In a time when even once-small outdoor gear manufacturers are going the route of overseas production and large company mergers, it's nice to know that there's still a local company, helmed by committed climbers, creating climbing gear made right here in the state. For anyone who doesn't know, Misty Mountain Threadworks makes all kinds of sewn goods for climbing--harnesses, crash pads, chalk bags, chalk pots, runners, gear slings--the list goes on. And they've been doing it here in the high country for almost 30 years. The company has gone through some changes in ownership and location during that time, but it's always remained committed to making great climbing gear. In this first part of a two-part series, I'll do a short tour of the factory and share the history of the company. In the next post, we'll see how a Misty harness gets made, which is actually pretty cool, especially if you're as much of a gear dork as I am. Think about it: harnesses save our butts all the time, but we rarely think twice about what goes into making them.
Driving out to Misty is an experience in and of itself, and it gives some insight into how the owners are committed to working in an environment suited to outdoorsy-types. You turn off a winding paved road onto a dirt road, which then crosses a suspect-looking bridge that leans a bit to one side. (Look for the sign here that says “Trucks Use Ford Please”—as in, please drive over the river if you’ve got a heavy truck.) Once over the bridge (which I drove over), you continue down the dirt road along the riverside until you get to the Misty production facility—a wood-sided 3-story factory set back in the woods. If you’re a climber, or someone who loves the outdoors, this is exactly the kind of office you’d want to commute to—it’s a far cry from and industrial factory in a sterile office park. Going up to the front door, I was greeted by two dogs lounging on the porch in the sun. I was then met at the door by Goose Kearse, part owner of Misty, who warmly welcomed me in as his dog hopped in his lap.
The Misty Factory, just outside of Boone and down a beautiful dirt road in the woods.
The bridge on the way to the Misty factory.
A quick run down of the factory goes like this: Just inside the front door is the stockroom where all the shipping and receiving takes place, and where Goose handles a lot of the day-to-day business stuff. This is a fun room if you’re a gear junkie. Tons of packaged harnesses, chalk bags, slings, and more adorn the bins and walls here. For a climber, it’s a bit like the Christmas morning you’ve never had but always wanted. Also on this floor is Mike Grimm’s (the other co-owner) testing room, where he uses some heavy-duty machines to break all kinds of webbing, test new harness designs, stitching patterns, and things of that ilk. In my mind, this room is kind of like a cross between a mad scientist’s lab and a place where the kid in each of us can enjoy breaking things all to hell—only here it’s with a really specific purpose and done very methodically.
Finished sewn products, ready to be shipped out from the ground floor of the factory.
Goose Kearse working at his computer, surrounded by bins of Misty stuff being sent out.
Another pic of the stockroom, where Goose works, and which is just inside the front door of the factory.
Going up a short flight of stairs brings you to the cutting room where all of the fabrics are stored on huge rolls (with lots of new colors added to this year’s lineup). Here, lots of dies, along with some hand-cutting, are used to create the shapes of harnesses and packs that will be sewn together upstairs in the sewing room. I won’t spend too much time on this room as it’ll be covered more in the next post on making a harness.
Co-owner Mike Grimm and employee Erich Purpur in the cutting room. All the fabric on rolls behind them are new color options for harnesses, packs, and pads. You could order a pink/cammo pad if that's your bag.
On the third floor are two large sewing rooms where everything from the cutting room comes together. There are all kinds of industrial strength sewing machines here, run by some very experienced local sewers. On the day I visited, three women were working on sewing harnesses. One of them, Anita, has been working at Misty for 12 years. In this room, the different sewing machines have specific uses, from sewing the heavy-duty stitching needed on runners and harness donuts to the finer stitching needed on harness details. The third floor is also where a lot of the harness buckles, crash pad buckles, and other non-fabric materials that go into climbing gear are stored.
One of the two 3rd floor sewing rooms.
The second sewing room on the 3rd floor.
Ladies of Misty Mountain: Anita (right) and her daughter, Hannah. Anita has been sewing at Misty for 12 years.
Bins of harness parts in the sewing room waiting to be sewn together.
A box full of Misty labels.
One thing I liked a lot about the Misty factory is that it feels like it is run by people who care about climbing. (Even the “new” Misty logo was designed by a local climber, Jim Horton, of Triple Crown fame.) All of the walls are covered with old and new posters of climbers from all over the world. If you want to see some classic 90s climbing outfits, the posters at Misty will fit the bill. There are also some pretty killer hand-drawn topos of local bouldering areas made by Joey Henson on the walls. I could stand and look at those things for a half hour alone. In short, Misty is a place where climbing itself seems important, and not just a product being pushed out to the marketplace.
One of Joey Henson's super detailed hand drawn topos. There are 3 of them on the wall at Misty. (This one was made before Howard's Knob was closed to climbers.)
The old Misty Mountain logo, which was hand drawn by one of Woody's friends.
Misty got its start in the early 80s. It’s hard to believe sometimes that just 30 years ago, climbing harnesses were not easily available commercially. This just blows my mind when I think about other sports that have also been around for many decades, like tennis. Sure, racquet technology has changed since the old days, but you didn’t have to make your own raquet in the 70s! It’s a reminder that although the history of climbing seems long, this current age of hard sending, cragging, and bouldering, all with super-engineered products, is still relatively young. Mike Grimm can tell you about climbing in Western NC before chalk was even being used—and this was the 80s! All that aside, there was an opportunity for someone to start making and selling harnesses. Enter Woody Keen, who at the time was working for Outward Bound (OB) at Table Rock. Back then, OB didn’t have real harnesses, so Woody invented the now famous Fudge harness (which is a simple harness made of webbing and buckles that fits almost anyone) and began selling them to OB. Woody worked out of his house in a neighborhood called Misty Mountain—and thus the name for the company was born.
A newer version of the classic Misty Fudge Harness.
Some of the early recreational climbing harnesses made by Misty. Note the lack of a donut or leg loops (which could be attached, though). Mike Grimm says it was the style to climb at some areas in WNC with no leg loops.
An early label on a harness.
In high school, Woody had worked at an outdoor store in Charlotte called Allanby’s that sewed its own packs, and he learned how to sew outdoor gear there. After leaving Allanby’s, he bought his own sewing machine and kept making gear. Later, as his harness business began to grow beyond just the fudge harness and into more recreational harnesses as well, Woody left Outward Bound and moved Misty to a space behind the old Footsloggers store, which is now the Town Tavern. According to Mike Grimm, you can still see some climbing holds the Misty guys attached to the wall behind the building. After awhile, Misty moved to a business park located near the new Wal-Mart.
In 1986 Woody Keen sold half his business to a friend , Burton Moomaw, who had been working at Misty for about a year. (Quick side note: I learned how to trad climb from Burton when he was a guide at Table Rock in the 90s. He now owns an acupuncture place in downtown Boone.) Later, Burton sold his half of Misty to Mark "Goose" Kearse, who was an old high school friend of Woody's.
Mike Grimm sewing a harness in '86. That's Burton Moomaw in the background. Mike's got some other great pics from the 80s in a slideshow at fullmantlepress.com
Mike Grimm started working for the company in 1986 and continued to work there on and off for a decade. By the mid-90s, sport climbing was taking the climbing world by storm, and Woody Keen, a staunch traditionalist, was getting burned out on what climbing was becoming and started to lose interest in the sport. So in 1996, he sold his half of Misty to Mike Grimm, who is still co-owner today with Goose. Misty moved into the current factory in 1990, renting the space from Watauga Laminates, who made some of the first whitewater playboats in the 80s. Eventually, Mike and Goose bought the building in 1996.
For years, Misty's main core business has been harnesses, and it still is today. But when bouldering began blowing up in the mid-90s, Misty made some of the best pads on the market with the Highlander and later the super-sized Magnum. Remember that bridge from earlier in the post? Since the trucks delivering all that boulder pad foam to Misty couldn’t get across the bridge, the Misty crew would have to meet them at the river and transport all of that foam back to the factory themselves. That’s being committed to the product! These days, Mike has also started experimenting with climbing packs, so the Misty product line continues to refine and evolve.
The Misty Traverse climbing pack.
So that’s the quick tour of the factory and history of Misty. If you meet Mike at the crag, he can tell you tons more stories about his years in the business and the climbing community, like the first time he ever used chalk in the 80s. But my personal favorite story so far: the employee who gave his 2-weeks notice the first day on the job (and yes, it was a climber). Next up, Local Spotlight on Misty, part II: How a Harness is Made.
A final quick side note: Misty just launched a new website last week, so check it out here.