Customers receiving their long-awaited, hand-made, bespoke climbing pack from John Campbell may find, enclosed with their order, a small square sticker that reads: “Alpine Luddites: No social media. No one even knows you climb, you just show back up at work missing the tips of your fingers.” The words, taken from an Instagram account (@Dull_ice_screw_memes), describe the perfect Alpine Luddite customer. “The person who doesn’t talk about it, just does it,” Campbell says.
Campbell, the sole proprietor and lone workman at Alpine Luddites, the company he runs out of his home in Westmore, VT, is a designer and handcrafter of outdoor gear––climbing packs, backpacks, bike frame packs and panniers for climbing, cycling, and hiking. He is also a climber and a cyclist, a former guide for such organizations as Outward Bound and NOLS, a former gear salesman, a world traveler and, most recently an adjunct professor at Sterling College, where he taught gear design in spring of 2021. The Expedition Planning and Management was offered for the first time this year, an in-person course designed by Outdoor Education faculty member Josh Bossin. Students learned basic sewing and mending skills from adjunct Prin van Gulden, pack design, fabrication (including industrial sewing skills) from Campbell, and expedition planning from Bossin. At the end of the course, most of the students took part in an intensive course in May, test-driving their new-found skills and hand-made packs on an expedition they planned in Grand Isle, VT. Bossin says he hopes to offer the course every other year.
Campbell’s 10 Sterling students are among the lucky few who do not have to wait ––these days up to eight months––for their handcrafted packs; they made them themselves. In the process, they learned design skills, sewing skills, and the transferrable skills of, as Campbell puts it, “figuring stuff it out.”
“Most people have no idea how something gets made,” says Campbell. It’s a process, he says, of envisioning, planning, revising and execution.
“I am,” he understates, “a big do-it-yourself kind of person.” It is a stance, he says, that fits well with Sterling’s mission of sustainability and environmental thinking. As van Gulden wrote in an email, by repairing gear –– in addition to keeping it out of the landfill ––“I think what may be more powerful… is the autonomy that someone who fixes it gains, the confidence that is built with each act of self-reliance. I think those acts have the power to change culture.”
Or, as Campbell puts it: “We’re not going down without a fight.”
While many people today misunderstand the word “Luddite” to mean “anti-technology,” Campbell harkens back to the original meaning of the word coined in 1811 to describe a movement of Industrial Revolution protestors, named after the fictitious Ned Ludd, who objected to the dehumanizing aspects and low wages of factory life. “They were not anti-technology,” says Campbell. “They believed in high quality and fair wages.” Indeed, a 2011 article in Smithsonian, linked on Campbell’s website, quotes Kevin Binfield, editor of “Writings of the Luddites,” saying that the Luddites “were totally fine with machines…They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods…and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages.”
Campbell, who by no means eschews technology –– his online business has an appealing website and a robust social media presence, and his physical workshop features three commercial sewing machines, one a $6,000, computerized model –– adopted his “Luddite” approach after working as a sales rep for several national and internationally branded outdoor gear companies, during which time he toured factories in Asia where those companies’ goods were made. “Low wages, horrible living conditions. I don’t want any part of it,” he says.
Instead, this compactly built, athletic 53-year-old works alone in a small workshop in a walkout basement of a home on a scruffy patch of hillside that he and his family –– wife Bevin, and twins Arlo and Stella –– moved to last year after a stint in Colorado. His workshop is littered with equipment, scraps of material, and works-in-progress, framed by a wall of packs, some which he made and some––like Karrimor, Chouinard Equipment, and Millet brands––are older models, from the 60s and 70s, that he admires. Contemporary, factory-made gear, he says, suffers from the poor quality that is a by-product of mass-production; Campbell prides himself on using thicker fabrics, larger seam allowances, and bound or taped seams to preserve the integrity of the pack, which is designed to last, he says simply, “forever.” In addition to designing and manufacturing packs, he offers pack repair/rebuild/recreate services.
Each order that comes in requires extensive back and forth with his customers, with whom he talks at length about their requirements and desires. Many of these customers have subsequently sent photos of themselves with their packs, dangling from vertigo-inducing precipices. But Campbell said he is most happy when he gets a response like he did from Alison Criscitiello––glacioloist, cofounder of Girls on Ice, Canada, and climber of high peaks worldwide––who said she had never before had a pack that fit her correctly.
Campbell’s interest in outdoor gear began early in life; a photo of him at age 8, hiking in Vermont, where he spent his summers, reveals a small boy dwarfed by a seemingly gigantic frame pack. He progressed from the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail to climbing expeditions in Alaska and the Andes of Peru––all before the age of 18. Even then he found that commercially sold mountaineering packs were lacking, that they had a one-size-fits all approach to harnesses and hip belts. He was inspired to try to make some of his own gear –– he was a serious DIY-er even then –– and says he “blew out my mother’s Singer sewing machine a couple of times.” Eventually, he found himself sewing packs, at Dana Designs, now Dana’s Mystery Ranch, in Bozeman, MT. “I owe a debt of gratitude to Dana Gleason for hiring climbing dirtbags to work for him,” Campbell writes on his website. “
He began working as a salesman for companies such as Cloudveil Mountain Works, Sterling Rope Co., Genuine Guide Gear, and Macpac Wilderness Equipment, living in Montana, Colorado and, for a time, New Zealand. It was during this part of his career that he visited Asian sewing factories. In 2013, while based in Ouray, CO, he broke his ties with corporate gear manufacturing and started Alpine Luddites.
Alpine Luddite packs have summited peaks in the Alaska, the Himalayas and Andes and cycled the Great Divide. They’ve trekked across Tajikistan. But Campbell seems equally proud of the packs that accompanied a well-planned expedition to Grand Isle State Park, in Vermont.