Behind the brands: Mountain Designs

By Carolyn Barry 24 November 2015
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Few Australian outdoor brands have done as well as Mountain Designs, particularly when it comes to ones that have a broad range of products and the credibility to go with it.

FEW AUSTRALIAN OUTDOOR brands have done as well as Mountain Designs, particularly when it comes to ones that have a broad range of products and the credibility to go with it. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Mountain Designs has become a trusted brand for outdoor gear, all the while maintaining its Australian authenticity.

“Our ‘heritage born of the mountains’ philosophy has been the heart and soul of Mountain Designs for the past 40 years,” says CEO Caroline Machado Campos.

The company is still headquartered in Brisbane, where it was founded in 1975 by rock climbing guru Rick White. Rick was a legend in the scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s, particularly in Queensland, with climbs like the solo ascent of Prometheus II on Tibrogargan – a Glasshouse Mountain peak now closed because it’s considered too dangerous to climb. He was also part of the first Australian team to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan in 1973; made the first unroped, solo ascent of Balls Pyramid (the world’s tallest sea stack), near Lord Howe Island (1979); and opened up the Frog Buttress climbing area south-west of Brisbane. 

Rick combined his love of climbing with his technical skills (he worked for the CSIRO for a stint) to make gear that enabled climbers to get to the places they wanted. Like many outdoor brands of that era, Rick started out of a suitcase he kept under the sofa, initially concentrating on making jackets and sleeping bags, and importing climbing equipment. As the penchant for outdoor types to travel afield to more exotic locations grew in the ‘80s, so did the demand for gear to get there; and so did Mountain Designs. Today the brand has more than 300 staff and 39 stores across Australia. 

Australian Gore-Tex and Polartec pioneers

Mountain Designs is credited with being a pioneer of technical outdoor gear, including introducing Australia (along with Paddy Pallin) to Gore-Tex and Polartec materials. Other innovations include advances in sleeping bag design, such as bringing the concept of the mummy-style bag Down Under. “One of our most famous contributions to the outdoor industry was our development of the ‘waterproof foot’ construction for sleeping bags,” says Caroline. “[It was] created in 1979 and still used across global outdoor brands today.”

Rick continued his climbing quests, including an expedition to scale Mt Everest in 1991, with fellow Queensland mountaineer Michael Groom. The trip ended in disaster, and not of the usual alpine variety – Rick had to pull out of the expedition because a long-time financier of the company collapsed, almost ending Mountain Designs right then. While the brand survived, the enormous debts crippled Rick and he was forced to bow out of the company he created. Around that time Rick was also diagnosed with a muscle wasting disease that prevented him from doing any more climbing.

After a decade-long hiatus, Rick was welcomed back to Mountain Designs when Greg Nunn, still executive chairman, took over in 2001. One of Rick’s goals at this time was to grow the Mountain Designs sponsorship program. In the Aussie alpine heydays of the 80s, Mountain Designs sponsored some of the biggest Australian mountaineering achievements to six of the world’s highest mountains – including Tim McCartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer’s 1984 first Australian ascent of Mt Everest. Rick took the sponsorship side of the brand into the modern age, with support for multisport and adventure racing.

Rick’s health battles were not over, however, and in 2004, he died from a brain tumour. “Even though Rick White is no longer with us, his presence and influence still permeates throughout the company,” says Caroline. “We are very proud of where we come from and of who we are now.” 

Supporting adventurers

Continuing his legacy, Mountain Designs continues to support top amazing athletes. “We have contributed to encouraging those brave and fearless adventurers who look at a mountain and think ‘How soon can I get to the top?’, says Caroline. “Mountain Designs has proudly sponsored…the youngest Australian, Alyssa Azar, in her last two attempts to get to the top of Everest, and we will be there with her for the third time as well.” Mountain Designs has also more recently sponsored burns survivor and outdoor enthusiast Turia Pitt on her trek of the Inca Trail.

Over a time span of four decades, other companies have chopped and changed ownership, facing challenges of trying to stay true to their beginnings while still expanding and beholden to parent companies. Mountain Designs has remained a private, Australian company and its stability has meant it’s been able to concentrate on producing its own great products. “We have the gear for as soon as you step outside the door to the very top of the mountain and everything in between” says Caroline. 

Like other successful brands, Mountain Designs has stayed on top of innovation, something that Caroline credits to its staff and commitment to service. “Primarily our strength lies in our team. We have such a passionate group of outdoor, adventure and travel enthusiasts who not only create our next product innovation but actively test and listen to our customers’ feedback,” she says. “We are always searching for the next smart technology globally to incorporate into our range, partnering with international leading fabric manufacturers, and often taking risks to ensure our products stay at the forefront of innovation.” 

The success of the brand comes down to two reasons, says Caroline: We never compromise on quality or comfort … and providing exceptional, knowledgeable service.”

Fast facts

Parent company: Mountain Designs Holdings Pty Ltd 

Based in: Brisbane, Qld 

Claim to fame: Development of the ‘waterproof foot’ in sleeping bags 

Known for: Bringing mummy-style and toe-box sleeping bags to the Australian market; pioneering use of Gore-Tex and Polartec in Australia 

Key products: Mountaineer Sleeping Bag – The very first product to have a Mountain Designs logo; Pro- Elite Down Suit – Has summited all of the big mountains. 

The other stuff: Wherever possible Mountain Designs gear is uses Blue Sign approved fabric, global organic textile standard, OEKO-TEX® Standard and Fairtrade; they have a range down jackets made from recycled coffee beans

Caroline’s pick: Delphine down travel trench – has sustainable coffee fibre, mixed in with the ethically sourced down