Standing atop a steep, dank cliff and with no sight of the bottom, we put our concerns to one side and stepped off. I remember looking back up and seeing the comfort of the mossy ledge give way to the pull of acceleration as we bounced off walls and plummeted vertically downwards.
Whether audacity or just recklessness, this is the way that Jöttnar began. Steve and I, we’re both former Royal Marines and both quite happy in cold and unfriendly places. Starting a business amidst a landscape presided over by multi-million dollar brand names that were also household names, however, featured nowhere on the CV - although as climbers and skiers we both knew what it was those brands were missing. Everything that lay beyond that mossy ledge was uncharted, even if it didn't take much imagination to guess the penalty of failure. Even so, the allure of the unknown and a desire to do something that felt meaningful was enough to take that committing step. And so we fell.
Initially operating from a kitchen table, the company soon acquired licenses and built partnerships with some of the industry’s major fabric and technology suppliers. We hired a small array of staff with expertise across a range of functions and began constructing what would become a global logistics infrastructure. Hand-drawn sketches by us were improved and modified by our designers and the technical patterns were despatched to our factories to begin prototyping. The first iterations arrived; all of them basic at first but it was nonetheless gratifying to see physical product taking shape. Having partnered with a small team of professional mountain guides, all of whom shared our consuming obsession with detail, each prototype iteration was then despatched into the field where it was probed for weakness. With each turn of the handle, the garments improved and slowly became the exquisite tools we had visualised.
Mike Pescod pulls out of the cave on Ben Nevis's Minus Three Gully in a prototype of the winter shell jacket
While Steve steered the business from Cardiff, I spent much of the winter season living in my van which became a mobile office and a field-test base. Amidst a Scottish winter that may well enter folklore for its length and quality, it was on a Glencoe icefall where I remember looking down and seeing our logo on a prototype of the winter pant I was wearing and being seized by a tangible sense of progress. The gear was now beginning to resemble the images in our heads and the business was becoming a real entity.
The small symbols of progress - Glencoe
Alison Culshaw ascended a semi-frozen Argentiere ice fall in a proto of the hydrophobic down jacket in the rain and declared herself warm and dry at the top; Mike Pescod hooked and torqued his way up the first winter ascent of Buachaille Etive Mor’s Engineer's Crack (VIII,8) in an early proto of the winter shell jacket and validated the cut, stretch and breathability of the new membrane under trial. Mark Thomas, as was widely reported, was one half of the team that put up the ascent of Jöttnar, an unclimbed line that wound its way tenuously up corners and grooves of the north face of Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi. Clad in protos of our hybrid mid-layer and down jacket, he verified the gear as, ‘awesome, warm, dry and light.’ All of these were small but significant victories as our savings and time continued to haemorrhage.
Mark Thomas - bloody, but warm and dry
And without money, a business dies, and it was this that focused the mind. Grants were generously awarded by national public bodies, which allowed small and discrete activities to continue. But securing the substantial investment required to move beyond prototyping and testing, enabled by our own personal reserves, and decisively move forward into bulk production and launch, was a protracted process. With 14 days remaining until Jöttnar hit the ground (where the implications were all too clear), we completed with an investor after several months of negotiation, and the corporate wings levelled.
It may seem premature to portray any kind of a success story here. No business is ever in level flight and an unwanted landing shadows every move. But there are milestones to acknowledge and as we announce our launch for the forthcoming autumn/winter season, a small glass may be lifted this evening.
The giants in our heads continue to be the most formidable of opponents but with a strong and trusted team, a fair wind and a bit of graft, there’s normally always a way through - and with each passing day in flight the uncharted territory beyond the familiar mossy ledge begins to reveal itself.
*‘You jump off a cliff and you assemble an aeroplane on the way down’ - Reid Hoffman , founder of Linkedin, and the world’s most prolific and successful angel investor.