In the beginning Jardine + Vallance was the word…
Wild Country came about as the brainchild of a UK based climber Mark Vallance and was set up to manufacture what was to become the most famous piece of rock climbing gear of all time, the Friend. Friends were the brainchild of US climber Ray Jardine who Mark had met in the USA a few years earlier. Then when Ray couldn’t find a partner in the US to develop and produce his revolutionary new unit Mark and he joined forces and Wild Country was born.
Ray Jardine as he was in the 70’s an amazing climbing pioneer and the inventor of the Friend..
Founded in 1977, at a tiny factory in a village in the heart of the UK’s Peak district, Wild Country went from strength to strength on the back of this revolutionary tool and became a name synonymous with hard climbing everywhere.
Mark Vallance takes up the story:
“Starting a new business is like having one hundred feet of rope out, no runners and a 5b move in front of you; it can feel like that for weeks on end. I prepared to jump. The weather was perfect, clear sky, hard frost and a scattering of snow. The camera team was in position and waiting, the radio mike’ was tuned on and recording. I climbed past the top Friend, feet above it climbed a little higher – ‘Hell I’ll give them a real show’ – and climbed a little higher still. Then I jumped.As the rope tightened, my belayer was jerked upwards and I felt my breath being knocked out of me. I was lowered to the ground – no need for a ‘retake’. the five minute episode on the BBC’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ programme was aired at the end of January 1978 and a six year secret was out of the bag.
It was 1972 when I first met Ray Jardine in Colorado, I was on my way back from Antarctica. We were both working for Outward Bound and between courses climbed together. Though I did not know it then, he was carrying the first prototype Friend around with him – four cams on a shaft with no stem or trigger. It required four hands to get it out of a crack. My first experience of Friends was much later, in 1975. Ray was very secretive, he was carrying a blue nylon bag around which clinked and rattled. It was another hot October day. We were below Washington Column, about to make the first ascent of Power Failure. I was sworn to secrecy before the blue bag was opened and I was allowed to see its contents.Ray’s prototypes were an odd selection. Some of them were beautifully made with polished aluminium, carefully filed edges, sophisticated trigger assembly and even ‘J slots’ for holding the trigger in the closed position for neatness and fast action. Others were gnarled and bent from use and testing, or just slung together to try out some new idea, but retained in the armoury because they worked.
The name ‘Friends’ was coined by Chris Walker when he and Ray were about to go climbing with several climbers who were not in on the secret. Chris wanted to know if Ray had the bag of goodies, but didn’t know how to ask without giving the game away. Finally he said, “have you got the bag of Friends, Ray?”, the name stuck. After several false starts Ray asked me to make Friends in England. Much of the work we did together over the summer of 1977 came to nothing. We could not find anyone to extrude the 7075 stem alloy. Everything was too expensive. A simple nut with one blob of aluminium, two drilled holes, a single piece of wire and a swage cost under two pounds (1977). How could i make a piece of kit with twenty seven high tolerance parts and a whole stack of holes and operations, and get it into the shops at a half realistic price?
Mark Vallance seen here around 1977 climbing on his local gritstone…
When Ray left for California in September he must have thought that yet another attempt to get Friends off the ground had failed, but a few weeks later everything started to fall into place. Now I had to go for it, the long unprotected lead. I borrowed all the money I could and got the bank to give me a second mortgage on my house. I had some stationary printed and started to place orders for tools and components. Finally, in November, I took a deep breath and gave up my job – no runners on this climb – either success, or a big, big fall: and that’s how Wild Country and the Friends revolution was born.”
Not just Friends…
However, Mark was not just the business brains behind the company but had an enquiring and innovative designers intuition and utilised this to develop more products which would change climbing forever. The next of these to follow the Friend was the ‘Rock’ in 1979. The first ever curved nut and probably the best selling piece of gear of all time, the Rock was an incredibly simple concept, yet such an advance on the currently available flat sided units that is almost impossible for those who didn’t experience the transition to imagine. Amazingly people were sceptical at first, because they were more difficult to remove, but pretty soon the world was won over by their higher safety margins and ease of placement.
Rocks were the first cuved nut and completely changed placements forever….
As Wild Country established itself in the early 80’s as one of the domineering forces in climbing more talent was attracted and as the company grew the focus broadened to incorporate sewn goods, and their harness range opened up another innovative chapter. The original Wild Country design philosophy results in a series of famous ‘signature’ harnesses by people from Pat Littlejohn through to Jerry Moffat to Stefan Glowacz and the innovations from the first bartack to the finest materials follow through to this day.
This sewing experience and growth of the factory led to Wild Country entering into the tent market with the foundation of Wild Country tents and more breakthroughs in technology with the design of new and radical geodesic models. Eventually however, this side of the business was sold to Terra Nova allowing a concentration for both businesses on stricter goals. As Wild Country headed into the nineties, Friends had become the dominant piece of pro around the world and there was a concerted effort to make sure they kept up with and advanced the climbers cause. So the size range increased and so did the flexibility and usefulness allowing more and harder routes to be done.
The sales of Friends allowed Wild Country to concentrate on creating more and better hardware and though eventually in 1995 the original dreamer, Mark Vallance retired, his mantle and legacy has been taken on by people determined to produce some the best and most relevant pieces of climbing hardware on the planet. And that’s what has happened…..so from the Ropeman, to Rockcentrics to Superlight Rocks and the Helium biner the philosophy and practicality of Wild Country gear has continued to be at the ‘cutting edge’ ever since.