ASHLAND — In a building on Oak Street, Jim Trombly is designing protective clothing that will allow U.S. Army Special Operations Forces to survive in temperatures reaching 50 below zero.
The product line director for Massif Mountain Gear traveled to northern Minnesota during a storm last month to test the gear alongside troops.
"Unfortunately, it wasn't that cold — it got down to zero degrees, but that wasn't quite cold enough," he said. "So they've extended the testing to Kodiak, Alaska."
Last year, Massif was awarded a military contract to create a set of pants, a vest and a jacket that will allow special forces to survive in extremely cold weather, said executive vice president Chris Wasgatt.
The company began designing fire-resistant clothing for the military in 2006, but this is the first time Massif has been asked by the Department of Defense to create non-fire-resistant clothing, he said.
"Jim comes from the outdoor industry and he's applying those principles to military garments, which hadn't really been done before," Wasgatt said. "He showed them and they're like, 'We love you.' So now the head of all special operations command calls Jim on his cell phone and asks him, 'What do you think we should do here?' "
The Layer 7 Protective Clothing Uniform Puffy looks like a lightweight camouflage snowsuit, but it also compacts into a small ball that can easily fit in a soldier's pack.
"The testing has gone exceptionally well so far," Trombly said. "These garments are 30 percent lighter and 25 percent more packable than what the guys have today."
The company began working on the project last summer and is finalizing designs now. Massif expects the Department of Defense to approve the final design in May or June, so the gear can be manufactured this summer and be in soldiers' packs next winter, Trombly said.
The Special Operations Delta Force will wear the Massif garments, as will U.S. Navy Seals, U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumpers and U.S. Army Rangers, Wasgatt said.
The company's headquarters are at 498 Oak St. in Ashland. A team of 15 developers and designers creates each garment in-house.
"We're a think tank from fabric to garment," Wasgatt said.
Then the prototypes are put together by sewing professionals who work behind one of more than a dozen sewing machines in the building. The company is always looking to hire more sewing professionals because there appears to be a shortage in the Rogue Valley, Wasgatt said.
Next, the prototypes undergo a first round of testing in Ashland.
"We take them up to Mount Ashland and beat them up, and then throw them in our killer washing machine," Wasgatt said.
The washing machine runs continuously, so the company can see what a garment looks like after 300 washes, he said.
Massif works with the military to do more testing in other locations, such as Alaska or Afghanistan, and makes any modifications necessary. When the final designs are approved, they are manufactured off-site in a variety of locations, including Portland, New York, North Carolina and Puerto Rico, Wasgatt said.
The Layer 7 gear will be manufactured in Kentucky through the government's National Institute for the Severely Handicapped, which creates jobs for people with disabilities, Wasgatt said.
Massif, founded in 2001 in Ashland, also has contracts with the Bureau of Land Management and other groups to design protective clothing, particularly for firefighters, he said.
Between 2000 and 2009, Massif secured $13.8 million in military contracts. The company has designed a number of fire-resistant soft-shell jackets and long-sleeve shirts, which are used by thousands of troops, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wasgatt said.
The clothing, made of a light-weight fire-resistant fabric Massif developed, has saved lives by protecting troops from being burned in explosions from improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, he said.
The company has photos of soldiers whose skin has been spared burns in the places covered by the Massif clothing.
"What I tell people is, 'Regardless of your politics, we all want our troops safe and there wasn't anything that was safe out there before," Wasgatt said.
Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-708-1158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.