How a Near-Death Mountain Climb Launched One of the Adventure World’s Best-Known Brands

How a Near-Death Mountain Climb Launched One of the Adventure World's Best-Known Brands

This story appears in the
March 2020

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The brothers Danny and Mike Giovale are both experienced mountaineers and had no problem climbing an intense climb in the rigorous Italian Dolomites. But going down, Danny slipped into a steep and snowy ravine. “I couldn’t stop,” he says. “As my speed increased, I thought, I could seriously die. “Fortunately, he did not do so: he flew from a snow guard into the water which had warmed up on the rocks.

He told other adventurers about his fall and learned that he was not alone. “Almost everyone, without exception, had a similar experience or knew someone who had it,” says Danny. There was a tool to help them: crampons, metal spikes that attach to the bottom of the boots. But at the time, the only ones available were heavy and rigid, and did not attach to the flexible shoes of hikers. His conclusion: “We need a better solution.”

So Danny got to work in his garage in Salt Lake City, designing prototypes of light and flexible crampons. He named his company Kahtoola, or “directly” in Tibetan, and called his product the Kahtoola Traction System crampons. Since he didn’t have much money for market research, he reserved a postage stamp-sized stand at the Winter 2001 Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, the largest trade show in industry. “I thought it would be a great place to get feedback on whether I was right about the need for this type of crampon,” says Danny.

It turns out that he was right: a lot of orders have arrived. But he was wrong about the identity of his client. “I was thinking of climbers, hikers and mountain runners,” he says. “Adventure runners didn’t even cross my mind.” But these people – who practice the sport of climbing mountains in record time – were the most enthusiastic buyers. There weren’t enough runners to support a business, but Danny was encouraged. These buyers would give Kahtoola credit, and then he could pursue the larger hikers and climbers market.

In the company’s first year, Kahtoola sold approximately 7,000 pairs of hiking crampons, with revenues of $ 26,340. The following year, Kahtoola sold 20,000 pairs.

As the company grew – and moved to Flagstaff, Arizona – its founders quickly followed suit. Danny and his brother made each metal part for each pair by hand for four years before finding a manufacturer who was not afraid to work with small production numbers. But this experience wasted no time. “We were learning during this time,” says Danny. “When we found a manufacturer to work with, we were experts in our process and we knew what mattered most in the end product.” (Even after finding a manufacturer, the company continued to assemble all of its studs internally for years.)

Kahtoola continued to add products. In 2007, she launched MicroSpikes, which has 12 metal teeth, each about half an inch long, at the bottom of a rubberized ring that can stretch to fit everything from running shoes to bulky Sorel boots. This product finally locked up these hikers and runners; MicroSpikes sales are now increasing by 15-20% per year. (“It was the MicroSpikes client I always thought of,” says Danny, “but it took a while to get in shape.”) And in 2014, the company launched NanoSpikes, another expandable traction system with less aggressive crampons.

Today, Kahtoola products are found in 471 stores in the United States and 56 in Canada, and it has international distribution in Europe, Japan, South America, Australia and New Zealand. The company is not planning any other product launches at this time. “Basically, our brand is much more about doing a few things well than maybe not doing well,” says Danny. They are immersed.

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