HOW MASSIF® STARTED IN THE SAR COMMUNITY AND BECAME A NATIONAL LEADER IN FR GEAR
A conversation about the Massif origin story with company co-founder Randy Benham
Massif’s story is one of tenacity. From its beginnings in co-founder Randy Benham’s garage, to its rise to respect amongst some of the country’s toughest Search and Rescue crews, to the way it entered into the military market—Massif’s founding story was forged by scrappiness. We spoke with Randy Benham about the earliest days of Massif and how it grew to the company it is today.
How did you start making your own gear?
I was 22 or 23 and I took my first rock climbing class up on Mt. Ashland and it just took over like a drug. I just loved climbing. I was working in a small outdoor shop in Rogue River where I started meeting people to climb with. I got deeper and deeper into climbing and became really interested in clothing design. It was back in the early 80s— Patagonia, North Face, and Sierra Designs were the norm and me being a climber and broke at the time, I couldn’t afford a lot of that stuff. At the same time, my grandmother used to work for White Stag years ago and had an industrial sewing machine and she asked me if I wanted to buy it. I bought her sewing machine for a couple hundred bucks, bought a pattern, and started making my own clothing for climbing.
How did you transition from outdoor specific gear to rescue gear?
In ‘93 I joined the ski patrol up at Crater Lake National Park and met Mark Madison—he was one of the head rangers up there in the backcountry—and we got to know each other really well and he said that with my climbing and rescue experience I should go to the seasonal law enforcement academy and get my ranger law enforcement credential and fly in National Parks. So I did. Before I got out of the Ranger Academy I had my first seasonal job on Crater Lake for the winter. The following spring I applied and got a job as a Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger in the Tetons. I worked there seasonally for seven years. When I came home in the winter, now I had a purpose and I started designing rescue clothing and clothing for helicopter work. I started making a lot of custom stuff for SAR groups around the country. I also invented one of the rescue wheeled litters they use nowadays, the Teton Wheeled Litter.
When did you start making FR gear?
We were mainly focused on rescue clothing for the first year for the National Parks. How we got into the fabrics we deal with today is that one of my Ranger Buddies from Grand Teton called and said there is this fabric I just heard about that is made out of Nomex and it is the same fabric that the hotshot crews use. The light-bulb went on that I could use this fabric to make garments you can fly in. Made a top and a bottom, hired a guy who got in a van he bought to criss cross the country to show this garment to rescue outfits and it just took off. It was a big hit.
How did you transition from SAR to military?
The Coast Guard loved it because they wanted something to wear under their rescue suits. We pretty much created the whole layering system for the Coast Guard; from next-to-skin to the jackets for them they’d wear under their jumpsuits. From the Coast Guard, the Army heard about our fabric and this was right around the time the war [in Afghanistan] started. They talked to us about designing a lightweight army combat shirt that could go underneath the flack jackets. We said, “yeah, we can do that.”
Do you think your background as a climber and climbing ranger helped make Massif as successful as it is?
Climbing and being in the mountains really helped. You know what you want on a garment and if you can go to your garage and make it, then you can test it out yourself. Even working as a Jenny Lake Ranger was perfect because I would go back in the Spring and say, ‘Hey guys, lets try these out this summer,’ that was a big help. I just got back from the Grand Tetons and we were up in the rescue cache looking around and they still have jackets I made for them in the mid 90s.
Now that you are no longer at Massif and are semi-retired, do you miss building the gear?
I really enjoyed it and would do it all over again.
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