I started climbing just a few years ago and will never forget my friend Sean’s constant love for ORGANIC Climbing. I never knew what it really was, and obviously figured out quickly it was not about organic food (hahaha!). A group of us bouldered at Grandmother Mountain, NC and Sean proudly presented with his newly made ORGANIC Climbing crash pad, such a pretty one too. The idea of this intriguing company I knew so little about stayed in the back of my mind for another year. I then started the Climbingjourney.com blog and promised myself I would have to visit this company and learn more about it. A trip to Philipsburg, PA was WELL WORTH IT!
Josh Helke, the owner of ORGANIC Climbing, is by far one of the most humble, loving and grounded climbers I have met to date. I walked away from the interview loving this really amazing company so much more, and learning the good that comes out of making everything yourself down to the tiny thread and all the way on through a final, high quality product…all proudly made and manufactured in the U.S.A.
And the most awesomeness ORGANIC Climbing interview went something like this…
So what brings you to the beautiful rural land of Philipsburg, PA? ORGANIC Climbing actually got its start in my house in Wyoming. My wife, a geologist, received a job offer at Penn State and the department she is in is really awesome. There is also a strong textile industry in central PA with many many skilled folks so it made sense for us to move to central PA. There is also some really awesome rock in this part of the country!
Tell us a little bit about Josh. I am 33, from Minnesota, creatively motivated nearly to a fault. My father is in public education and my mother is a ceramic artist. I grew up in the woods building forts and doing what little boys do, blowing stuff up, making rope swings, and exploring. I started officially climbing at about 8 years of age on a scrappy sandstone cliff on my parent’s property in MN. As a logical extension of our explorations, my little brother Mike and I quickly took to cleaning and bolting climbs on this bluff by sneaking my dad’s tools out and attempting to drill various hardware store bolts into the soft sandstone. I remember riding my bike 14 miles to Scandia (the town with the nearest hardware store) to purchase various “Bolts”. Poor dad, we ruined so many of his nice tools in this period, but he really wanted us to be safe and I think my parents appreciated the independence and creativity that we were developing through climbing and were remarkably kind about it all. After taking a family trip to some sport crags out west my Dad helped us track down a source of real climbing bolts to use on our routes so we would be safe. We would work after school to make money and once a month he would take us into St Paul to Tried and True Hardware so we could buy our bolts. After a summer of mowing lawns around my town we were able to purchase a used Hilti Hammer Drill. I can still remember the look on the clerk’s face when 2 young kids walked up with a cordless hammer drill and a summer’s worth of hard earned cash. As we got older, my brother and I continued to climb together and helped develop many new crags in the Midwest. During High School and College much of the sport climbing development I had grown up with was starting to fade in MN as the major cliffs were starting to get filled in. This is when we really started to boulder full time; we even went through a phase where we were sponsored.
So, what did you do while in and after college? I studied History with a minor in Photo, I was aiming to be a High School Teacher. Luckily with the economy and moving around for my wife’s grad school, I did not have a chance to settle into a teaching job before I ended up starting ORGANIC Climbing. During this period of my life I was climbing a ton, I honestly do not know how I managed to get through college when I reflect back on these times. I was a very good student with great grades, but all I can seem to remember now are years searching river valleys for new stone in MN with my brother and the seasons searching for the next great area with Davin in WY. I am so thankful for going to school, I cannot stress that enough, I use those skills each and every day at ORGANIC.
It’s awesome how much you have contributed to the climbing community from such a young age….but now it’s time you tell us a little more about ORGANIC Climbing. How did it come about? Over the early 2000s as bouldering was beginning to really take off the outsourcing bug really caught on in the Outdoor Industry, which was actually much latter than it had hit many other industries. Either way I noticed that seemingly overnight the crash pads that had been made in the States by climbing companies were in a race to the bottom to make the cheapest product to compete with a new company to the market who was producing a very cheaply priced pad mostly as billboards to advertise their brand. Everyone suddenly wanted to make the cheapest pad! It was insane. I remember talking with one company and they were obsessed with making a pad at the same price as this new company’s pad. I was climbing EVERY day and was not able to do what I wanted to accomplish at the boulders with these cheaper pads thus one summer while living in Price, UT doing geology field work with my wife we decided that we would make a pad that suited our needs as full time climbers. After we made a couple dozen crash pads and they made their way through the USA, they went viral and people were talking about this little company with the good foam.
Great accomplishment! Tell us the end result of your first crash pads. My first customers were friends also climbing full time in Wyoming and Colorado and some of these crash pads made their way into the hands of the gear editor at a magazine. My pads received the Editor’s Choice Award! We totally freaked out because I was making all the items by myself in my bedroom at this time and at the fastest I could make were 2 crash pads per day. Very quicky we had to upsize our production capability. Over that season we expanded into my kitchen and soon had production also running in 2 garages across Laramie WY as more of our climbing friends took on part time work with us and helped set the stage for what ORGANIC Climbing is today. We knew the products we made were solid and durable because we were beating them up after work at Vedauwoo each day, so we never comprised on any quality when making crash pads. These times were truly amazing, young people insane with a vision and heart!
What happened after you figured out a high level concept? Without sharing too many secrets (haha), tell us how you went from concept to sold crash pads and more. There is nothing like making products from the ground up. We actually worked for quite some time before we made our first pad equipped with custom foam made specifically for our pads. The foam has a blend of soy-based ingredients so it actually uses far less oil to make than traditional foams. We are also very particular about our fabrics. We use a true ballistic nylon for the outsides of our pads. The majority of “Ballistic nylons” used by many companies from messenger bags to pads are not real ballistics, they are imported fabric made to imitate the LOOK of a real ballistic weave but these will start to fray, or degrade much much faster. We still use the real stuff, and after 8 years using and abusing this stuff we will never change. We use heavy-duty industrial sewing machines so there is never compromise in our sewing work. I have a small batch of vintage machines sitting along side some more modern ones that were on a sewing line for parachutes in World War 2. It is really cool to think of the people that have come and gone and the hours some of these machines have turned in their lifespan, and they are still in perfect service to us. I just always find that so cool to think about as a history geek.
We make about 90 percent of our products in house at the ORGANIC Climbing facility here in Philipsburg, PA If there is something I purchase from a vendor out of my facility, such as our T-Shirts, hats, a random sewn piece for a product, I am 100% intimately involved with the process, know every detail before I decide to purchase a product or use a vendor, and it is still made entirely in the USA. I will only utilize a vendor if it is a product I cannot make better or more efficiently at my facility, in sewing some workshops are set up to run specialized production on one item and are very good at this (e.g., T shirt, Jeans, Hats, waterproof zipper assembly, etc.)
Amazing how your company has come about. At the end of the day, if we “stripped down” your business, how would the core look like? Look around, all my employees are like family to me. I want to not only provide a high end, quality product, but I want to provide a work place that has heart and soul. Early on when I was getting started and I visited other USA sewing factories I was touched by a couple things I observed. First, everyone received me with open arms and had a passion for what they did that they wanted to share. There was a very evident sense of pride and community in what they were doing that can only come about by working together as a team, which is crucial in running a sewing line. This is so rare in our modern world that to see it is very special. Second, I saw everyone working so hard yet having so much fun, and loving what they do. I think so many jobs these days do not have a soul, you feel like you cannot even measure your work, you feel distanced from any craft or actual product. I hear from my employees all the time how cool it is to see baskets of the chalk bags and other products they made that day and how nice it is to leave the workshop seeing actual product they created with their vision and heart. Pride in what we do is present in each and every employee in our workshop and to me this is a very special thing.
I notice all the bins with scrap fabric, and I see the scrap foam. Tell me more about that. At ORGANIC Climbing nothing goes to waste. When we cut fabric to produce a product, we collect bins of all the scrap fabric. Then we take that and make smaller products, and then we take the scrap from that and use it as part of our design (e.g., a stripe or geometric art design on chalk bags, bags, crash pads, you name it). We keep going and going and going until we cannot anymore. We do that with all of the supplies used in our products.
Can you tell us what’s next? We are working really hard on some climbing jeans to be released this fall. I am very very excited I have been climbing in some prototypes this summer and I am proud of what we have produced.
Last question, I think…yeah it is! As a finale give us your words of wisdom. Ready, set, go! Our generation has an opportunity to rise up and make a positive change in our world. We have some very big challenges ahead from our environment to the economy. We can quickly leave the quibbling politicians and their inability to agree on anything in the dust and clean up this mess together as a united group of people with heart and soul. These are new times in which we live so we cannot rely on waiting simply for things to get better. Take action!
We need to start to reinstate the pride and respect for making stuff we had many years ago. There is a lost art to making things. From having an eye to pinpoint the needed efficiencies to make a production run economically viable to sourcing parts locally…its some pretty hard stuff but we can do it again! I can say with confidence that so much of this knowledge is still present across the USA if you speak with some of the retired generation, it is so so so amazing the amount of manufacturing genius and know how that has just been given up upon in the last decade in chase of a bigger bottom line. We need to recapture this know how and put it to use to rebuild a better tomorrow for all of us. There is nothing more amazing than watching innovative quality products be produced from the ground up in your own domestic workshop, by local folks who then invest their paycheck back into the local community. This is an economic circle that we can rely on to make a positive change in our world. It truly is an amazing feeling to watch small transformations and know these can be massive with enough hard work from our generation.
Innovation, Craftsmanship, Honesty and integrity should represent everything we all do!
I want to take the time to extend the utmost gratitude and thanks to Josh, Barnaby and Indy (the cutest doggies ever) and the ORGANIC Climbing staff for having me over, giving me a tour, answering all my questions and letting me play photographer. I am proud to say that I ordered a crash pad and chalk bag, not sure what it will be because I want Josh to just design what comes to mind the moment he puts the fabric together to sew it. So what are you waiting for, all my readers have some homework to do.
- Order your ORGANIC Climbing product soon by emailing Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org (Website: http://www.organicclimbing.com/), AND….
- If you don’t have a purchase in mind just yet, make sure to like their Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/ORGANIC-Climbing/283565844061 and follow for new products, it is hard not to like any of their products!