In 1989, Vancouver climber Dave Lane decided he could make a better climbing product. Unhappy with what was on the market he started a home-based business called Rock Solid Manufacturing and began fabricating climbing harnesses and chalk bags. He soon partnered in business with fellow climber, Jeremy Guard, and they put their extensive climbing experience to use. As with the 140-million year old fossil that is the company’s inspiration, the rest is ancient history.
Lane and Guard changed the company’s name to Arc’teryx in 1991 after the first known bird, Archaeopteryx Lithographica. The Vapor harness debuted in 1993 with great success. With only 12 employees, Arc’teryx was thrust into the spotlight, winning praise from the industry for their new heat laminate technology. Following the Vapor, in 1994, the Bora backpack was introduced and then the Targa harness, in 1997, cementing the reputation Arc’teryx had gained.
Arc’teryx is based in North Vancouver, British Columbia, in the shadow of the Coast Mountain Range, and is distributed globally. Through several corporate takeovers, by companies such as Amer Sports, Atomic, and Suunto, the Arc’teryx name remains synonymous with quality and innovation. How does the company continue to progress under the pressure of growth? The answer might be the employees.
Employees, who work at Dead Bird (as fans and workers are prone to calling it) often live the life they sell. The company is stocked with talented climbers, skiers, split-boarders and endurance athletes. Consider these two Arc’teryx athletes: Marketing Event Supervisor Justin Sweeny, who spent last winter quietly bagging bold first descents in the Tantalus Range and Adam Campbell, a lawyer in Victoria, who is a two-time Canadian duathalon champion and recently finished a marathon in 2:35, wearing a law suit. In the process Adam set a Guinness World Record for fastest marathon time while wearing a suit, beating the old record by 45 minutes.
Beyond its athletes, Arc’teryx’s true climbing heritage is in its employees.
Product Manager for Hardgoods
Sarah Austin was raised in North Vancouver. “I started climbing when I was 12 on a competitive rock climbing team at my local gym” says the 29-year-old Arc’teryx employee. “I competed on the junior circuit until I was 19, travelling around the world.” Austin develops new products for Arc’teryx, focusing on hard-goods such as harnesses and packs. Her background in the sport gives her an opportunity to combine her love of climbing with her interest in fashion. A fashion design degree at Kwantlen University led to an internship in the North Vancouver factory. She was hired right out of the internship and started full time in 2005. “I get to work closely with products that are designed for activities that I love. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
Austin, who still climbs a few days a week, also skis, mountain bikes and does yoga. She said one bonus of being in a climber-rich environment is the story sharing. “Loads of people around the office are climbers and are quite active.” She says, “It’s quite inspiring to hear about their adventures on Monday morning.”
“My new found favourite place to climb is the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, especially a route called Fuzzy Undercling. I went on my first trip there this spring and had a amazing time.” – Sarah Austin
Manager, Software Developers
People who are pulled into the culture at Arc’teryx are often surprised that a number of the North Vancouver-based employees live in Squamish and commute. It’s no surprise that Squamish’s rock climbing status attracts climbers, but the sheer amount of Sea-to-Sky employees is a shock. Robbie Priestley is one of those few who commute.
“I moved to Vancouver from Ontario in 1994. I was 22.” says Priestley. “Some friends took me to Squamish and tied me into a rope on the crack climb Exasperator, the classic 5.10. I flashed it without knowing what was going on, and my buddies high-fived me. Climbing became a serious passion and changed me as an individual.” Under the tutelage of his mentor and brother-in-law, noted climber Sean Elliott, Priestley fell in love with Squamish slab climbing. In 2007, he took a pay cut from his job at a Vancouver software company to work at Arc’teryx. “I went to the interview overdressed.” Says Priestley “The dress code is pretty much T-shirts and flip-flops. [laughter] I was absolutely thrilled to get hired.”
“I’m a manager now and have a team of seven software developers. At Arc’teryx, we do our own programming and run the company on our own software system. It’s challenging work with a lot of responsibility, but it’s also immensely rewarding.”
Weekends bring Priestley back to Squamish where he climbs, weather permitting, until he has to drive back to the office on Monday morning. “My favourite route, hands down, has got to be Diedre. My co-worker and long-time climbing partner James Bronson and I climbed it a few weeks ago after work.” Racing against incoming rain, Bronson hung on long enough to lead the unprotected 5.4 slab finish. The duo squeaked their way off Broadway Ledge in Gore-Tex and approach shoes as the clouds burst open with heavy rain. “It was just another day in the life of two Arc’teryx employees.” said Priestley.
Truth be told, I’m not a particularly good climber. I mean, obviously I love it, and I’ve sent my fair share of moderate testpiece climbs, but I still get spooked by hard trad leads, and my more-than-healthy respect for the rock holds me back. For me, climbing is all about balancing adventure with risk. I’ve never been the type of climber to be able to bet the farm on a whim, and I’m fairly obsessed with safety.
Product Line Operations Coordinator
“Talking about the weather is not just idle conversation at Arc’teryx.” says 29-year-old Laura Catton. “It’s more like a useful synopsis of freezing levels, snowpack, POP, and amount of precip within a 300km radius of North Vancouver.” The Ottawa, Ontario native moved to Vancouver at age 19 to attend the University of British Columbia. Like so many before her, she fell in love with the mountains and ended up staying. With Vancouver as her new home she enters her fourth year of climbing, and third year at Arc’teryx. “I first saw an job opening at Arc’teryx shortly after graduating. Being a lover of the mountains and an International Business graduate, working for an outdoor company with a HQ in North Vancouver was a natural draw.”
Catton started climbing a year before, when a new boyfriend told her about his passion for the sport. “I was dating a keen climber at the time and figured if I wanted to see him over the summer I should probably learn the sport.” It was harder than she thought. “Climbing didn’t come naturally to me,” she remembers “I was terrified of heights and would often freeze in terror mid-climb and fumble around on the rock. My favourite part of climbing the first two years was getting a coffee en route and a beer afterwards.” Eventually, the relationship ended but her interest in climbing continued. “When faced with no longer having a rope-gun boyfriend to set top ropes for me, I questioned whether I would continue climbing.” She recalls “With a mix of stubbornness and the help of a co-worker to learn to lead climb, I found myself in Squamish every dry weekend with a trad rack and rope in hand. At some point last summer something switched in my head and I was hooked.”
It’s a perfect fit for Catton, who is happy around those who feel the same way and the sports they love. “I no longer feel the need to hide my banged up hands in meetings after a weekend of crack climbing, and some of my favourite climbing partners sit within a short walk from my desk.”
At work I can talk about past or future adventures while filling up my cup of coffee in the morning.
Tony Richardson was raised in Pemberton and grew up climbing at Skaha, the well known B.C. crag. “That experience growing up led to me working and living in the outdoors, throughout B.C., in places such as Nelson, Squamish and the Rockies.” Like most people in their 20s, Richardson found himself wondering what was next. “I went to the outdoor program at Caribou College [now known as Thompson Rivers University].” He recalls “Then I went to Emily Carr University of Art and Design. By my third semester, I still didn’t know what I was doing.”
Richardson moved overseas to study. “I did a semester in Denmark and studied design.” He says, “It gave me a break and a different perspective. It made me ask what I was doing. I realized I wanted to combine my art school with my outdoor life. I had never thought of myself as an artist.” With a degree in industrial design well underway, Richardson applied for internships at Mountain Equipment Co-op and Arc’teryx. “I ended up taking an internship at Arc’teryx for the summer. At the end of the season they kept me on and it got a hectic, trying to work and finish my degree. After graduation in 2008, Richardson joined the team. “My first job was a junior position.” He recalls “I worked on the military division (LEAF), designing packs and clothing systems.”
While working on the LEAF line, Tony found spare time to work on his own projects. “It was really cool because I made technical jackets and backpacks for my own use.” When I asked how Arc’teryx reacts to him spending time on personal projects, he said, “I think they encourage everyone to do it, especially if you have a strong background in the outdoors. I had a lot of cracks in my time where I had nothing to do so why not design myself a new ski pack?”
It’s a philosophy that goes beyond selfishness. “Many of the best products that have come out of here came from someone’s personal project. They needed it and were passionate about it, and that sort of approach translates into a great product.”
These days, Richardson is designing harnesses, a position he is enjoying thoroughly due to his vast experience as a climber. “It’s a big honour. What’s more Arc’teryx than harnesses? Plus I get to work with Dave Lane, who was the first designer and owner at Arc’teryx. It’s a pretty cool full circle thing to be working on harnesses with Lane; 25 years after it all got started.”
The climbing heritage seen in the Arc’teryx process is what continues to drive the company. In 2011 Richardson climbed Mount Waddington with Jason Kruk. This past winter Richardson climbed Cerro Torre with Paul McSorley and Chris Brazeau, “I went to Patagonia this January and I got to climb the Ferrari route on Cerro Torre, which was high on my bucket list, it was a cool feeling.” Said Richardson.
I love all styles of climbing. I find it funny when people say like I hate slab climbing, or crack climbing, or whatever…it’s all climbing to me. – Tony Richardson