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Asher “Dick” Kelty, 84: Outdoor innovator known as the ‘Henry Ford of backpacking'”

January 14, 2004

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GLENDALE, CALIF.

A pioneer of backpacking, Asher “Dick” Kelty, died Monday at his home of natural causes. He was 84.

Kelty was born in Duluth, Minn., on September 13, 1919, to Clifford and Eliza Kelty. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Nena, as well as three children, five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Following Kelty’s wishes, there will be no memorial service. Instead, he encourages everyone to “go take a hike.”

Contributions may be made in Kelty’s memory to the Big City Mountaineers, Dick Kelty Scholarship Fund (www.bigcitymountaineers.org) or to the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign (www.latimes.com/extras/summercamp).

A tireless inventor and passionate outdoorsman, Kelty was known primarily as the “father of the frame pack” for his numerous innovations in backpack design that improved weight-carrying and greatly enhanced the comfort. Kelty’s legacy includes the first aluminum frame backpack, the first waist-belt, the first padded shoulder straps, the first nylon pack-bag, the first zippered pockets, the first hold-open bar; and the first use of clevis pins.

Kelty packs have been carried on numerous significant expeditions, including the first ascent of the West Ridge of Everest by William F. Unsoeld and Thomas F. Hornbein (1963); the National Geographic Antarctica expedition (1966); the USA ascent of K2 (1975); the first ascent of Cholatse (1982); and the Seven Summits Expedition (1983).

“I call Dick the Henry Ford of backpacking,” Nick Clinch, an explorer for National Geographic magazine, told Nena Kelty in her 2000 book, “Backpacking the Kelty Way,” “I blame him for overcrowding the wilderness. By taking the weight off the hiker’s shoulders and putting it on the hips, he took the misery out of the sport. He made it enjoyable for people to go backpacking.”

Kelty was introduced to the Sierra Nevada at the age of six on a family camping trip to Lee Vining Creek and Tuolumne Meadows. The Sierra Nevada became his favorite place in the world and being outdoors in the wilderness his favorite pastime.

His rise to prominence began in the late 1940s, when Kelty — an active hiker and backpacker – grew increasingly tired from wearing an awkward, heavy pack made of wood and canvas.

In 1952, Kelty borrowed $500 against the family home to found Kelty Packs. With Nena sewing in the kitchen dinette and Dick working on frame construction in the garage, Kelty quickly set a high standard for backpacking and expedition packs.

Kelty began experimenting with the creation of aluminum frame packs in his garage at his home in Glendale, California. Frame pieces were bent by hand over wood mandrels. Finished frames were hydrogen torch welded together. And the packbags were sewn by Dick’s wife, Nena. The Keltys’ living room became an impromptu store and by the end of the year, 29 of the new packs had been sold, grossing $678.

In 1953 and 1954, the Keltys sold 90 and 220 packs, respectively. The Kelty aluminum frames were built to hug the back and bear the weight higher. The nylon pack itself was narrowed significantly more than existing canvas packs, allowing the pack to conform more closely to shoulder width, and multiple compartments were created to distribute gear and balance the load. Soon, a small mail-order catalog business was created, and orders started rolling in from outside the Southern California area.

In the early 1950’s, Kelty made another revolutionary breakthrough in pack innovation and comfort. While hiking, Kelty would stick the ends of his pack frame into his rear pant pockets to take some of the load off his shoulders. Dissatisfied with this solution, Kelty developed the waistbelt. He attached a plain webbing belt to the bottom ends of the frame and cinched it around his waist. The idea worked, and the plain belt became a partially padded waistbelt. Today, fully padded waistbelts are industry standard on most packs.

In 1956, the Kelty’s required more space and moved their operation from their living room to a new retail location in a former barbershop in Glendale.

In 1962, the entire operation moved to a larger building on Victory Boulevard in Glendale. Word of the Kelty backpack spread, as Kelty’s quest for a pack that offered a favorable weight-to-strength ratio and aluminum frame comfort was gaining followers around the country.

Kelty continued to innovate throughout the 1960s yielding the best-selling A4 packbag – a backpack with three upper vertical compartments and single lower horizontal compartment. This innovation allowed hikers to distribute weight of gear and supplies within the packs.

In 1968, the Kelty production side of the company moved to Sun Valley, California. The retail store, including the mail order business, remained in Glendale on Victory Boulevard.

In 1973, Kelty introduced the Tioga – the forerunner of all future packs and the first “full feature” backpack. The Tioga was built with waterproof fabric, five outside pockets, a hold-open frame and clevis pin attachment for the bag, a comfortable one-piece waistbelt, padded shoulder straps and the first quick release waistbelt buckle. That same year, Kelty packs became the most widely distributed framepacks in American specialty outdoor shops.

Also in 1973, the Boston-based CML Inc. purchased Kelty Pack from the Kelty family in one of a series of sports-related company acquisitions. Dick Kelty remained the Kelty chairman throughout CML’s six year ownership, then retired.

Today, Kelty is owned by American Recreation Products, and is based in Boulder, Colo. Kelty continues to innovate, using the surrounding mountains as testing ground for new materials and technologies. As a founding member of the Conservation Alliance, Kelty keeps its founder’s tradition alive by supporting the causes that preserve and protect natural environments for backpackers to enjoy for years to come.

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