One person’s trash is another person’s startup.
Duluthians Kelly McMahon and Christian Fraser are turning retired climbing rope into dog leashes for their “garage-shop operation,” Cragdog.
They receive donations from Vertical Endeavors and other climbing gyms, hand-stitch them, sell them and return 30% of each sale back to the climbing community.
Checking out an online order, customers can select the state and organization they want to support — The Arch Project in Hawaii, Friends of Muir Valley in Kentucky, Yosemite Climbing Association in California and The Duluth Climbers Coalition.
In early February, Cragdog premiered their work at the Duluth Ice and Mixed Fest, hosted by the Duluth Climbers Coalition.
“They want to make a difference and do quality work in whatever they do,” DCC board member Eldon Krosch Jr. said by email.
The most critical piece of the climbing system is the rope.
“Every time you hang from it, it saves your life,” Fraser said. Even in good condition, when ropes get a few frays or when they hit three to five years old, it’s time to retire them for safety reasons — and the majority end up in the landfill.
Fraser has seen recycled rope made into furniture, a hammock and rugs. And while the two have designs on adding collars, running harnesses and toys, “the most logical” way to start is with a dog leash, he said.
Both had experience with their hands: Fraser has leather hunting sheaths and McMahon worked as a dockhand.
“One of our jobs was developing the stitch," and it was tough, McMahon said.
There have been many broken needles, and McMahon has poked himself a time or two. They have taken tips from the arborist community because they make a lot of their own equipment, Fraser said.
In his Woodland neighborhood basement, McMahon pushed a sail maker’s needle through a piece of rock climbing rope. A leather and metal sailmaker's palm glove acts as a shield for his hand. A wall of green, blue and red leashes are hung, ready for dog walking.
It calls for two arm’s lengths of rope, and they make four to six per hour.
They use an adhesive shrink film to cover their stitches. That’ll change when they add a sewing machine. McMahon and Fraser are looking for ways to make their process more efficient and eco-friendly. They hope to have products available in Duluth stores soon.
The idea for Cragdog occurred to McMahon during a 125-mile bike ride, he said, and he soon roped in Fraser. They brainstormed with others and built a business plan.
Fraser is in charge of the outbound, sourcing of material and partnering with climbing gyms. McMahon is outbound, individual sales, website and retail accounts, he said.
They produce leashes and complete administrative work at night, during lunch or before hitting their jobs.
Both have full-time gigs, and both are expecting children this spring. They plan to continue with a lot of help from family and friends, they said.
Climbing has played an important role in the lives of these business owners.
Fraser started working as a climbing instructor at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Recreational Sports Outdoor Program before moving to Vertical Endeavors. He has spent a decade working in the climbing industry as a guide and instructor.
“I met my wife through climbing; it was pretty integral in our existence,” McMahon said.
“I’m excited to see where it goes,” said his wife, Corinne McMahon, from the doorway of the basement workshop. “I worry, but they’re not putting a bunch of money into it.”
So far, the Cragdog team has made about 150 leashes, and their model has been dog-tested. Though, in the early stages: “Christian’s dog kept escaping.”
“She’s a clever one,” Fraser added.
And dogs are an integral part of their families.
“We’re hikers, bikers, climbers, sailors. They come with us on every adventure. They dictate when we go and where we go,” McMahon said.
Fraser has a 5-month-old German shepherd, Louie. McMahon has a golden retriever, Edmund, and husky-Labrador mix, Keiko.
For the uninitiated, a crag is a steep rock of cliff, and a crag dog is a well-trained pooch up for an adventure. In his heyday, McMahon’s dog was the epitome of this.
Keiko flopped down on his dog bed made from a folded sleeping bag on the workshop floor.
“Keiko is 11 — he’s probably been on the most crags,” Corrine McMaho said.
Added her husband: “He’s been on every journey with us.”