Pioneers Redefining Possible

PETER METCALF

Trailblazing climber and CEO of Black Diamond

Outside Television profiles Black Diamond, Inc, one of the most successful and well-known makers of outdoor gear and apparel, and its founder, Peter Metcalf. OUTSIDE TELEVISION
October 18, 2013

In 1989, Peter Metcalf convinced a few fellow employees to scrape together enough cash to buy bankrupt Chouinard Equipment assets from Yvon Chouinard and start Black Diamond Equipment. He had no designs on becoming a global force in the outdoor industry, he just knew he was committed to make better, safer climbing gear.

“It was sort of a Don Quixote vision,” Metcalf says. “My goal was not about creating a big company. I remember thinking ‘We just need to lead. We need to innovate. We need to be the heart and soul of the community.’ ”

Nearly a quarter century later, the 58-year-old former climbing bum and elite alpinist is the CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, Inc, one of the most innovative and fastest-growing outdoor gear and apparel makers. The operation is now a $205 million global corporation that encompasses four brands—Black Diamond Equipment, POC Sports, Gregory Packs, and Pieps Austria—with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and offices in Reinach, Switzerland, and Zhuahi, China.

  • Metcalf atop the ridge at Devil's Castle, a rugged peak located within Utah's Alta Ski Resort.

  • Getting ready to ascend Black Streak, a seven-pitch alpine sport route, and one of the more popular climbs at Alta Ski Resort's Devil's Castle peak.

  • In a sea of orange lichen, midway up Black Streak.

  • Finding the good holds on the seventh, and final, pitch of Black Streak.

  • Metcalf topping out.

  • Getting ready to rappel off the route.

  • Back on solid ground and getting ready to head home.

PHOTO GALLERY: A behind-the-scenes look at Outside Television's video shoot, which was filmed on location at Devil's Castle, a rugged peak in the Wasatch Mountains outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Michael Hanson

Metcalf’s success may be a little quixotic, but he’s also drawn from his own deep well of climbing experience, which has led to a practical, hands-on approach to producing a steady stream of innovative products. As a teen, Metcalf drove nonstop from New York to Alaska to successfully notch the first ascent of the technically challenging Southwest Ridge of 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather, a peak notorious for its remote location and horrible weather. In 1980 Metcalf, Pete Athans, and Glenn Randall climbed the central buttress of the south face of Alaska’s 14,573-foot Mount Hunter in 13 days, 132 days fewer than it took John Waterman, the only other person to summit, in 1978. Despite the quick ascent—the team climbed up to 18 hours a day—it nearly cost them their lives.

“Those situations in life, where you have to dig far deeper than you ever thought possible and those euphoric experiences that can follow, give you a much higher level of awareness of who you are and what you’re doing,” says Metcalf. They also gave him the skill to, as he says, “accept seemingly overwhelming obsta­cles by breaking them down into a set of non-overwhelming components."

That skill is essential at Black Diamond, where an office full of elite mountain athletes who double as designers and engineers, plus sponsored athletes like Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Will Gadd, and Angel Collinson, beat up prototype ski and climbing gear in their daily Wasatch outings to perfect every product before it reaches the consumer.

CHANGING THE WAY WE RECREATE

A brief history of Peter Metcalf and Black Diamond’s major innovations and achievements

  • Metcalf and crew enroute to Mount Fairweather.
    At age 17, Metcalf drives nonstop from New York City to Alaska with three friends to make the first ascent of the technically challenging Southwest Ridge of 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather, a peak notorious for bad weather and its remote location at the end of Glacier Bay.
  • Metcalf (left), Athans, and Randall
    Metcalf and fellow climbers Pete Athans and Glenn Randall attempt the first alpine ascent of the south face of Alaska’s notoriously difficult 14,573-foot Mount Hunter. Climbing 18 hours at a stretch, they summited in 13 days—132 days faster than John Waterman, the only other person to successfully summit the peak via the more treacherous south face. It was a harrowing ordeal that nearly killed the men. They had rationed out food for six days, and ended up being on the mountain for 13 days. Glen Randall later writes a book, Breaking Point, about the experience.
  • Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard racked up and ready to climb.
    After six years of odd jobs, including working two winters as a roughneck on wild-cat oil drilling rigs, to fund ambitious climbs, Metcalf talks Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia in 1970, into letting him become general manager of Chouinard Equipment and moves to Ventura, California.
  • By expanding the company's product line to include cutting-edge items like spring-loaded cams and interchangeable pick tools, Metcalf grows Chouinard Equipment from a $600,000 to a $6 million company. But due to five liability lawsuits that made the insurance skyrocket, Chouinard puts Chouinard Equipment into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Later that year, Metcalf persuades key employees to scrape together money to buy Chouinard Equipment's assets and relaunch the company as Black Diamond.
  • Invite to the moving party.
    After a countrywide search, Metcalf moves the company to Salt Lake City, Utah, so employees can test and train in the nearby Wasatch Mountains.
  • BD releases its Black Prophet ice ax, the first to have a carbon-fiber handle. But the carbon didn’t consistently adhere correctly to the aluminum resulting in a few unfortunate situations of stranding climbers halfway up routes clutching their aluminum handles. The ethical decision to recall thousands of tools after but a few failures is anthologized in business-school textbooks as a case study in business ethics.
  • BD debuts the HotWire, a carabiner with a looped wire gate that resembles a large paper clip. It's now a standard piece of climbing gear.
  • At Black Diamond HQ, psychiatrist and skier Tom Crowley debuts his AvaLung, a backpack with respiratory tubes that allows avalanche victims to redirect exhaled oxygen away from their faces, which helps prevent suffocation and prolong the amount of time an avalanche victim can breathe when buried beneath snow. BD invests $1 million and 2.5 years later brings the revolutionary product to market.
  • The publicly traded company Clarus Corp. buys BD for $90 million. At the same time, Clarus acquires Gregory Mountain Products Inc., a manufacturer of specialized backpacks, which becomes part of Black Diamond, Inc.
  • BD’s new Convert ski
    BD builds, from the bottom up, a brand-new ski factory in Zhuhai, China. The first skis are being delivered to retailers this season.
  • BD acquires gear manufacturers Pieps Austria and POC Sports, as part of its ongoing strategy to assemble global companies that lead the charge in creating safer travel and backcountry adventure experiences.
  • Metcalf is inducted into the American Alpine Club Hall of Fame.
  • The new Coefficient Hoody
    BD is on track to become a $205 million company and, in September, executes its largest product launch in history, a new apparel collection of soft shells and technical insulation focused on backcountry skiing and alpinism.
  • The Jet Force airbag-equipped avalanche backpack
    In October, BD unveils the Jet Force, an innovative new avalanche airbag-equipped backpack that runs on a motor and solves lots of the issues found with packs that are triggered by compressed air.

The company’s list of pioneering and, in some cases, life-saving products includes the first-ever plastic telemark ski boots; the HotWire carabiner, which resembles a large paper clip and is now an industry standard; and the AvaLung, a backpack with respiratory tubes that allows avalanche victims to redirect exhaled oxygen away from their faces, preventing suffocation and prolonging the amount of time someone can survive when buried in avalanche debris. In September 2013, Black Diamond is executing its largest launch in history with an apparel line that focuses on a curated collection of soft shells and technical insulation for backcountry skiing and alpinism. And, in October, they unveiled the Jet Force, an innovative avalanche airbag-equipped backpack that runs on a motor and, unlike other such bags, can be deployed multiple times and, because it doesn't use compressed air, is much more travel-friendly. The company hopes to make the pack available for Fall 2014.

But gear and apparel are only part of Metcalf’s formula. “Great product is but one component of what you do for the community,” says Metcalf. “The role of business is far greater than to make a buck or sell something.”

In 2003, Metcalf took a tremendous professional risk when he penned a strongly-worded op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune, accusing then-Governor Michael Leavitt of orchestrating a back-door deal that would strip six million acres of federal lands of its wilderness protection. In the letter, he threatened to move the Outdoor Retailer show, which has an estimated annual economic impact of more than $40 million, out of Utah. Metcalf got results: Leavitt backed down. The seminal move also galvanized the outdoor recreation industry into a political force and became the catalyst for the “Recreation Economy Report,” a tool the industry uses in Washington, D.C., to advocate and lobby for providing access to public lands.

Metcalf’s outspoken leadership has most recently resulted in Congress stalling on the controversial SkiLink gondola between The Canyons and Solitude Ski Resorts, which would have required selling Forest Service land and, thus, removed federal-approval requirements. He was also instrumental in Utah governor Gary Herbert’s recent decision to hire a Director of Outdoor Recreation, a state ombudsmen who will, the outdoor industry hopes, advocate for human-powered recreation.

“In our public lands we have a finite pie,” says Metcalf. “It’s already been cut and it’s not going to grow. You can’t keep whittling away at pristine, high-quality public lands and expect to have a clean watershed and a kind of community that people want to come to.”

Metcalf’s basic MO on conservation issues is to “get people engaged.” It seems to aptly sum up his overall life philosophy as well.