In 1989, Peter Metcalf, a former climbing bum and elite alpinist, led the charge to buy out Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s struggling climbing-equipment company. He renamed it Black Diamond and has transformed it into one of the fastest-growing outdoor-gear and apparel makers in the world, a $205-million-a-year conglomerate that includes four brands and shows no signs of slowing down. Here are some things the 58-year-old learned along the way.
One thing I picked up from Chouinard is that you have to keep moving, keep evolving. Not look at what is and ask why but envision what’s not and ask why not? You have to be willing to blow up what you have in order to get to the future.
I am totally amped up and enthused about the state of global climbing. There’s a new generation of climbers out there who inspire me to no end. I think, Holy shit, those guys have got big nuts.
You are not doing the right thing for your customers, employees, or shareholders if you don’t consider the environment in which they recreate. If you can’t run your business in a way that makes a positive difference in society, you aren’t fulfilling a big part of your obligation.
Everything goes back to climbing and mountaineering. I’m still very passionate about climbing but not nearly as bold. When you’re 58, and you have less than half your life in front of you, you’re much less willing to put it on the line for a climb. Youthfulness can be bliss.
For a short while, I held the unofficial pull-up world record. At the time, the record was something like 140. This was in 1982 or ’83. I did 150 or 160. Then, a week or two later, I was getting ready to do an interview with the local paper, and I found out that the record had gone up to 200. A Chinese gymnast who weighed like 100 pounds did it.
One quote I have above my desk, ripped out of a magazine, says, “Pain is temporary. Suck is forever.”
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, we didn’t freak out, unlike a lot of companies. In climbing, the worst thing you can do when you get in a tough situation is freak out, because you will fall and you will kill yourself. The thing to do is regain your composure and think things through.
I’m not looking for mercy or sympathy, but I average at least six and a half workdays, 70 hours a week. It’s really Herculean still.
I’m a much nicer guy and at peace with myself when I get out and get my heart rate up and my muscles moving.
We recently lost a good design guy to Apple. The headhunter told him that Black Diamond was one of the companies that Apple admired, that they have a whole collection of our gear and they think it’s incredibly well engineered. I was really touched by that.
CV: Grew up in Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. Studied under legendary conservation biologist Michael Soulé. TNC, the world’s largest conservation organization, hired him as lead scientist in 2004. Now travels the globe designing conservation programs, with a focus on involving local communities in environmental efforts. Teaches conservation at the University of Montana. Appears regularly on CBS. Fly-fishes for trout in his (rare) free time.
12: Countries he’s visited in the past year.
Up Next: A TV series for PBS about the intersection of man and nature, from Malawi to the Arctic.
On Embracing Your Forties: “It’s the age of moderation and consistency. As I get older, recovery times get slower, my knees hurt a bit more, and a late night morphs into a rough morning. But right now I’m at the apex—that wonderful place where I know what to do and have the ability to do it.”
I WAS A twentysomething divorcée sitting behind a flesh-toned cubicle wall at Vanity Fair magazine. This was a desk that many coveted, but not me. Don’t get me wrong—the magazine was a terrific place to work. Its sleek blocks of frosted-glass offices were lined with smart, caustically funny people editing some of the most vibrant voices on earth at the turn of the 21st century.
But I was blindly impatient and headstrong. I loathed sitting still. I couldn’t figure out how I was being paid (barely) to keep my butt in an office chair even though I had so little to do. I wasn’t even allowed to answer my boss’s phone, since he and his friends played elaborate prank-call jokes on one another. So I whiled away afternoons reading great stories. Without realizing it, I was learning that curious people could support themselves by traveling and writing about the world’s problems. One day I was sent to the offices of Human Rights Watch to fetch photographs of possible war crimes that Sebastian Junger had shipped back from Sierra Leone. As I waited for the photographs, someone pulled me aside and told me the story of honor crimes: women who are killed by their families for rumors of sexual dishonor in Jordan and on the West Bank.
This was a story that demanded reporting, I thought, and I decided to go to the Middle East and do it myself. This was ambitious, yes, but I had nothing to lose and I knew it. I had few expenses, and I was responsible to no one. (I was living in my parents’ guest bedroom following my divorce.) There was no chance in hell that Vanity Fair would send me, so I pitched the story to The New Republic. If I could do it, the editor said, the magazine would publish it. After just nine months at Vanity Fair, I’d left my desk behind for good to pursue a life as a writer. About a year after publishing that first story, on an achingly bright September morning in 2001, I was walking through Central Park with my sister when emergency vehicles began to race past us. I called up The Sunday Times of London and offered them my services as a stringer in New York. After filing a few dispatches for them, I scrambled and found a women’s magazine that wanted a story on refugee camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At the time, the United Nations was sending journalists to Pakistan. In addition to helping secure visas fast, the UN would arrange for a flight if the journalist had an assignment.
I landed in Islamabad wearing sneakers white with the dust of 9/11 and rushed into the refugee camps from which the Taliban had sprung. For the next three years, I worked for whoever would pay me. I left Pakistan for Medellín, Colombia, to report on child assassins. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I reported on pygmies who claimed that rebels had killed and eaten their family members. I returned to Pakistan several times to report from the tribal area of Waziristan. And each time, I returned home to the same set of pink twin beds in my parents’ apartment.
I finally moved out, but I’ve kept going for the past decade, working primarily on issues of religion and justice in Africa and Asia. My story isn’t uncommon. There’s a whole itinerant pack of us who came of age in the shadow of the falling towers. As I’ve grown older, I’ve mellowed with the realization that the good things—jobs, skills, careers, love—take time. Talent is the least of it. But the attributes I learned during that unsettled period continue to serve me: curiosity, empathy, and a desire to return to desperate places. As a wise friend told me years ago, the greatest challenge is getting there.
CV: Attended St. Andrew's high school in Middletown, Delaware. Graduated from Middlebury College in 2011 with an environmental-studies degree. In September, after losing a job on a lobster boat, Forsthoefel started walking west from Philadelphia with a 50-pound backpack, a mandolin, an Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, and a sign that said WALKING TO LISTEN. He recorded interviews with people he met on the road: a woman in Alabama whose Marine-vet husband had died from complications related to an IED attack in Iraq; a cop near the Grand Canyon who “pulled over” Forsthoefel for pushing a baby stroller containing his pack over a windy pass. Forsthoefel completed his journey in Half Moon Bay, California, 11 months after setting out, and seven months later, This American Life aired a popular show on the project.
Up Next: A book about his trek. Forsthoefel is pulling espresso shots in Woods Hole by day and writing by night.
15: States he walked across.
On Letting ’er Rip: “Taking unusual and maybe risky paths opens up opportunities. It’s the quickest way to go from living in a bubble to learning something new. That’s what the walk was about.”
When I have a difficult decision to make, I imagine myself as a 90-year-old guy looking back on his life. I imagine what I’ll think about myself at that point in time, and it always makes it really easy to go for it. You’re only going to regret that you wimped out.
My first business was a retro-gaming site where you’d go and play all these cool old-school games. It was a good idea but ahead of its time. I was 26. I had raised $4 million of other people’s money, and when the economy tanked I lost it all. Nobody needs to get their ass kicked, but it definitely helps.
On the road and traveling—that’s when people are at their most creative.
As soon as I stopped trying to think about a business idea and started focusing on what I’m passionate about, that’s when it came to me.
I get pretty focused when I start working on something. And I drink a lot of water, way more than most people. When I was designing the early prototype straps for GoPro, I realized that if I wore my CamelBak, I wouldn’t have to keep getting up to refill my glass. My friends used to tease me: “Woodman, you’re such a nut job, sitting at your desk with a CamelBak on.” They don’t tease me anymore.
My twenties were my practice. My thirties were when I really hit my stride with GoPro and did all the heavy lifting to build the business.
I come from surfing, and surfing is the worst cool-guy industry of all. I decided long ago to try and kill the cool guy. And in a sense we did. But it wasn’t obvious. There was a period where it was like, is this going to fly? Now cool guys are rocking GoPros on their helmets, and… it’s cool.
I try to get in about one solid surfing trip a month. June was Chicama, Peru. July was Mexico.
It’s more a Yeeuuup! than a Yeeoooww! I’ve had it my whole life. When you see your buddies hucking a huge hit or just going after it, I gotta give them a shout out.
When I was first getting going, my sister told me, “Write yourself a Post-it note that says: ‘I am doing this, period.’ Stick it by your bed so when you roll over, it’s the first thing you see every morning when you wake up.” She had done this herself when she was going through a tough time. I did it and it totally worked. It’s a halo for your thirties. You are doing this. Make it count.
I still drink a couple of Red Bulls every day.
One of my mentors early on was Eli Harari, the founder of SanDisk, who happened to be a friend of my dad’s. I’m young and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I’m going on and on about what I want to do with GoPro, and he stops me and looks at me and says, “You want to be the number-one activity-capture company in the world. Just focus on that.” He said to tell people that when I explain GoPro and they’ll under-stand it very succinctly. And no shit, we did it.