalog stated that they had become, in 1971, "the originator of sophisticated soft pack design." Shown at page bottom is their top-of-the-line model, the 4,800 cu. inch, expandible/contractible "Dr. Expando;" ..One reader wrote that the Rivendell Jensen pack has become the "most copied pack of all time," and pointed out that one company (Wilderness Experience) even named their soft pack the "ROR," translating to "Rip-off-Rivendell."

Rivendell Mountain Works was first located in Snoqualmie, Washington, but soon moved to a magical high mountain valley at the base of Wyoming's Teton Range, in the tiny town of Victor, Idaho.

Contact me at: brucej@oregonphotos.com

I languished over Rivendell's slim but iconoclastic catalog and dreamed of purchasing the company's uniquely designed ultra-strong tent, "The Bombshelter," whch was also a Don Jensen creation. Alas, I never found the money to send the check, and Rivendell vanished in 1980, having produced in their nine years of operation about 1,000 packs and 350 of the Bombshelter tents.

GEAR ALERT 2022: Rivendell/Jensen packs are still available on a custom basis (see page bottom).

The Rivendell Bombshelter (Click for images and details)

This signature Rivendell product was a powerfully-reinforced A-frame design mountain tent, which was designed by Don Jensen with help from his Harvard climbing friend Chris Goetze. The Bombshelter was neither a geodesic design, nor a design like Jack Stephenson's Elliptical Arc design

Please Note: All Material on this page, 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 OregonPhotos.com

Other Notes: the Rivendell catalog states that Don Jensen created his namesake soft pack in the mid-1960s, and that Rivendell personally worked with Don Jensen under a royalty arrangement to faithfully produce true Jensen packs, right up to Don's untimely death in 1983 at age 30 (Don had graduated from high school in Walnut Creek, California in 1961, gone to Harvard, later gotten a doctorate in mathematics back in California, and was teaching in Scotland when he met his end in a freak car/bike accident while bicycling to work on an icy November day. As an outdoorsman, Don Jensen was a climber and known for his Alaskan ascents. Further Reading-- David Roberts, one of Don's climbing partners, has recently published a book which contains some interesting Don Jensen material ("On the Ridge Between Life and Death," subtitled: "A Climbing Life Re-examined." Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (August 29, 2006), Mr. Roberts has written over a dozen other books such as the landmark "Mountain of My Fear," most about mountaineering)..... For more about the life of Don Jensen, click here to read Doug Robinson's memories of Jensen, especially as pertains to Jensen's strong legacy at the Palisades Climbing School and Southern California climbing in general..Quoted: "Friend, mentor, creative gear designer, and the driving force of Palisades climbing in the Sixties. Which, now that I think of it, made him the dominant High Sierra climber of that era, the era that ushered in a flowering of new technical routes that peaked in the Seventies..".....http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/818390/Don-Jensen?utm-source=Copy+of+SuperTopo+purchasers+and+forum+up+to+3.22.11&utm-campaign=2f1224bb52-SuperTopo-Climbing-News-May-26-20114-5-2011&utm-medium=email&utm-term=0-79cb64628c-2f1224bb52-207139873

Pre-Rivendell Jensen Packs for $36---Don Wittenberger sheds this fascinating light on the earliest, pre-Rivendell history of the Jensen pack: "I have one of the very early Jensen Packs. They were made of coated pack cloth, were very light, but also very small and you could not get a sleeping bag into the bottom compartment. A small climbing store in Seattle (started by three Seattle climbers, including Bill Sumner of Sumner ice axe fame),* sold them for $36." We estimate that Don's Jensen pack was produced sometime in the late 60s. The climbing store was probably the Swallow's Nest.

Shown below is my vintage 1978 Rivendell soft pack of the Jensen design.

Get an authentic Jensen Pack!

Eric Hardee, a vintage gear lover near Seattle, WA has legal use (via Don Wittenberger) of the authentic Rivendell pack blueprints and has been sewing/selling custom Jensen/Rivendell packs via word of mouth advertising for many years. Eric can sew up an original Jensen or Giant Jensen for you, and also produces two daypack designs--- Contact him! He is a true lover of this pack. His email is ewak3@juno.com. Tell him that you heard about his packs from Bruce at OregonPhotos.com

More on Rivendell, see Page Two (there are a total of 5 Rivendell pages)!


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Last Revision 01/14/2024

The circa 1972 "Peter Carman Supergator" was an inventive gaitor, a true departure in the History of Gear from traditional gaitors. Peter had climbed extensively in some of the most frigid climates of North America, such as the Tetons, Mt. McKinley, and Mt. Washington, New Hampshire... The image below is of the label on the interior of his gaitor. They were made of an ultra-rugged nylon, with full coverage nearly down to the boot welt and up to nearly the knee. They were also lined for extra insulation with a wool-rayon felt. Peter had met and hung out with Yvon Chouinard in the Tetons one summer in 1962, and that old friendship likely resulted in Couinard's Great Pacific Ironworks being willing to market the Supergator. Yvon Chouinard also credits Pete Carman with major work in the creation of the Chouinard soft-pack, the Ultima Thule, which in many ways greatly resembled the Jensen packs.