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Black Diamond Equipment: History and Influence

black diamond logo over green jacket and zipper

Black Diamond is a climbing, skiing, and outdoors brand based out of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Its origins are intertwined with the work of the legendary Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia’s earliest iterations, offering perhaps a slight hint at the guiding design intentions and overarching vision of the company as a brand hoping to push the sports they love further into the future.

Introduction to Black Diamond

Much like the other outdoorwear brands we’ve explored thus far, Black Diamond is a brand that exists fundamentally out of a desire to make better equipment for use in the great outdoors. The design and testing process is centered around backcountry fanatics and their experiences in the wild. Stemming originally from Chouinard’s humble beginnings in Ventura, California, Black Diamond is now a global company worth nearly a billion dollars, one of the driving forces in the continued expansion and innovation of techwear and mountain sports gear.

Black Diamond makes a wide range of mountain sport gear. Their products, echoing the original design intentions of Chouinard and the earliest forms of Patagonia Apparel, are top-to-bottom redesigns of all the necessary gear for climbing and being in the alpine environment. They offer everything from carabiners, harnesses, crampons, ice screws, shouldering pads, belay devices, and helmets to more generalized mountain gear like skis, tents, lighting, trekking poles, and backpacks. They are heavily focused on the technical aspects of their products and as such, safety features of their skiing and climbing products are one of the key places they focus their research and design efforts.

Black Diamond Equipment - Big Gun Harness - Tequila Gold - Large

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They have also acquired a number of smaller gear companies in order to diversify the range of outdoor tech they can offer: ranging from their acquisition of Bibler Tents in 1997 to Ascension Climbing Skins in 1999, Black Diamond is a company that seems to consistently be on the hunt for quality gear and intentionally-designed products. One of the places I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Black Diamond products is in the realm of backcountry skiing, especially regarding their climbing skins. We’ll chat a little bit about backcountry skiing later.

They are well known for their spring-loaded camming devices, called the Camalot series. Black Diamond boasts that these are the safest climbing cams on the market and judging by the prevalence of these cams all over the climbing world, I don’t doubt it for a second. They seem to be constantly redesigning and optimizing their Camalot series, with the most recent line (the C4s) having been re-sculpted for better handling, increased versatility, and a greater strength-to-weight ratio.

Today, all the serious alpine athletes are embracing the ultralight design trends of high-tech gear, indicative of the way backcountry products are making exploration increasingly comfortable and safe. This in turn pushes the boundaries of the sport and creates space for today’s alpinists to continue advancing what humans can do in the mountains. Companies like Black Diamond, Arct’teryx, and Patagonia are absolutely key to this movement: the continued creation and intention behind well-designed and safe alpine gear is (to me) just as important as the passionate mountaineers doing the climbing themselves. As we’ve come to see with previous articles on Arcy and Patagonia, the passionate mountaineers and the engineers behind these brands are the exact same people. It takes a knowledge of the outdoors to know what kind of gear might make the outdoors safer and comfier for everyone.

For now, let’s take a little look of the origins of Black Diamond gear, beginning just like Patagonia did in Yvon Chouinard’s parent’s backyard. From Ventura California to SLC Utah, then to the rest of the world, Black Diamond is another one of the mountaineering brands that exists with a singular focus of advancing the sport that is so well-loved by those behind and those purchasing this brand’s products.

Origins with Chouinard of Patagonia and Chouinard Equipment

climbing equipment laid out overtop of blue background

For a full deep dive on Chouinard and the origins of his brand (as well as his contributions to the sport of climbing), take a look at our Patagonia article on ThreadCurve. In regard to Black Diamond, I’ll offer a bit of a paraphrased version in order to give some context to the origins of the brand.

Like all great mountaineering brands, Black Diamond emerged out of a singular desire: make climbing gear better than it already was. In 1957, a young climber from California, fresh out of high school, decided to learn how to blacksmith. Yvon Chouinard had fallen in love with the climbing sport and the alpine world through his falconry club at school, where he had to learn to rappel down mountains in order to get closer to the falcon aeries. After this moment, birds of prey were not his primary focus: he was in love with the mountains. He would join the iconic Sierra Club of California, becoming involved with the California climbing scene and finding other like-minded mountain lovers.

In the hopes of bettering the gear that was available to him on the market, the natural innovator Chouinard decided to try forging his own pitons. Pitons are essentially metal spikes that were meant to be driven into the rock wall, by which carabiners and then ropes could be secured. Pitons have existed as long as climbing with ropes has existed but Chouinard had made a number of key adjustments. For one, his pitons were made to be removed from the wall after use, cleaned, and reused on other ascents. This was huge for the thrifty climber, providing an extremely cost-effective alternative to the traditional permanent pitons.

Chouinard would purchase a second-hand forge, some used tools, and build his first chromoly steel pitons out of an old harvester blade. The lighter material and reusability of his products made his handmade pitons an instant hit among the California climbing community. He and his climbing buddies would turn their attention to the Yosemite Valley, where the budding sport of modern American rock climbing was only beginning to emerge. Yosemite Valley was the proving grounds of his equipment, where one wrong step or one bad design choice had serious, life-threatening consequences. On the massive granite faces of El Capitan and Half Dome, Chouinard and the early climbers of Yosemite would carve out the origins of the way we understand modern American mountaineering.

Given the success of his pitons among the climbing community of the late 50s and early 60s, the young Chouinard had a beautiful opportunity to fund the explorer’s ideal lifestyle. Selling handmade pitons out of the back of his car, Chouinard would equally explore the California coast and the Californian Rockies, surfing and climbing his way around the state he had come to love so much.

His small business would continue to grow and the ambitious Chouinard would realize that his ideas had great value in the world of American climbing that was being pioneered in real time. He and other iconic climbers and artists like Tom Frost would look toward redesigning all climbing gear from the bottom-up, with the Yosemite Valley as the perfect testing grounds. He would start building lightweight carabiners and other essential mountaineering gear which remained extremely popular among the Yosemite climbing scene.

After a brief tour in Korea, Chouinard would purchase a tin shed in Ventura, California, by which he began to focus his efforts on Chouinard Equipment full time. In this period, he began to innovate with gear that would later become the standard of climbing equipment, like asymmetrical and uniquely-shaped carabiners and the ‘positive curve’ shape and drooped nose of his mountaineering axes for ice climbing.

In the early 1970s, however, Chouinard had a revelation. He was beginning to become aware of the damage his pitons were causing on the mountain. By using this style of climbing protection, the beautiful granite faces of Yosemite were increasingly pockmarked and damaged. In an essay in the 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalog, Yvon’s friend and fellow climbing pioneer Doug Robinson outlined an inherently new mindset of ‘clean climbing’ to protect the future of American rock climbing and its iconic routes. For Chouinard Equipment, a company that had begun making steel pitons, the new wave was now to pivot to a different kind of securing method.

They would pioneer with the creation of Hexentrics and stoppers, aluminum and steel chocks that could be placed into constricting cracks and support massive amounts of weight without damaging the rock face. These are still relevant climbing tools today, 50 years later. In the same vein, Chouinard Equipment would develop tubular ice screws to follow the same mentality of clean climbing for the winter sports. This was the first step indicative of Chouinard, Patagonia, and Black Diamond’s continued commitment to sustainability and clean climbing. This commitment would remain a central feature of their business models and design vision thereafter.

Branching off from Chouinard Equipment

image of black diamond trekking poles on grey background

Shortly after Chouinard’s aluminum chocks were put out on the market, the entire climbing community embraced the change to clean climbing. Pitons became a thing of the past: it was all about the versatility and sustainability of this new method. Climbing was exploding at the time, the late 70s and early 80s were years of massive growth in the sport with Chouinard Equipment leading the American charge. Yvon would begin the clothing part of his equipment brand, Patagonia, based on durable climbing oriented apparel. Thick rugby shirts to protect the necks of climbers with heavy gear slung over their shoulders would be paired with new fabric technology like Synchilla to make being in the outdoors increasingly comfortable and safe.

In the early 80s, Chouinard Equipment would hire Peter Metcalf as a marketing and sales manager, who quickly became a general manager shortly after. Patagonia was quickly growing while Chouinard Equipment stayed relatively small in its team size. The Lost Arrow Corporation would be founded with Metcalf at the helm, growing rapidly with his leadership. Around this time, Chouinard would hire Beal Ropes of France to begin creating custom ropes for Chouinard Equipment under the name ‘Black Diamond’.

With this growth, however, came problems. Chouinard Equipment’s unsustainable growth – as well as a number of lawsuits based on tragic accidents of amateur climbers – would put Yvon’s company in dire economic straits. The last blow would be a recession in the late 80s and early 90s, were Chouinard would be forced to claim bankruptcy on Chouinard Equipment. After laying off over 20% of his staff, many of which were friends and fellow climbers, Chouinard would focus completely on Patagonia.

The focus on gear that Chouinard Equipment had been founded on would transition to clothing and apparel on Yvon’s side. But not all hope was lost: 40 former employees purchased many of Chouinard Equipment’s assets in the hopes of maintaining the high level of gear development their company was initially founded on. They would acquire these assets in a leveraged buyout which was structured through an employee ownership plan, giving the 40 ground-floor investors significant decision-making power. Peter Metcalf was one of the key figures in the early years of this buyout, and he would later become the first CEO of the brand that would come to be called Black Diamond. They would receive extra funding from their friends at Beal Ropes and the Japanese gear distributor Naoe Sakashita. With a vision and ambition to continue to push the limits of the industry, these 40 former employees formed Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd. in 1989. They would keep the Chouinard Equipment logo (a ‘C’ within a diamond) which eventually transformed to the cutout design that is so iconic today.

They would continue to focus many of their efforts around climbing and gear innovation, but decided to delve into other mountaineering sports, the most prominent of which was backcountry skiing. Much like Chouinard looked toward the Yosemite Valley as the testing grounds of his early climbing equipment, the early Black Diamond team would look deeper into the mountains and higher into snow-capped elevation. Metcalf would push for a move into the Rockies, less attached to the surf scene that Chouinard had initially liked California for. They would relocate from California to Utah, in the heart of the Rockies, to test both climbing (dry and ice) and backcountry skiing gear.

Growth and Black Diamond’s own path

image of climber in helmet and red jacket climbing up a snowy rock face

They had picked the perfect place to develop their company. They had purchased a space in a Salt Lake City shopping center (that was previously abandoned), giving them enough space to house Black Diamond’s offices, manufacturing center, warehouse, and outlet store. From these small beginnings in the East Bench of the Salt Lake Valley, the early Black Diamond Equipment team would get to work at continuing their passion and legacy for the highest-quality mountaineering products. With some of the previous assets acquired from Chouinard Equipment, Black Diamond would go on to further develop and optimize a lot of the gear that was being researched.

Black Diamond would work with other small producers across the world to better their own equipment, working in conjunction with Italian facilities for shoes, boots, and ropes, and other American brands like Flatland Mountaineering for harness production. By 1991, only two short years after their inception, they were the second-largest carabiner production company in the world.

Some of the most prominent equipment would be in telemark ski bindings that had begun to be worked on during the era of Chouinard Equipment, which Metcalf and his team would focus on and test in the mountains in their backyard. They then worked with legendary Italian mountaineering company SCARPA to develop their own range of plastic telemark ski boots, which they named the Terminator series. Backcountry skiing was a massively growing market and only two years after Black Diamond was formed, a third of their total sales came from ski gear. Furthermore, they were extremely popular internationally, with 15% of their total sales occurring outside of the USA.
With their ventures into skiing gear came a whole new area of space within which the engineers and outdoor nerds could innovate. Avalanche safety equipment, ski skins, winter camping gear and more would allow Black Diamond, much like Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia, to set the standard for the highest quality alpine and mountaineering equipment possible.

Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd was quickly becoming an important name in backcountry gear. By the mid-90s they had hired over 200 employees and had yearly sales of over $20 million dollars. Metcalf had set himself apart from other businesspeople of the era, and he and the company would come to be recognized by the U.S Small Business Administration and Recreational Equipment Incorporated’s (REI) yearly distinction awards. Black Diamond became the ‘Vendor Partner of the Year’ for REI only 6 years after being created, chosen out of 1700 other companies across the industry.

Black Diamond Equipment - Men's Momentum Lace Climbing Shoes - Black/Anthracite - Size 5

Black Diamond would start making acquisitions in different fields, picking companies that set themselves apart for the same attention to quality that Black Diamond and Chouinard Equipment had prided themselves on and built as a cornerstone of their business model. Buying Todd Bibler’s small Bibler Tents company would help keep Bibler’s technology in the mainstream by protecting it from competition from larger, mass-producing companies. They would also merge with the iconic Franklin Climbing Equipment in 1998, acquiring key technology and resources to further develop cutting-edge backpacks, harnesses, and climbing apparel.

By the new millennium, Black Diamond had 250 employees, $30 million in yearly revenue, and were in the process of acquiring new warehouse real estate in Ninigret Park, Utah. Furthermore, to accommodate for their international support, they opened an office in Switzerland, nice and close to the Alps. Things were looking really good for Metcalf and Black Diamond.

By the mid-2000s, Black Diamond had opened a new department in Zhuhai, China as an additional manufacturing facility and distribution node for global activity. They would come to be acquired for $90 million by Clarus Corporation, which was renamed and became publically traded on the NASDAQ. The growth stabilized and Black Diamond continued to work hard at innovating in their fields. They expanded their original Utah facility in 2015 and in 2016 moved their Swiss facility to Innsbruck, Austria.

Today Black Diamond is a climbing and skiing company synonymous with quality and innovation. If you are into the outdoors, especially if you’re into backcountry winter activities, you know all about Black Diamond. If you’re a camper, you probably have some gear from them without even realizing. I myself have acquired little bits of Black Diamond gear over the years, including my trusty chalk bag for climbing as well as a very nice headlamp, some ski skins, and some liner gloves for keeping my fingies warm. This company is everywhere, and they are absolutely worth looking into if you want to invest in high-quality, dependable, and durable gear.

Focus on backcountry skiing and avalanche safety

skier in a red jacket touring up a snowy mountain

Black Diamond’s acquisitions and their strategic, paced expansion were key to the company’s success in future: they were setting themselves up to maintain the industry standard in their respective fields of climbing and skiing apparel. Their backcountry ski gear quickly became the most important realm for them to attempt to lead. In 2002 they importantly acquired Skye Alpine Inc., which manufactured ski skins that Black Diamond could then continue to develop for their own product line. Ski skins are very useful in backcountry skiing: they are placed on the skis to provide large amounts of traction for hiking to the top, making the ski down feel all the better. As someone who has used ski skins in the backcountry, they are amazing and feel absolutely essential. Black Diamond Equipment would also make gear like headlamps and LED lights meant for climbers, skiers, and camping enthusiasts. They were starting to be everywhere and their name began to be synonymous with alpine gear of the highest quality.

Equally, avalanche safety gear began to be a priority for their company, not solely as an area by which they could expand into, but also for reasons that hit closer to home. Famous climber and alpinist Alex Lowe was one of Black Diamond’s employees early on. He would tragically die in an avalanche in the early winter of 1999. He, like other Black Diamond employees, were such avid lovers of the outdoors they would often wake up before work to go skiing in the Utah backcountry before starting the shift. He was not the only Black Diamond employee who had lost his life in the backcountry to avalanches. Their continued commitment to the lifestyle and the outdoors, as well as the tragedy of their deaths, prompted Black Diamond Equipment to heavily focus on innovating the world of avalanche safety gear in a way no other company had done before. They wanted to make the beautiful sport increasingly accessible and much safer.

They began to develop what was called the AvaLung, a revolutionary device that could help skiers trapped under snow stay alive until help arrived. To give some context, one of the main dangers in being caught in an avalanche is not necessarily the weight of the snow – the true killer is often a lack of oxygen once buried. The continued expiration of carbon dioxide by the trapped individual in this environment was one of the most deadly features of being caught under an avalanche. Black Diamond saw a place they could help. With the help of University of Denver psychiatry professor (and backcountry skier) Tom Crowley’s invention, Black Diamond began to develop a vest with tubing that would rapidly inflate and hold air in the occurrence of an avalanche. The wearer would then have a reserve of air by which they could keep themselves breathing until help arrived, a critical safety tool in the backcountry skiers arsenal.

They would spend large amounts of time and money making the device practical and wearable and by the year 2001, they would have two iterations of their AvaLung at different price points to make this accessible to as many backcountry enthusiasts as possible. This commitment to their late friends and employees would be vindicated in February 2002, where the Black Diamond AvaLung was credited with keeping a skier trapped in an avalanche alive until help arrived. He was trapped for over half an hour under 5 feet of snow, found alive and breathing thanks to the work of Tom Crowley and Black Diamond, as well as the tragedies of Alex Lowe and other employees and skiers who had lost their lives in the mountains.

Much like the origins and intentions of Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia – out of which emerged Black Diamond – this is a company that intended to make the outdoors more comfortable, more accessible, and significantly safer for anyone. This is a company founded by individuals in love with the outdoors, in love with the mountains, and in love with their sports. That much is clearly evident in the distribution, technology, design, and approach to their role as a leading brand in mountaineering gear. They continue to adapt to the changing technology emerging today, never satisfied with last year’s cutting edge designs. They, like Arc’teryx, are singularly focused on making the best gear out there, bar none. For outdoor enthusiasts like myself who are warmer and safer in the mountains because of it, I am immensely grateful.

Backcountry skiing, the danger of the mountains, the critical importance of pushing safety practices

skier touring up a mountain ridge overlooking mountain and snowy woods

I wanted to chat a little about the context I know Black Diamond in most intimately – the realm of backcountry skiing. I have had the immense privilege of growing up near the Rocky Mountains, and the even greater privilege of having family that loved the outdoors. Many of my younger years were spent hiking, camping, and skiing, activities that were deeply formative to my sense of self. As an adult, I’ve tried my hardest to continue these activities as much as possible, not just as a reminder of my roots but as an affirmation of my beliefs in the importance of the outdoors. Equally, much like the inspiration for Black Diamond’s AvaLung, tragedy was one of the ways I and those around me learned about the risks and dangers of the mountains, sparking changes and innovation by which to make these beautiful experiences safer for everyone. There should be a hefty perspective for those who enjoy the outdoors to be aware of the risks and do everything they can to keep them and those they love safe. While safety gear is an important part of this formula, it is useless without adequate knowledge and its application.

While I grew up skiing on ski hills with chairlifts and cozy chalets, a number of my more adventurous family members were also very interested in the backcountry. As a kid, I’d hear amazing stories from my dad and uncles about being deep in the winter woods, looking for the perfect line, and hiking for hours just to get a few turns on untouched snow (it’s amazing what skiers will do for a little bit of powder). This commitment to the sport was admirable and indicative of how addicted most skiers get to the taste of first tracks, as well as the sense of adventure the mountain often encourages.

I would have the blessing of going to a school that embraced this sense of adventure wholeheartedly. Located just outside of my hometown, my high school had an outdoors program for any student who wanted to be a part of it. Included in the program was access to all the gear for any mountain sport (winter or summer), biweekly weekend trips to the mountains, and importantly, passionate and outdoor-obsessed teachers that wanted to foster this sense of adventure in their students as well as vast knowledge about the right way to act in these outdoor situations. We had daily classes where we would learn in-depth concepts about how to handle the outdoors in different ways and in the face of different risks. We would learn bear safety skills like how to setup and secure ‘bear hangs’ and ensure a camp was free from any enticing smells for animals, or how to properly layer and nourish yourself on long-term backpacking trips: my classroom education was paired with an application in the outdoors.

From skills like learning how to make a fire from dried lichen, identifying sketchy backcountry terrain that was best to avoid, learning first aid, reading maps, and getting a minuscule perspective of the many variables in the outdoors, this class gave me a newfound respect (and a necessary touch of fear) of what it meant to enjoy the outdoors. For this class, my quizzes were in the woods. My final exams were backpacking expeditions. Being a part of this program was an amazing experience and one that changed me forever. Also, I’m the go-to guy among my friends now for hints about safety and backpacking tips in the mountains, which is a very nice feeling knowing that I could help keep my friends a little safer in the outdoors.

Among my favorite units of the program were the winter units. We would learn about winter camping (which is one of my favorite kinds of camping even today) and backcountry skiing. Safety was the central element of our education in this context, not enjoyment: safety always came first, then the fun. This perspective didn’t emerge just out of a theoretical knowledge of the outdoors and its risks; my teachers and my school had had direct experience with the unforgiving nature of the mountains.

This program had two professors, both of which were lifelong outdoorsmen. While they never openly discussed these experiences, they would occasionally make mention of certain risks, losses, and too-close-to-call moments before and during their time as teachers that had instilled them with a fundamental respect and intimate understanding of the many dangers in the backcountry. They had lived through a tragedy of unimaginable proportions on a winter skiing backcountry trip with the school, one that had claimed the lives of 7 young students in a freak avalanche. While ten of the seventeen trip members were saved, safely returning home to their families (thanks to the amazing effort, decisive action, and deep knowledge of teachers, park rangers, and military personnel), seven of these young men and women would not. It was a horrible event that reached across the world and to outdoorspeople everywhere. Words could never capture the devastation this loss had on the school, the teachers, the families, and the community. It is a sobering memory in the school’s history, the worst possible reminder of the inherent risks involved in exploring the backcountry.

This tragedy sparked a national debate and a re-analysis of the importance of safety in school outdoor trips across the country. The school would dive fully into rebuilding its program and safety approach from the bottom-up, leading the movement by which other schools and outdoor programs could better their own standards. Out of a horrible tragedy, those that came back were determined to make sure the losses of those kids were not in vain. After significant changes made by the school and the efforts of the families, extremely rigorous safety standards were implemented within the program that had reverberations for backcountry safety across the country and in the entire mountaineering community. Many of the families now speak to being pleased with the actions of the school in the years since, which attempted to ensure that as many of the inherent risks were accounted for and mitigated from every possible angle for future trips. Importantly, in what must have been a very difficult decision, the school and the survivors did not stop taking their kids into the backcountry. Instead, they used that great loss to make sure that more people in the woods would be able to adventure with a greater degree of safety than ever before, maintaining rigorous standards and elevating the knowledge passed on to students and to parents. Because of those kids, I was taught about how to go into the outdoors and be safer, I was taught how to appreciate the beauty of the mountains with a knowledge and awareness of the risks involved. Because of those kids, less people would be hurt (or worse) in their desires to explore.

As mountaineering has become more popular in the last 20-30 years, events like this avalanche and the losses of other individuals in the mountains should serve to highlight (and push forward) the standards and safety protocols necessary to fully understand before going into the backcountry. Tragedy is – sadly – often the catalyst for change and renewed conversations about what people can do to better explore the outdoors in safer ways. While brands like Black Diamond have used it to develop gear that can save lives, it is important for outdoor enthusiasts to understand that the gear is only a small part of keeping you safe in the mountains. First and foremost is an extreme awareness of the dangers involved, as well as a wide breadth of knowledge that should be shared and practiced about identifying risks and acting accordingly. Once this knowledge and the technology can be paired, people can explore the mountains with greater levels of safety and understanding, helping prevent tragedies like this in future.

 

To Alex, Jeffrey, Scott, Marissa, Daniel, Ben, and Michael.

 

Graham

climber summiting a snowy mountain

 

Further Reading

https://www.gearx.com/blog/2014/05/28/brand-spotlight-black-diamond-equipment/

http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/black-diamond-equipment-ltd-history/