Josh Helkes hands carry him up the sides of craggy rock faces. They also help propel others who share his love for the sport of bouldering.
Helke owns Organic Climbing, a small Philipsburg manufacturer of bouldering gear such as crash pads, chalk bags, backpacks and messenger bags. Since he founded the business in Wyoming in 2004, his hand-crafted, custom products have developed a stellar reputation within the climbing world.
Outdoor Gear Lab, an online review site, ranked two of his crash pads as tops and No. 3 among a dozen of the recommended choices.
Thats particularly satisfying for Helke, 33, of State College, because he jumped into the industry out of dissatisfaction with gear being made overseas by national brands.
It just wasnt holding up as well or it just died, he said. It really got me perturbed.
His company title refers to bouldering itself, which he calls the most organic form of climbing. It involves short, technical rock climbs with minimal equipment.
Everything is stripped away, and its really a simple sport, he said.
As a boy growing up in Minnesota, he discovered bouldering on his property. He and his younger brother would scale a 40-foot cliff with little more than fingers and guts. Eventually, for safetys sake, their parents got them instruction and gear.
Later in high school, Helke became adept enough to earn sponsors. Establishing new routes appealed to him, and his talent garnered him hundreds to his credit. His mother and brother were ceramists; he made summits.
It was always my kind of creative outlet, he said.
In college, he studied photography and history. But after moving to Laramie, Wyo., so his wife, Liz, now a Penn State geology professor, could attend graduate school, he created a different path for himself.
Unable to find a teaching job, he started his business. He originally planned just to design his products, then subcontract the manufacturing. There was one problem: Most American textile factories had disappeared by then, their work done in China, Vietnam and elsewhere.
Helke wasnt derailed. He learned to sew, stitching his designs first in his kitchen before shifting his operations to a garage.
These days, Organic Climbing retains that homespun feel even in a warehouse with seven employees and vintage industrial sewing machines that once made World War II parachutes. Helke and his staff cut fabric by hand, stuff foam into pads and fashion products to order a practice he says leaves less scrap material than mass production. And the scraps often are reused for funkier designs.
Many climbers, Helke said, value individuality. They like tailoring pack strap lengths to their bodies or choosing color schemes.
There are days we literally have to wear sunglasses to sew what were making because kids pick these crazy colors, he said.
After moving to State College about two years ago, he also made valuable connections.
For guidance and expertise, he tapped into contacts in New York Citys Garment District and, in Philipsburg, Charles Navasky and Co., a longtime mens clothing manufacturer. One of Helkes employees has been sewing for 27 years.
When you bring somebody who has been in the industry, its magical, he said.
His sales come mostly online, but Eastern Mountain Sports and, locally, Appalachian Outdoors and Penns Valley Outfitters carry his products. Organic Climbing got more exposure this year when it contracted with the Adidas-owned Five Ten outdoor gear label to produce pads and chalk bags. Helke said the arrangement increased his revenue by 25 percent.
Its a little pat on the back that I was lucky to get, he said.
He has high hopes for his latest product: climber-friendly blue jeans made with denim from a sustainable Texas cotton-growing cooperative. The pants have stretchy steams for better flexibility on rocks.
Were pretty proud of them, Helke said. Theyre matching urban styling with the practicality and durability of outdoor gear.
Even with his busy schedule hes off to Salt Lake City this month for a trade show Helke still climbs regularly. He and others are trying to open a private Bellefonte quarry, known to climbers as a world-class site.
And with his business, hes working on opening minds to what independent businesses can do to boost local economies.
The thing is to reinforce what craft is to people, he said. We want the younger generation to question why we dont make anything anymore.