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Thursday, June 21, 2018

How Black Diamond Equipment forces change in the outdoor world.

Black Diamond equipment has a knack for shaking things up. A talent for it. I'll explain, but first, a little history.

Black Diamond equipment was originally Chouinard Equipment. It was founded by Yvon Chouinard who also founded Patagonia Clothing. In the 80's he owned both companies, and then someone died. A climber on the Grand Teton stopped to take a leak, and when he was done he didn't rebuckle his harness correctly. The guide - an amazing climber named Jim Bridwell - wasn't in a position to see it. He didn't know the guy stopped to take a leak and didn't know his harness wasn't secured properly. When the climber leaned back and weighted his harness, it unbuckled and he tragically fell to his death. The lawsuit that followed cost Chouinard ownership of Black Diamond equipment. It also changed the way climbing harnesses buckle, and the way people tie into them, but that is a story for another day.

Chouinard sold Black Diamond to its employees, essentially it transitioned to an employee owned company and that was when things started to change. The first target on their list was Petzl, a French owned climbing and caving equipment company. The two companies were already competitors, but it wasn't climbing gear that Black Diamond decided to go after. It was something new for them. Headlamps.

I remember in the early 90's descending the back side of Mt Washington in New Hampshire in the dark with a full pack over rough terrain. I had a pair of maglight flashlights, the two people I was hiking with had early Petzl headlamps. They had use of their hands and I didn't. I vowed I would never use a flashlight again, and I have never hiked with one since then.

Petzl brought the headlamp to the United States from France and for quite some time they owned the market. I can't say for sure, but I suspect the headlamp for climbers, campers and backpackers comes from caving. Black Diamond saw an opportunity and entered the headlamp market, and they quickly took it over. Offering brighter headlamps at lower prices. Headlamp brightness used to be measured in watts - which I can tell you from experience is how most industries measure brightness, by the watts the bulb is using. This is how the photography and film industry historically measured brightness in lamps. Petzl was the first to switch to Lumens (which has its flaws as a measuring unit for brightness) and I suspect they did it so they could be measured on a different scale than the ever more powerful watt rating on a competing Black Diamond headlamp. Black Diamond switched not that long after Petzl did. We have been living in the  "lumen wars" every since. Every six months or so Petzl will update the brightness of its headlamps and a couple of months later Black Diamond will do the same. Price points generally stay the same but light output jumps and Petzl always ends up just behind Black Diamond. For example the Black Diamond Spot and Petzl Actik are both 300 lumens and the Spot is $10 less. For example, to use the Black Diamond Spot as an example again - it is a super popular headlamp - Three or four years ago the Spot was only 40 lumens, compared to the 300 lumens it is today. It simply just kept doubling every year or so. But I can tell you from experience, 300 lumens around camp is a lot of light. If you are talking with people while wearing a headlamp, at that brightness it needs to be dimmer, or pointed at the ground or both.

Black Diamond wasn't content to be slapping around Petzl though. They decided to go after another company that owned a market space. That company was Leki, makers of trekking poles. Black Diamond recognized the inherent problem with the internal twist lock used on trekking poles. The internal lock was simple, as you twisted it, the sides of the lock expand, pushing against the inside of the pole. This worked great, until it didn't. Admittedly, they are easy to fix, but you have to have the gumption to forcefully yank the pole apart, and do that without losing any parts. Black Diamond pioneered the external flick lock, which while heavier and more prone to snagging things on the trail they were far less likely to malfunction, and far more secure. The rest of the industry eventually switched to similar locking mechanisms, but it was too late. BD took over the trekking pole market.
Then BD kicked it up another notch. They released folding poles with a cable running through the middle. They packed small and light, and once again the industry is playing catch up with Black Diamond.

You have to wonder, what does Black Diamond have its sights on next? They have a proven track record for both innovation and being able to pull off practical gear. They are a company that I watch just to see what they are going to do next. Innovation is in their DNA. The company was founded by a man who was able to both envision how things should be and the gumption to make it happen. Chouinard reinvented piton manufacturing, and then created the concept of clean climbing (using protection that is removable from the rock without damaging the rock or the gear.) Yvon Chouinard also revolutionized climbing techniques. Literally changing the way we climb. What will Black Diamond come up with next? A venue where I would like to see them move is backpacking. They already make packs but they are usually climbing or skiing specific. If they brought there level of innovation to backpacking packs, they could give osprey a run for their money. Personally, I wish they would get into the kayak business.