When the team behind Bight Gear sits down to design its line of technical outdoor apparel, the process is quite different than what you would find at a large, corporate brand.
At Bight Gear, mountain guides drive the design process. During 3-hour paid sessions, over sushi and beer, a dozen or so guides get together to hash out their feedback on prototypes and debate things like the merit of pit zippers.
These discussions get lively. Guides, by their nature, tend to have strong, alpha personalities. And the topics they’re discussing aren’t just abstract concepts that live on CAD; it’s a matter of their own wellbeing while in the mountains and on the job.
“Our secret sauce is that we’re harnessing the knowledge of a really experienced end user group. All of this time up in the mountains translates into a different approach with design and a different perspective,” said Peter Whittaker, Bight Gear’s founder.
Every piece of outdoor apparel in Bight Gear’s line is backed by a 100K Promise, meaning that it’s been tested for a minimum of 100,000 vertical feet before it hits shelves.
It’s thrilling when guides tell Peter that a piece of gear is “fucking amazing.” But that doesn’t always happen. It’s not uncommon for him to hear that a prototype is “dog shit” — harder to hear but equally valuable feedback.
Mount Rainier is Bight Gear’s primary testing lab. The guides who the brand collaborates with all work for RMI Expeditions, which has been leading guided trips on the mountain for 50 years. Peter is the owner of both Bight Gear and RMI Expeditions, among a handful of other businesses.
“I’m kind of an afflicted entrepreneur. I have 6 businesses today,” Peter said.
Bight Gear didn’t set out to completely revolutionize alpine climbing clothing. Instead, the brand focuses on the details, which — while sometimes small in nature — can make a huge difference during a multi-day slog up a mountain.
For example, its wicking base layer, called the Solstice Hoody, doubles as an outer layer, shielding against searing high-altitude sun. It features UPF protection and extra-long sleeves that cover a climber’s hands all the way to his or her knuckles. Additionally, it is only available in light, pastel colors — done intentionally so that the fabric reflects heat, rather than absorbing it.
“There’s a belief that a base layer should keep you warm, but really high up in the mountains, it’s the opposite. It should keep you warm, but it should keep you cool too. It should have range,” Peter said.
The Solstice Hoody also has more length in the back than a typical shirt because “there’s nothing worse than being up high and bending over and having your back exposed,” Peter said.
High-altitude climbing is “long-term, low-level suffering” and Bight Gear’s goal is to lesson that suffering, Peter said. Bight gear is about making gear the way guides want it made, and not worrying too much about blowing the brand up into something big.
“Somebody has to do this and that’s me,” Peter said.
Typically, the outdoor industry is driven by what’s hot and new, with fresh colors and features being continually rolled out to drive press and consumer spending.
Bight Gear has decided to sidestep that churn, focusing instead on a tight line that doesn’t change much from year to year and that works together as a system. For example, Bight Gear’s designers think about things like how zippers stack on top of each other and whether fabrics from two different layers cling together, restricting movement.
“As mountain guides we’re up there all the time and thinking about gear just happens,” Peter said.
Mountain climbing is in Peter’s bloodline. He was born into the First Family of American mountaineering. His uncle Jim Whittaker was the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1963. His father Lou (Jim’s identical twin) founded RMI in 1969 and led the First American Ascent of the North Face of Everest in 1984.
Peter started mountain guiding when he was 16 years old, “which was a young age to be having 40-year-old attorneys and dentists on your rope,” he said.
Growing up in and around mountains has given him a certain perspective on life.
“It’s amazing how my life has been affected and connected through mountains,” Peter said. “I love the mountains because they don’t discriminate at all. No matter your gender, nationality or economic background, it’s a level playing field.”
Mountains can also “kick your ass,” Peter said, remembering the many friends he’s lost and the difficult search and rescues he’s been involved in. “You have to be respectful, you have to play on her terms.”
Almost everything Peter does in life, whether in relationships or business, he connects back to the mountains. He even refers to the process of building and growing Bight Gear as his Everest.
“Even though it isn’t a mountain, it feels like one,” Peter said.