If you’re a climber clipping your rope to a U.S.-made carabiner, chances are good it was made by Omega Pacific, based in Airway Heights, Washington, just east of Spokane. The company turns 30 this year, founded by engineers in a small industrial space in Kirkland in 1982 to build carabiners for recreational rock and ice climbers. It’s expanded to making steel carabiners for fire and rescue professionals, mountaineering axes, snow pickets, quickdraws, and rock protection — and watched its competitors move manufacturing operations overseas to save money on labor costs.
“We started in the U.S. because going offshore to China wasn’t really a possibility 30 years ago,” says Michael Lane, Omega Pacific’s sales and marketing director. Although pressure to move overseas has come up several times, Lane says, the company has chosen to “keep investing over here and waiting for the playing field to level. Which it eventually will.”
Omega Pacific employs 65 people in the Spokane area, a small labor market, and stays there because of its commitment to those people and their families and the level of control they can have in a single manufacturing facility in the States. The majority of the metal used in carabiners is mined in the eastern U.S., and springs and other carabiner components are produced in facilities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. All of Omega Pacific’s power comes from hydroelectric sources, and environmental standards — like the ones for the disposal of waste materials from anodization of carabiners — are more strict in the U.S. In 2004, Omega Pacific applied for and was issued an environmentally rigorous ISO 9000 certification, after an extensive quality assurance audit of its manufacturing processes and facilities.
“We’ve run a really clean place, and even if we didn’t have to, we still would,” Lane says.
Omega Pacific has chosen to reinvest and innovate in other ways, including investing in automation and robotics — and for almost a decade, providing jobs for inmates at a medium-security correctional facility.
From 1995 to 2004, as a partner in the federal Private Sector Partnerships program, the company’s carabiners were built by inmates at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, a long-term facility holding 2,200 inmates just west of Spokane. Incarcerated employees were paid the same wage they would have earned on the outside, giving inmates a viable living and a sense of purpose while serving their sentences.
But in 2004, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the program was unconstitutional, ending Omega Pacific’s participation, as well as that of several other companies who employed a total of 175 inmates. Omega Pacific consolidated its facilities under one roof in Spokane, no longer dealing with the red tape and paperwork of having a second manufacturing facility in a correctional facility — providing inmates with rewarding jobs was rewarding, but arranging tours of the manufacturing facility was difficult, and producing items like ice axes was of course, impossible inside prison walls. They’re scary enough in climbers’ hands, let alone felons.
Omega Pacific’s most notable innovation, and probably one of the more talked-about pieces of climbing hardware in the past decade, is the Link Cam. Introduced in 2006, the Link Cam’s triple-axle design gave it bigger range than any other cam, and found a place in many climber’s racks, even with its $100 price tag. But the company’s original vision, making affordable carabiners for climbers, is still alive in products like its “Dirtbag Draw,” a quickdraw that can often be found for less than $10 per, several bucks cheaper than competitors.