On a wintry Wednesday afternoon in January, the entire NEMO team left the office early for a lax drive up to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Cardigan Lodge in Alexandria, New Hampshire for a 3-day, all-company retreat. A balance of focused conversations and delicious food, brainstorming and backcountry powder slashing — mixed with some relaxing, fireside lodge time was exactly what we needed. In past years, this outing has traditionally been a time of concentrated focus for the product team to share and develop new ideas while also testing prototypes to the following year’s line.
This year, we seized the opportunity as a whole company to reconnect, set goals for the new year, and enjoy some cold mountain adventures.
Rising up out the Shem Valley on AMC’s own 1200-acre reservation, Cardigan Lodge celebrates 85 storied years of facilitating winter and summer mountain adventures for an endless list of historic New England personalities. As a centrally located hub with ample space for guests, it has become the cornerstone of the club’s lodge and mountain hut system. Its history speaks for itself, yet it continues to evolve and remain relevant – not only in adventure but also in stewardship, leadership training, outdoor skills, and energy independence. With the goal of continuing to reduce their carbon footprint, Cardigan (as well as all of the AMC hunts and lodges) utilizes many conservation practices, green design, and new technologies — such as the large bank of solar panels it boasts in the backyard.
Up until this point, we’ve had minimal snow this winter. So, the gently falling snow-globe squall that transitioned to an absolute nuking at dusk — though it caused the mountain roads to get a little treacherous — was a welcomed sight as we curved our way up the valley road. Paired with a big potluck we had planned for the evening, there was this nostalgic feeling of a snowy Christmas Eve drive to visit family or those magical moments as a kid when a snowstorm lined up perfectly with a family weekend on the mountain.
Nearing the lodge, we noticed there was very little to no cell service — and laughed uneasily as we imagined how bad it would be to slide off this road without a way to call for help. We all started arriving just after dusk. There was palpable energy among the team as everyone busily carried in our food and gear — and found our rooms and roommates.
This was going to be a fun couple of days.
Without hesitation, everyone convened in the Lodge’s massive commercial kitchen to complete any last-minute preparations and plating of their dishes. Everyone made a dish, and every dish was big enough for the entire team. It was a welcoming feast … until we noticed someone was missing. Sure enough, our wariness about the roads became a reality … someone on our team slid off the road. By some miracle, a single bar of service (and a wrecker in the morning) would come to the rescue! But first, a feast.
After dinner, our CEO, Cam Brensinger made some enlivening opening remarks. He emphasized our values and mission and connected them to many of our most important goals for this year, and the future — highlighting the need to continue to push sustainability and quality as top priorities along with growing our team and meeting important deadlines we’ve set for ourselves. While having everyone’s attention, Spar Patton, our pad designer, sprung into action and quickly handed out a top-secret prototype pad to everyone to test out during our stay.
DAY 2 — FRESHIES FOR ALL
Cardigan lodge was as charming in the morning as it was the night before. A south-facing, full-length wall of windows let every drop of morning sun drench the guests while they enjoyed their breakfast in the dining area and conjured up exciting adventure plans for the day. After breakfast clean-up, we all quickly gathered around maps on the walls and tables, forming groups with like-minded interests and decided on trails, snacks, distance goals, and of course — modes of travel!
As a team-building exercise, we all collaborated in creating our NEMO winter basecamp. All of our mountaineering tents were set up and dialed-in as those most experienced and knowledgeable passed on tricks like how to secure tents in deep, light powder with sticks under the snow called “dead men” that eventually become secure as the snow settles and freezes. We imagined the difficulty of trying to do all of this in similar temps and high winds.
WE ALL FOUND THE GOODS AT CARDIGAN MOUNTAIN.
Amazingly, our timing was so perfect that it offered everyone optimal conditions for every type of activity we chose to pursue. For how little snow we’ve had on the Seacoast this winter, it was hard to believe how deep the base was on the mountain, and last night’s squall gifted us with a nice blanket of blower powder on top. The largest contingency comprised of an unlikely crew of backcountry powder hounds — from a telemark skier to a few downhillers with skins, a couple of snowboarders, and lastly … an accomplished ski racer who didn’t bring a stitch of gear on the trip but charged it into the backcountry on a pair of borrowed X-country skis and ankle-high boots with zero support. More on that bold move later…
A small posse trekked up and down the steep ridges on snowshoes, finding crisp, clear views for miles in various directions — as well as a frozen waterfall. Another group found their rhythm on the valley’s many miles of x-country ski trails, tearing it up for hours. The snow was fast and light, optimal for untracked x-country skiing. A few folks hit the relatively packed trails on fat bikes – providing just enough traction for the climbs and lots of loft for some super fun, floaty downhill lines. The squeaky, frozen powder was a perfect medium for the wide spiked tires to grip and float down the mountain. A few of our high-level endurance team members went off on a 10-mile snowy trail run. Another two-man team grabbed pickaxes and microspikes and bravely set out to summit the peak. Lastly, two fine gents went to meet the wrecker to retrieve the car that still teetered on the edge of a riverbank from the night before.
A collectively good day began to unfold.
In a serendipitous moment, the downhill team met up with the summit team, following completely different trails and departing at different times — and arrived on the frozen summit at the exact same time from opposite sides of the ridge. Sustained winds of 30-40 mph further dropped the already sub-zero summit temps, and a few stoked, but quick, high fives were exchanged before a quick descent back into the trees was in order. And this is where said ex-downhill racer shined. Using his x-country pole as a rudder (and a brake) he blazed off the summit in legendary fashion, fully carving some beautiful turns while also falling and exploding into glorious clouds of powder on occasion.
All the way down, the hand-cut, powder-filled backcountry trails offered plenty of space for huge slashes and placed permanent smiles on all of our faces.
The afternoon sun brought the temps up, and our spirits up even higher. People’s faces carried that post-cold-weather adventure glow and most of the team enjoyed some après vibes, while the powder hounds squeaked in a few extra runs on a short, but sweet meadow of untouched powder behind the lodge in the warmth of the alpenglow. Eventually, a jump was carefully shaped at the front edge of a large knoll and subsequent sends were sent on all manner of board craft — thin and wide — while our laughter echoed through the valley.
As the last bit of sunset orange faded behind the mountains into an opaque gradient of white, light blue and navy, dinner kicked off with some killer apps and cheese boards. We settled in for a cozy evening of delicious food and some stoke-evoking team presentations. We built upon ways to collaborate inter-departmentally, reinforced our values around bravery, creativity, and authenticity, and offered concrete ways on how we can continue to inspire respect for our planet within our industry.
Adding some fire to the moment, we toasted with a team member created a barrel-aged variation on the Manhattan. Flashback a month ago to mid-December at our company Holiday party … our lead furniture designer and in-house mixology virtuoso, Zack Kamen, came prepared with a dandy little oak cask (NEMO branded with a branding iron) and all the ingredients he needed to mix a batch of his favorite version of this iconic cocktail that he would carefully age in the cask for this very moment. It was a fun performance at the Holiday party and made the toast to this moment, weeks later, even sweeter.
For some, the night continued into the wee hours, blanketed in the joy of games, laughter, and warmth of the Cardigan Lodge — a lodge filled with the echoes of almost a century of this exact vibe. Others retired to their sleeping pad prototypes — content with the day’s adventures and perfectly relaxed.
The rest of us slipped outside into the frigid air and basked for a few moments in a delicate glow of moonlight.
Stars connected into distinct constellations that flickered through pine boughs weighed down with strokes of blue snow. A few reflective moments passed and then we tucked our ruddy cheeks into puffy, down-filled sleeping bag hoods for an invigorating night of cold-weather slumber.
DAY 3 — TIME TO REFLECT
Friday morning’s temperatures hovered around 4°F and somehow the air still held a substantial amount of humidity as another front rolled in.
Those of us who spent the night in one of the available Kunai™, Tenshi™, and Chogori™ were treated to a subtle, yet colorful pattern of pink and purple stripes as the morning sun reflected off the incoming cloud banks. The first sensation I felt, as my mind became aware of the day, was the tickle of tiny little snowflakes falling onto my nose. With each breath, my exhaled humidity would freeze almost instantly after leaving my mouth and fall back down to my face. The Chogori™ did an incredible job allowing external air currents to evacuate most of the moisture from our tent, while we stayed toasty-warm tucked into Sonic™ -20° bags above new Flyer™ sleeping pad prototypes.
It was wild to see the crystalline layer that covered the entire interior mesh fabric, knowing how comfortable and warm we were in those frigid valley conditions.
Ideally, on a New England night like this, the optimal setup would be higher up toward a ridge — out of the valley — where the evening’s falling moisture doesn’t collect as the temperatures drop through the night. Due to the duration of the retreat and our meeting and workshop agenda, camping right here was the perfect microadventure.
Coffee … back in the lodge by the fire, a fresh cup was a great way to start the morning. It was pretty clear that those who slept outside were definitely earlier (and brighter) risers than those who stayed up and enjoyed the lodge celebrations a little later into the evening.
After breakfast we broke into our teams for some fun team-building exercises, workshopping in focus sessions to tighten our various team goals and visions for the year. Finally, we convened for recap discussions and a few parting words. We also learned one of our team’s stars would be moving on for new adventures and we all thanked her for many years of excellent work — including planning what was an incredible team retreat that we had all just enjoyed over the past three days.
We left feeling energized for all that 2020 has to offer NEMO and for the opportunity to spend such quality time together.
As we grow, we continue to take any opportunity to maintain our tight-knit culture and bring people together. There we were, a congregation of interests, personalities, and passions, drawn together for a single purpose, working together through obstacles and ecstasy, doubling down when we need to summon grit, and celebrating when we get it right. While we live this mantra, we hope to continue to inspire a love for our planet, a love for adventure, and an appreciation for the bonds we form while connecting with each other in the outdoors.