Nestled away just off Broadfield Road, Beta Climbing Designs is a small company run by true enthusiasts. It's best known for creating the Beta Stick, a deceptively simple product that's become a familiar sight at sport climbing venues around the world.
Like many great ideas, the Beta Stick came about because of a problem – and a painful one at that. Si Berry (now sales director) was on a climbing trip to Joshua Tree when a fall left him with a broken ankle. Crucially, he had come off before reaching the first bolt on a sport route. Most people would agree that the point of sport climbing is to not risk life (and in this case limb). The most dangerous part of a sport climb is typically before the climber reaches the first piece of protection: a bolt. In some areas the first bolt is placed very high, leaving the climber effectively soloing 10% or more of the route. Why not clip that bolt before you leave the ground? It's hard to imagine now, but twenty years ago there was still considerable cynicism about "cheating sticks" to overcome.
Primitive homemade clipsticks (telescopic poles which allow you to attach a quickdraw and rope to a bolt from a distance) were available at the time, but Si and friend Ian wanted something better. On returning home to Sheffield the pair set to work designing a more effective clipstick, and recruited Tony Whitehouse. The secret lay in perfecting the interface between the quickdraw and the pole. The team made the first prototypes from blue chopping boards used for raw fish in professional kitchens. The material was perfect – light, rigid and easy to work with. After settling on a design, they carved the first 50-100 by hand from the chopping boards.
It wasn't long before they had an expensive plastic injection mould made to speed up production. It was a large investment at the time for a product which had sold well, but only to mates. They now estimate that the mould has been used 15,000 times – not such a bad idea after all. Until three years ago, every single Beta Stick was made by husband and wife team Tony and Sarah in a back room of their S11 house, with the care only true enthusiasts can give. It's thought they've personally assembled around half of the Beta Sticks in use.
These days assembly has moved less than two miles away, to the Beta head office. Right in the heart of the climbing scene in south Sheffield, it is within easy reach of the Climbing Works and many a climbers' favourite pub, The Broadfield. This is no accident. Being in the community they produce and distribute products for is essential: feedback is instant, the perfect testing environment is on their doorstep, and their supported climbers can stop in to exchange ideas over a cup of tea. As general manager Iain Whitehouse puts it: "We couldn't do this from Truro". But these aren't just local products for local people; the team export across Europe, and to Australia and the US. The "Made in Sheffield" story means a great deal to climbing communities overseas.
So what's next? Beta Sticks are increasingly being used by rope access workers and rescue teams, and I'm told that a secret new product is on the way...