Last week, we spoke with George Shumate, a Boulder resident just starting out on his own with his new climbing company, Boulder5. This week, we check in with Goose Kearse, president of Misty Mountain Threadworks in North Carolina.
The company, which specializes in climbing harnesses, got its start much like Boulder5. One climber saw a product that he thought could be made better, and decided to design it himself. Almost 30 years later, Misty Mountain is one of the military’s leading suppliers of harnesses.
Goose spoke with us about the company’s history and mission, and how a boutique climbing company can develop its own niche in the outdoor sports industry.
We’ll continue our profiles of climbers striking out as entrepreneurs in today’s age of crowdfunding and e-commerce over the next few weeks.
1) BLISTER: How do you measure or view the success of this 28-year-old company?
Goose: We get to play in the mountains, climb, and mountain bike. Our kids aren’t starving. We’re having a lot of fun doing what we’re doing. In that way, I think we are very successful.
And I think we make great products. We all appreciate climbing. We dig climbing, we want other people to dig it, too, and one way to dig it is to enjoy it with a comfortable harness on that doesn’t squeeze you in all the wrong places.
2-3) BLISTER: So how did Misty Mountain get its start? Did you know its founder?
Goose: The founder of Misty Mountain is a great guy, and he’s still alive though he’s not with the company any more. His name is Woody (it’s been his nickname so long it’s his name, just like Goose is mine), Woody Keen.
Woody and I went to high school together. We grew up in Charlotte about two hours south of here. Back in high school, Woody was the real climber. I’d been climbing with youth groups and camps, but I’d never climbed with an individual. I’d never known anybody who knew enough about climbing and had the equipment and the ropes to do it alone.
Then I met Woody, and we started climbing together when I was about 16 years old.
4) BLISTER: When did Woody start designing harnesses?
Goose: This was the mid-70s, and he was already designing harnesses in high school. He started the company, Misty Mountain, in the mid ’80s. He’d been the head climbing instructor at North Carolina’s Outward Bound school.
So he designed a harness called the Fudge, one of the first one-size-fits-most harnesses on the market, and he sold those to Outward Bound and a few other programs.
He started Misty Mountain Threadworks in 1985. I joined the company in ’89. Then Mike Grimm, who’d been one of our first employees, became a partner in 1996. So Mike and I are the owners—I’m the belayer, he’s the leader.
We split design to some extent since I have certain areas of interest, but generally speaking, he designs most of our recreational harnesses and products of that nature.
5-6) BLISTER: What was that growth process like, and how different is it today than it was in the ’80s to break into the climbing scene?
Goose: It’s been fun. I don’t know if you could call it a roller coaster, but there have definitely been some valleys and hills. We’ve enjoyed it.
Climbing harness design was in its infancy early on. The early harnesses that came out of Europe— I won’t name any names — were really uncomfortable with straps that pretty much circumscribed your body through the crotch. A lot of issues there.
We felt, coming into it at that time, that we were designing better products than almost everybody else, and I guess we still feel the same way now. I think that has to do with us focusing on the climbing safety systems and coming up with new ways of doing things that just work better. Comfortable, lightweight, stronger, more durable.
8) BLISTER: For 30 years now, Misty Mountain has been manufacturing all of its products in the US. Some say that it is easier for an individual or a smaller company to make products in the U.S.—Do you agree, and how does manufacturing here affect your business model?
Goose: That’s really core to who we are. We’re passionate about climbing. I want to see everyone get a chance to try climbing, because I think it’s good for the world when people climb. I know it’s good for me and my kids and other people I know. And not just the physical aspects of climbing, but the mental ones as well—gaining confidence, learning to trust people.
All these things are important, we really believe in that. And that drives what we do.
And we do that in the U.S. We think it’s important to interact with and supervise our co-workers who manufacture our products on a daily basis. It lets us manage the raw materials that are coming in, manage the enterprise organically, closely, not from thousands of miles away. It’s important to have the owners on-sight, I think.
It’s a really good way for us to do what we want to do—make really high-quality climbing harnesses. Every one we ship out the door has to hold for a 3,600 pound fall. That’s a pretty high standard for something made out of textiles that weighs less than a pound.
I do think it’s easier because we’re smaller. But it’s still a choice, and larger companies could make that choice as well. It might just mean lowering their profit expectations, pissing off their shareholders if they’re a publicly traded company, and that’s usually not feasible.
For Mike and me, making our products in the U.S. is a priority. It’s not something we look at as optional. You don’t just design it, you gotta manufacture it. We made that commitment many years ago.
Right now, it’s all made here in North Carolina, in the mountains. I’m not saying we won’t end up somewhere else at some point, we might have a factory on the West Coast some day. I’m not opposed to growth, but being made in the U.S., out of U.S componetry, with American workers, is a characteristic of what we do.
9) BLISTER: How many employees does Misty Mountain have now?
Goose: I think we’re at 14 full-time now and we’ve got two sales reps who work for us and other companies. They’re contract workers, they’re not full time.
10-11) BLISTER: How does a line drawing become a harness? What are the steps you follow?
Goose: It depends on what we’re doing. My partner and I have both been climbing for years. He’s a very active, excellent climber, while I’m more of the classic do-a-lot-of things-poorly type. I climb safely, but I’m not a great climber.
Anyway, with things like harnesses where we’re working in the climbing world, we’ll just have a desire to improve a product.
Mike is working on a new group of harnesses now. The human body is not a tube, it’s not a cylinder. It curves. There’s three-dimensional shape to it. What we’re trying to do with this new group of harnesses is cut the materials and the webbing in a way so that when they’re folded, wrapped around the body, they become more three dimensional. They’ll flare out so they fit more closely and less obtrusively.
It’s taking harness design to a higher level of ergonomic fit. That’s what Mike’s working on, and he’s got a couple of prototypes already. He’s also working with materials that are lighter weight but still have a high abrasion resistance and a strong core skeleton.
12) BLISTER: And your role in design?
Goose: I work on the military and tactical side. I’m not an expert, I wasn’t in the military, so I work with people who are active duty. Most recently I’ve been working with some guys out of Fort Bragg. They’re pararescue men, the highest level of special forces in the Air Force. They’re trained as EMTs, but they’re also experts at climbing and confined space rescues.
It’s really fun to work with them. Now we’re working on some special projects that integrate the load/carriage systems the military uses. Like a belt for carrying medical supplies or a pack that carries tools they might use to get into an overturned vehicle. And then it’s also got a harness component to it, so if they’re being dropped into the site from a helicopter, they can safely do it while on the rope.