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Appalachian Sling: A Tour of the Misty Mountain factory

Submitted by camhead on 2014-12-10 | Last Modified on 2014-12-21

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by Paul Nelson

When I first started climbing, around 1998 or so, I remember my “mentor” (a friend a couple years older than me who had learned basic rope skills) unloading his strange and intriguing gear from his pack into the scree at the base of a cliff in Utah’s Logan Canyon.

“See this harness? It’s the "Cadillac" of harnesses, because it’s so comfortable. No, really, that’s what it’s called, the Cadillac!”

I tried it on, and sure enough, it was much more comfy than whatever entry-level harness I had at the time. “Wow,” my noob self thought. “This would be awesome on those big climbs where you have to hang in your harness all the time!” It would be a while before I got around to doing that, though.

What I did not know back then was that this harness was the standout product of a cool little company out of the North Carolina high country called Misty Mountain. Over the years, as I got more into climbing, I started noticing occasionally when Misty gear would pop up; it was a niche brand, nowhere near as common as Black Diamond, Petzl, or Metolius, but with a major indie "coolness" factor to my ex-punk rock self.

I associated their harnesses, slings, and even chalk bags with the staunch, bold, traditional ethic of North Carolina even before I’d ever climbed in the state, and I associated their crash pads with the strong contingent of boulderers who were based out of the outdoorsy college town of Boone. Misty seemed like a cool, strongly regional brand with a committed cult following.

In more recent years, since I relocated to the New River Gorge, a few hours north of Boone, but still firmly within the beautiful landscape of Appalachia, I’ve gotten to know some of the folks who work at Misty Mountain a bit more at the crags and at various climbing festivals, including one of the company’s co-owners, Mike Grimm. Recently, on a crisp, cool day just before Thanksgiving, Mike was cool enough to give me a tour of Misty’s headquarters in a former kayak factory set above a bend in the Watauga River.

As I drove toward the factory, crossing a rickety bridge and winding along dirt roads in the river bottom, I couldn’t help but think that I was about to be victim of a GPS malfunction (actually, I had already gotten lost en route, and had to turn around at a dulcimer factory. Gotta love Appalachia!). This backwoods residential area did not look like a place that would produce all kinds of climbing soft goods. Then, as I rounded a bend, I saw a small sign with the Misty logo on it, a tiny, sloped parking area, and a large wooden cabin that from the outside looked more like a Viking feast hall than a factory. Ok, this must be it.

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Once inside, I saw several 20-something climbers working amidst Grateful Dead and climbing posters, packaging, inspecting, and taking care of internet orders for gear. Mike came down and began the tour.

Misty had not always been at this location. The company started even smaller, in the early 1980s, when founder Woody Keen started sewing harnesses out of a house in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The neighborhood they were based out of was called Misty Mountain, hence the name, though given the hippy vibe of the Appalachian outdoors community, I’ve got to think that the mountain range from The Hobbit and the Led Zeppelin song “Misty Mountain Hop” played into the name as well.

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Led Zeppelin didn't need Cadillacs, they had their own jet.

At this time, adjustable harnesses with leg loops, gear loops, and padding were still a thing of the future. Some climbers were still climbing with webbing improvisations like swami belts or the Swiss seat, or if they were really fancy, using the “ball buster” Whillans harnesses out of the UK. Woody, who had long been involved in outdoor education programs like Outward Bound, started making a harness for those programs that was a Swiss seat webbing wrap around the waist, but had padded legloops.

Over the next few years, this harness evolved into the “Fudge,” a sort of abbreviation/pun of the term “fully adjustable. There were still a few pieces of fudge on hand at the factory, minus the leg loops.

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If you eat too much fudge, you should probably have an adjustable harness for your expanding waistline.

This waist belt is pretty simple, and compared to modern harnesses, is not really that adjustable; it just connected with your tie-in or a locking biner. But, it had padding! Leg loops! They even made one with a bit of extra flare, if you were into parading that sort of thing through the Southeastern backwoods.

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By the late 1980s, Mike and Goose Kearse were working for Misty; Goose bought into the company in 1989, and Mike (who had a background in design, craftsmanship, and quickly learned the art of sewing) in the mid-90s. Around this time, the factory moved to its current location, and they had also begun production of the Cadillac, their best-selling product. It’s either a light wall harness, a perfect multi-pitch or a heavy-duty cragging harness. No matter what you use it for, it is pretty comfy. Check out the video of its production:

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Click here to see a video of the whole process of making a Cadillac harness.

Mike and I moved upstairs, to the sewing room. Instead of scraggly dirtbags here, all the sewing crew were female, many of them looking just like your grandmother or Aunt Mabel, crouched over industrial sewing machines and assembling the harnesses that we know and love. I learned that the Cadillac takes about 40 minutes to assemble from the precut webbing and foam parts.

Other harnesses, like their bare-bones gym rental/outdoor program harness shown above, are much more economical to produce. This harness also gets sold in massive quantities to Search and Rescue teams, and even the U.S. Military. Being a company that is nearly 100% made in the USA with US goods (well, some of their webbing gets dyed in Canada, for some reason), is hard. Misty Mountain has to compete against other companies (including some very reputable ones, no names) that have moved production overseas, where wages can be lower, and often health care is cheaper. I was actually amazed that they are able to keep their gear at its current prices, after seeing what goes into making it.

It turns out, however, that in 2007, Congress revised and revitalized the 1941 Berry Amendment, which requires the military to give preference to domestic manufacturers. For Misty, this was definitely beneficial, and they sell quite a few of their harnesses to various branches of the military.

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Still, if you see someone wearing one of these at your local crag, run the other way before he kills you speed-rappeling.

In the late 1990s, as the bouldering craze was taking off, Misty began making crash pads as well. We were not able to see any of these being made, and Mike admitted that they have not yet found a way to easily and cheaply ship crash pads to individuals or retailers. Foam is simply too bulky! Compounding that, the fact that Misty’s factory is back up in the river bottom makes it difficult for large delivery trucks to even get back there and pick up high volume items like crash pads.

After touring the sewing rooms on the second floor, I got to see the pull tester, where they test their webbing and harnesses to failure. I did not get to see a harness destroyed on their dummy model, but we did obliterate a sewn sling. This was just simply cool to see, check out the video:

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Click here for the video. And yes, I was right, it was plucked at C# at 2,000lbs.

The webbing in the video broke at over 5,000 lbs. In other words, your body will probably be pulled apart before webbing or a harness fails. You’d probably be just fine towing a stuck truck with one of Misty’s sewn slings, too (as I have, and yes, I retired the sling).

Mike told me that the weakest part of any climbing system is always the rope, which usually will break around 2,000 lbs., much less than webbing. This is kind of scary– think about it– we go out of our way to always be in more than one sling or draw, and we thread the rope through at least two points of our harness. Yet, the rope, which is never backed up with anything (unless you are climbing on doubles), is also weaker than all of these other parts of the system.

In the end, it was cool to see the full production process of some gear that I’ve known and loved for nearly the entire time I’ve been climbing. And it was also refreshing to see that, along with Mike and Goose’s eye for detail and quality, this company is simply gritty, in a good way. They are tightly tied to the region and local rock that they love, they know that they have many devoted followers, and are managing to make it work as a small, made-in-the-USA company.

This is not an infomercial, despite my enthusiasm for Misty Mountain. If you already are familiar with the company, keep an eye out for some cool new tweaks to their harnesses that are coming out next year (sorry, can't say what they are!). And if you are not familiar with them, consider checking some of their stuff out the next time you’re in an outdoors store. And ask the clerk to demand more boulder pads.

Tags: harnesses

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