John Sullivan likes to play outside when it gets cold – very cold. But the attendant drawbacks of athletic exertion in sub-zero temperatures can dampen the fun, and Sullivan believes most cold-weather masks create more problems than they solve. Goggles fog. Breathing is impaired. Exposed skin is frostbitten. And for winter athletes who spend extended time in extreme conditions, cold weather-induced asthma can be a common affliction.
So Sullivan, 26, spent three years with family and friends developing his own mask and starting his own company, Talus Outdoor Technologies, to sell it. While Talus is less than a year old, Sullivan is gaining traction for his invention, the patent-pending “ColdAvenger” mask. He has garnered endorsements from some of the premiere winter endurance athletes in the world, as well as accolades from within the medical and military community.
Sullivan, a 2004 graduate of the University of Montana, lives in Missoula, but spends his summers as a fishing and raft guide around Glacier Park, and devotes his winter spare time to skiing in and around the Flathead. The low temperatures and freezing fog that can descend on Big Mountain provided Sullivan with ideal conditions to hone the design of his mask.
The ColdAvenger mask, which retails for $49.95, consists of a vented mouthpiece made of non-toxic, medical grade polyurethane. The mouthpiece is stitched to a water-resistant, soft shell that wraps around the face and fastens with Velcro in back. On a particularly frigid day at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Sullivan was standing on the lift line wearing the mask when he felt a tap on the shoulder. A cold, jealous man offered him $90 for the mask, and that’s when Sullivan realized he was on to something.
The crux of the mask’s design is the mouthpiece. According to Sullivan, the venting design allows unimpeded breathing, while maintaining a warmer temperature around the mouth than outside. These conditions allow the wearer to inhale air with increased warmth and humidity. Sullivan plans to conduct further testing to see if the mask’s design provides any benefits at high altitudes.
Only about 2,000 of the masks have been produced, and Sullivan is currently making the rounds at outdoor retailer trade shows to see if he can get his product into stores. So far, results have been promising. At the handful of trade shows he has attended, he has sold out. “We really want to get placed in retail stores,” he added. “That’s our goal.”
The headquarters for Talus is based in Missoula, and while Sullivan intended to have all of his production done in Montana, he had to go outside the state for some of the parts. The fleece material is imported from Seattle and some of the construction is done in Coeur d’Alene – but every part of the ColdAvenger is manufactured in the Northwest. Sullivan wasn’t comfortable having the plastic mouthpiece, which is non-toxic and doesn’t transmit germs, made overseas.
“It’s nice to be able to say we’re made in the States,” Sullivan said, “even though it may cost a little more in the end.”
Sullivan also took steps to minimize waste in the manufacturing process. The packaging for the masks are recyclable and reusable, and any seconds or rejects are re-made – not discarded.
In its short life, Talus has received some major endorsements, including legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit the world’s fourteen highest peaks without oxygen. Dogsled racers Rachel Scdoris – the first legally blind woman to finish the Iditarod – and John Stetson, who finished second in Minnesota’s grueling John Beargrease dogsled race have also endorsed. Viesturs and Stetson plan to wear the ColdAvenger in an upcoming ski trip across the Canadian arctic, Sullivan said.
As for the look of the mask, Sullivan concedes that it’s vaguely reminiscent of Darth Vader. “It’s kind of grown on me,” he said. “At first, I thought it was weird looking too.” But the mask is intended for conditions in which warmth outweighs looks, and if you’re too concerned about fashion to get out on a cold powder day, it’s your loss.
“For what it does in performance,” Sullivan added, “I believe everybody should have one.”
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