On May 14, a gear company called Grade VII Climbing Equipment launched a Kickstarter campaign for what they boldly touted as “the world’s lightest climbing ledge.” Their product, the G7 POD, is an insulated, inflatable portaledge that weighs a scant 3.3 pounds, something in the neighborhood of fives times lighter than a traditional setup. Drastically reinventing arguably the bulkiest, heaviest component of a big wall kit could certainly prove a game-changer for those seeking fast-and-light ascents—so much so that the project was fully funded less than an hour after it launched.
But given the fact that Grade VII has no track record in the industry and that this mysterious entity had so radically reimagined such a crucial piece of gear still leaves a bit of head-scratching, namely—Who are these guys? And how the heck does an inflatable portaledge work?
To answer both questions, we need to go back in time and hop a train with a then-teenaged Nathan Kukathas, co-founder of Grade VII, and his family, who were traveling across the country to round out his father’s year-long sabbatical. The family had spent the bulk of that time in Indianapolis (“Not exactly the climbing capital of the U.S.”) and as they moved further past the Midwestern flats, Kukathas became mesmerized by the shifting landscape, which had grown more mountainous by the day. What kind of fun could a kid who already liked playing around outside get into up high?
When the train pulled into Flagstaff near the end of that trip, each kid was allowed to pick out something to read from the station’s newsstand. Kukathas walked over to his father with an issue of Rock & Ice, drawn to the magazine’s depictions of mountains, to be sure, but especially drawn to photographs showing people sleeping on portaledges. “I really fell in love with the idea of big wall climbing in that moment,” he recalls.
Upon returning home to Australia, Kukathas had no climbing experience, no gear, and no money to buy any of the same. Between drooling over magazines, studying well-worn Petzl and A5 Adventures catalogs, and walking glassy-eyed around his local outfitter, Kukathas figured that if he wanted to climb, he’d have to start constructing gear himself. He took a job at a local drugstore, raking in a whopping $15 a week; each dribble of income was used to buy something he couldn’t make or gather materials so he could create his own.
Kukathas eventually cobbled together a decent enough collection—homemade harnesses and other soft goods, store-bought hardware—and decided it was time to give the sport a go. He and his best friend snagged some rope from his grandfather’s farm, then began belaying one another on local climbs, using techniques they’d only seen in photographs from magazines and catalogs. Lacking formal training and proper gear, they’d end climbs by wrapping the rope around their feet, then shimmying down like it was a fireman’s pole. “It worked alright, but it would wear a hole in your shoe,” he laughs.
After about twenty whole climbing days under his belt, Kukathas decided to attempt his first big wall. Buying a portaledge was wildly outside his meager budget, so he used the file on his pocketknife and his mother’s sewing machine as the primary tools in creating a rudimentary framed ledge. Then he ventured out with a friend to climb Mount Buffalo’s Ozymandias, Australia’s most iconic big wall.
The kid was hooked. Harboring dreams of not just climbing, but actually putting up new routes in iconic locales like Yosemite, Baffin Island, and the Karakoram, Kukathas logged more rock time and launched a gear repair company, eventually saving enough money from that enterprise to make his way back to North America, this time landing in Squamish, British Columbia, where he’s still based today. He became a climbing guide, but also transferred his self-taught, but well-proven design skills into an impressive career, working with top-tier companies like Black Diamond, Sea to Summit, and Arc’teryx.
In 2012, while working for the latter, Nathan headed to Baffin Island for a six-week climbing trip where he’d test his newly designed Alpha alpine pack and attempt to put up a new route on Mt. Thor with several friends. Before they could ascend a single foot, however, the team had to spend an entire day hauling in all of their climbing gear, along with water, food, two portaledges, and paragliders.
“I remember every time I picked up the bag with the portaledges in it and started hiking, it just struck me as so ridiculous. The portaledges that I made as a kid were so much lighter,” he says. “But this is one piece of equipment that’s actually regressed, that’s gotten substantially heavier. It’s so heavy, in fact, that it still dictates the pace at which you’re climbing.”
Kukathas realized that even though the team was using modern climbing tactics, short-fixing pitches and occasionally rope soloing in an attempt to move as quickly as possible across the terrain, they were still dragged down by equipment weight. During those endless hauls, he began to think about the structure of a paraglider and wondered if something similar could be used to provide stability to an inflatable ledge.
Back home, he began working out the first iteration of what would eventually morph into the G7 POD, stitching paraglider cord to a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir pad. After about a year of tinkering and several prototypes, Kukathas was ready to test his theory on a big wall, heading down to Yosemite for a solo climb of El Cap’s Zodiac. The rig fit easily in his pack and Kukathas moved up the route with ease, setting camp halfway up the wall. The next day, he passed a climber who’d been up there for several days; the guy was shocked that Kukathas had actually slept on the wall given his tiny pack. “It was a super important moment, because it was that moment where it distinguished for me that okay, it’s a realistic vision.”
It took a bit longer for that vision to come to fruition, however. What helped was a chance connection with John Middendorf, the big wall climber who launched A5 Adventures—and whose catalogs a teenaged Kukathas had spent hours drooling over (“John’s the Michael Jordan of what I’m interested in,” he says). The two discussed partnering on a ledge of some sort, but Middendorf was committed to creating a framed version (which would eventually become the D4); Kukathas conversely was inspired to stick with his own dream. He’d already launched other projects, including an urban essentials brand called Cardamon, which manufactures what he calls “tools for everyday living.” Now he could take a more serious look at what it would take to create “tools for the most committed.”
Kukathas realized that he probably wasn’t going to find support with an existing brand—who else was going to put in what would eventually amount to several hundred thousand dollars of investment and six years of research and design into such a wild idea? So instead, he launched other businesses, including marketing and design firm Design House Collective, that would not only help fund his development of the G7 POD, but also help him create a solid supply chain when it came time to manufacture the ledge.
He also brought on co-conspirators—Nic Vissers, a Squamish climbing store manager whose creativity and digital acumen helped launch their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, and Belgian designer Tom Schindfessel, who helped create many of the G7 POD’s nearly 150 prototypes. Their final design is not unlike a small river raft—durable enough to handle both the pressure of people moving around on its surface and to hang tough against sharp rock edges. It features Sea to Summit’s bag-inflation valve system, purports to keep users snuggly in all four seasons, and is weather-resistant when fitted with a proprietary rain fly. And of course, it seems to be wildly light and impressively packable. [Ed. note, we’ve not tried the G7, this isn’t meant to be a review of their portaledge].
“What people are going to be able to do now in the mountains is not limited by the equipment, but rather, the vision that they have themselves,” says Kukathas, who is extremely grateful for the interest climbers have expressed in the G7 POD. “Whether we succeed financially as a business or not, it’s worthwhile, because at the end of the day, what’s driving us is this interest in expanding what’s possible. The idea that others see this as a solution to unlock the potential and unlock previously unclimbed routes and peaks is a dream come true. It’s just the beginning, but this is the best beginning we could ever have asked for.”