The story of Wild Country is the story of two strong-minded and visionary individuals from totally different backgrounds, but who shared a common passion. It was a chance meeting between two climbers in the summer of 1972, one a scientist and the other an entrepreneur that led to the development of 'Friends'.
Why make Friends?
Back in the day, protecting hard climbs was a difficult and audacious affair. Slings, chock stones and pitons were as good as it got. However, climbers increasingly viewed hammered pitons as unacceptable – they were scarring and disfiguring the rock and encouraging a reliance on 'artificial' aid. British climbers were climbing 'pin free' using threaded pebbles and adapted machine nuts placed in cracks. The international focus on free climbing, clean climbing and rapidly increasing standards meant that better pro was needed that could be placed easily and with just one hand. The search was on.
"I've always thought gritstone was the best rock to learn on."
The man who made Friends
Mark Vallance was born in 1944. As a boy, he lived in Chesterfield on the edge of the Peak District. From here, he would cycle to the eastern gritstone edges: Birchen, Gardom's and Chatsworth, followed by Froggatt and Stanage. This is where he learnt to climb: "I've always thought gritstone was the best rock to learn on." Highly independent and self-reliant, he made his own down jacket using his mother's sewing machine. As a young man, Mark worked for the British Antarctic Survey and the Peak District National Park Authority. He travelled to climb all over the world.
A Friendship is born
Mark first met Ray Jardine in the US in 1972. They were both working as instructors at the Colorado Outward Bound School and went on to climb together in Yosemite. Ray was an ex-aerospace engineer, space-flight simulation specialist and a very strong climber. Mark didn't know it at the time, but the first time they met, Ray was actually carrying his original prototype Friend around with him – four mechanical camming chocks on a shaft with no stem or trigger.
"Did you bring your…ah… Friends, Ray?"
"Friends": How the name stuck
Mark's first experience of Friends came much later, in 1975, when they climbed the first ascent of Power Failure (5.11a) on Washington Column in Yosemite. Ray was being very secretive and carrying something hidden in a blue bag. After Mark was sworn to secrecy, they climbed using the prototypes. The name 'Friends' was coined by climber, Kris Walker, when he and Ray were about to go climbing with others who were not in on the secret. To avoid giving the game away, Kris asked: "Did you bring your…ah… Friends, Ray?" and the name stuck.
Ray wanted to get his Friends manufactured in the USA, but amazing as it might seem now, couldn't find anyone to take them on. Mark initially encouraged Ray to develop his Friends project, mainly because he wanted a set to use back in Britain. Back home in the UK, Mark received a letter out of the blue. Ray was asking him to produce Friends in the UK, in the Peak District. Mark knew it was a fantastic opportunity and invited Ray and his partner Suzie over to the UK to stay at his house. While he was visiting, Ray made good use of his time to tick off some classic British rock climbs and put up some hard first ascents. Just see 'Ray's Roof (E7 6c)' at Baldstones in the Peak, which still commands respect today.
Running it out on a bold lead
Wild Country is the name of the company Mark set up in 1977 to make those Friends. At first, things were difficult, cash flow was limited, suppliers and specialist staff were not easy to find. But Mark took the plunge, left his job, founded a new company and borrowed all the money he could get. Famously, he was filmed on television taking a huge leader fall on two Friends from 30-feet up on the route Dexterity (E1 5b) at Millstone Edge in the Peak District on BBC's 'Tomorrow's World'. Broadcast shortly after Friends were released in 1978, there could be no better publicity. Within six months, Friends were being exported to sixteen different countries around the world.
Revolutionising rock protection
At a transitional point in the history of climbing, Mark and Ray were among a small handful of pioneers and innovators that enabled the sport to evolve and become the popular, fun and safe sport it is today. As Mark built up Wild Country, he refined and improved the Friend. In particular, by working with Ray to perfect the original constant camming angle to 13.75 degrees and, later on, introducing the flexible stem. This specific angle has defined camming devices ever since, helping climbers to climb harder routes more safely and push the limits of what's possible. Mark Vallance sadly passed away in April 2018 and will always be remembered for his vision and perseverance. To find out more, read his autobiography: 'Wild Country – The man who made Friends'.
"Wild Country": How Wide got Wild
Mark, who had mild dyslexia, was reading about the new route 'Wide Country' in the beautiful Eldorado Canyon State Park in Colorado, US. After re-reading he realised he'd misread the name and 'Wild Country' was born. The original typeface is based on the style that the US National Park Service used for its signs and trail markers.
The sight of the rising sun
While he was over in the US, Mark set out early one morning to drive from Las Vegas to Snowbird, to meet up with friends and go skiing. Leaving his motel in St George before dawn, he watched the sun come up over the desert. He was so inspired that he immediately decided to use the image. The rising sun intersected by two thin bands of cloud has been the Wild Country logo ever since.
Adventure goes on
Right from the outset, Wild Country had close links to leading climbers. Today, we work closely with a team of international athletes, such as Caroline Ciavaldini, James Pearson, trad crack specialists Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall, and Belgian climber and globetrotter Siebe Vanhee. Wild Country relocated to Bolzano, Italy – the city known as the gateway to the Dolomites – to another world-class climbing area with a long history of bold, clean, free climbing and classic routes.
We carry with us the spirit and experience of all those who have climbed with our products over the years, travelling the world in search of new lines. The story that began with making Friends goes on as we continue to innovate and create new, cutting-edge products.
Wild Country – Born in the UK and raised on adventures from around the world