The A-Team

Jan 12, 2001
Outside Magazine

Design revolutionary: Blenkarn tests a new ultralight Gore-Tex shell

Valli, right, with Himalaya star Thilen Lhondup

Michael Blenkarn


IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND the delicate combination of insane zeal and quirky genius that drives the design mind of Michael Blenkarn, try asking him a simple question like, Why does my raincoat leak? "Nylon likes water," the technology product designer at Arc'Teryx, the renowned Vancouver-based gear manufacturer, will tell you excitedly, before shifting into hyperbolic overdrive. "Can't get away from the stuff. As soon as you introduce something hydrophilic it's a negative vector, a small subversive element in your regime—like the French Resistance, blowing up bridges, hiding fugitives. I mean it didn't stop the enemy drive, but it was a pain in the ass..."

In the last six years, Blenkarn, 42, has been behind a list of seemingly small innovations that have collectively revolutionized the way outdoor gear fits and performs. He's taken garment seams and done the unthinkable: fastened them with glue instead of stitches to save weight and increase durability. He took the industry-standard seam width and simultaneously narrowed it and covered it with thin waterproof tape to create jackets that fit like custom Armani. And he took the confoundingly leaky zipper, an essential gear detail the industry had all but given up on, and made it watertight. Simply put, his ideas have been so fundamental and widely accepted (and sometimes downright ripped off), that if you purchase a high-end jacket or backpack today, it undoubtedly will have Michael Blenkarn's fingerprints all over it.

A 15-year veteran of product design, Blenkarn spent a decade learning the business as a designer at Mountain Equipment Co-Op (Canada's answer to REI) before joining Arc'Teryx in 1995. His success throughout has been fueled by a passion for the outdoors and a longstanding tenacity that sees Cold and Wet and Extra Weight as personal affronts. He remembers waking up in his first tent, at age nine, dumbfounded: "It was soaking wet. It hadn't even rained. Bit of a shock." He took the tent back to the store and learned about the demon Condensation. He's been trying to improve on every piece of outdoor gear he's owned since. These days, that means spending weeks fly-fishing in the perennially drenched British Columbia backcountry with a dozen outdoor-industry professionals to see whose miracle-coating jacket "wets out" first, or taking multiday, above-timberline mountain-bike trips in the snow, trying to stay comfortable carrying less than 35 pounds.

This winter Arc'Teryx will unveil two more Blenkarn designs that should once again stand the industry on its head. First, there's his three-person, 4.5-pound mountain-biking tent that comes with a stainless-steel wood stove. ("There's a synergy of weight saving here that's not at all obvious," he admits. No kidding, Mike.) Then there's the waterproof jacket he helped develop that weighs 304 grams—about half the weight of any of its functional predecessors. It's a quantum leap on par with shaving the back end off a kayak. "The way it's put together," says Wayne Gregory, founder of Gregory Mountain Products, "you almost can't look at it, it's so beautiful."

But since the elements never let up, neither will Blenkarn—he's still seeking perfection. "The Holy Grail is to marry a hydrophobic fluorocarbon with material that is also hydrophobic, and also pliable and abrasion-resistant..." We'll keep you posted on his progress. —Peter Heller

Andy Goldsworthy


Working with leaves, twigs, rock, snow, ice, and sand, Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy has crafted some of the most beautiful works of art in the past quarter-century—and none of them survives. Dubbed a "master land artist," Goldsworthy, 45, builds ephemeral environmental artifacts that usually melt or decay within days of their making. He's welded shards of Scottish ice into a perfect sphere, stitched Japanese maple leaves into a brilliant red chain, created a Sputnik-like star out of icicles, and made enormous snow-brick doughnuts at the North Pole. With every piece (all photographed and documented in fine art books), Goldsworthy proves it's possible for human hands to disturb the natural world and create beauty, not destruction. Last year Goldsworthy mounted his most ambitious project yet, dropping 13 hippo-size snowballs on the streets of London on Midsummer's Eve, collecting the essence of one season and releasing it into another. "There's something very powerful about finding snow in summer," he explained. "It's as if the whole of winter has drained through that white hole."—Bruce Barcott

William McDonough


The Case: The former dean of the University of Virginia's Architecture School, McDonough once announced he wanted nothing less than to redesign the world. He's off to a pretty good start. By creating structures that make oxygen, store carbon, harness energy as fuel, and provide habitat for hundreds of species, his firm, William McDonough + Partners, is slowly but surely transforming the once lifeless and inefficient buildings that house corporate America by applying a whole new aesthetic in which eco-effectiveness gets the same weight as profitability. Take his award-winning 1997 design for The Gap's corporate offices in San Bruno, California, which includes a "living roof" covered with six inches of dirt planted with native wildflowers and grasses that serves as a natural thermal and acoustic insulator. Or consider his 20-year, $2-billion renovation plan for the 454,000-square-foot Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan: The complex will run on a highly efficient fuel- and solar-cell power system and be landscaped with toxin-absorbing vegetation. In short, McDonough's designs prove that buildings can be good for the environment, and for the bottom line. "Einstein never took on biology," he says. "But if he had, he'd have seen that the most elegant design in the universe is the world itself... To harness this power you have to honor, not thwart, nature's laws. You have to know what you want to grow—asphalt or trees?"

Second Opinion: "It only makes sense that people are inspired by Bill's vision," says Kevin Burke, a partner in McDonough's architecture firm. "But I can assure you that he's just now hitting his stride."

Air McDonoughs?: Beyond architecture, McDonough is designing sneakers for Nike with soles that decompose into soil nutrients.

Next Big Thing: The March publication of his book, Cradle to Cradle (North Point Press), a manifesto on green design.—Brad Wetzler

Michael Fay


TEN YEARS AGO, J. MICHAEL Fay was known to a coterie of conservation biologists as an opinionated wildman with some decent skills in the woods. Now, after painstakingly cataloging a rainforest the size of Texas during an epic 2,000-mile trek through the densest jungle thickets of West Africa—a 15-month project he named the Megatransect—his worldwide reputation as an advocate for wildlife has grown to nearly Goodall-like proportions. During the trek, which Fay completed on December 18, 2000, he walked daily from dawn to dusk, tackling swamps, raging rivers, and disease in nothing but nylon shorts and rubber sandals, and recorded everything from the composition of gorilla troops to the names of individual plants to the location of elephant dung. He never wavered from his mission: "I want to preserve as much forestland as possible," he says, "before I become a bum on the streets."

Fay's passion for Africa began more than a decade ago, when he and his wife, Andrea Turkalo, an American biologist, moved to the Central African Republic so Fay could research a doctoral dissertation on western lowland gorillas. By 1991, Fay was working full-time as a field biologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, through which he helped establish the 250,000-acre Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve in 1990, and in 1993 the million-acre Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, both in Congo. The Megatransect idea came in 1996 during a flyover of the unexplored rainforests of northern Congo and Gabon. Realizing that loggers weren't far off, Fay decided that documenting the area's biodiversity might help save it—and might provide a long-sought opportunity to immerse himself in a simplified lifestyle. "I risked being ostracized," he says. "People thought it was harebrained, self-indulgent, frivolous." His wife called it a media stunt; others labeled him "Mega Mike."

When he finally came out of the woods, Fay's critics realized that his magnificent obsession was valid: The Megatransect, and Fay's fervent persona, moved people to action. The media attention helped raise millions of dollars for forest preservation and gave Fay access to the U.S. State Department and powerful banking officials, who he hopes will put pressure on African governments and logging companies. The Megatransect also drew international awareness to the Congo's 60,000-acre Goualogo Triangle, which government officials incorporated into Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in July. "He's done this thing that people consider unfathomable, beyond human capacity," says Cheri Sugal, director of Conservation International's global fund. "So he has a tremendous role to play in getting people to support these projects."

Now, with the long slog behind him, Fay has set up shop in Washington, D.C., where he's busy plugging his Megatransect into a 3-D modeling database, working with the WCS to raise $3.5 million to protect the Langoué Bai, a million acres of almost pristine Gabonese forest, and trying to adjust to life indoors. "The Megatransect fundamentally changed me," he says. Frustrated by city ordinances that bar him from camping in public parks, Fay has been sleeping on the floor of his office, relying on the generosity of coworkers for food, and riding his bike everywhere. If Langoué wins protection, Fay plans to attempt a second Megatransect, possibly across the Amazon Basin. If he's lucky, he won't have to come indoors for another three years.—Elizabeth Royte

Eric Valli


The Case: At his lowest point—a month behind schedule, his $3.5 million shooting budget blown, his crew pinned down by a Himalayan snowstorm at 15,000 feet—French director Eric Valli turned to his wife Debra Kellner, the production's still photographer, and said, "We'll never pull this thing off." Au contraire. What he pulled off was his first feature film, Himalaya, an epic road picture set in the Dolpo, a region of Nepal that's a three-week walk from the nearest road. Since opening last March, the film has garnered two French Cesar Awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Just getting the film in the can required the most audacious bit of filmmaking since 1982, when Werner Herzog pulled a ship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. During production, director and crew trekked nearly 1,000 miles; one crew member nearly succumbed to high-altitude edema, and the on-screen talent, local Dolpo villagers who'd never acted before, threatened to revolt when filming ran late and kept them from bringing in their crops. Only Valli could have pulled off such a project. The 48-year-old veteran photographer and National Geographic documentary filmmaker has split his time between Paris and Nepal since 1972. Himalaya was inspired by the lives of two of Valli's Tibetan friends, one of whom plays the lead character in the film. "What's on-screen is what we experienced behind the camera," says Valli. "There were no special effects."

Second Opinion: "A film of unusual visual beauty and enormous intrinsic interest." —Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. "An absorbing film...remarkable!" —Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times.

So Very French: Even in their darkest hours, Valli and his crew always kept a supply of wine and cigarettes on hand. One can't expect to survive on melted snow and yak butter forever, monsieur.

Next Big Thing: A second feature, for a major studio, may be in the offing. "I cannot say anything about it yet," says Valli, "but it will be a very big, very adventurous film."—Bruce Barcott