Pit Viper has grown from a ski bum selling shades out of his van to a multimillion-dollar-a-year business in just nine years. (Photo: Courtesy Pit Viper)

Pit Viper’s Formula for Success: Irreverence, Safety Glasses, and Rob Gronkowski

With a pair of Army SPECS and a little ingenuity, Pit Viper’s cofounders built a brand that nobody could have predicted

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Rob Gronkowski is not impressed with my look. “You’re kinda lame,” says the National Football League star, a man as famous for catching passes from Tom Brady as he is for his party-boy persona. It’s late March, and Gronk—fresh off his fourth Super Bowl title—and I are riding a chairlift at Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah. “You’ve got the classic winter jacket on,” he says, as he looks me up and down, assessing my Gore-Tex kit. “It’s nothing special.”

Knowing that the 32-year-old rolled into Gronk Beach—a 2020 event in Miami that he called the “championship of partying”—wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves torn off, I ask him if ripping the sleeves off my coat might improve my style. “That would be better!” he says.

This fashion critique comes from a guy who, today, has squeezed his six-foot-six-inch, 265-pound body into a blue hooded sweatshirt, a yellow and black zebra-printed buff, and pink, yellow, and blue swimsuit trunks that are pulled snugly over a pair of snow pants. To go powder skiing. Resting on his nose are a pair of oversize sunglasses with splatter-painted red, white, and blue frames and a mirrored lens that covers his face like a windshield. The company that sells them, Pit Viper, has, in just nine years, grown from a ski bum selling shades out of his van to a multimillion-dollar-a-year business with 70 employees, occupying 30,000 square feet of plum office and warehouse space in Salt Lake City.

That meteoric rise has been fueled by a crass and comical marketing campaign that relies on beer-swilling, mullet-wearing, denim-clad bros and ladies performing a host of ill-advised stunts, like jumping snowmobiles over busses; men and women alike getting the tongue-in-cheek pinup treatment; and juvenile, sexually charged jokes and innuendo. That, and plenty of nudity. The brand defies the politically correct climate and sends a message that appeals to a large array of consumers: wear Pit Vipers and you can say and do what you want—to hell with what anybody else thinks.

Left to right: Chuck Mumford, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Garcin, and Dan Gronkowski at Deer Valley, Utah
Left to right: Chuck Mumford, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Garcin, and Dan Gronkowski at Deer Valley, Utah (Photo: Sam Watson)

Enter Gronk. When football’s biggest rebel discovered the sunglasses in 2020, he fell in love with everything the brand represents. “I saw them and thought, That’s my style,” he says. “The attitude is naughty. It’s loose. I got a pair and didn’t take them off for a week straight.” Gronk wore Pit Vipers at the Pro Bowl, at WrestleMania, and while dancing shirtless at other high-profile events. It wasn’t long before Pit Viper’s cofounders, Chuck Mumford and Chris Garcin, signed him on as a team athlete. (Other notables include motorcycle and race-car driver Travis Pastrana and skier Tanner Hall.) Then they added a signature Gronk frame to the line, flew him out to Utah to star in a Pit Viper promotional ski video, and invited me to come along.

The shades suit Gronk, but nobody embodies the irreverent vibe of the brand the way Mumford and Garcin do. The two 36-year-olds sit on the other side of the chairlift wearing jeans and windbreakers that look like they were purchased at a Nastar race sometime in the early eighties. They are the arbiters of what’s cool and what isn’t in the world of Pit Viper—and they’re not afraid to tell you. Cool: mullets, beer, and skiing in jeans. Not Cool: journalists.

“You know the kid at school that nobody liked?” says Mumford. “They became a reporter.”

Definitely not cool: journalists wearing goggles. “Let’s rip them off and throw them off the lift!” says Mumford, whose bushy mustache makes him look like an extra from Boogie Nights. He reaches for my goggles and tries to do just that. I shield them until, mercifully, we reach the top and slide off the chair onto the mountain.

From left: Pit Viper cofounders Garcin and Mumford, and marketer Spencer Harkins
From left: Pit Viper cofounders Garcin and Mumford, and head of marketing Spencer Harkins (Photo: Sam Watson)

Gronk is traveling, as he often does, with an entourage that includes his father and all four of his brothers, who are currently dressed in an assortment of one-piece ski suits and denim overalls. They push off into the six inches of fresh snow that fell overnight, making intermediate turns that have all the grace of a form tackle. The Gronkowskis, who hail from upstate New York, grew up skiing at small local hills, but skiing out west is an entirely new experience. The family hoots and hollers and smears through the light snow. The soft landings encourage Gronk to take some risks, hitting jumps and catching a few feet of air.

I ask Chris Gronkowski how his brother’s contract with the Buccaneers allows him to ski, a sport that’s as well-known as football for snapping ACLs. “It probably doesn’t,” says Chris. “He just doesn’t care anymore. If he gets hurt, he’s just like, ‘Well, I won’t play.’”

Meanwhile, Garcin and Mumford are showing off their actual skills, popping through bumps and taking air off side hits on outdated, straight skinny skis that are much harder to turn than modern shaped ones. The two met at the University of Colorado and after graduating in 2007, both went pro. Garcin worked as a park and pipe coach in Colorado and Utah. Mumford competed on the international freeride circuit and appeared in the 2011 ski flick G.N.A.R., which opens with a warning that the word shit is said 79 times throughout the film.

Around the same time G.N.A.R was premiering, Mumford wandered into an Army surplus store in Pocatello, Idaho. Inside he discovered a pair of SPECS (Special Protective Eyewear Cylindrical System), glasses designed to shield military personnel from the sun, dust, shrapnel, and various chemical mists. They reminded him of the oversize frames worn by hotdoggers in the 1980s and early 1990s, when guys in Oakley Sutros and neon one-pieces were cutting ropes and bombing around mountains doing daffies and backscratchers. For some, it felt like an era with fewer consequences. Mumford was drawn to the counterculture vibe that he felt was baked into the glasses.

He bought as many pairs as possible, painted the black frames with bright colors and wild designs, and slapped stickers on them with his new company name: Pit Viper. He also began cultivating the brand’s image, starting with the tagline: “Demand Respect and Authority.” From the jump, Mumford let customers know that this was not Oakley or Smith; in Pit Viper, they’d find a brand that didn’t take itself too seriously and expected people who wore its glasses to do the same.

The glasses slowly caught on with skiers and snowboarders—in 2012, sales were around $10,000—and eventually became a must-have accessory at ski-area closing parties, where revelers often dress up in throwback attire. By 2014 he’d partnered with Garcin, who had been working as the marketing director at Level 9 Sports, a retailer based in Salt Lake City where Mumford was selling skis on the floor. They purchased every pair of Army SPECS on the market. Then, they raised almost $40,000 on Kickstarter and used the earnings to manufacture their own frames. Going all in with the retro theme, they designed a website that looks like it was created on a Commodore 64.

Mumford and Garcin continued to separate themselves from the mainstream, poking fun at big brands like Oakley by posting pictures on social media of Pit Vipered dudes flipping off the camera, then tagging the sunglasses giant to make sure it knew where their insults were directed. They sponsored a car in the niche sport of limousine racing. And in 2020, they hosted an event at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin, during which 80 skiers set the world record for most people skiing together on one run while wearing jeans.

The Gronk brothers and Papa Gronk, second from right.
The Gronk brothers and Papa Gronk, second from right. (Photo: Sam Watson)

Garcin and Mumford ski fast, squatting low and sliding through each other’s legs. Mumford makes a few turns while leaning way back, arcing with the inside ski. He came up with the move, which he calls drifting, and it’s exactly opposite the way people are taught to turn a ski. Garcin and Mumford also spend much of the morning encouraging Gronk to go bigger—which he does.

After sailing off another jump, Gronk crashes and flails around on the ground for a minute. “I think I broke my piece!” he shouts. More dick jokes follow. On two different occasions, Garcin, Mumford, and the Gronkowskis hold up the lift line as several chairlifts pass so that they can ride chair number 69. On the way up, they all chant, “Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine!”

Not lost on anybody is that all this absurdity is taking place at Deer Valley, one of the ritziest ski areas in North America, where guests wear designer ski clothes and après in fur-covered chairs while sipping Veuve.

That cheeky attitude has transcended the ski industry. Beginning around 2018, bikers, hunters and fishermen, and motorsports enthusiasts—to name a few—began embracing the shades. And Gronk is far from the only mainstream athlete to sport Pit Vipers: later this year, they will become the official team glasses for the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Football Team. The glasses have also taken hold among some of the brasher stars of Major League Baseball, including the Red Sox All-Star selects.

In the years since Pit Viper started gaining steam, other outdoor brands have leaned in to the functional-but-playful market. Ripton and Co., based in Aspen, Colorado, sells cutoff jean shorts to bikers of all stripes that it calls the “first-ever performance denim jort.” Handup, which started as a mountain-bike-glove company in 2014, makes a polyester Hawaiian shirt that it markets as a bike jersey. In 2020, Oakley released the Sutro Eyeshade, a throwback to a 1984 classic. And Smith now sells the Wildcat, which has a distinct resemblance to Pit Vipers.

But when I bring up the company’s success and influence, Garcin and Mumford brush me off. Even asking them about the early days of Pit Viper is met with disdain. “This is what I told him to google,” Mumford tells Garcin. “I mean, it’s right on our website,” Garcin says.

I push a little harder.

“We were just two ski bums, who were best friends in college, who were trying to find the American dream,” Garcin says, knowing that his canned answer is deliberately vague and slightly facetious.

“We were sick of everybody taking themselves so seriously,” says Mumford. “Like reporters.”

I point out that the brand has evolved. How, I wonder, do they view themselves now?

“Oh, here we go…” says Mumford. “Can I see that recorder? I’m gonna shove it up my ass.”

OK, fine, but how did you come up with the name?

“Why does that matter?” Mumford asks, exasperated.

I realize I’m not going to get any straight answers about the business side of Pit Viper from its founders, and I think I know why: having a successful business makes them seem mainstream. In other words, it goes against the fuck-it-all ethos that made them a successful business in the first place.

But it’s an act. “They’re not like that, even kind of,” says Mike McCabe, a cofounder of Folsom Custom Skis who was a classmate of Garcin and Mumford at the University of Colorado. “You get them in real life and they’re super considerate guys who are always going out of their way to help you.” The characters that you see are part of their marketing ploy, McCabe explains, which is to have people talk about them. “All the inappropriate humor that they’re slinging is what’s causing that. And it works.”

The company has managed to attract a wide array of customers, from conservative self-described rednecks to liberal LGBTQ+ mountain athletes. “Wearing those glasses makes you feel like you’re part of a club,” says Sierra Shafer, the editor in chief of Ski (a title owned by Outside’s parent company, Outside Inc.). “They’ve somehow taken this obnoxious, hyper-sexulized, beers, babes, and bikes vibe and made it feel really inclusive. Everybody is welcome to be part of the club.”

A Coco Bronze photo shoot in Venice Beach, California, in 2021
A Coco Bronze photo shoot in Venice Beach, California, in 2021 (Photo: Courtesy Pit Viper)
At the Coco Bronze photo shoot
At the Coco Bronze photo shoot (Photo: Courtesy Pit Viper)

The party moves to a rooftop hot tub that quickly turns into 1,500 pounds of Gronkowski stew. The men chow slices of pizza, drink Bud Lights, and press ham against the plexiglass side of the tub that overlooks Deer Valley’s village. At one point, they decide to shotgun beers, and as they tip their heads back, a couple pairs of glasses drop into the water and sink to the bottom.

“We’ve actually had people call us and say they lost their glasses in a lake and want a refund, because the website says they float,” Spencer Harkins, the long-haired, mustachioed head of marketing for Pit Viper tells me as the hot-tub jets swirl slices of pepperoni and breadcrumbs around us. “We tell them, no, that’s not what the website says. The website says that they’re float-resistant.” (It also says that they’re “probably not” edible.)

Lack of buoyancy aside, Garcin and Mumford will be the first to tell you that Pit Vipers are more than a fashion statement. Mumford loved that the original military-grade SPECS could take a beating, and every pair of glasses the company has produced has stayed true to that. Many of the glasses are made in a factory in Taiwan with a history of developing safety glasses for Bollé and 3M. “Our sunglasses go through a battery of testing,” says Jon Uda, Pit Viper’s product director.

They’re so protective that, during the pandemic, some doctors and nurses used Pit Vipers on the job (Pit Viper offers a 50 percent discount on clear lenses for medical staff). Beyond their durability, the company is fast to tout the optical clarity of the lenses and the adjustability of the frames, which bend and contort a number of ways to make them more comfortable.

Retailing for between $50 and $140, Pit Vipers are less expensive than many similar shades (the Smith Wildcats retail for $209). But according to several people I spoke with at Pit Viper, that doesn’t mean the other brands are necessarily more technologically advanced; it just means they’re overpriced. For what it’s worth, I wore a pair of Pit Vipers for a week of mountain biking and thought they performed well, adequately blocking out the sun and shielding much of my face from limbs and rocks. But I eventually went back to using my $225 Rokas, with a lens that offers crisper vision.

Garcin in his preferred spring-skiing attire
Garcin in his preferred spring-skiing attire (Photo: Sam Watson)
Harkins, seeing double
Harkins, seeing double (Photo: Sam Watson)

After the hot tub, we headed to the company’s headquarters in Salt Lake to check out Pit Viper’s newest design: the Gronkmerika, Gronk’s signature frame. But first we make a pit stop at the warehouse, a huge space that the company began renting a few months ago and that the employees refer to as “Big Loads,” yet another unfortunate play on words. I ask Mumford how big the building is. “Sixty-nine square feet,” he says.

It’s actually 20,000, and it was a necessary upgrade from the 10,000-square-foot space just down the road, which now serves exclusively as Pit Viper headquarters. There are shelves upon shelves of boxed sunglasses. “Each time we restock, we sell out right away,” says Dave Bottomley, Pit Viper’s president.

Bottomley, who previously worked for Faction Skis and as the North American sales manager for Mammut, was hired in August 2020 to run day-to-day operations during a time of unprecedented growth. Pit Viper is primarily an e-commerce business, and sales tripled last year, when the pandemic gave a major boost to e-commerce purchases in the United States.

“The company was really taking off, and they needed help,” he says. “I think they chose me because I’d been a big fan of the brand for a long time. And I ski in jeans.”

Since Bottomley came on, the brand has released several new products, including Pit Viper glasses for kids. The company also sells goggles—despite Garcin and Mumford’s distaste for them—which the company markets as “gogglés.” They are sold with a disclaimer from Garcin on the website: “With the help of chemists, polymer scientists, adhesive experts, and coating specialists, we engineered a system that would outperform most other kinds of eye protection. That system is called Pit Viper Sunglasses, and I’m going to keep skiing in them, but you idiots really wanted goggles, so here you go.”

Pit Viper is also investing in soft goods. In May the company released a line of mountain-bike apparel with psychedelic prints. And in June, it introduced its Coco Bronze line of summer clothing, inspired by designer Whit Boucher’s youth on the Jersey Shore. This fall it will release “sport” denim, Nascar T-shirts, and bomber jackets.

“We see our revenue doubling or tripling each year,” says Bottomley. That type of success has forced the company to grow up a bit. In the past year, nearly 34 new employees have been hired, including designers, a B2B manager, and a human-resources team.

“The HR manager used to just be a ball gag that hung on the wall next to my desk,” Harkins, the marketing manager, told me earlier in the day. “When I said too much inappropriate stuff, we’d put the ball gag in my mouth.”

Mumford in Deer Valley, teaching the Gronk brothers ski skills
Mumford in Deer Valley, teaching the Gronk brothers ski skills (Photo: JP Gendron)

But for all their bluster, Garcin and Mumford have, by many accounts, built an inclusive environment for employees. “It’s pretty much your average workplace,” says Chrissy Shammas, who has been with the company for three years and serves as its copywriter and head of email marketing. “Sure, sometimes one of the office dogs will run up to you with a rubber penis in his mouth wanting to play fetch, and you have to try not to laugh because you’re on the phone with a customer.”

Dildos aside, Shammas is quick to point out how welcoming the atmosphere at Pit Viper is. “As the company has grown, so has the diversity of our team,” she says. “We have a ton more female-identifying employees. And we’ve had space for company-wide discussions on race, sexuality, and discrimination. It’s been a weird year to be a brown woman in America, but I’ve had amazing discussions with my coworkers. We’re all about not taking ourselves too seriously, but when it comes down to it, we have each other’s and our community’s backs.”

That’s not just internal policy. The brand has also publicly aligned itself with racial-justice movements and the LGBTQ community. For Pride Month, it donated all proceeds from related products—$10,000 worth—to the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention for LGBTQ+ youth who are contemplating suicide. While the company’s backing of liberal causes has upset some of its customers, Garcin and Mumford have been quick to remind people that the Pit Viper club is inclusive. In a recent Instagram post supporting Pride Month, one man complained in the comments section that the company didn’t know its main audience. To which Pit Viper responded: “OUR MAIN AUDIENCE IS LITERALLY EVERYONE WITH A FACE.”

Well, not everyone. When staffers at Pit Viper noticed that Tim Gionet, a far-right internet troll better known as Baked Alaska, was wearing Pit Vipers while storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the company formally asked him to stop wearing the glasses. And when Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist, bought $600 worth of Pit Vipers to wear and hand out at the Conservative Political Action Conference in July, the company posted a tweet, asking if any internet-savvy people knew a way to prevent Fuentes from buying their glasses. “Asking for Nick Fuentes who needs to stop wearing Pit Vipers. Thanks,” it read. The company then donated $600 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to the fight for civil rights.

Pit Viper’s mountain-bike line
Pit Viper’s mountain-bike line (Photo: Dan Krauss)

The Gronkowskis play a few intense rounds of beer die, a drinking game, with the warehouse workers, and Gronk signs some autographs. Then we hop back into our cars and head for the company’s headquarters. The entire upstairs has been freshly renovated and features an open floor plan, a kitchen, and a few offices. It’s all empty (the staff is still working remotely), save one closet, which is full of vintage polyester shirts, mullet wigs, and leisure suits for photo shoots—and, of course, skiing.

Downstairs, a large, open space has been set up to shoot an advertisement for the Gronkmerica. A hot-dog roller, like the one you’d find at a convenience store, stands near an inflatable red, white, and blue pool floaty filled with Gatorade, Budweiser, and White Claws. Garcin and Mumford mix themselves “sport beers”—a combination of Bud Light and Gatorade—and I wander over to check out the new Gronkmerika sunglasses.

Similar to the Merika glasses that Pit Viper already sells, they’re splatter-painted red, white, and blue—and Gronk loves them. “I kind of helped make them,” he tells me as Eddie Murphy’s “Boogie in Your Butt” plays loudly from a boom box. “I told them the design I liked, and they’re exactly the colors I like. And they block sun out like none other. They’re my favorite.”

The group continues to party until Garcin rolls by on a pair of Rollerblades and suggests that they get some work done. Gronk, wearing a retro shirt, red, white, and blue sweatbands, and his new signature shades, steps into the staging area. The cameraman yells, “Action!”

Mumford throws a star-spangled football, on which a pair of Gronkmerikas have been affixed, to Gronk. He catches it, points it at the camera, and, with conviction, delivers the company motto: “Pit Viper sunglasses. Demand respect and authority.” After a beat, everybody chuckles. Then, with one take in books, they all go back to partying.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Pit Viper