Big Wall Gear – an interview with John Middendorf

In the third of our series of interviews with Australian designers and manufacturers of climbing gear, we speak to John Middendorf of the brand-new company, Big Wall Gear, a Tasmanian-based company that has just begun production of the new D4 Portaledge.

Can you tell us a little about yourself for Australian climbers who may not be familiar with your background?
I started climbing when I was 14, living on the East Coast of the USA where crags were few and far between. In 1978 I made my first trip to Yosemite with a high school friend in a borrowed car, and once I saw the big stones of the Valley, I was hooked – to be up on big cliffs became my primary desire.  But I also loved cragging and the first time I heard about Arapiles, I knew I had to find my way there. In 1981, at age 20, after working as a logger in Oregon for a summer, I arrived in Australia with $800, expecting the money to fund a couple months of hitchhiking and climbing, but thanks to the generosity of the Australian climbing community who put me up everywhere I went, I was able to extend my stay to the full six months of my visa. I climbed at over a dozen different areas, with HB, Paul Hoskins, Rod Young, Chris Shepherd, Mark Moorhead, Tony Marion, Dennis Kemp, Greg Moore, Glenn Tempest, Rod Mackenzie, Geoff Weigand and John Smoothy, to name a few. It was one of those wonderful eras of one’s youth that I remember with fondness.

John product testing his new D4 Portaledge on his first big wall for a long time, Ozymandias at Mt Buffalo. Photo by Simon Mentz

John product testing his new D4 Portaledge on his first big wall for a long time, Ozymandias at Mt Buffalo. Photo by Simon Mentz

After I graduated from uni, I spent a few years living year-round in the dirt of Yosemite, working for YOSAR, and climbing about a dozen big walls every year.  Then in 1986 I got rescued on Half Dome in a bad storm, retreated to Arizona to start a big wall climbing business, but didn’t climb another wall for three years. After I developed the A5 portaledge, in 1989 I climbed a new route on Half Dome with Walt Shipley in very unsettled weather, and I was back into wall climbing. After that, I had four very productive years doing a lot of big walls first ascents around the world.

How did you get into climbing?
I was a pretty dorky kid, terrible at sports and socially inept, and was starting to hang around the ‘bad’ crowd in the summers of my early high school days. My Mom, based on a tip from her cousin, sent me to a boot camp mountaineering school, the Telluride Mountaineering School in Colorado. The first day of this camp, at 3000m above sea level, we were woken up at 4am to do calisthenics, then made to run up a steep hill for a couple miles to end with a jump in a near-frozen lake as dawn broke in the Colorado Rockies. Dave Farny, who ran the camp, had the ‘that which does not kill you makes you stronger’ attitude to just about everything, and over the 35-day camp, we got to try some rockclimbing (Henry Barber was one of the instructors), and I found that I was actually naturally good at something for the first time in my life; climbing has been part of my life ever since.

A younger model John (1992) on the first ascent of the Great Voyage on Great Trango Tower, Karakorum, still considered on the world's hardest big wall aid routes. Photo John Middendorf collection

A younger model John (1992) on the first ascent of the Great Voyage on Great Trango Tower, Karakorum, still considered on the world’s hardest big wall aid routes. Photo John Middendorf collection

You’re best known as a big wall climber, what’s your proudest big wall climb?
In 1992, Xaver Bongard and I climbed the first ascent of The Grand Voyage, VII, 5.10+, A4+ WI4, which was definitely an out-there climb. We went there not certain of a specific objective, but once we saw the big East Face of Great Trango Tower, I picked out a line, the steepest and most overhanging route on Great Trango, proposed it to Xaver, who was game for anything, and we spent 14 days climbing the 1350m vertical and overhanging wall, another day to summit the final 200m to the top, then three full days to descend by rappelling our route. It has not had a repeat, and I believe it is still considered the hardest big wall climb in the world. The upper section traversed into the north-facing part of the wall, and it was also the first time any team had alpine big wall climbed a north facing wall in the Karakoram – there were a lot of objective hazards, and the temperature was always well below freezing. Greg Child, who had by that time had already done some amazing routes in the Karakoram, had previously sent me a picture of Great Trango with a huge avalanche of rock, snow, and ice covering the face we climbed – he reminded me about it after we had returned from our trip, luckily I had forgotten seeing the picture when I was there, otherwise I might have thought twice about the line!

Looking down the Grand Voyage. Photo John Middendorf collection

Looking down the Grand Voyage. Photo John Middendorf collection

Do you still do much big wall climbing these days?
Until last week, I hadn’t really climbed a big wall for 20 years! Last week, I got to climb Ozymandias with Simon Mentz. It was pretty hard for me, at age 57, but I felt pretty fit after a solid week of moving on rock at Arapiles in the lead up. Simon was pretty much the best partner for the route I could possibly imagine – we laughed a lot on the ascent! Plus he’s super strong and didn’t mind carrying the big haul bag!

How did you find yourself living Tasmania – and how do you like it?
After I sold A5 to The North Face in 1998, I worked for them for a few years as a Senior Product Manager, but then they were involved with some financial difficulties and my whole division was eliminated. The rough thing for me is that I had sold my company in order to have access to broader design opportunities, but I found myself without a job and also with a non-compete contractual clause that I was still legally obligated to adhere to (don’t ask me how that works!). It was frustrating because I still had a lot of ideas for cutting-edge climbing tools to enable bigger and more wild ascents, but I made the best of it and spent six months at the University of New South Wales refining my engineering skills while starting a tension fabric design business. I realised Australia in general is so much more sensible compared to the USA in almost every conceivable aspect, so I applied, and was granted, my Permanent Residency visa.

A biro sketch of the original A5 portaledge designed by John Middendorf. Photo Middendorf collection

A biro sketch of the original A5 portaledge designed by John Middendorf. Photo Middendorf collection

My wife, who is also from the USA, picked Tasmania after we visited my old friend Paul Pritchard. Tasmania is an idyllic place to bring up kids (we have two, aged four and ten) – there’s just so much support, infrastructure, and activities for families with kids here – it is paradise in that respect. Sometimes I do worry about the Vitamin D deficiency in winter, but that’s the only downside I can see.

You founded A5 back in 1986, has it been different starting up a company now as opposed to then?
Yes, back then I started with some funds from my parents – actually my folks had invested $2000 per year for me since I was born, and finally told me about the account when I was 25, after I had been living in Yosemite for four years, because I had recently crashed my ‘70s Datsun and had absolutely no money to pay for the repairs (nor for the repair for the person I crashed into!) When I found out I had some money I could use, I figured what better way to use it – start a business doing something I loved. Now, everyone said a big wall business would never fly, and they were almost right – there were multiple times when I ran out of money and was about to sell my sewing and milling machine to pay my bills, but each time there was a bit of resurgence in demand for the tools we were creating, and I kept it going somewhat-profitably for ten years.

These days are quite different. I just developed a better portaledge design (the D4 Portaledge, by Big Wall Gear, LLC), and was able to obtain funding upfront through Kickstarter. It was wonderful investing more time into this project knowing that the demand is already there – we met our funding goal within three days!

John working on a D4 prototype. Middendorf collection

John working on a D4 prototype. Middendorf collection

What inspired you to start building portaledges again?
I was climbing at Arapiles with my kids, and met Chris Trull, who was interested in big wall climbing and had heard of my exploits on the walls of the world, and also of the A5 gear I used to design. He pointed out to me that although the current commercial portaledges are based on my original design, they have really mucked up the functionality of them, making them too heavy and bulky when packed, and adding spurious stuff like spreader bars and open corners that reduce rigidity. Now, I have been tinkering with folding designs ever since I was in the climbing gear business, and always knew there was potential for better portaledges, but never felt inspired to get back into what had become a very competitive business environment. But somehow Chris’ enthusiasm got me thinking harder about designing a better portaledge, and the last six months have been a very productive combination of working on previously-brewing ideas (like the new curved tube corners) and new innovations, which have combined to create a very significant jump in portaledge development – the new D4 ledge is full sized, very rigid and stable when set up, but packs very compactly and is half the weight of the current Black Diamond ledge (the ‘A5 Cliff Cabana’ which I designed 25 years ago). It sets up and takes down easier too.

What kinds of things did you think about when you first started creating this portaledge?
Weight and packed size! When I first saw the changes Black Diamond had made to my Cliff Cabana, I was shocked – somehow they added 5kg to the design (including the unnecessary spreader bar, see my Supertopo discussion for more info on that), but also changed it from a ten-piece frame, which packed fairly compactly, to a six-piece frame, which is a massively long when packed up – I can’t really see anyone enjoying carrying that big a ledge to anywhere but El Cap, so my main priority was to bring back a lightweight, compact-when-packed portaledge.

Product testing with child labour. Middendorf collection

Product testing with child labour. Middendorf collection

What do you think is unique about your design?
In addition to all the features we first developed for portaledges at A5, such as the Shark Fin dividers for two people to maximise space, the bed tensioners to enable easier setup, the cam-buckle suspension for easy adjustment in all conditions, and the single seam fly to enhance the waterproofness, the D4 Portaledge has four major new innovations: the Hybrid Diameter tubing, which provides strength and rigidity without the need for a spreader bar; the curved tube corners, which increase the ledge rigidity, reduce weight, and ease setup; the four-point equalising suspension, which enhances stability and makes the ledge easier to adjust; and the integrated fly/ledge haulsack system, which makes deployment in a storm way easier in addition to making the whole package much easier to stuff into a haul bag. I was impressed myself with how much more confident I felt during Ozymandias if a storm suddenly hit, as I knew full deployment could be done in a few minutes with no potential fumbling or need to get all the parts organised from the haul bag.

unnamed (3)Where are the portaledges manufactured?
I have made the very first prototypes in my shed here in Tasmania, including the frames, but now have gotten back in touch with one of A5’s best thread workers, Barry Ward, so he will be making the sewn parts in Durango, Colorado and is now part owner of the business. I might make all the frames here, though it is more costly to do so, or we might find a way to make them in the USA where it would be cheaper. Because we only expect to sell a few hundred portaledges a year, we likely won’t go offshore for some time, but I do have some other climbing products in mind, including a new ‘MiniMe’ ledge, which might have broader application to riggers, rescue teams, and just about anyone who works in the vertical, that might do well with mass production in Asia in the future. The company name is simply Big Wall Gear!

John’s Kickstarter campaign is still running, you can support it here. You can also follow Big Wall Gear here.

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