When two entrepreneurial climbers started a cottage industry manufacturing rucksacks, they couldn’t have known they would become a household name. We catch up with head of innovation Paul Cosgrove and reflect on 50 years of change at Berghaus.
Midway through the second decade of the 21st century, we appear inundated with centenary commemorations of some of the most heroic achievements from a pioneering age of exploration. A century ago the South and North poles were both up for grabs. Explorers wore the most rudimentary of protective clothing. Advances in materials technology mean that the likes of Shackleton and Scott would have been infinitely better kitted out today, and their experiences on the ice would have been, according to materials expert Paul Cosgrove, “a lot less brutal and demanding”.
As head of innovation at the Mtnhaus subdivision of Berghaus, Cosgrove should know. A household name in the field of outdoor clothing and equipment, Berghaus spends “years developing products. Our founders, mountaineers Peter Lockey and Gordon Davison, were obsessive gear freaks and we carry that spirit with us. Peter was the marketer, while Gordon had more of an engineering mindset”.
This was back in the mid 1960s, when the two climbers set up their specialist outdoor store in Newcastle-upon-Tyne under the name of the LD Mountain Centre. They quickly gained a reputation for selling high-performance outdoor products from the likes of Atomic Skis, Marker Bindings and Nordica Ski. So successful was the shop that Lockey and Davison soon began to design, test and make their own gear. This high-quality clothing range was inspired, says Cosgrove, by what “climbers actually needed”. So began what was to become the Berghaus brand half a century ago in 1966 - what Cosgrove describes as “one of the original British outdoor brands” - kitting out the likes of Chris Bonington, who was one of the figureheads of a golden age of British mountaineering. Cosgrove describes the climbing community at the time as “quite tight, with a lot of guys making kit for their mates’ shops, really”.
Today, leading the “innovation engine of Berghaus” - the Mtnhaus team - Cosgrove is charged with maintaining the spirit of the products created by the founding fathers, which he describes as “performance wear for the mountains and outdoors. This is very different from fashion, because every small detail in these products is there for a reason and is never there for any purely aesthetic function. That puts a lot of pressure on us, as our products are built for potentially dangerous situations and therefore have to protect the user and do what we say they’re going to do. That’s why it takes so long to develop products”.
Cosgrove says that 90 per cent of Berghaus concepts and technologies come out of the Mtnhaus team, which has 10 designers and researchers, who “set about coming up with new products for the Berghaus line”.
Although the brand is primarily associated with mountain gear, Cosgrove says that the company’s output is suitable for “extreme environments. We build for polar as well as high-altitude. But equally we also build for environments such as the Lake District in the summer. Whether it’s for the polar explorer or the hill walker, what we are interested in is the consumer experience”.
Design of the times
Designing outdoor equipment starts with what climbers want. “We really try to dig deep into this. Often we will be reinvestigating what we already know, but equally we are always looking into what technology opportunities are out there. We are deeply engaged with a lot of technology partners such as Gore-Tex.
“We’re the largest Gore-Tex brand in the UK and one of the biggest in the world. We will develop materials with our partners and put them through lab trials and concept tests before beginning to build products.” After which comes field testing, in which leading mountaineers and adventurers like Mick Fowler or Leo Houlding, both Berghaus ambassadors, will put prototypes though their paces on expeditions and return to the design team with their feedback. “We do a lot of due diligence both in the lab and out in the field.”
When it comes to consumer trials, the world is divided into those who agree with the late Steve Jobs, who famously said that it wasn’t the customers’ task “to figure out what they want” and the likes of Berghaus, who think it is. Cosgrove says that what his team is creating “isn’t like an iPad, which is an abstract thought. We’re enabling the consumer to cross an icecap or climb a mountain. We want to enable that in the way that they want to do it, either in terms of comfort or pushing the limit. It’s important that we have a deep knowledge of what the consumer is going through. That’s what informs our product”.
Five thousand years of fabric
A century ago, the likes of Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Douglas Mawson, Jean-Baptiste Charcot and Roald Amundsen, were leading teams wearing protective clothing of quite a different character, with nails in their boots instead of crampons, and woollen jerseys instead of thermal fleeces. Yet the story of environmental adaptation through clothing stretches back into pre-history, as humans have developed protective technology to keep them warm and dry in the outdoors for millennia. As Cosgrove explains, “some of the earliest forms of man-made clothing were tightly woven fibres that gave basic weather resistance”.
When the great Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner was among those who found the 5,000-year-old remains of the so-called ‘iceman’ Ötzi in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991, he also discovered that Europe’s oldest known natural mummy was wearing a tightly-plaited grass over-cape, along with ‘waterproof’ snow-shoes made from deer hide and bark.
“Mountain clothing was being made all the way back then. The Aleut were sewing together dried seal and whale intestines to create waterproof garments. More than 1,000 years ago the Chinese were using oiled silk for the same purpose.”
Cosgrove describes how the technology has gone through several epochs of evolution to get to the point where Charles Mackintosh patented double-textured layers of rubber on cloth. “Barbour started waxing tightly woven fabrics. Then Burberry’s finely woven cotton covered with a light wax coating became the standard for explorers such as Shackleton and Scott a century ago, and later Mallory on Everest. This was actually one of the first instances of the concept of breathable garments.
“This was followed by Grenfell cloth, a densely woven gabardine, developed for missionaries in the high Arctic and adopted by many polar expeditions in the 1930s. The Second World War saw the arrival of Ventile, which had been developed to increase the chances of survival for aircraft pilots. Ventile is really interesting. Ranulph Fiennes loves it and used it a lot on his expeditions. It was a type of cotton that would swell when it got wet.”
By the 1960s a new trend emerged and fabrics started to be coated with polyurethane. “That’s where you get a little bit of breathability coming in, along with enhanced weather protection. This is what Bonington was using in the 1960s and 1970s on the south face of Annapurna or on the south-east face of Everest. They were basically wearing Ventile trousers and PU coated anoraks.”
Yet the big breakthrough came in 1977, when Berghaus became the first brand in Europe to use Gore-Tex. Early products were PTFE laminated to a face-fabric, “and that was the real revolution”, says Cosgrove, “because that was the first time you had proper breathability in waterproof garments and Berghaus was the first to employ this.”
Big deal about breathability
Waterproof, breathable fabric garments are essentially trying to juggle two tasks in a way that appears to be self-contradictory. On the one hand, they are there to repel water in the form of rain or snow from the outside, while on the other, providing an escape route for humidity generated by the body under the labour of exertion in extreme conditions.
“That’s quite a difficult thing to achieve,” says Cosgrove, “because you need to make sure that the face-fabric has durable water repellence. If it ‘wets out’ it won’t breathe. Then, in terms of the breathable laminates letting out the body’s vapour, there are loads of technologies that can deliver this. How we apply these depends on the consumer’s expectations.” Whether this is in the form of a two-layer, 2.5-layer (the extra half layer is essentially printed on) or three-layer fabric, it all comes down to keeping the user protected from the external elements, while allowing their sweat to escape.
Breathability isn’t just about comfort - it’s also about safety. “If you get wet from your own sweat, you’ll get cold quickly. Once you get cold you can run into problems such as hypothermia, which is one of the reasons why it is so important to stay dry. Which is why outer garments are crucial. But it also has to work with a general layering system.
“You need to wear a fast-drying base layer and maybe a quick-drying mid-layer in combination with a waterproof, breathable shell in order to maximise the benefits when you’re working hard in the mountains. It can get pretty uncomfortable if you are wearing the wrong protective clothing.”
Oddly enough, this fine balance is made finer by the fact that fabrics can be ‘too breathable’, in which situation you’ll be dry, but become colder than you intend. “That’s why, especially in extreme environments, you need to be really careful about what you wear, because the wrong selection can compromise what you are trying to achieve.”
Cosgrove thinks that insulation ranks equally alongside waterproof breathability. “Particularly in the past 20 years, the types of insulation - warmth-to-weight - that we can deliver are extraordinary. This is another of the big enablers. Climbers of three or four decades ago simply couldn’t do what these guys are doing right now. We know that for a fact, because mountaineers tell us that.
“We develop garments today that are so light and yet deliver so much warmth that, in extreme cases, mountaineers who travel extremely lightly such as Mick Fowler will be able to make an emergency bivouac and sleep in a hydrophobic down jacket without needing a sleeping bag. That’s right on the limit, but it shows how much of an enabler modern insulation technologies are. Lightweight is the Holy Grail, but you still need to have the performance to go with that.”
One of the reasons insulation comes in at such a low weight these days is that Berghaus is taking some of the key aspects that waterproof and insulate birds “and are powering it up. That’s very exciting because the down clusters used in insulation are taken from quite close to the body of the birds and are therefore only partly hydrophobic.”
With the chemical coatings currently in use “we can improve on and deliver better results than the natural product. You’ve got to remember that chemicals aren’t always bad. The ones we use on our goose down are PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) free. We work with Nikwax to create down clusters that will repel water for 1,000 minutes. At nearly 17 hours, that’s a long time. Hydrophobic down is common now. But we were the first brand to do it”.
Berghaus may have been first, but Cosgrove is aware that for the brand to flourish he needs to ensure that his team comes up with new products that will keep them one step ahead of the competition. He sees innovation as the ‘beating heart’ of a company that has a loyal and expanding consumer base. “It’s not just about the extremes, but across the whole board. It’s a very exciting time at the moment because there is a vast global potential over the next five years.”
Good old, bad old days
Looking back a century, as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (or Endurance as it is today informally known after the ship the great explorer commanded), does Cosgrove think that the lives of these intrepid men would have been easier if they’d had access to the types of modern garments available today? “Absolutely. In many instances today’s gear might well have saved some of the men who died.” Cosgrove goes on to describe a recent visit he paid to the Royal Geographical Society in London where he had the opportunity to inspect some of clothing worn by the teams commanded by Scott and Shackleton. “It amazes me that those guys could wear those things and do what they did.
“I also have huge admiration for the Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. They looked to the native peoples of the high Arctic to mimic their clothing. Now that was a smart move. But the idea of Scott’s team being on the Antarctic Plateau in nothing but a Burberry anorak is remarkable.”