Buy Responsibly: American Made Climbing Gear

We trust our lives with the climbing gear we use, but how much do we really know about those who make it? In an economy where offshore production rules, a few climbing gear companies are fighting to keep manufacturing on American soil.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
473
We trust our lives with the climbing gear we use, but how much do we really know about those who make it? In an economy where offshore production rules, a few climbing gear companies are fighting to keep manufacturing on American soil.
Cam lobes wait to be cut at the Metolius facility in Bend, Oregon. Photo: Andrew Burr

Cam lobes wait to be cut at the Metolius facility in Bend, Oregon. Photo: Andrew Burr

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina, Misty Mountain Threadworks is one of the few privately owned climbing gear manufacturers in the United States. Founded in 1985 by Woody Keen, the company specializes in harnesses and other climbing gear and accessories. Keen started climbing at 17 and wanted a better harness. With a father who worked at a textile company, Keen had access to the necessary materials and equipment to make one. He began experimenting and after some attempts designed a fully adjustable harness called “The Fudge,” which he began making in his spare time and selling to friends. Eventually, unable to keep up with demand by himself, he launched Misty Mountain Threadworks “on the belief that he could make the finest climbing gear in the world.” Today, Misty Mountain has 21 employees.

Pride is the common thread between the handful of companies who are making gear in the U.S.—pride in the quality of the product, in the jobs they create, and in the innovation that drives them.

“We have designed and tested the harness to meet recognized standards, we have trained our people and provided them the necessary materials, tools, and machinery to do their jobs, and we have individually inspected every life-saving device prior to shipment,” says Goose Kearse, who has been the president of Misty for the last 27 years. “Our customers put their lives in our hands, just like you and your belayer every time you rope up. Safety is what we strive for. Climbing has inherent dangers, and we must accept this or find a less adventurous activity. Those dangers should not include our gear.” Quality assurance includes reviewing designs closely, which Kearse can do in his workshop, before mass production. The earlier a defect is detected, the easier it is to correct. “Being under one roof means we can quickly respond to any shortcomings in quality and correct mistakes before they create a great deal of waste,” Kearse says, “or worse, get out to the public. “

Cam wires are attached by hand at Metolius. Photo: Andrew Burr

Cam wires are attached by hand at Metolius. Photo: Andrew Burr

Knowing the employees and their skill levels is another aspect of quality assurance, as well as keeping those employees happy. Bluewater Ropes has been manufacturing ropes, harnesses, chalkbags, accessories, slings, and belay devices since 1969 in Carrollton, Georgia. Product Developer Scott Newell says, “The employees come first. If you need to be off [work] to go to your kid’s preschool graduation, yes, you should be there. That is a no-brainer. Practical life needs and ‘should do’ things are perfectly acceptable. We are not hell-bent on producing X amount of rope per hour.” Bluewater Ropes is a family-owned business, and most of its employees have been there for over 10 years, some more than 20.

We asked climbers if they care about where their gear was produced, and the answer was a resounding yes. Knowing a climber made the gear can help put the mind at ease. One person said, “Relationship is a big part of it all. Knowing the people, seeing the company as a ‘friend’ and someone who is actually out at the crag or the boulders is important. Despite climbing’s rapid growth, it’s still a family, and when companies have that ‘real deal’ vibe, it builds brand loyalty.” Another common response mentioned intent: “Was this piece of gear mass-produced using the cheapest material, or does the company take pride in putting out a product that will last?”

In 2003, Josh Helke started Organic Climbing in Laramie, Wyoming because he felt climbing gear was not what it used to be. After more than a decade of manufacturing 100% of its products in the U.S., he still places a strong emphasis on craftsmanship. “My employees become master sewers of the items they are responsible for in our product line, because they make them year after year,” he says. “Mastery of a trade is something that, in our country, has been highly devalued over the years. Our country values it in banks, medicine, and law, but not in people making items we spend our hard-earned money on and rely on to stand up to hard use. That needs to change.” Organic specializes in handmade climbing gear like one-of-a-kind crashpads, packs, and chalk carriers. Housed in a 4,000-square-foot shop, the small staff, eight employees and two dogs, is ideal for their detail-oriented style of product, including dozens of custom crashpad orders.

Metolius nuts are soldered during the manufacturing process. Photo: Andrew Burr 

Metolius nuts are soldered during the manufacturing process. Photo: Andrew Burr 

Sewing may be considered a less-than-ideal profession for the modern dream-chasing climber, and American businesses are understandably lured to overseas manufacturing by the prospect of cheap labor, but the cost gap appears to be diminishing, at least in some places. Many countries, like China, which is a major producer of U.S. goods, have drastically increased manufacturing wages over the past few years. This, coupled with rising shipping costs, tariffs, and taxes, is making offshore production less appealing.

While manufacturing in the U.S. is on average more expensive, the “Made in America” label carries these companies a long way. Helke thinks it’s best to look at the long run and focus on a payoff that’s less immediate. “The costs are high to set up your own production, but I was buying my competitors’ machinery in 2004, when many outsourced production,” he says. “Since then, we have been perfecting our production methods. I have seen items that we have made for 12 years become cheaper to make in our own facility.” He credits the cost reduction to a priority on internal production methods, sewing technology, and employee longevity and education. “Through these internal investments in our production facility and employees, we have been able to get very specialized,” he says.

Originally, Metolius Climbing produced 100% of its gear in the U.S., but in order to remain competitive with other manufacturers, it began producing some products overseas. Carabiners, for instance, are produced in Taiwan. “This allows us to take advantage of a big facility and a lot of large industrial machines and processes that we couldn’t afford and wouldn’t have room for in our domestic facility,” says Metolius Vice President Brooke Sandahl. “They also have a large degree of expertise in the field, which would take us a number of years to acquire. They make excellent products for a very competitive price and we feel like that is a win-win for our customers and ourselves. However, we still do the final testing and inspection of everything right here in Bend.” That’s Bend, Oregon, where Metolius was founded in the 1980s, right near the headwaters of its namesake Metolius River.

A harness is sewed at Misty Mountain in North Carolina. Photo: Julie Ellison

A harness is sewed at Misty Mountain in North Carolina. Photo: Julie Ellison

The company began from a unique collection of climbers who came together to climb at Smith Rock. With limited climbing gear available at the time, they decided to design and build their own equipment, and it quickly grew into a respectable business. Employee loyalty is at the heart of Metolius’ success, with many of the employees staying for 10, 15, and 20-plus years. “Our turnover is extremely low due to a good work environment and a number of perks that go along with working here,” Sandahl says. “We’ve got a real extended family…they get to go out and use [the results of] their own good work.”

The biggest obstacle for American manufacturing is the high cost of labor, and the increased production cost does trickle down to the consumer in the form of a heftier price tag. Plus, it can be more difficult for upstart companies to gain ground during difficult economic times. But consider the tradeoff: Most of the countries with lower wages lack labor laws to protect employees from working excessive hours in unsafe environments. Under these conditions, worker exploitation is a common problem.

“Choosing to buy American-made gear [means] you are choosing to employ people at a fair wage in a fair environment,” says Matt Mullins, who founded American Gear Guide, a website that provides lists and reviews of gear made in the U.S.

Metolius CEO Doug Philips's office is full of product prototypes. Photo: Andrew Burr

Metolius CEO Doug Philips's office is full of product prototypes. Photo: Andrew Burr

Then there are the negative environmental impacts. A study conducted by the International Maritime Organization, an agency that specializes in making shipping safe and sustainable, showed that carbon dioxide emissions from shipping alone were about 2.2% of the global human-made emissions in 2012. The U.S. has the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, which has a significant impact on the air pollution in America, but it has worsened in other countries. In March 2014, the New York Times reported “only three of the 74 Chinese cities monitored by the central government managed to meet official minimum standards for air quality.” Emissions are not the only thing to worry about. Oil spills and gray water leakage can occur during ship travel.

Sustainability is another prime objective for American manufacturers; Organic has run a nearly zero-waste sewing shop since 2004. The company recycles cutting scraps to build smaller items like chalkbags and backpacks. Helke says the added carbon footprint to ship items overseas is a big cost, both in the end price of a product and in the long-term environmental price. “By investing in my own local production, although in the numbers it may appear more expensive and reduces our ‘bottom line,’ it is investing in the long-term sustainability and security of our company.” Bluewater donates scrap materials to local fire departments and kids’ groups. “We understood a long time ago that nylon does not rot or mildew and have up-cycled as much as possible before it became fashionable,” Newell says. “Why would you put something in a landfill that won’t decay?”

Outdoor companies have a vested interest in protecting our environment, because if we lose our playgrounds, they lose business. When you buy American-made gear, you know you are getting a reliable piece of equipment made by experienced craftsmen and women. Investing in these goods creates jobs, reduces emissions, ensures fair working conditions, and creates a sense of pride. The owners and employees of these companies have a deep connection to climbing, and their passion shows in the products.