In the wake of Mountain Designs shuttering its doors Michael Meadows looks back at how it all began
Fifty years ago CSIRO technical assistant Rick White acquired his first, albeit small, collection of climbing gear. He bought all of the climbing-related stock from Brisbane-based Graeme Lacey who was winding up his own failed attempt to make a living by selling quality equipment to local bushwalkers and climbers. Apart from Paddy Pallin’s Scout Shop with its limited supply of steel karabiners and pitons, climbers and their needs were decidedly off the radar in 1960s Brisbane.
Although Rick had started climbing barely 12 months before his first venture into the business world, he seemed to sense where his destiny lay. With his first wife, Pam, he began operating part-time from the front verandah of their rented house at Greenslopes, the entire available stock of ironmongery displayed on a couple of pegboard sheets leaning against a wall.
A few months after his tentative move into the climbing business, Rick and my brother, Chris, discovered Frog Buttress. It was a moment that changed the face of Australian climbing culture, eventually elevating Rick into one of Australia’s leading exponents of the sport. Within a month of Frogs’ discovery, Rick had joined with local climbing powerhouse, Ted Cais, to make the first ascent of a steep jam crack there, calling it Infinity (19). Overnight, the name of the climb was incorporated into Rick’s business profile and Infinity Equipment was born.
Throughout 1969, as the number of new routes at Frog Buttress grew, so did the need for more specialised gear to protect the vertical smooth-sided trachyte columns. Like others before him, Rick searched through climbing magazines for equipment that was more suited to ‘jambing’ – a peculiar Queensland spelling of the technique – fast becoming de rigueur for climbing at Frog, once the availability of low-grade traditional-style new routes had been added to the embryonic guidebook. Rick recalled the almost accidental elevation of Infinity Equipment into a major Australian wholesaler:
I just sort of wrote away to all these leading companies that advertise in various magazines and ended up getting all these agencies. I was the only agent for Chouinard and Mammut and Troll – they all had cutting edge gear at various times – and Galibier, they had friction boots. Because as you know, we started climbing in sandshoes and hemp ropes, we didn’t even have kernmantel ropes.
He launched a mail-order service and established a wholesale arm of the business – Odin Equipment Company – selling mainly to outdoor equipment retailers like Paddy Pallin, Bushgear and Mountain Equipment in New South Wales and Victoria.
Influenced by a growing opposition to the use of bolts on crags south of the border, Rick zealously adopted the emerging clean-climbing ethic advocated by Sydney climber John Ewbank. Meanwhile, American Yvon Chouinard launched a range of aluminium chocks (nuts and hexentrics) in an effort to avoid further damage to climbing routes in Yosemite by repeated piton placements. They were quickly added to Odin Equipment’s stock list.
Before the arrival of the American nuts, Ewbank had produced an Australian version called ‘crackers’ – essentially varied lengths of hexagonal-shaped aluminium that were drilled out to make them lighter. But they worked, especially on the heights of Frog Buttress and Mt Maroon where Rick and his cohort had focussed their climbing attention. Rick recalled his own move into manufacturing:
When he [Ewbank] stopped making jam nuts, I started making them under my house [at Sunnybank Hills] to protect the Frog Buttress climbs. Then Chouinard, which was a company that basically made chromoly steel pitons, suddenly saw the light and launched a whole clean climbing ethic with their hexentrics and stoppers. But we were already doing that, so all we had, I guess, was a better designed hex and stopper than we’d had previously, which were homemade or from the UK. And, of course, with a cliff like Frog Buttress, we stopped using pitons almost overnight.
By early 1971, Odin Equipment advertisements had taken pride of place on the inside cover of the national climbing magazine, Thrutch – and remained there for decades. The business now operated – still part-time – from the garage of Rick and Pam’s Sunnybank Hills home. In late 1972, the retail arm of the brand evolved into Rick’s Mountain Shop, first in a small premises at the Taringa shopping centre in Brisbane’s western suburbs with a chimney that seemed to attract dead cats, then a larger shop at Toowong, opposite the old cinema (now a shopping centre) in Milton Road. It was in this shop that Ian ‘Hum Zoo’ Thomas would sometimes sleep inside a tent pitched in the shop’s front window. He once emerged, bleary-eyed, face-to-face with a shocked early morning passer-by who was admiring the outdoor equipment on display! He recalls his own enlistment into the climbing business world, managing Rick’s rather marginal second retail store at Mt Victoria in the Blue Mountains from 1975:
I managed the shop and in the space of 12 months probably sold no more than a couple of hundred dollars of gear. The shop, just across for a famous climber’s pub became a sort of doss house for Sydney climbers on Friday and Saturday nights. The problem was that every Saturday morning, when I was supposed to do business, the climbers were out climbing, so I had to join them. I also noticed that many climbers seemed to have an abnormal number of bright shiny new karabiners and hexentrics. Some even had new packs. No wonder I was not selling any gear, the penurious climbers were nicking it during the night. Rick would send down cartons of new gear and it would all disappear with little to show in the till and me having to explain it all. Rick decided that this was, if nothing else good publicity for his expanding empire and so it turned out to be. Rick’s generousness was appreciated by many.
Rick’s Mountain Shop in 1974 offered a wide range of climbing equipment, for example: a 46m, 11mm Mammut climbing rope at $38.60; Chouinard karabiners $2.65; Galibier ‘BBs’ – Beau Brummels, a friction boot designed by Rick for the wider Australian foot – $24.00; sewn slings from $1.00; a rack of Chouinard Hexentrics (1-11) $20; Stopperchocks (1-8) $15.05; a Whillans climbing harness $12.00; a Chouinard catalogue (a mini-treatise on techniques and ethics) $1.00; a climbing guide to Frog Buttress $1.00; copies of Thrutch $0.40 each and a copies of Mountain $1.50.
Rick joined with emerging Queensland climber Robert Staszewski in an audacious (and near fatal) attempt to climb a new route on the FitzRoy in Patagonia during the 1974-75 Christmas–New Year period. Camped on a glacier, enduring weeks of bad weather, they mulled over ways of making a career out of climbing. When Rick returned to Brisbane, Mountain Designs was born. Rob started his own company and retail outlet, Torre Mountaincraft, some months later. Mountain Designs was initially created as the manufacturing arm of Rick’s expanding climbing business with local art teacher Vicki Couper designing the psychedelic MD’s logo.
Around this time I was between jobs, having just completed a journalism degree, and could operate a sewing machine, so Rick invited me to join him in designing and manufacturing tents and sleeping bags based in a small warehouse at Darra in Brisbane’s southwestern suburbs. Rick bought samples of the best quality gear available and we unashamedly deconstructed them to learn how they were made. One industry insider later described it as ‘reverse engineering’!
We adopted the best elements of the designs but re-shaped them to better suit the local market with the inevitable problems: the cost of imported down-proof cloth was exorbitant so Rick settled on local sailcloth as a substitute for our first batch of sleeping bags. They sold quickly, but within days disgruntled customers complained of down leaking through the fabric. I recall one moment when Rick, in his usual offhand manner, dismissed the problem as a mere bagatelle amidst a shower of down escaping through the fabric.
Rick eventually sourced the appropriate material and with a professional sewing machine operator now employed, the output of sleeping bags, jackets and tents increased, necessitating a move to a larger warehouse at Kelvin Grove. Within 12 months, the manufacturing and retail operations had merged at a single location in Fortitude Valley – the building now occupied by Rocksports climbing gym. Rick’s approach to business at this time was both visionary and precarious with cash flow crises commonplace – curiously, most occurred when he was out of the country on a climbing trip! There were many occasions where his accountant threatened to place the business into receivership if no payments arrived in the last mail on a Friday afternoon. Creditors would often have to physically demand payment at the door of Rick’s office, watching while he reluctantly wrote out a cheque. Regardless of these financial machinations, Rick took the business to new heights, applying the same degree of risk-taking to this aspect of his life as he had done with climbing.
One of Mountain Designs’ key advisers in the late 1970s was American climber Coral Bowman, an industry-design expert, who developed the patterns on which all early MD products were based. She was the first woman in Australia to lead a grade 21 route (Black Light) and to lead a grade 22 new route (Little Queen). She joined a long list of climbers who passed through the doors of Mountain Designs and its precursors over the years: Rob Staszewski, Ian Thomas, Nic Taylor, Chris Peisker, ’Eggi’ Everett, Marty Beare, Thelma Wilson, Dave Moss, Brian Springall, Mike Law, Paul Hoskins to name a few. The company had become much more than a business enterprise – it was an Australian climbing institution.
By the early 1980s, Rick had set his sights on the Himalaya and joined a team for a first ascent of the 6500m east ridge of Shivling in the Garwhal Himalaya. He celebrated his 33rd birthday on the climb, surviving a 250m fall with Greg Child on the descent. Rick had organised two further Himalayan expeditions – one to Cho Oyu in 1990 and to Everest the following year – when fate intervened: the collapse of a long-time financier for his business meant he lost control of Mountain Designs, incurring large debts.
In 1991 he was diagnosed with the incurable muscle-wasting disease, inclusion body myositis. It was the end of his climbing career and, ironically, the same year in which his early climbing partner Chris Meadows took his own life. Undeterred, Rick moved on, starting up a new business. In 2001, the ownership of Mountain Designs changed again and he was invited by its new owner, Greg Nunn, to return to the company as research and development advisor.
Rick died of cancer in 2004, the same year that the family-based outdoor company Anaconda was formed. He had no idea that 14 years later, the brand that he created on the front veranda of a rented house in Brisbane would be subsumed by that very company.
Since Ricks’ death, Mountain Designs moved aggressively into an expanded manufacturing and retail phase with the availability of climbing equipment restricted to a handful of capital city stores. The company’s 39 stores Australia-wide focussed on a broader, highly-competitive outdoor clothing and trekking market. But despite an attempt to break into the US in 2017, the writing was on the wall. In January 2018, Mountain Designs closed 13 stores with the remainder – along with 150 staff – axed within a few weeks. The online presence was all that remained. Former owner of Mountain Designs, Greg Nunn – a strong advocate of the company from the beginning – admitted sadly that it was simply unable to compete with its rival outdoor stores’ discount models.
In March 2018, Anaconda – part of the Spotlight Retail Group – acquired the remnants of Mountain Designs. At the time of writing, final negotiations were underway with the new owners insisting they are ‘committed to keeping Mountain Designs as a brand’. Anaconda has sold a limited range of climbing gear for some years now but it is a broad-based retailer rather than a climbing specialist. And although the brand that Rick created seems likely to survive in the short term, for many of us who had a personal attachment to the various incarnations of his business can’t escape the feeling that something important in the Australian climbing scene has been lost.