Nathan Kukathas started climbing in 1996 in Australia. Growing up unable to afford climbing gear, Nathan started designing and making his own gear including his harness, backpack, tents, sleeping bag, portaledge and haul bags. Soon his design flare brought him into the Outdoor Industry. Today he is a multi-award winning designer having worked for brands including: Arc’teryx, Sea To Summit and Black Diamond. Nathan is an experienced big wall climber and ACMG guide. Climbing routes up to A5, including first ascents and first repeats of routes from Baffin Island, Pakistan and his home town Squamish. We had a chance to sit down with Nathan and talk about his new prototype and how his recent trip to Yosemite opened his eyes to the possibilities. Here is what he had to say.
Hi Nathan, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about this weekends Big Wall Event and the launch of your new company Grade 7 Equipment. Can you start off by first telling us about the event this Saturday?
The event this Saturday is the official launch of Grade VII Climbing Equipment, a new company that I’m starting with John Middendorf, the founder of A5 Adventures Inc, a big wall climbing company that set the standard in the 80’s and 90’s for portaledges, haul bags and big wall gear. The idea is to introduce our brand to the community, inspire everyone to to get out there and have awesome adventures, showcase what some of our local talent have been up to this past season and kick off the summer with a fun party that will fuel the stoke !!! We will be showing off our new portaledge that we are nearing the completion of the design on.We intentionally partnered with Ground Up Climbing Centre and Climb On Equipment to put on this event because we want to build a climbing company that has a really local connection. Both these businesses are at the core of the climbing community here in Squamish. It’s always fun going into Ashley’s store and finding these amazing relics that have been dropped off for consignment. Recently, I found a pair of Five Ten Anasazi with built in gaiter hanging on the wall at Climb On – this kinda thing always gets me stoked !!
Can you tell us about the vision for Grade 7 and how it all got started?
So, I’ll give you the really reticent short version today since I’m going to share the meat of this during the show! Basically, I’ve always been into design. I started making gear when I started climbing in the mid 90’s. At first, it was because I needed stuff to climb with: pitons, harness, sleeping bag tent etc. but then it turned into a hobby and ultimately a career. When I got started I was 14 year old. Over the past 20 years I’ve come along way and had the opportunity to work with many mentors that have helped shaped my design and climbing skills. Last year, a life long dream came true when my good friend Chris Trull introduced me to John Middendorf. Since then, the three of us have been jamming. It’s really special to me and you will find out why at the event on Saturday, it’s somewhat serendipitous. From this, John, Chris and I have joined to created Grade VII Equipment.
You just got back from Yosemite and had a chance to field test your port-a-ledge prototype. How did it go down there?
Such a rad trip. I’ve been climbing big walls for 20 years now and making trips to Yosemite since 2001. This Spring was an entirely new experience in the Valley. Feels like the biggest and most significant evolution in the sport is taking place right now. In the past, ElCap was a place exclusively for Aid climbing, Vertical Camping and Boys to pretend they are men! This trip down there was really different. The standard of free climbing is so high, walls aren’t just being freed by the big name pros. A lot of strong underdogs are on the scene crushing classic ElCap free routes and working some of the test pieces – LOL , I guess everything on ElCap is a test piece but, it’s almost at the point where ‘Freerider’ is just a bigger version of Grand Wall – hmm maybe it is. What really floored me though was how strong the sisters represent down there!! It’s 10pm and people are getting ready for shut eye, when casually a sweet gal asks if anyone’s free for Nose in a day (NIAD) tomorrow. “Oh by the way, I’ve go to work in the evening so we’d need to be done by 5pm”!!As the crew look at their schedules and contemplate her invite, “it’s not a big deal, just a case of am I free manaña”…!!
It isn’t limited to one or two sponsored chicks that climb 5.14, this is the conversation happening among the Valley van dwellers and just out-of-college birds that have migrated to the Ditch for another summer of climbing and adventures. And.. It isn’t like free climbing is the only business these guys have on El Cap now days. From little Jen soloing the Shortest Straw (A4) to Neil repeating Ned’s Excellent Adventure (modern A4+), the Captain is getting lapped in all the different ways to climb, by the new generation. Heck, even Mark Hudon is back in full effect, third career in, the Black Cat in his late 50’s or early 60’s now is one of the most active big wall climbers out there.
So, while daily NIAD’s were going down in droves and beautiful girls were taking over El Cap, my business partner Chris Trull and I spent a week together climbing a mix of Native Son and Iron Hawk, to test our newest portaledge design on one of the steepest routes on El Captain. Lots of fun A3 climbing with a few pitches of A4 and endless blank granite that requires multiple days of portaledge camping. Between that route and the six weeks of climbing Chris did before I came down to join him, we put in 31 nights on our new ledge, climbed El Cap four times and did a few other classic valley big wall routes on other formations.
Thought out this experience we took notes, debated the virtues of our designs and challenged what climbing equipment should and could be like in the future. One of the best work trips I’ve ever done. We accomplished a lot, not only terms of climbing some great routes, but validating our best ideas and exposing our worst. Grade VII Equipment is a climbing company birthed right here in Squamish. We design and manufacture climbing gear for remote adventures and climbs on big walls and in the alpine. From the Himalaya to Baffin and Patagonia, Grade VII Equipment is designed to work in every situation. Designed by Climbers, Built for Climbers. We want to make the best gear possible to advance the sport of climbing.
Sounds like an amazing trip! After 31 days on your ledge, were their any design changes you thought necessary as you get ready to launch?
Yes, absolutely! So on this trip, we were trying out a four-strap design. The idea being we could reduce the weight through dropping two straps and make a tight bed fabric through a strap system that pulled the fabric tighter as you weighted the ledge. The idea worked well but it also created some other problems we hadn’t foreseen until we were using the ledge. Typically, ledges have a six strap suspension. We are now working to make a six strap version that still has the other improvements we made. We will compare the two designs and continue to improve until we are satisfied with the results. We are sending two of these with Marc André and Brette Harrington on their two month expedition this summer to Baffin Island. We also have Nina Caprez heading off in July with two ledges that will be used on her Arctic trip to Greenland.
Our design strategy is quite simple. Design product, make it our selves, use it our selves, give it to our athletes, debate the virtues of our design with our athletes and return to the drawing board to refine, repeat until perfect. I’m really proud of what we are doing because I’ve seen many un-tested products and ideas come out in the outdoor industry. It’s frustrating when you are a customer and pay hard cold cash for something that you really really rely on only on to have it suck! Grade VII Equipment is a crew of climbers. We really get it. No one wants to pay to be part of a beta testing program. We are dedicated to building products that are not only really well made, but that work in all the difficult situations encountered when pushing the limits of your gear and ability in the mountains.
Can you tell us a bit about your background as a designer and what lead you to building Grade 7?
I started sewing my own gear (harnesses, backpacks and tents) back when I was 14 years old living in Australia and new to climbing. At first, I worked pretty much all on my own making up everything as I went. Taught myself to make patterns, use a sewing machine and manufacture equipment. Years after, I started at an Australian company, Sea To Summit, who invited me to join their design team. It was a huge step for me. I’d never had a full time job or worked as a designer for a company before. During my years with STS, I spent a lot of time in factories all over the world. Living almost five years in Asia and being in the biggest factories that made for all the biggest brands was the start of my career in the outdoor industry on a much more serious level. I worked in over 100 factories, from sleeping bag factories to injection mounding and bottle manufacturers. I was kinda weird because I’d go to these factories and plant myself there for weeks on end, working with them to not only design the product, but develop the method of manufacturing. Often, It knew nothing about the processes before I’d turn up. After weeks of collaboration, we’d come to a great result.
Over the years I got more and more experience in a broad array of manufacturing methods. My unique design method is to design by making the prototypes myself as well as developing raw materials. As a kid I really wanted to work for A5 Adventures and Arc’teryx. Having already fallen in love with Canada and yearning to return, I moved back here and took a job designing for Arc’teryx. The mythical magic that is conducted behind the pin coded secure doors of the deep space lab down in North Vancouver was something I’d wanted to be a part of since I started designing. Working with veterans who truly advanced the products we all take for granted today! Mike Blenkarn, Tom Fayle, Dan Green, Gord Rose, Dan Jackson and Ian Martin all took me under their wings and shared the secret sauce. It was an exhilarating time for me in my design career. I felt like I had joined the dream team and we were driving Mclarens. During this time, I met one of my best friend and biggest design influencer, Tony Richardson. Working together on a controversial project at the time, we not only forged some of our best ideas but a life long friendship and design partnership that has taught me so much. Together we designed the Alpha FL pack that went on to win Gold Design Award at the tradeshow and advance the possibilities in backpacks and bag technology.
Since my time at Arc’teryx, I’ve been working on various projects for Sea To Summit, including their most recent line of Award winning air mats. Last year, Tony, Trina and I partnered to contract to RYU Apparel in Vancouver, a new fitness brand that make fashionable, functional clothing for training, workouts, being active and looking good in the city. In conjunction with this, I have been squirreling ideas for Grade VII, and working on a new brand of bags, wallets and luggage that I will launch later this summer called Cardamon. All these ventures are coming out of my wheel-house, Design House Collective, located here in Squamish. 2016 is exciting as we are launching two brands while designing for the top fitness brand in Vancouver. It’s hard to describe with words but as a design geek and climber that loves Squamish this is the dream!!
How did you and Chris get started with your partnership?
A few years back, we met through our good friend and talented filmmaker, David Pearson. Dave and I worked together back then as the Design House Collective. Now he’s moved on to work with Brian Smith and they specialize in film, working as Reel Water Productions. They have some great projects they have been doing. Lots of stuff for RedBull, Discovery Channel and Nat Geo. I think on that day we met, the two of us hatched a plan to go to Yosemite that summer and climb Nose In A Day (NIAD). A life long dream of both of us. Weeks later we were in the valley and had our mission! Probably the most fun I’ve ever had climbing. We blasted up the first half of the Nose really quickly. I recall getting to the Great Roof and being so out of breath. We were on track for a sub 12 hour time and I hadn’t climbed much that year. Well, higher up things got a lot slower. The endurance you need for NIAD is similar to a marathon. When we got to Camp 5, things slowed down so much that we not only went over the 12 hour mark but we bled into an exhausting 17 hour day. Still, got the NIAD which we were both really happy about, but as we topped out we both started immediately talking about how we will go faster next time!! A couple of years went by and Chris was on a climbing trip Down Under for most of that time so we didn’t see each other much until early this year. When Chris returned to Squamish from his multi-year trip, he immediately joined me in this new business. It’s funny, as Chris is really the catalyst for it all coming together.
You have lived in Squamish now for 15 years. Why call Squamish home?
I first came here from Australia in 2001. For the initial winter, I did the Whistler thing and planted my Aussie ass up in the resort, partied a bunch and climbed and snowboarded a ton. This is where I met Jimmy Martinello and Bob Allison, among the many generous, beautiful, friendly, genuine motivated people that are part of our Sea To Sky community. I remember Jimmy took me out to Pemberton and introduced me to a new bouldering spot they were developing at the time. I’d been a climber for years but bouldering was relatively new. It wasn’t big wall but it was big fun. We didn’t have pads and well you don’t really need them in the Pemby boulders near the tracks since its soft flat landings. While I didn’t take to the pebble crushing beyond enjoying the occasional social climb and beer banter cragging, this was one of the experiences I remember shaping my choice to live here in Canada.
In those early days here, I was not a resident and couldn’t stay for more than 6 months at a time. I’d bounce back and forth between here, the USA and Oz. it was clear to me from the beginning that I wanted to make BC home. When the first summer rolled around and I found myself hitching to Squamish every day off, I discovered this magical place and made it my life goal to move here and become Canadian. At first, I came to Canada for the mountains, snow and rock. Upon arriving, I discovered the most inviting, accepting and quality people. While there’s great people all over the world, something about the community here in Squamish really stood out. I think it was a combination of like interests that we all shared, along with personality qualities and ultimately a trait that I haven’t found many other places. The people of Squamish have all chosen to live here. Rarely do you meet someone that grew up in Squamish and when you do it’s not like they grew up here, never left town and don’t know what else is out there. Everyone in Squamish is here because they want to be here. In fact, many of us have fought and worked hard to make it happen. This is special and I see it as one of the things that really connects us all.
You have established your work space in a part of town that is quickly becoming a hang out place for up and coming artists. How has the art scene in Squamish influenced you work and what is so special about that community?
A few years ago, my friend Amy Stein invited me to live with her a top of Teds building at the end of 2nd ave. At the time, I didn’t realize how special the Fag End was. A couple years into living with Amy, we were struck with tragedy when she died on a road trip climbing in the US. Living above the Yoga studio in the rooftop we had a huge deck that looked at the Chief, Attwell and all of the mountains front, center and behind, we had a 360′ view from the roof top that was like none other in the world !! Props to Ted Prior for building the most awesome place to live ever!! When we lost Amy the Squamish community really came together and transformed our space at the end of 2nd ave. In her wake we held an open invite dinner and gathering on the rooftop. Amy was connected to everyone and had not only friends all over the world but best friends all over the world.
Being in the Fag End, so humorously coined by Gaggan Deep Guman, of the Squamish Reporter, we were stacked in a mixed residential, light industrial, commercial zone that accommodates the renegade artistics of this town. With sweet yogi sisters camped underneath and talented jewelers, painters and craftsmen surrounding Ted’s building, I found my place in town and fell in love with Squamish on an entirely new level. Most recently I had to move out from the rooftop penthouse and find a new abode. Thankfully at the time a friend in the neighborhood was moving and a business was migrating, rendering both a work space and a living space available to rent adjacent!! I snapped them both up and gathered my things. Moving in, I felt so lucky to have both a place to live and a place to work in the most desirable town in the entire world, with views of the chief, surrounded by good friends, artists, designers and musicians. For the Design House Collective there couldn’t be a better place to build the foundations of our new climbing company Grade VII Equipment. So… If you’re in the Fag End and have time for a beer, pop across to 3rd ave, stop in and pay us a visit, chat shop and see what I’m working on!
After Saturday’s event is over, What is next for you guys?
We are mid production on Marc, Brette and Nina’s ledges. Gota keep going on that since they all depart this month !! Lots of development and R&D. Gearing up for some great events we are part of this summer. Arc’teryx invited us to join the Academy in July, so we have a booth at the event and will be showing off our ledge and some other products. We’ve partnered with Ground Up to do a bunch of big wall clinics this summer at the gym, so if you’re a member take advantage of the great opportunities at Ground Up and join a clinic. We will be sharing skills and knowledge to help people get into wall climbing and to help experienced climbers develop skills and learn new techniques that will be valuable for objectives like Nose In A Day. Finally we’ve got a super exciting TOP SECRET project we’ve been working on for a while now. It’s pretty much gonna change the way super big alpine objectives are approached. Can’t say much more but we are deep into the development of this game changing product and this summer it is one of our big focus. We will both be back in the valley this fall and plan to use ledges and other gear all season to validate our designs.
Absolutely awesome! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us and share some of your stories. We can’t wait for tonight and are looking forward to the rise of Grade 7 Equipment.
Tickets for tonight’s event can be purchased at Climb On Equipment and Ground Up Climbing Center. For more information, please see details for the event here.