Wild Country came about as the brainchild of a UK based climber Mark Vallance and was set up to manufacture what was to become the most famous piece of rock climbing gear of all time, the Friend.
Friends were the brainchild of US climber Ray Jardine who Mark had met in the USA a few years earlier. Then when Ray couldn’t find a partner in the US to develop and produce his revolutionary new unit Mark and he joined forces and Wild Country was born. Founded in 1977, at a tiny factory in a village in the heart of the UK's Peak district, Wild Country went from strength to strength on the back of this revolutionary tool and became a name synonymous with hard climbing everywhere.
Mark Vallance takes up the story
"Starting a new business is like having one hundred feet of rope out, no runners and a 5b move in front of you; it can feel like that for weeks on end. I prepared to jump. The weather was perfect, clear sky, hard frost and a scattering of snow. The camera team was in position and waiting, the radio mic’ was tuned on and recording. I climbed past the top Friend, feet above it climbed a little higher – ‘Hell I’ll give them a real show’ – and climbed a little higher still. Then I jumped.As the rope tightened, my belayer was jerked upwards and I felt my breath being knocked out of me. I was lowered to the ground – no need for a ‘retake’. the five minute episode on the BBC’s 'Tomorrow’s World' programme was aired at the end of January 1978 and a six year secret was out of the bag.
Some of the original units...soon to become 'Friends'...and some classic Wild Country photos...
"Finally he said, "have you got the bag of Friends, Ray?", the name stuck."
It was 1972 when I first met Ray Jardine in Colorado, I was on my way back from Antarctica. We were both working for Outward Bound and between courses climbed together. Though I did not know it then, he was carrying the first prototype Friend around with him – four cams on a shaft with no stem or trigger. It required four hands to get it out of a crack. My first experience of Friends was much later, in 1975. Ray was very secretive, he was carrying a blue nylon bag around which clinked and rattled. It was another hot October day. We were below Washington Column, about to make the first ascent of Power Failure. I was sworn to secrecy before the blue bag was opened and I was allowed to see its contents.Ray’s prototypes were an odd selection. Some of them were beautifully made with polished aluminium, carefully filed edges, sophisticated trigger assembly and even ‘J slots’ for holding the trigger in the closed position for neatness and fast action. Others were gnarled and bent from use and testing, or just slung together to try out some new idea, but retained in the armoury because they worked.
The name ‘Friends' was coined by Chris Walker when he and Ray were about to go climbing with several climbers who were not in on the secret. Chris wanted to know if Ray had the bag of goodies, but didn’t know how to ask without giving the game away. Finally he said, "have you got the bag of Friends, Ray?", the name stuck. After several false starts Ray asked me to make Friends in England. Much of the work we did together over the summer of 1977 came to nothing. We could not find anyone to extrude the 7075 stem alloy. Everything was too expensive. A simple nut with one blob of aluminium, two drilled holes, a single piece of wire and a swage cost under two pounds (1977). How could i make a piece of kit with twenty seven high tolerance parts and a whole stack of holes and operations, and get it into the shops at a half realistic price?
When Ray left for California in September he must have thought that yet another attempt to get Friends off the ground had failed, but a few weeks later everything started to fall into place. Now I had to go for it, the long unprotected lead. I borrowed all the money I could and got the bank to give me a second mortgage on my house. I had some stationary printed and started to place orders for tools and components. Finally, in November, I took a deep breath and gave up my job – no runners on this climb – either success, or a big, big fall: and that's how Wild Country and the Friends revolution was born".