Get to know environmental advocate and Black Diamond founder and CEO Peter Metcalf.
Interview by Mike Kessler | photographs Sandra Salvas
Back in 1972, during the early days of the outdoor recreation boom, Peter Metcalf reduced his worldly possessions to fit the dirtbag lifestyle of a dedicated climber. But he couldn’t bring himself to throw out that year’s Patagonia catalog. It was a bible of sorts—a photographic and written reminder of climbing’s ethos. Just 17 years old, Metcalf didn’t imagine that he’d work at the company’s Ventura, California, headquarters a decade later, forging a close friendship with Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, and eventually buying the company’s climbing hardware division. He’s since grown Black Diamond Equipment into an institution in climbing, mountaineering, and other backcountry pursuits. Today, the Salt Lake City-based gear manufacturer employs 350 people locally and 550 more worldwide. Privately held until May 2010, the now public company bought gear manufacturers during boom years, sold them during tough times, and has taken considerable risks with its own line of skis, boots, and (more recently) apparel, which have struggled to compete with established brands. In the early 1990s, Metcalf played a key role in designating Salt Lake as the host city of the Outdoor Industry Association’s twice-yearly tradeshow, which generates $45 million in revenue locally. Lately, he’s become increasingly vocal about environmental issues, particularly the threat that climate change, development, and the energy industry pose to the landscape that draws millions of outdoor enthusiasts to Utah. Metcalf still climbs, trail runs, mountain bikes, and ski tours near his home in the Wasatch Range.
I grew up in Queens, and then Garden City [New York]. To go rock climbing, every Friday, my friends and I took the subway to the George Washington Bridge, then walked to the Palisades Parkway. We had a big hitchhiking sign that read, “New Paltz,” which is near the Shawangunks. The other side read “New York City.”
On our first expedition to Alaska, my friends and I were 17. We needed chest harnesses for glacier travel to keep ourselves upright in case we fell into a crevasse. It was still hard to find a lot of gear in the U.S., so we made it ourselves.
The biggest climb in my life was a new route on the south face of Mount Hunter in Alaska. I thought it would take six days. It took 13. We got as close to the edge as one could get without getting killed. Starting Black Diamond was a business version of climbing Mount Hunter.
A high-level person we recruited out of Patagonia put it best. He said, “You can see that these two companies, Patagonia and Black Diamond, are related, but it seems like they were separated at birth. Patagonia is a beautiful place driven by a commitment to have the smallest footprint possible. It’s a culture of estrogen. At BD, the culture is more about the actual sports of ski mountaineering and climbing. It’s filled with testosterone.”
Our offices are 20 minutes from great skiing. Ten minutes from great peak bagging. Employees who’ve only done a modest amount of these activities—they pretty rapidly get into the program. This dawn patrol concept at Black Diamond that you hear so much about, it goes on year-round and it’s a great influence on people.
I can get by on five or six hours of sleep a night. I often solo on the West Slabs of Olympus or the South Ridge of Superior.
I should be careful what I say, since I’m the founder and CEO of a gear and equipment company, but you don’t need to have the best gear. If you have a passion for the mountains, you can go with whatever gear you can afford—or make. And have a great time.
Climate change will take away ice climbing and alpinism. Tourism and the local economies will suffer if we don’t address it. Many of the outdoor activities that bring people to Utah—and everywhere else—are under threat.
Just as you don’t put porn shops next to schools, you shouldn’t put extractive and exploitive industries in pristine wilderness areas.
I was one of the first people to advocate to former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman that global warming was one of the biggest issues facing the state, and that, with the tradeshow here and the ski industry, he needed to do something. He created the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on global warming in 2007. I really thought we were starting to make a difference, and then Governor Herbert came in.
I’ve thought about running for state legislator or Congress, but we live in an age where money talks louder than ideas. Because we create jobs and generate tax revenue, Black Diamond is a more potent platform to talk to people. Besides that, I don’t need the exercise in masochism.