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Rock-climbing passion evolves into rope-making business

PARRY SOUND - This summer Valerie Ng vows to reclaim her personal life and devote more time to rock climbing.

The problem is, since co-founding Esprit Ropes Inc. six years ago she simply hasn't been able to square away enough free time to get out and play with her Own product.

"I must have a masochistic streak in me because I actually do enjoy a lot of the stuff that. we do," jokes Ng (pronounced 'Ing') about her 16 to 18-hour work days that involve manning the second shift on the rope-braiding machines once the morning paperwork is done."

The small but innovative five-employee company on Hoddy's Side Road in Parry Sound manufactures high-quality static, dynamic and floating ropes for sport climbers, fire-rescue services, industrial riggers and just about anyone who works in high or confined places.

Their cramped 3,000-square-foot storeroom office is crammed wall to wall with multi-coloured lengths of rope draped on drying racks, bundled on shelves, wound on reels or stacked on the floor. A German-bought rope braiding machinery is on the other side of the building separated by an auto body shop.

"If my old friends could see this place, they wouldn't believe it. I used to be so meticulous," says Ng who escaped the southern Ontario rat race to move north with her partner, Terry Christenson, 53, and pursue their life's passion. They live in an upstairs apartment over the shop.

"I've lived, the corporate life," says Ng, 42, who became bored and frustrated working at accounting and marketing jobs in Toronto. "I've always wanted to have my own business, but didn't know what the product would be. Then I started rock climbing, absolutely fell in love with it, and was going to quit my job and become a climbing bum until the money ran out."

Prior to launching the business, she worked for a Canadian subsidiary of PMI, a major United States rope maker. When the franchise was revoked, she branched off and launched Esprit Ropes in 1995 with Christenson, whom she describes as their director of product development and designated "guinea pig."

To help finance the company, friends and relatives pitched in to rais the equity for a loan, and Ng put her masters in business administration from the University of Western Ontario to work in developing a business plan to secure seed money from a provincial program to establish their business in Parry Sound. They then embarked upon two solid years of research and experimentation to construct a rope designed by climbers for climbers.

"Basically the rope we have today we came about by accident," says Ng in explaining how some imperfections in a yarn bundle clued them in the direction they wanted to go. "We went back to the drawing board and abandoned everything we thought we knew."

Dynamic rope is popularly used by rock climbers for its ability to stretch and absorb some of the energy generated by a fall. Static rope has a very low-stretch capability and is favoured by search and rescue teams for rappelling, ascending, handling stretchers and caving applications.

Esprit made some modifications in the European-style kernmantle (core and jacket) construction to further reduce the stretchiness to appeal to North American climbers' tastes.

But what makes their static ropes so revolutionary is the handling, she adds.

"A lot of static ropes are very stiff. We made a rope with really high strain which is really, supple to work with. It's definitely a premier, high-end product.".

Ng says sport and pro climbers just rave about the product at recreational trade shows.

Their research lead to a 'dry rope' and a 'bone dry rope' specially treated to shed water and perform under extreme weather conditions for sports like ice climbing. The chemical treatments, as with most rope makers, remain a trade secret

Their newest product is the 'FireFly,' a glow-in-the-dark rope for night climbing.

Ng says with the Canadian rope-making industry still in its infancy, most of their certification testing for the different international governing bodies is done at private labs in the United States and some in Europe. Although about 80 per cent of their sales head south of the border, they have been encouraged recently by inquiries from some Far East countries and hope to break into the European market in a big way over the next few years.
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Author:ROSS, IAN
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:May 1, 2001
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