25 Years of Innovation
This is our history
Rock Exotica began in a garage 25 years ago. Much has changed since those days of manual production and graph paper designs. However, one thing has stayed the same: Our desire to produce the most innovative technical equipment available. In an age when many companies no longer actually make anything, but rather just promote their brand and sub out the manufacturing, we are an anachronism. We manufacture our gear ourselves, in Utah. We’ve never gone in search of foreign low-cost products upon which to only place our brand, and we never will.
It has been a great 25 years and there is much more to come. Thanks to you all for helping Rock Exotica become the leader in innovative technical equipment and for allowing me to have the best job in the world.
Our contact info is on the home page. We are in Utah, between Salt Lake and Ogden, about 30 minutes from the international airport. We're close to the famous ski resorts and, of course, the climbing in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. America Fork and Provo canyons are to the south. Further south is a really cool ice climbing location, Joe's Valley. And, of course, a few hours away are places like Arches, Canyonlands and Zions, as well as a multitude of lesser known but very special places.
History, the Short Version
I'm the founder of Rock Exotica, Rock Thompson, and I'll tell this in the first person. Rock Exotica started in 1987 and made a variety of unique products. A few years later a big European company (BEC) approached me about making carabiners for them, so the BEC and I started another company, Thompson Manufacturing, Inc. (TMI). This was an interesting endeaver and I learned a lot.
Even though Rock Exotica was running on auto pilot, its products continued to gain in popularity. There was a demand for them from around the world and eventually the BEC wanted them, so we made most of them under their brand and they distributed them. This was the period when Rock Exotica as a brand "disappeared".
I enjoyed my time with the BEC, but I wanted to work more on innovation and new products of my choosing. Luckily I was able to buy the shares of the BEC so TMI could become independant and we could bring back Rock Exotica.
History, the Long Version
Feel free to skip this and go climbing instead, but we get a lot of questions wanting more details of the company's history, so here it is:
Yes, that's My Real Name
As you can imagine, I've been asked many times whether Rock is my real name or not. The initial impression is usually, "this guy must just call himself that because he thinks it's cool..." Well, the truth is I DO think it's kind of cool, but it IS my real name.
It's Rock "Exotica", not "Erotica"
It's not unusual for people to accidentally call it Rock Erotica. To which I usually mention something about how Freudian slips reveal one's true nature...
When we had first moved out of the garage into an industrial building I had to appear before the local zoning board to convince them my business wouldn't be detrimental to the neighborhood. They asked questions like "Is the aluminum likely to explode?", answer "No, that doesn't normally happen." Then they asked what equipment we'd have. They didn't know what a CNC machining center was and midway through the explanation I decided to simplify it and told them it was basically like a big drill press (yes, really big and a bit more expensive, kind of like how an aircraft carrier is a little bit larger version of a rowboat).
Things were going smoothly when a nice, little old lady in the audience spoke up and said the neighborhood would not, under any circumstances, accept a business of questionable nature, considering our provacative name. I quickly replied "Ma'am, I believe you have "exotic" confused with "erotic". "Exotic simply means strikingly different or unusual. It has no sexual connotation at all and frankly I'm a little shocked that you would think so." She turned beet red, the commisioners broke up in laughter and one of them said "Mable, I think your concern says more about you than about this business. I vote we approve the application."
I had always been interested in Solo Climbing and had experimented with magic knots and such. The impetus to develop something better came because my friends significant others often considered me a bad influence and would ground them from me. So I started to think a lot about a solo device.
Those were the days when I used graph paper to work out designs. I'd draw a body, then a jaw on tracing paper. I'd cut out the jaw and pin it in place over the body and move it to simulate how it would operate. Although I'm long since spoiled by fancy CAD systems, this was a very immediate and tactile way to design.
I worked out the design for the Soloist, but I had no way to make it. I eventually bought an old war surplus milling machine for $200 and my wife and I spent the Christmas holidays taking in apart, cleaning and repainting it. It was a manual machine, of course, and very loose. To make anything other than straight lines I had become a human CNC and turn both the X and Y axiis at the same time. I eventually made my fist Soloist this way and, believe, me, it looked like a caveman had chipped it out of flint or something. But it worked.
I had a dream that, if I wanted a solo device, maybe others would, too. But I needed better equipment. I bought a nice and accurate manual mill at an auction (we still have it, too) with a digital readout. I also bought a rotary table. All this cost only a few thousand dollars, but it seemed like a lot, since it was my life's savings. My Mom's friends and my wife's parents couldn't understand why, since I had been to college, that I didn't just get a nice, secure job and do normal things like buy a house and go to church. Thankfully, my Mom never worried about it, figuring that eventually I would do something in the way of a career.
Now I was able to make professional looking parts, but it required a lot of work and skill. A Soloist body has two big radii on it. I'd clamp a block of aluminum on the rotary table, run the end mill in to the start of the arc by moving the mill table (all under manual control while watching the digital readout, accurate to .0005"), then rotate the rotary table the proper number of degrees, then finish by once again moving the table to finish the cut. I had to do this seperately for each radius and there had to be setups and fixtures for each step.
I didn't have tumblers back then, so all parts had to be had sanded, rounded and smoothed. If there are jobs in Hell, this is one of the worst. I remember sanding a bunch of bodies in the dead of a Utah winter. I had to do it outside because of the dust created and it was snowing. To keep my fingers from freezing I would sand with enough pressure that the part would heat up and I could absorb some of the heat to keep my blood flowing.
Once I had production worked out I took ads in Climbing and Rock & Ice for the Soloist. To my surprise the world beat a path to my door. People bought it, liked it and stores started calling and carrying it. It was machined out of solid because that was the best way to make it, although very expensive. That made it unique and people recognized and appreciated it.
I had commandeered my Mom's garage. It would never again have room for a car until we moved to a bigger place years later. And my very indulgent mother never complained about the constant trail of aluminum chips on her carpet.
I began to hear from lots of people with ideas for various products. John Middendorf suggested what became the SoloAid and he did some first ascents of Southern Utah spires with it. He also suggested making a camming pulley and explained what was wrong with earlier designs. I made a really nice one and Larry Arthur of Mountain Tools gave it a very cool name, the Wall Hauler.
Larry also suggested making a swivel for big wall hauling. This was complicated to make and I only sold 50 the first year, so I wasn't very grateful for the suggestion. But a few years later, when we were selling thousands and had no competition from other manufacturers because they didn't realize the size of the market and so hadn't copied us yet, I had to hand it to Larry for a brilliant idea.
I was still in my Mom's garage but I needed some help. A friend of mine, Todd Mitchell, was a machining genius and had won the top slot in a statewide machining competition in High School. He was then an Air Force helicopter mechanic. I'd get him to take a week off now and then to help me.
Those were the good, old days. A batch of 40 or 50 products seemed like an enormous amount that I wondered if we could ever sell. We'd make production batches once in a while and the rest of the time I'd work on new ideas and go climbing to test them. I didn't take any money at all out of the business, but my Mom made me lunch every day and took care of my daughter who was free to come out to the garage at any time and raise havock.
I had developed a curve in the Soloist body where the jaw clamped the rope. This spread out the force and made rope damage less likely. John Middendorf dubbed it the Curved Cam Interface. A rescue expert, Tom Vines, came to me suggesting we utilize this to make a better rescue rope grab, since at that time there were problems with existing designs. The device was the Rescucender and I presented it at a well-known annual technical rescue symposium. I was an unknown and very nervous but it was extremely well received. I also became aware of what could be termed the religious wars sweeping the rescue world.
Some in the rescue community thought mechnical rope grabs were evil and would chop ropes in half with the slightest provocation. They believed in using Prusiks and had a powerful testimony about their goodness. Those in the mechanical camp had less faith in Prusiks and pointed out that they needed a good shepard watching over them to insure they behaved.
The two camps didn't like each other much and were constantly trying to convert the heretics. This dominated the rescue symposium for years and always resulted in a few exchanges that one might politely term "lively".
Firmly in the Prusik camp, in fact, perhaps the Moses of the movement, was a man named Arnor Larson. He taught many rescue classes and turned out many disciples who spread throughout the land. He designed the first nice Prusik minding pulleys. The bigger manufacturers all turned him down and so he at last came to us. We made them and they became the standard that everyone wanted. All those manufacturers that couldn't be bothered with them eventually copied them.
So, you may wonder, who was right, the Prusikers or the cammers? Well, they both kind of were. Tandem Prusiks for belaying a rescue load are great, but you have to have someone compentant set them up and tend them. I've seen them not work in tests, explained by a strange mistake on the operator's part. Mechnical cams, on the other hand, can be anchored to a steel test tower and have the load drop directly on them and yes, they can chop the rope clean in half. But direct the belay rope over an edge as it often would be in real life and it might be able to catch the load all day long without rope damage. The bottom line, of course, is that they both require skill and situational awareness and there is risk in all things.
CNC at Last!
As the business grew, my original plan was to hire some machine shops to produce higher quantities of our products. But I became discouraged when I had trouble getting the quality I wanted. The Soloist Curved Cam interface required cutting an arc in the ZX plane, which is a little unusual, but most machining centers are capable of it. The guy at one shop couldn't get the machine to do it and tried to convince me to change the design so it wasn't required. I picked up the machine manual and read through it. It didn't seem that complicated and I liked tools anyway, so I hightailed it out of that shop and decided to buy my own equipment for higher production.
At this point we were a year and a half old, during which I never took any salary from the business, and the company had a little money saved. With this and some investment from John Middendorf (thanks again, John) I took a trip to California and bought a used CNC mill. This was like entering the gates of Heaven.
I got it home and bought a simple CAD program to ease the programming. I stuck a pencil in the spindle, put paper on the machine table and figured out how to make lines and arcs. And if you can do that you can pretty much make anything you want. Within a week we were making production on the CNC.
Biners with the BEC
Things were going well and in 1990 I met the BEC (big European company). They wanted someone to make carabiners for them. The chance to work more in the big time sounded fun so we formed TMI. You can't buy carabiner making machines off the shelf, so I figured out what was needed and designed the equipment.
I spent all my time working on biners, so Rock Exotica operated on cruise control, but still grew and did well. Eventually the BEC wanted most of the products so we made them under the BEC's brand and distribution and they ceased to be sold under the Rock Exotica name. A few of the smaller volume products, the solo devices and the Vortex tripod went to a friend of mine who had an excellant machine shop, Wren Enterprises.
I gained lot of satisfaction and experience making carabiners. But what I really like is working on new things, so once making carabiners became routine, I was not the best choice to run the company. I was looking for someone else to do it when it became possible for me to buy TMI and become sole owner. Freedom is a wonderful thing. We became free to make new products and whatever we wanted.
Rock Exotica Returns
When we began to sell things under the Rock Exotica name again, many people still remembered it, and, of course, many in the industry knew the situation. I was amazed and really thankful for our many friends in the industry because it was easy to start up again and the reception was tremendous.
Currently we still make many products for the BEC. We also make lots of products for other big companies. And, the most fun of all, we are bringing out a lot of gear under our own name.
We are a small company compared to the big boys. But I think, since we became independant, that we've spend more on high-end equipment than anyone else. And I KNOW that we've brought out more truly innovative gear than any other company in the industry.
Although I'm not usually very sentimental, I sometimes think about my Dad, who died before I started Rock Exotica. He taught me how to figure things out and how to make stuff. We used to go down to Sears and admire the woodworking saws, drill presses, planars and other various tools. Occasionally we'd buy something and we had a modest but relatively well-equiped woodworking shop. I sometimes look around Rock Exotica, surveying the numerous CNC machines and wish my Dad could see what his encouragement led to.