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The Sitka Team | 1.31.2014

The Darkroom: The Improbable Life of Richard Siberell

Richard Siberell is the Product Design Lead at Sitka Gear. You've probably never heard his name before, but read this and you likely won't forget him. He's responsible for some of the most useful innovations in alpine clothing and equipment in the last 30 years. He’s driven technical design for a number of revolutionaries, including Arc'Teryx, Simms, and Patagonia. A lot of what you love about Sitka Gear has been molded by his hands.

Bent over the 3-step Zig Zag underneath the mount from a memorable hunt.

But let's back up.

Richard grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. He loved art, and by 1977 was a sophomore at Drake University studying Lithography – a heavily process-oriented printmaking technique that, as he puts it, "produces an aesthetically pleasing result." But he was living with his parents and "spinning out," and by summer of that year needed a break. His dad introduced him to an acquaintance who worked as forest broker for a logging company.

"Well, I can probably get you on just about anywhere in the west. Where do you want to go?" the broker asked.

"Montana," Richard said.

His dad helped him buy a '68 Impala for $125, and Richard headed for the deep woods of western Montana where he stacked green lumber at a sawmill. On weekends he climbed into the Mission Mountains, teaching himself to evade grizzlies and fly fish on the high mountain lakes.

Hiking in Montana's Crazy Mountains in the late 70s.

Another school year in Iowa, then more adventure. He took a summer job repairing bicycles at a ski area in Wisconsin that was attempting to offer hang gliding tours to tourists. His boss bought a training glider, they both took lessons, and the moment he watched another human soaring out in front of him, he was hooked.

All summer he flew. When it was time to quit, his boss had fallen behind on payroll, and Richard said, "I'll take the glider."

Flying over Missoula, Mont., in the 70s.

An April flight from the 'M' in Bozeman. Early 80s.

His boss conceded, and he strapped the glider to the roof of his Impala and drove to Montana where he worked as a carpenter, bagged summits and flew. Eventually he transferred his art credits to Montana State University in Bozeman and restarted with school.

On the first day of class, he met a bull-headed climber and backcountry skier named Greg Rudel who intrigued him with the idea of skiing sans chairlifts, and helped him pick out a pair of skis. Next, he needed climbing skins, but there was no way he could afford them.

"My dad always said, 'You never go out and buy something that you could build yourself.'"

So he tied knots in ropes and wrapped the ropes around his skis and followed Greg up Mt. Ellis, a prominent peak due south of what is now Sitka Gear's Headquarters. He wore Army Surplus woolens, relics even then and useless for high-output activities, but they certainly were cheap. And uncomfortable as they were, they couldn't keep him from skiing, ice climbing and rock climbing all over Montana.

He was drawing his own lines in the mountains, and at some point it occurred to him that this was just another medium for his art.

His mother is an artist, a painter, and her works covered the walls of his childhood home.

“So that’s where the art-aesthetic stuff came from. There was always art in the family, all the time. Mom was painting all the time.

Mom (Mary) and Dad (Stanley) in the 70s.

"And my dad’s a mechanical engineer, so he was like a farm implement replacement part guy, and automotive parts. So he made muffler clamps and he designed and built tire changers – like every tire changer in the United States, the Coates Tire Changers you see in any gas station and every tire shop and every place around, he designed and built those things. And he designed and built the machines that made those machines."

Art, engineering, problem solving – Richard seemed destined to become a maker. The only question was, What would he make?

He finished his art degree and wasn't sure what to do next. His buddy Greg had moved to up Banff and told him about the climbing, and Richard jumped in as an art teacher at the Banff Center for the Arts. The place was unreal. He and Greg's backcountry exploits grew with the terrain – higher peaks, bigger lines – which simply highlighted the need for better gear. He began studying the technical clothing available at the time, really scrutinized it, and pieced together in his mind how it seemed to be made.

The Center for the Arts had sewing machines for costume designers, but they were free most of the time, so he saved up and drove to Calgary to buy a few yards of fabric at the Mountain Equipment Co-op. The clerk ringing him up eyed him, figuring this Banff climbing rat didn’t look the type to take up sewing, and asked, “What are you doing with this stuff?” 

Canadian Rockies. Early 80s.

"So I told him, and we got to talking, and his name was Mike Blenkarn. Mike 'The Wizard' Blenkarn. You know who that is, right?" (If you don't, we've got you covered. Here's what Outside Magazine said about Mike back in 2001)

Back in Banff, Richard sewed himself some pants, then a jacket, tested them, and decided they were OK. But they could be better. He saved more, bought more fabric, more insulation pile, got more serious about function and fabric tech, experimented in various conditions, and repeated the process.

The gear improved, and Greg and Richard kept upping the ante around Banff: burlier peaks, burlier routes, burlier descents. They put together a plan with another climber to make a winter ascent of Mt. Stephen in British Columbia. 

Wapta Icefield in the 70s.

Richard was trying to take his art career somewhat seriously, so he'd been applying to grad schools and Lithography studios, and the one he wanted into more than anything was the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, which at the time also happened to have some of the best hang gliding in the country. Right before the climbing trip, Richard had to rush his application packet to New Mexico, which involved driving back to Montana. Fatefully, he missed the climb.

It was on his way back north that he got the news: his best friend Greg and their climbing partner Andy had been caught in an avalanche. Neither survived.

Richard was adrift. The Tamarind Institute ended up rejecting him, and he didn't want to go back to Banff, so he moved in with his parents and took graduate classes at Drake, the same school that had chased him west the first go around. He was listless, the art career was dead, and he knew it. He dropped out.

His dad came to him and said it was time to make a decision about what he would do with his life, so he got out a pencil and wrote down all the things he could do – woodcutting, printmaking, sewing, teaching, climbing, skiing – and decided he would be a telemark ski instructor. Greg probably would have approved, but his dad questioned the pay and permanence of such work. Richard gave it a shot anyway.

Late 70s.

He lasted four months, came home, got out the pencil again, and on this second list, he saw that his interests kept orbiting around a dense nucleus of fabrics and outdoor gear. His brother said, "Why don't you go to a trade show?" and Richard asked what a trade show was.

A couple weeks later he drove to Chicago for the Ski Industry Association Show, where he literally snuck in the back door. No badge, no business cards, he wandered the floor shaking hands, evading security, and ended up meeting folks from every leading outdoor brand in the country. After a whirlwind roadtrip across the country chasing career leads, he landed back in Bozeman to chase powder instead, and ended up falling into a job at the backpack company Kletterwerks.

He began by cutting out backpacks and sewing basic assembly on Dana Gleason’s original designs. (Yep, that Dana, the one who would go on to found Dana Designs and eventually Mystery Ranch Backpacks) That winter, Richard needed a ski pack that could carry his shovel and probe, so with a collection of scrap materials he sewed his own design. The first weekend he took it up on the hill, his boss busted him, and he just knew he was done for.

The boss called him into the office on Monday and said, "This is your last day sewing packs for Kletterwerks. From now on, you're going to be designing them." 

Alaska. Late 80s.

With that promotion, he created dozens of prototypes and eventually learned that if he really wanted to survive in the outdoor gear industry, he'd need to move to Boulder, CO. It was 1983 when he packed his car, headed south, and got a job at a technical clothing repair shop called Mountain Mend.

He spent his days dismantling every piece of gear every company anywhere had ever made, feeling in his hands the components and construction, and discovering what caused each piece to fail. If he'd gone to school for apparel design, learned from the books and the thought leaders all that could be taught, he would have come away with little compared to the knowledge he gained at Mountain Mend.

Again, the day job couldn't keep him from creating. One of the custom jobs that came across his desk at Mountain Mend was assembling a glove design for Latok Mountain Gear, a company owned at the time by climber Jeff Lowe. Richard spent most of his available free time designing products, and soon he’d built a full personal mountain kit: GORE-TEX® bibs, jackets, gloves, a custom climbing harness, and some killer backpacks. Also during that time, he developed the first sub-dye transfer clothing labels. He didn't know it then, but his off-hour creativity was building the body of work that would fix his trajectory for the rest of his life when, in 1987, he got an interview with Patagonia. 

Point of the Mountain. Salt Lake in the early 80s. This landscape is covered with condos and a Cabela's store now.

They invited him to California, and when he arrived at the table, already seated were Yvon Chouinard and the handful of elite designers that had begun the renaissance of technical gear. Richard set upon the table before them one of his packs stuffed with a collection of the things he'd made.

"That backpack and its contents, that was my résumé," Richard said.

The designers passed around his garments and asked a lot of questions, and Chouinard kept checking his watch.

"Eventually, Yvon said, 'The swell's looking good. It seems we all agree this is the guy for the job. I'm going to go surfing.' Then he walked out of the room."

Richard moved to California and became a product manager, flourishing under some of the finest designers in the industry. Patagonia’s lead product designer moved on, and they tapped Richard to replace her. In his new role, he focused exclusively on high-end technical apparel and accessories for climbing, kayaking, fishing and mountaineering products, helping shape nearly every piece of technical gear the company put out. 

Welcome to the 80s.

On the side, he co-developed the original prototype of Black Diamond's AvaLung. He worked with Dr. Igor Gamow to develop the first portable hyperbaric chamber that to this day saves lives in cases of extreme altitude sickness and nitrogen narcosis. He consulted on and created the costumes for the Stallone film "Cliffhanger," and with the money he made, he and his wife, Lee, bought land near the Gallatin River just west of Bozeman. Shortly after, their first daughter, Kate, was conceived.

The Siberells wanted to raise their kids in Bozeman, not California, and made a pact to move by their daughter's second birthday. He alerted Patagonia management, and then-CEO Kris McDivitt said she didn't want to lose him. He floated the idea of building a Patagonia skunkworks design shop in Bozeman, and it was met with excitement. The shop went up in the basement of the company's Bozeman customer service office, which made it easy for user feedback to flow directly into the design room.

Richard watched his kids grow up in Montana while leading a small team of crack sewers and designers, who together rocketed Patagonia to the top of the technical apparel world.

But it all came apart on a Tuesday morning in 2001. Richard had just stepped into the shop when the phone rang, and on the other end was Patagonia's new CEO, talking about cost cutting and taking the company in a new direction. 

Early Patagonia days.

"'The party's over, Richard,' he said. I just thought wow, you know, it's been a great run. And then I thought, you know, well sh*t, I had just taken a loan to build the addition on the house. Patagonia still wanted me to do some contract work here and there for them, but nothing really stable. I called a buddy and he had some good advice. He said, 'Now you're going to find out what you're made of. You’re going to find out who your real friends [in business] are.'"

The word spread quickly about Richard leaving Patagonia after 14 years, and his phone was ringing off the hook, mostly with apologies. But then a call came from Mike Blenkarn, the clerk he'd bought fabric from at Mountain Equipment Co-Op more than two decades before.

"Mike was the lead designer at Arc'Teryx now, and we had a good conversation, and soon I had an offer from them."

It was around this time Richard was introduced to archery hunting. A friend took him into the cool shade of a canyon in western Montana, and elk bugled all around him. He was enamored, but the experience was almost overshadowed by the first time he shot a bow. His grandfather had made his own longbows, and his mom had been a target shooter in her early years, so there was an element of connecting to his roots, his ancestry. But there was something more immediate, more aesthetic about the act of releasing an arrow. It reminded him of his first time hang gliding, watching flight happen before his eyes.

"It was the exact same feeling, almost like dreaming.” 

Old bull. Solo hunt.

Back yard whitey.

First go with Sitka Waterfowl gear.

Hunting became something of a next chapter. For decades he had taken personal responsibility for building what he could have purchased, for making that which didn't exist before. And now that ethos was seeping into his procurement of food. Over the next few years, between designing for Patagonia, Arc'Teryx, and Simms, he put in countless days, chasing elk in the mountains around Bozeman and sitting in a whitetail stand on the river bottom near his home.

Everything about it was great. Except for the clothing.

"Right before my very first hunt, I bought some camo off the shelves. I knew it was bad but I tried it anyway, and whoa. I just remember thinking, 'This is bullsh*t.'" In his shop by the house, he takes a set of old camo off a rack. "One of my friends at Gore was kind enough to provide me with some of the early ‘Suppressant’ fabric, so I made something with actually decent fit and articulation." In his hands he holds the first prototypes of what would become early iterations of the 90% pieces in our line.

Sitka Athlete Mark Seacat and Richard look over the first prototypes of the 90% Series.

At Sitka, we were looking to take our designs to the next level, but we needed someone who understood the process and design complexities of technical gear, but who also hunted. Now, how many top-tier technical gear designers do you think have ever even considered hunting?

When our friend Brad Yeomans at W.L. Gore and Associates made the introduction, we were ecstatic. We hit it off and suddenly, there we were conspiring with one of the greatest sages in technical clothing design, his mind like a fire refining our wildest innovations. It was truly surreal. And like we said, a lot of what you love about Sitka today has been guided by his veteran hands.

Richard founded and runs his design firm Rix Haus out of a shop he built himself in Bozeman Montana.

Rix Haus, Bozeman, Montana.