Climb Every MountainJun 30, 2021 03:10PM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
My husband and I moved to northcentral Pennsylvania from Reno, Nevada, where we’d enjoyed rock climbing in the Eastern Sierras. Before that we’d lived and climbed in western North Carolina. When we moved here, we missed having crags close by. The ones we did find weren’t very tall and were a long hike in. We had little kids now and less time. Soon we had less fitness. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bitter about giving up my favorite outdoor activity.
So I’m feeling a bit sheepish discovering more than ten years later that Pennsylvania has a strong climbing community and even a popular manufacturer of climbing gear in Philipsburg, just outside State College. Organic Climbing, like the state’s distinctive sandstone and gritstone boulders, is a business worth tracking down. I drive two hours and, as I pull into the business park, my map software tells me the factory is on my left, but the two rows of solar panels tells me it’s on my right.
I walk inside the open space with tables, shelves, and huge windows and instantly know the people who work here enjoy their jobs. The vibe is as obvious as the bright colors of fabric scraps and rolls stacked all around me. Around the corner is Josh Helke, owner and designer, who smiles, thanks me for coming, and shakes my hand. (I’ve really missed shaking hands with people I meet.)
He shows me around and explains that he named the company Organic Climbing because it only makes gear for bouldering, a type of ropeless climbing that’s just the basics. No wearing a harness, belaying, clipping bolts, or placing protection, though you still need special rubber-soled shoes. It’s both more and less social because you can go with a group and always be within talking range, or go by yourself to be one with the rock. In either case, crash pads are key. These pads range in size and thickness—thicker for higher falls—and are there to keep the boulderer from grounding, because inevitably you fall sometimes. There’s more commitment required to climb without a rope, but who among us didn’t love scrambling on top of boulders as a kid? This just takes that instinct and glee into the next level.
Though the crash pads, chalk bags (chalk helps you grip), and packs aren’t made of organic materials, quality and sustainability are keystones of the business. Since the beginning, Josh has used the most durable Cordura Nylon. They sell replacement pieces to keep gear out of the landfill longer. Their iconic designs emanate from the use of fabric scraps to create tri-color pieces, each unique. You may choose the same colors for your order as your friend, but the shape of the scraps determines how they’re put together. This approach and their solar power makes them nearly zero waste.
They weren’t always in Pennsylvania. Josh, a climber since age five, started the business out west in 2004 after being involved with outdoor product design for other companies and seeing a dive in quality in a race to see who could market the cheapest gear. It was no longer the gear he’d grown up with, supplied by small companies making a core product they used themselves after work. He got fed up and began producing pieces in his house in Laramie, Wyoming, expanded to his garage, and soon to an A-frame he and his wife were caretaking. Friends worked out of their homes after school and work. After six years, Josh’s wife, who’d finished her doctorate in geology, got a post-doc in Minnesota, so the business moved there and took on more of a crew. In 2009, Liz Hajek got a faculty position at Penn State, so this is where the family and business settled. Turns out the state had always been in their top ten sales. I’m surprised to hear that. Bouldering has always seemed like a western sport. Josh agrees, but says there’s a specific flavor to east coast climbing and cycling—a sweaty, slimy greenness in our lush part of the nation.
“At a time when large companies are buying up mom and pop independent companies in our industry and homogenizing once brand-unique product lines for big box retailers,” Josh says on a video, “our style is our voice.” Pushing against the tide is central to his work ethic. They source almost 100 percent from the U.S.A., and from the start he committed to building in this country as well, literally purchasing competitors’ sewing machines as they sent their gear overseas to be made.
As COVID-19 sent greater numbers of folks outdoors, their demand for crash pads skyrocketed because suppliers like REI and Backcountry couldn’t keep the ones made overseas in stock. When the factory was shut down, the core employees sewed from their garages like in the early days. Since they do production sewing, where people sew the same pieces all day rather than a complete product, a van had to do pick-ups and deliveries. There was a surge of cyclists too, so they started producing bags for them under the name Nittany Mountain Works.
The crisis has shown Josh the importance of cross-training, which he sees as the future of U.S. manufacturing. It also helps them have a generous vacation and sick leave policy, because there are people ready to fill in. Now they employ eight full-time people and two dogs. Workers receive health bonuses, paid maternity/paternity leave, climbing gym memberships, and employee bonuses. Though doing the same thing all day might seem monotonous at first, they can listen to music or podcasts—even learn a language.
“To make the product we want to make,” Josh explains, “the hands that make it need to be happy.”
Don’t you want to work for this guy? Check them out at organicclimbing.com.