IN THE winter of 2005, two Royal Marines - Steve Howarth and Tommy Kelly - were out on manoeuvres in the frigid wilderness of Northern Norway, bemoaning the fact that their standard issue kit wasn’t keeping them as warm and dry as it should.
“We were well inside the Arctic Circle,” remembers Kelly, “spending a long, dark winter up there, and I remember we had a conversation whilst looking at the gear we had at the time, which wasn’t working at all, and thinking there must be a way of combining our lifelong passion as mountaineers, climbers and skiers with our experience in the marines and our affinity with some of the world’s hostile, cold, unfriendly, steep places, and just seeing if we could merge those two things and come up with something completely new.”
Fast-forward to the present day, and following two years of intensive research and development, Howarth and Kelly have just launched Jöttnar - a range of high-performance climbing and ski-mountaineering gear.
The brand name (pronounced “yottnar”) is a nod to the company’s Scandinavian origins - in Norse myth, the jöttnar were a race of cold-loving mountain giants - and the names of the garments in the launch range further develop this mythological theme.
The products themselves are unashamedly high-end. Rather than trying to mimic the something-for-everyone ethos of some of the larger outdoor gear manufacturers by churning out what Reilly rather scornfully describes as “branded laptop bags and dogwalking jackets,” the duo have decided to focus on people who take their mountain sports seriously by making the best functional gear they can using the most advanced materials.
Their launch consists of just four items: a breathable and waterproof shell jacket, a pair of salopettes, a down jacket and a synthetic insulating mid-layer (the last two also available in women’s styles and sizes), but they believe each one represents a genuine leap forward in its field.
That’s a bold claim when you consider how crowded the outdoor gear market has become, and how much money some well-established multinational companies routinely pump into research and development. Still, as unlikely as it sounds, one or two of Jöttnar’s products really do look as if they could give the current market leaders a run for their money.
The shell jacket, the Bergelmir, will use Polartec’s new Neoshell fabric - as waterproof as the material currently used to manufacture the vast majority of high-end mountaineering jackets, but, says Kelly, boasting superior stretch and breathability. The down jacket also features state of the art materials, notably water-repellent or “hydrophobic” goose down, which doesn’t lose its insulating properties as quickly as normal goose down when wet.
It’s the salopettes, though - dubbed Vanir - that really impress. As anyone who has ever used skis or crampons will know to their cost, sharp pieces of metal and expensive breathable/waterproof outer layers don’t usually mix, and salopettes often wear out around the ankles long before they fail anywhere else. To guard against this, the lower legs of the Vanir have been covered in tough, kevlar re-enforced panels. Not actually bulletproof, says Tommy, but certainly harder-wearing than your typical pair of fashionably baggy “ski pants”.
Jöttnar is headquartered in Cardiff - Howarth and Reilly used the Welsh Government’s High Potential Start-Up Programme to secure six-figure seed funding - but the company has plenty of Scottish DNA in its make-up. Kelly grew up in Edinburgh and was educated at Stewart’s Melville College, and much of the gear testing has been carried out in the Scottish Highlands by, amongst others, Fort William-based mountaineering instructor Mike Pescod and Aviemore and Chamonix-based backcountry ski guide Alison Culshaw.
“At every stage of the prototyping process we’ve been able to send these guys the latest version of a product in full confidence that a) the product will be absolutely thrashed, and b) they will give us honest feedback,” says Kelly.
“These guys haven’t pulled their punches at all - they’ve really allowed us to get the small details right, and it’s those small details that, if you’re living and working in the mountains every single day, can make all the difference.”