written by Marc Peruzzi | Action photos by Adam Clark | profile photos by Sandra Gnandt
A hooker saunters out of a dark hallway and into the parking lot of a Salt Lake City motor lodge, her eyes on a painfully stereotypical pimp who has just rolled up in a Lexus sedan—white with gold trim. I, in turn, am waiting on a weathered Subaru full of ski product designers from the climbing and skiing company Black Diamond Equipment (BD). It's 4:30 in the morning. Soon we'll be heading into the Utah backcountry on a dawn patrol, setting a steep skin track in the waning hours of a moonless Wasatch night; random flurries swimming like plankton through the light of our headlamps. The hooker and pimp are apropos of nothing, non sequiturs, flamboyant red herrings of the night. Except that when you see pimps and donut fryers going about their business you know it's so early it's still late. Add BD product designers to that list.
While the ski industry sleeps, BD continues its transformation from a tiny purveyor of oval carabiners and too-skinny telemark skis into a $126 million business with three sweeping categories (Climb, Ski, Mountain), 26 different product lines, and 400 employees worldwide. Today, BD designs, engineers, and manufactures skis, boots, poles, packs, tents, climbing skins, ice screws, harnesses, and just about every item you need to challenge yourself on snow, ice, or rock.
It's easy to see how a climbing company could succeed in the construction of tents and backpacks—the two categories are closely aligned. But BD is now firmly in the ski business, too. The company's strange evolution involves the nuances of the global ski market, a laser-targeted focus that brings smart ideas to consumers years ahead of the competition, and a corporate culture that lets intelligent people pursue their passions with few restrictions. But mostly it involves thousands of dawn patrols.
BD employees, "mutants" as they've been dubbed, tend to throw themselves into the wild world. Water-cooler talk here revolves around the guy in Quality Assurance who put in a 100-foot ski rappel on rope as thin as clothesline yesterday morning, or the trio who took their enduro motorcycles on a remote point-to-point in the Arizona wilderness, working off of low-res satellite images and not enough gas. What the world demands, BDers make. In terms of ski gear, that means fat-but-light rockered skis for powder, or alpine touring boots that articulate freely enough to handle the steep climbs of the Wasatch, or a device that exhausts your spent and poisonous CO2 behind you in case you're buried in an avalanche. Ideas, in other words, which don't come to you in a corporate boardroom over a Red Bull.
Which is why the injection-molding specialist and Ski Boot Developer—an energetic physics major from Montana with Einstein hair and a springy skiing style—is now above me, negotiating a scratchy dogleg chute. Here comes his slough running past my tips now. It's officially dawn and our LED headlamps (BD was one of the first to bring LED headlamps to market in 2002) are off. The skiing isn't ideal—four inches of dust sits tenuously on top of a thick crust layer—but the VP of Product skis confidently to my position via a spine above the chute proper. Now the Ski Category Director—nursing a bad back after spending most of the winter chasing freeriders through the Alps—rodeos out of the upper chute, pushing hard on the tails and skiing a little fast for the conditions. As is his won't.
I take point and promptly scrub all the snow out of the lower hourglass before we tour out of the basin. I'm extremely short on food and water. I was expecting an easy yo-yo lap on something close to the road—everyone else's definition of a dawn patrol. Instead we went after an objective: the Hallway Couloir. It's rated a doable S4 (dangerous fall potential and a few terrain obstacles) in ski mountaineer Andrew McLean's guidebook, The Chuting Gallery. We climb and ski more than 3,000 vertical feet before coffee. Fortunately, the injection-molding specialist has seven dusty raw almonds in his jacket to sustain us. Unfortunately, he refers to them as his "pocket nuts."
It was Peter Metcalf, Chouinard's GM of Equipment since 1982, who rallied enough investors for the acquisition price of $750,000, and changed the name to Black Diamond Equipment. Metcalf moved the operation to a rundown shopping mall in Salt Lake and re-engineered the business. BD would continue to be product driven, but the company would invest so heavily in quality control (quality "assurance" in BD-speak) that product liability would never cripple it again. It was a tenuous and severely underfunded transition. If the newly formed company didn't bring in revenue in the first month, it would have failed.
To skiers, the BD narrative is far more ambiguous—a middling history due chiefly to two innovations in telemark gear. Chouinard and Metcalf were both telemark skiers; at first by necessity to access climbs, and later by passion: "In winter we'd ski with heavy packs on skinny skis," says Metcalf. "I remember thinking: This would be fun if we weren't carrying all this gear." In 1984, the telemark binding was still a crude version of the original three-pin toe piece, a Nordic skiing "rat trap" design that dated back to 1927. "The bindings of the day were essentially made out of recycled coke cans," says Metcalf. "Yvon said, 'What if we made one out of heat-treated chromoly, like climbing gear?' We brought it to an outdoor show in Canada and suddenly we were in the ski business."
The next year a friend showed them a design for a cable tele binding without the archaic pins. The cable boosted lateral stability and snapped the ski back to the boot between turns. It was the first of its kind. Eight years later, in 1992, BD product designers, working with the Italian boot manufacturer Scarpa (which BD distributed in the U.S. for 18 years), introduced the world's first all-plastic telemark boot—the purple and black Terminator. The advent of cable bindings and plastic boots—in large part BD innovations—allowed telemark skiers to pilot fatter, alpine-style skis. And telemark skiing boomed.
Even at the height of its popularity, though, telemark skiing was a niche pursuit, the province of scrawny dudes in Peruvian hats, and later, Boulder moms driving white BMWs. But telemark skiing—as tame as it was when employed at a buffed-out resort—made easy terrain challenging again. And when a small storm came through, the low and graceful tele turn could make a boot-deep day bottomless. But there was more to it than that. The free heel of the telemark setup spurred lift-service skiers to move beyond resort boundaries. By the late '90s a legit backcountry movement was afoot, led by skiers with a touch of that ski-from-your-truck climbing ethic. Fueled by the success of the Terminator, the potential new customer base, and an excuse to go on more dawn patrols, the designers at Black Diamond were now ready to do for skiing what they'd done so definitively for climbing.
Damn near everything cool or innovative in the sport of skiing has come out of North America. The scene here has always been fundamentally looser and rougher than the European experience, where racing dominates. So in the '60s and '70s we built gear to suit our style and manufactured and sold it here as well. Howard Head built the first laminate skis with plastic bases and steel edges in the U.S. Ditto—Bob Lange and the plastic ski boot. Up in Idaho, an optometrist named Bob Smith was the first to glue together a double-lens goggle. Even the relatively recent innovation of rockered powder skis came from the mind of the late Shane McConkey, working with the small Colorado ski builder Volant in the '90s. If you can credit anyone for the art of powder skiing, it would be Dick Durrance during his Alta years. North Americans invented hot-dogging, Capilene, heli-skiing, cat-skiing, Gore-Tex, Polartec fleece, soft-shell jackets, ski porn, mustaches, twin tips—name an innovation and, chances are, it's from this side of the pond.
But by the '80s the ski market had been fully globalized and the U.S. had lost almost all those ski industry manufacturing jobs to Europe. Every major manufacturer except for K2 closed or up and left. Today, nearly every ski boot in the world is made in Montebelluna, Italy, while most of the world's skis are made in Europe and, increasingly, Asia.
Despite our ingenuity, from the '80s through the late '90s our purchasing was largely at the mercy of the Europeans who controlled the market. Sure, equipment was available stateside, but in a limited way. We could go to our local ski shop and buy alpine ski equipment that was heavy and powerful, but tough to hike or tour in. Or we could find a specialty shop that sold ultralight-but-wimpy European-style randonnee gear. And of course, if we were willing to drop the knee, we could buy telemark gear. But if we wanted gear that let us hammer at the resort and tour the backcountry, well, we were out of luck.
Equipment cascades from cubes in the BD offices in Salt Lake. Here's a stack of battered ski poles that someone spent a season torturing to failure. Every brand of climbing skin—also abused—is piled up in a cardboard box. Downstairs, a Quality Assurance engineer is putting a ski boot through a few thousand mechanical knee bends in a machine dubbed the "Rosenflexor," while nearby a device stretches a buckle to its breaking point. On the main floor, a design group is behind closed doors discussing backpacks. Out back in the factory, shiny carabiners are coming off an assembly line. Thirty-two employees work in R&D with another six in Quality Assurance. Nearly everyone in the building is lean, bright-eyed, and energized. Many sport short chin beards. The building itself (that same old shopping center) is vaguely Tyrolean in its architecture. I half expect the workers to burst into a chorus of "We are Santa's elves."
The Ski Category Director pulls me into a meeting to discuss next year's skis. His name is Thomas (pronounced 2Mas) Laakso, the same guy with the tweaked back who cowboyed out of the chute this morning. I've waived the right to give specifics other than that with the new lineup BD will soon offer vertical-sidewall, wood-and-metal–laminate skis to add still more oomph to their line of Power skis—the ones you'd use to charge at the resort or out the gate. The team of six is finalizing graphics and deciding on a range of flexes for the first run of prototypes coming out of BD's ski factory in Asia. Storms are in the forecast and the thought of testing prototypes in a week has everyone in the room fairly buzzing with energy. The discussion would seem like minutia, but it's hard not to get caught up in the conversation. It's as if the entire corporation is engaged in this ongoing design dialectic. Searching for some mysterious essential truth about gear: Plato's perfect form, realized in a ski.
"It's my opinion that we've assembled the most talented, diverse R&D team in the industry," says David Mellon, the VP of Product who broke trail for much of the dawn patrol this morning. "And that's allowed us to consistently show up season after season with new innovations. There are very few brands that can launch an innovative new ski boot product line and at the same trade show be introducing a new line of LED lanterns."
The confidence that any problem can be solved, and that no category is beyond the team's ability, is endemic at BD. A lot of that is character driven—whether they're trying to figure out how to get up a mountain or down a mountain, BD employees like to figure things out as they go. But Mellon's earnest and unflappable demeanor, and the concept-to-retail system he's put in place, corrals the chaos of free thought.
The launch of the ski boot business is perhaps the best example. When they stopped distributing for Scarpa in 2005, BD decided it was time to manufacture their own boots. But the boot market was crowded and the barriers to entry were daunting. Which is why most ski boot companies date back 50 or 100 years or more. Unfazed by cautionary tales about messing with skiing's Cosa Nostra, BD spent $6 million dollars—eight times more than the original acquisition cost of Chouinard Equipment—just to get in the game. When they inquired about buying buckles from a manufacturer in that same Italian town that controls the boot cartel, they were, not surprisingly, denied. So in typical BD style, they designed and built their own buckles. And why not? If you can perfect camming devices that slot into millimeter-wide cracks hundreds of feet off the deck in order to stop a falling climber from certain death, how hard could it be to make a boot buckle?
Besides, there was a gap in the market. For years, top freeskiers, ski mountaineers, guides, ski patrollers, and pretty much anyone who routinely hiked for their turns—inbounds or out—had been pleading for a boot that was as stiff and precise as a race boot on the way down, but as grippy-soled and free-flexing as an AT boot on the way up. But nothing came close. Europe didn't see the need. BD did, and in 2008 released the Factor, a product that blurred the lines between alpine and backcountry, but, in many ways, was just a better ski boot. (Aren't most of us a little tired of the slippery soles on ski boots?) It sold out before Christmas. European boot manufacturers promptly aped it.
I first met Thomas in January 2007, at a ski launch at Snowbird, Utah. Two years earlier, BD had dropped the distinction between alpine, telemark, and backcountry skis with the launch of the Verdict and the Kilowatt. Now, they were coming to market with a true big mountain ski, the 110mm (underfoot) Zealot. I had never been less psyched to try new gear. The ski industry at the time (and still today) was not suffering from a shortage of models or manufacturers. And my experience with previous generation BD skis had been underwhelming. As a magazine editor, I was a big proponent of the burgeoning AT movement, but I thought the focus should be on powerful AT boots and bindings (this was before the Marker Duke binding or BD Factor). With resorts dropping ropes at a rapid pace, I wanted burly crossover gear both for my personal use and to see the sport regain its adventurous and self-sufficient roots. Lightweight skis, in my experience, could never perform at the level of a traditional wood and metal-sandwich construction. So Thomas gave his speech and talked about the balance between weight and power. And then we booted up for a powder day at Snowbird.
Except Thomas did more than boot up. He armored up. Complete with a helmet and a full-length back protector and kneepads. This isn't your typical backcountry guy, I thought. Nor was he skiing in mushy AT boots, opting instead for stiff Atomic race plug boots. Along with a few sponsored BD skiers, our group proceeded to wail Baldy laps. Boot-deep snow on top of rocks. Sparks flying. A full-on lift-served-and-hike-to rage session. I didn't have time to doubt the Zealots, and they proved to be plenty stiff and damp for the conditions.
It was around this time that Thomas and company instituted the catchphrase "It's all about the down" to describe their new line of ski products. It was both a mission statement and a marketing tool. They weren't just a backcountry ski company anymore. They were a ski company—period. The first generation of skis weren't perfect. The shovels tended to be a little too stiff (blame Thomas's race boots), and when you skied one head-to-head against a traditional ski with lots of metal, they could feel glassy. But the Verdict and Zealot especially, were lighter-weight versions of powerful big mountain skis. They were indeed "all about the down," but BD didn't forget that you have to get up the hill first. BD called them Freeride skis. In the trade publications we called them Crossover skis. The takeaway was that they were just as adept for a day of hiking the bowl and riding the lifts at Aspen Highlands as they were for a day in the Teton Pass backcountry. Released in the fall of 2005, the Verdict was two years ahead of the closest competitor's launch. Ditto the Zealot for a frontside/backside fat ski in the fall of '07. In short order, the traditional Alpine companies aped the concept.
When I sit down to interview Peter Metcalf, I'm still curious about his business strategy. How does he plan to bridge the no-man's land between the retail worlds of alpine and backcountry skiing? The answer is, he doesn't. BD is fully invested in the ski business and as a company has tremendous respect for the knowledge held by high-end specialty ski shops (which account for 20 percent of their ski retailers). But in a few key ways BD's not in the ski business at all. Metcalf explains by way of a parable called the Tragedy of the Commons. It goes like this: Tired of squabbling over grazing rights, a town in medieval Europe once had the smart idea to give local farmers open rights to the common land. At first the system worked great—each farmer only having the one cow and all. But then, seeing all the lush grass, each farmer thought it wise to expand his herd by a cow, then another, then another. There was no ill will involved, just unrestrained self-interest in a free market. If I have a second cow, maybe I can sell some milk in the village up the road?—that sort of thing.
Naturally the field was overgrazed, the market was flooded with milk, the cows died of starvation, and then the people did, too. Throw out your dead. Or something to that effect. In reality, the scenario never happened—it was all drawn up by an economist in the '60s to explain a crowded free-market. But it applies to the ski business. When skiing boomed in the '60s and '70s there were only a few big brands feeding the demand, and they could barely keep up. But globalization waits for no one, and soon a ski maker in Germany was adding to the supply lines, and five in Austria, and three in the U.S., and three more in France, and there's one over there in Slovenia. And still everything was fine—a rising tide lifting all...cows. Every company acting in its best interest, gorging on the lush grass of the commons.
And then, the world went multi-sport crazy, skiing lost some of its sex appeal, and skier numbers dipped and flat-lined in the late '80s and early '90s. In the U.S., brands like Olin (bought up by K2), RD, and PRE died. But in Europe, nobody wanted to slaughter a single SKU. Ski production remained high in a shrinking market. Prices dropped. Retailers made less money and demanded longer repayment terms: three months, nine months, a year. European-made skis, which once had Champagne-quality branding, were devalued as big box stores bought up closeout skis like cheap commodities and dumped them before the snow ever fell. In Europe, ski companies that employed hundreds were looking at bankruptcy. But in a land where skiing is tied to national pride, their governments couldn't let them die. Subsidies and laws that made it difficult to cut labor kept production high. And because the Austrians don't really buy French skis and vice versa, the open U.S. market was the best place to unload surplus goods. Throw out your dead.
BD, since they chiefly sell to outdoor shops and better ski shops that pay on time, and because they sell unique products to a new customer, and because the backcountry ideal has cache, and because their pricing isn't whacked, and because theirs is a four-season business, avoided that ski industry tragedy altogether.
Once upon a time in the early '90s, if you went off trail at an eastern ski resort to ski the trees, you risked having your ticket clipped. Duck a rope out west at Jackson Hole, back then, and it didn't matter if you were the skiing legend Doug Coombs, your season was over. In Telluride, the sheriff was threatening arrest and prosecution for the crime of skiing in the backcountry from the resort. Most resorts wouldn't dream of opening terrain that you had to hike to. That's what lifts were for.
Flash forward to this winter. Sunday River in Maine just opened its resort to tree-skiing from boundary to boundary. Telluride's recent terrain expansions include wild hike-to steeps way above treeline, and unfettered backcountry access to those same (once illegal) lines. The mountains haven't changed, but the mindset has. When Jackson Hole tore down its tram a few years ago and began construction on the replacement, management was amazed to see hundreds of locals and tourists alike hiking to get to the same terrain. Powder is evermore precious. And skiers who are willing to sweat a little get more. It's that simple.
Now that the resorts have come around, traditional gear companies have, too. The sale of carving skis dropped dramatically in the past two seasons—a trend driven by consumers. Manufacturers are rapidly eschewing complicated and heavy binding systems and plates for simple fat skis that perform well on the entire mountain and can accommodate a range of bindings. In terms of quality and performance, it's a new golden age of ski production. The big global ski producers are making the finest skis the world has ever seen. And because even intermediate skiers don't want to ski groomers all day, every day, last winter rockered skis, and any ski that the industry labeled as a "backcountry" model, were the only areas of growth in the business. Marker—the age-old binding company once firmly in the alpine-only world—now offers two AT bindings, both of which have received rave reviews. Three years ago the other big U.S. based ski manufacturer, K2, launched an entire line of lightweight but powerful adventure skis complete with rockered tips and accessories like climbing skins and adjustable poles. Like BD, they just call them skis.
The days of wanton overproduction of skis are over—two years ago a European company destroyed a few thousand pairs instead of dumping them on the market. And the U.S. is again the innovation leader. "Almost all new trends in recent years have come from the U.S.," says Matt Titus, VP of Marketing of Dalbello North America and an industry veteran with European brands, Atomic, Blizzard, and Elan on his resume. "So companies are, for the most part, listening more to their American counterparts. Some companies listen less and they're easy to spot if you think about it. Consumers insist on buying brands that identify with them, not the other way around."
The business is shifting quickly to that adventure skiing ideal, what in Europe is now solidly referred to as "Freeride." And although BD and K2 have a sizeable head start in the light but powerful ski category, the boot business is getting extremely competitive, with traditional AT companies like Scarpa, Garmont, and Dynafit, and traditional Alpine companies like Salomon and Dalbello, all bringing stiff, articulating AT boots to market. "I feel like the ski industry has a missile locked on us all the time now," says Metcalf. "It's: Dive! Spin! Turn! Except they're big companies and their missiles are ICBMs and we're still playing with bottle rockets."
To ensure that BD remains competitive in that global market, last summer Metcalf took the company public in a complicated move known as a reverse merger. The deal saw a publicly traded but dormant business (they had money but nothing to sell) called Clarus Corporation acquire BD and the backpack manufacturer Gregory and then reemerge as a parent company called Black Diamond Incorporated. BD management remained in charge, rather than some random venture capitalists. It just might go down as Metcalf's second greatest coup as chief of BD. Now the business is fully funded and capable of taking on new challenges. Which makes it that much easier to recruit talented specialists with Einstein hair, tireless legs, and buzzing minds.
"We're competing against K2, Atomic, The North Face. They have much greater access to capital than we did with what was originally a garage startup. The capital is already helping us to recruit people with the BD DNA. Recruiting wasn't always easy in the past. When we committed to reposition ourselves from backcountry to freeride, we put together a strong team. But because we couldn't recruit, we had to pull people from other categories, like climbing, to help. Going public allows us to keep the ski team targeted and dedicated to the ski categories. Our goal is to bring people together so they can share their passion with their career. That's the strength of BD."
We own the day. Charlie owns the night. Those words echo in my head as I tour out of the Wasatch backcountry, munching on pocket nuts with the BD ski product designers and getting a feel for the BD skis, boots, poles, pack, and skins I'm trying. It's an old grunt saying from Vietnam. Not that I was a Vietnam grunt. But putting in a tour in the dark so that you can ski in first light requires a Vietcong type of expertise and knowledge of the terrain. You have to move fast and light in avalanche country. I can think of only a handful of ski product guys from alpine companies that have that kind of knowledge. How long BD can hold its advantage is hard to say. But it's only a short drive from the Wasatch to the lab.
As we glide out to the cars, other skiers that apparently keep better hours are working their way uphill. If any of them make it out to the Hallway Coulior, they'll find it tracked. Thomas tells me that during better snow cycles, as many as two dozen BD employees will be out well before dawn, five mornings a week, striping the mountains with their tracks under the stars and the moon, testing gear, thinking out loud and to themselves, choking on powder, asking the wild world what it needs—owning the night.