Taking a hike with Amundsen Sports
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2018)
What better way to put mountain boots to the test than by walking across the Alps in them? Or, even better, by hiking in order to test them under all circumstances and terrains. This was exactly what four young Norwegians were planning to do this spring, when they provided a strange sight whilst stood at the train station in the small Italian town of Montebelluna: they raced across the platform in order to reach the train to Cortina while wearing full mountain gear and backpacks with skis strapped to them. The Dolomites were the first stage of their walk from Montebelluna back to their home in Oslo, Norway.
The group included Jørgen Amundsen, a descendant of the famous explorer Roald Amundsen, his friend Erik Friis, the founder of the innovative Norwegian outdoor clothing brand “Amundsen Sports” and two members of their team, Tryvge Markset, Head of Marketing, and Jens Christian Levenskiold, Head of US Operations. They wanted to test and experience the latest Amundsen Sports products live and in nature though an unusual practical test that would enable them to make any improvements directly before the “Ilujjiniq Mountain Mucks” went into production. The Mountain Muck is an innovative hiking and mountain boot that was inspired by the layer system of the Inuits. The boots were elaborately handcrafted in Montebelluna, the Italian Mecca of shoes, by the company Monte Sport. They are made of wool stockings and a soft inner boot while the outer boot features integrated gaiters. The four Norwegians had barely got their hands on the first prototype when they flung their old sneakers into a corner, put on their Mountain Mucks right then and there in the shoe factory and set off on their way north. A 2,500-kilometre-long adventure awaited them. Jørgen Amundsen tell us what makes the Ilujjiniq Mountain Mucks special and how they have stood the test.
Jørgen, who came up with the idea to field test the Amundsen Sports products and what was the first test?
Before venturing into sportswear, I founded Amundsen Watches back in 2003. In 2004 I took the first batch of 250 watches, packed them in my sledge and skied them to the North Pole to test them in extreme temperatures and the real elements. Later, when I founded Amundsen Sports in 2010, it was evident to me to continue this approach, and when we had our first collection of knickerbocker gaiters and anoraks ready we ventured to Antarctica to test the garments in their true elements. Since then we have taken field testing a step further, and now we always bring needle and thread on our field tests as we make adjustments and experiments as we go – in the field.
Most of the big outdoor companies have advanced methods of trialling their products. Why are you testing by heading into nature? Is it a kind of “back to basics” approach?
Most ideas for new products or product improvements come to us while in nature. The design and development phase that comes after, in the office, is simply a specification of the initial idea. A lot of lab testing of fabrics takes place and fancy reports and graphics are produced to explain how a certain fabric works. But this is of little value when the fabric operates differently during actual use. In the lab, the supplier might select favourable settings (temperatures, humidity, temperature changes, wind etc) to get desirable results. In our opinion, the only way to truly test a fabric or a garment is to test it in its true elements in a wide variety of conditions, situations and activities. Secondly, to us it is critical to undertake these tests ourselves, and not rely on feedback from “ambassadors”. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is that we want to spend as much time as possible out in the field!
And is it because the Amundsen Sports brand is inspired by Roald Amundsen’s philosophy to learn from the best?
One of our core values is to be independent. By this we mean that we will not look to what the others are doing, but go our own way and find our own answers and solutions. When Roald Amundsen set out to conquer the South Pole in 1911, he chose to learn from the best possible source and went to live with the Inuits to study their knowledge on cold weather survival. At the same time, he was exploring cutting-edge technology of his time. Amundsen’s ability to look back in time while leaping forward, his thorough planning, his urge to explore the unexplored, his accuracy and above all his refusal to accept the status quo made Roald succeed were others had failed. These are skills we at Amundsen Sports are inspired by in our quest to make outdoor clothing better.
Please tell us about the insights from field tests that improved the product.
During our first field test in Antarctica back in 2011, we wanted to find out why all real mountain men in the past chose knickerbockers, and if there was a reason for their disappearance from the market for decades. To find out why we developed the first truly technical knickerbockers and took them to Antarctica for testing. From this field test we experienced firsthand how the knickerbockers are adaptable to the conditions and how important this feature is in ever-changing weather conditions. Furthermore, knickerbockers proved to be so much more versatile than regular trousers– even indoors after a day outside. Our findings placed knickerbockers as the very foundation of our product approach and concept, and we never looked back. We would never have discovered this without the extensive tests through so many different activities, conditions and situations we encountered during this expedition. During another more recent field testing adventure from my home in Oslo all the way up to the Arctic Circle in spring time, we kept rolling up our knickerbockers into shorts on the hottest days. But we found that they always slid back down. We then added some press buttons out in the field to keep them up, and ever since then this has been a feature of our summer knickerbockers. Again, an idea that would not have been born in front of the computer.
Let’s talk about the Ilujjiniq Mountain Mucks. What does the name mean?
Inuit footwear, as with the rest of their clothing, admirably shows their expertise in humidity and temperature control, advanced over thousands of years. The human body, notably the feet, transmits water vapour which becomes perspiration when overheated. At a certain point, depending on the temperature both inside and outside the clothing, the perspiration condenses and becomes hoar frost. Inuits have therefore developed their footwear with several layers depending on conditions. They use natural materials that breathe and crafting techniques such as attaching the upper with the waterproof stitch – ilujjiniq.
The boots are inspired by the Inuits, please explain the idea for the design.
Just as the Inuits are the masters of cold weather survival, the scarperi (bootmakers) of Montebelluna are the protectors of the generations-deep wisdom of technical shoe knowhow.The Amundsen Mountain Mucks are carefully handcrafted with such complexity that even in Montebelluna - the cradle of boot making - only a handful of master craftsmen know how to make them. We found this expertise at the Monte Sport factory. Some of the key features include the knitted wool stockings, an inner boot in two versions and an outer boot. They adapt to all conditions with the connected gaiters under the knees for full protection, or they can be rolled down to the ankle to let moisture evaporate. The gaiters have an integration system with Amundsen knickerbockers, or if you wear trousers, you can simply fix them under the knee by tightening the elastic band. The Norwegian welting method is an uncommon demonstration of shoemaking virtue. It was originally designed to make shoes more waterproof but is seldom seen today due to its complexity. To increase the challenge for the craftsmen, we added a crampon fix in the heel - a combination never done before.
For which occasion is the boot the best choice? More for advanced high mountain trails or even moderate hikes?
Based on the inspiration from the Inuit boots we set out to develop a versatile benchmark boot for hiking, glacier walking, mountaineering and at the same time a comfortable everyday lifestyle boot – an all in one system.
The field tests are of course a great marketing tool for the brand. Please tell us about your brand strategy, what makes AS unique in the big outdoor/mountain wear market?
When it comes to field testing, I think one truly important aspect is the fact that we do the testing ourselves. Thus, the development is not based on third-party feedback, but rather on our direct experiences. We are a small company and everything we do is personal and informal. Decisions are made on the go which makes us dynamic and adaptable. We also strive not to look to what the others in our market are doing and try to be as independent and unaffected as possible. I think we stand out and go our own way, especially when it comes to material use. The first ideas from the field always go hand in hand with material selection. We are in an endless search for the best possible fibres, weaves and technologies and find ourselves landing on natural fabrics more often compared to synthetics. Both cottons and wools stand for the majority of our garments. We only work with European fabric suppliers – we sew and sell our garments in Europe. In other words, they don’t travel far. This in addition to high quality and timeless style is what we can all agree on are important aspects in regard to sustainability. Other than this, there is too much “green-washing” in our industry – everybody is talking about it, but seldom objectively. With all this noise in communication it is difficult for the end user to navigate and find out what truly matters and what doesn’t. Today, no one can really see the full picture, not even the biggest experts – but the points of high quality and timeless design cannot be argued against, so they remain the most critical aspects. Buy fewer but longer-lasting products, basically.
Which country is your most important market and where will you expand next with your brand?
Our home market, Norway, is still our most important market both in terms of wholesale and online sales. For online sales Norway represents about 45 per cent of sales. In terms of wholesale, Norway is the biggest with about 50 doors, closely followed by Switzerland with about 40 doors. This year we set up our own company in the US located in Boulder, Colorado. This autumn we will be delivering our products to 13 top shops in ski resorts such as Aspen, Vail, Park City and Sun Valley. We are excited to see the reception and hope to expand further in the US in the coming years, yet remain niche and selective along the way.
What will your next field test be? Where can we find you testing which prototype?
We constantly do smaller field tests around our magnificent country in all seasons, and one or two longer adventures every year. It is not easy to say where the next adventure will be – one important aspect of our adventures is not to plan too much ahead! When we walked our boots from Montebelluna back home, nothing was planned or booked, which gave us so many experiences along the way which we would never been able to plan for. So regardless of where we venture next, we will make sure to plan as little as possible in advance. Roald Amundsen said “adventure is just bad planning” – this was his response to being called an adventurer. Roald was an explorer – we are adventurers!
Jørgen Amundsen is actually an industrial designer, but he is also a descendant of the legendary explorer Roald Amundsen, who was the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911. It is no wonder then that Jørgen is also an extreme outdoor fanatic. He made his passion into a business with his childhood friend Erik Friis, with whom he attended skiing club in Oslo and travelled through Patagonia, and together they founded Amundsen Sports.
Picture credit © Amundsen Sports