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A long climb

How Dave MacMillan created the Cadillac of climbing pads and kick-started his entrepreneurial journey

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Dave and Sarah MacMillan own Earth Bones, a local climbing pad maker.

Dave and Sarah MacMillan own Earth Bones, a local climbing pad maker.

On a quiet evening last summer, a few swigs of scotch for the worse, Dave MacMillan climbed on top of the three metre railing on the back porch of his home and jumped.

This was no act of self-harm. To the encouraging cheers of a good friend, who after all provided the scotch, MacMillan was entering the product-testing period for a passion project that consumed the last few months. The industrial tailor was pioneering a new brand of hand-crafted climbing pads made from carefully selected foam,
which at this point he was almost positive would break his fall.

“The test was successful, thankfully,” laughs MacMillan. Less than a year later the lifelong South Shore Nova Scotian has created more than 16 custom climbing pads and 22 unique chalk bags to see his dream of operating the only climbing gear company in Nova Scotia realized.

As he talks with Halifax Magazine, he sits in his living room taking a break from the sewing machine he’s been hunkered in front of for months. In 12 hours, he hopes to finish the last pad from a massive Kickstarter campaign. Fittingly, the pad displays a landscape of the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, a perfect symbol of the Nova Scotian pride he has in his company.

The sewing itself came naturally. MacMillan’s grandfather worked for a sail loft making rigging and doing heavy sewing on covers and bags. His mother taught him to sew when he was six and bought his first industrial machine when he was 21. Now MacMillan is a technically trained tailor, graduating with a degree in costume studies at Dalhousie University.

While he says he’s known for years that he wanted to build climbing pads, the real moment of truth was when a good friend and fellow climber set him up with an ultimatum: “He said either get off your ass and make him one or he’d order a pad from another company.”

Three months later, the first prototype of the Earth Bones climbing pad was born. The pad is standard in size but with carefully designed details to set it apart from its mass-produced competition.

But none of that matters if the foam in the pad can’t break a climber’s fall. “The biggest thing is the foam,” says MacMillan. “If it’s shit, the pad is shit.”

The foam is the secret ingredient that sets one pad apart from the rest, and MacMillan says it took a while to even figure out what other companies were using.

For weeks he’d re-stuff a sample pad with different kinds of foam and take it out for a night of bouldering. During these Thursday night sessions, members of the climbing community would spout out their complaints with industry standard pads and MacMillan took notes for his prototype.

For instance, Earth Bones pads have a carpet flap so climbers can wipe the dirt and mud off their shoes before they climb so they have better grip. As well, a florescent orange flap keeps them safe in the woods when gun-toting hunters occupy the landscape.

Unknown-1-webBoulderers often use their pads as backpacks to haul everything from ropes and tents to water jugs and growlers of beer. The straps utilize four points of adjustability to be more comfortable on longer treks.

Dubbed the Cadillac of climbing pads (by MacMillan himself), the Earth Bones pad will be his signature piece. He has also recently released a larger pad, the Big Bones pad coming in at 1.2 by 1.5 metres, and a simplified budget version, the Bare Bones Pad, all made from their top grade foam and ballistic nylon.

The best part? Customers can design the look of their bouldering pads, from favourite pop culture references to Earth Bones’ signature fluorescent geometric patterns.

And perhaps no one has exploited this opportunity better than Anne Giles, the proud owner of a custom Earth Bones Climbing Star Wars themed storm trooper bouldering pad.

Giles has been climbing for three and a half years and has known MacMillan since she started out. She says she’s always been a geek at heart.

“When I mentioned the idea to Dave he was super stoked about it too,” says Giles.

MacMillan would send her teasers of the fabric colours and the design building up to the big reveal. The end result is a bright red pad with a large storm trooper head in front of an imperial crest. Needless to say Giles says it earns her lots of attention when she’s out climbing.

MacMillan found the real key to his success years before, while on a date at a local climbing gym. He was distracted from his date by a lovely Cole Harbour woman who was also there climbing and couldn’t get her off his mind in the days following. Sarah Davis, actually Sarah MacMillan by the time this article appears
in print, would become MacMillan’s partner in life and as it turns out, in business.

When he brought up the pitch for Earth Bones to her years later, she bought the first bolt of nylon for his prototype and took over the social media accounts to build-up hype. Davis’s two kids were the first testers for Earth Bones’ signature chalk bags.

When MacMillan was confident they had a product better than anything else on the market he decided it was time to take it to the next level. By generating a mass order they would be able to purchase their materials in bulk.

“We had been flying by the seat of our pants at the limit of what we ourselves could put in financially,” he says. So Davis spent some of her only vacation days from her library job to build their crowd funding Kickstarter campaign hoping to turn a passion project into a viable business.

Together with help from a few artistically gifted friends they created a promo video and photo gallery and put their target goal at the mercy of the Internet.

The Kickstarter hit 50 per cent of its goal in the first 48 hours. Forty four backers, mostly from the local climbing community, stepped up with orders for custom pads, chalk bags, or in-kind donations.

“It’s an all or nothing campaign,” says MacMillan. On Kickstarter, if you don’t meet your target, you get none of the funds raised. In the end, it far surpassed its campaign goals and raised $5,170, enough to provide a colourful assortment of pads to sprinkle the granite coast this summer. Now the MacMillans are excited the Kickstarter is finished so they can refocus on product development.

Now back to the grind in his basement workshop, surrounded by scraps of florescent green and hunter orange, MacMillan leans so close to his sewing machine that his nose is within inches of the needle. After a minute or so the needle is penetrating the nylon so fast it generates heat.

Throughout this entire process MacMillan continues to work his day job at an industrial sewing company, but he says it was worth all the late nights to see his pads out in the climbing community, getting a real field test on the granite coast.

Those extra hours he put into each pad or chalk bag, painstakingly guiding the needle along his carefully drawn out designs was his own personal thank you for the support he’s gotten from Halifax’s vibrant climbing community – whether in a high-five, a few hours taking photos or offering to test a pad by jumping off a 3-metre ladder.

“There’s a bittersweet moment when I see a pad out being used and I remember how it looked when it was pristine and perfect,” he says. “But I love to see them once they’re covered in chalk and blood and dirt, really being used.”

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