Uniting Canada's Largest Climbing Community

Kolin Powick, Black Diamond's Climbing Category Director, Shares His Secrets About Gear Production And The Current BD Product Line.

While Kolin Powick was already well known within the climbing industry, it was only after he started publishing his popular QC Lab series on Black Diamond's website (more about that in this previous interview) that he became a recognized name to the average climber.

We caught up with Powick, now BD's Climbing Category Directory, and discussed what it takes to bring a new product to market, the need for a new UIAA belay-device category, some current BD product innovations and of course, Rumple's ongoing status as the best dog ever.
  • Black Diamond Carabiner Production

    Carabiner Production

Our previous discussion proved to be rather popular so thanks for coming back for another interview. Now that the formalities are out of the way: Black Diamond has introduced a whack on new products this season. Before we explore the products themselves, I think this might be a good time to briefly explain the product development cycle. I suspect that many climbers are not aware of what’s involved with getting new products to market. Your insights might help them better appreciate the gear when they are using it at the crag.
Kolin Powick: Wow – starting off with a bang. To simplify as much as possible, my job as the Category Director for Climbing here at Black Diamond is to understand the needs of the market and make a business case for any new product ideas that we may come up with, or that someone brings to us. Leaving aside the details of the business case, let's skip ahead to when the project case is approved. Then a product brief is created, and based on that, it's go-time. A design team team is put together which usually consists of the category director, mechanical design engineer, industrial designer, quality engineer, development engineer, process engineer, and a supply chain team representative.

The first phase of the product lifecycle is the Concept Phase – basically, the design team dreams up different ideas and concepts to tackle the problem outlined in the product brief. Depending on the product and complexity, this can take a few months.

Once we’ve narrowed in on a concept that shows promise from a functional, practical, manufacturable and financial point of view – then it’s time for the Design Phase. This is when the hardcore engineering takes place. The quality engineers develop a test plan and the designers design using CAD, finite element analysis, etc. When they have a design they’re psyched about, then prototypes are made here in our manufacturing facility (often handmade mock-ups), and then the lab and field testing begins. After every prototype, the team most likely learns a lot - so the designers will tweak things, and then build more prototypes and do more lab and field testing. This cycle repeats itself until the design team is satisfied. This whole phase also usually takes several months.
After the design is finished, the product moves to the Development Phase. The Developers figure out how to make the product. Are the parts going to be cast or forged or machined? Will components be made offshore or locally? Working with the quality engineers, the team determines what sort of Raw Material and Work in Process Testing is required. Will BD manufacture this product or will we work with one of our vendor partners that specialize in, say, plastic injection moulding? Once again, this phase can also take several months.

After Development, it’s the Commercialization Phase. I often say it’s easy to build one of something, but hard to consistently and efficiently manufacture hundreds or thousands of units of the same thing day and night, while never compromising quality. This is what the Development Engineering team, along with the Process Engineers and our Manufacturing teams have to do. It's not easy.

The Development Engineering team works their magic, spooling up the Manufacturing team, fine-tuning processes, continually checking and tweaking – usually producing a few pilot runs of product (mass quantities) – which will be inspected and scrutinized. This is where we’ll make our first consumer-facing run called Sales Samples. These will be used for tradeshows, marketing needs, athletes, PR purposes, seeding, and of course selling the new product – basically to get the word out about the new widget from Black Diamond. Development Engineering can take several months.

And then finally the project moves to mass production. The design team steps away and hands the project off to the Manufacturing Team. Of course, the design team is never far if issues arise.

Depending on the complexity of the product, the entire cycle can take from 18-24 months – less for something like a t-shirt, but when talking about climbing gear, the cycle is about 18 months from start-to-finish for a carabiner and more like 24 months for a cam.
So now that folks have an understanding of how BD designs, tests and manufactures their gear, let’s talk about some of the new BD product for 2018. You introduced an assisted braking belay device, the ATC Pilot. First, can you explain why it’s described as assisted braking rather than auto-locking? Can you get into some details about the device itself? In particular, who is the ideal end user and what benefits does the ATC Pilot provide over other conventional and assisted braking belay devices.
Kolin Powick: I’m going to talk in official certification type language. There is no such thing as auto-locking. That term is taboo in the Quality, certification and legal climbing world. A GriGri is actually considered a Locking Assisted Braking device according to the UIAA and EN standards.

There are two standards:
EN 15151-1 – Manual Braking Devices
EN 15151-2 – Locking Assisted Braking


As far as the ATC Pilot goes, we’ve been working with some of our friends at a few of the other companies who offer similar devices and are proposing a third category of belay devices. Devices like the ATC Pilot are not a tuber (manual braking device), and they are not a GriGri (locking assisted braking device). Unofficially we’re all starting to use the term Geometry Assisted Belay devices. So the ATC Pilot is a Geometry Assisted Device. It’s the geometry of the device that assists in the braking. It’s got more going on than a tuber (like an ATC) but no moving parts like a Grigri.

Geometry assisted devices date way back. The first I'm aware of is the Wild Country SRC (single rope controller) of the early 90s. It never really caught on, but the idea was there. Geometry assisted devices nowadays give you added braking power and way more control during lowering. Belay accidents happen when the belayer can’t control the rope while holding a fall, or when lowering a climber. The ATC Pilot combats these issues.

The ATC Pilot is simple (no moving parts), light (86 grams) and relatively inexpensive ($44.95 USD).

I believe these types of devices will become more commonplace in gyms and out at the sport crags. They provide more control when catching a fall and when lowering, so they're perfect for the new user. Along with the great braking and superior lowering control, they also feed rope very smoothly – so they're ideal for the advanced user.
  • Black Diamond ATC Pilot

    Black Diamond ATC Pilot

  • Wild Country Raptor Version 1

    Wild Country Raptor Version 1

  • Wild Country Raptor Version 2

    Wild Country Raptor Version 2

Geometry Assisted Belay Devices (images of the Wild Country Raptor courtesy of http://storrick.cnc.net)

I noticed that this year BD is also offering a new line of ropes. Some folks will remember when BD used to sell climbing ropes in North America. I suspect that those individuals won’t view this as a particularly radical product launch. For the rest of us, can you tell us why BD decided to enter the rope market, as well as explain the rope line-up’s overall design and construction philosophy and which specific ropes in the program are appropriate for certain climbers?
Kolin Powick: Yes, BD had ropes way back in the day, manufactured by Beal, and then we distributed Beal until about 2006 or so. We were out of the rope biz for a while but always knew we should come back. Well, we finally came back and frankly, it just makes sense. I always used to wonder why BD did not have the two things you absolutely need to go climbing: ropes and shoes. Well, now we have both.

The goal with the rope program was to have a line-up that would allow you to climb pretty much anything – and that’s what we did. From skinny twins, to half ropes, to burly half ropes, skinny singles for redpointing the proj, beefier ropes that take more abuse when working on that proj, workhorse wall ropes, economy ropes, gym specific ropes, and all around ropes and static lines to tag or haul – I think we have an offering that can get you up anything.

We’re not trying to tout any latest and greatest cutting-edge technology. Instead, we're trying to provide a great balance of performance, handling and price, and I think that’s what we’ve done with our line-up.
  • Black Diamond 9.4 mm Rope

    9.4 mm Rope

  • Black Diamond 9.9 mm Rope

    9.9 mm Rope

  • Black Diamond 8.9 mm Rope

    8.9 mm Rope

A selection of Black Diamond ropes.

Let’s move onto shoes. Last year you announced a new BD climbing shoe program and now the full line is available at many retailers. The shoes feature some compelling and new (at least for the climbing shoe industry) upper-material technology. Would you care to talk about that as well as the shoe line-up as a whole?
Kolin Powick: BD has finally entered the rock shoe game. We used to distribute Scarpa in North America for years, and stopped back in around 2006. As with ropes, we knew it made sense for BD to offer shoes, but with so much going on, we had to prioritize. That's why it took this long to get the BD shoe program going. We really wanted to bring something new to the game. BD is a company based on engineering equipment, and we wanted to look at shoes the same way.

We introduced our Engineered Knit technology for the uppers. This upper provides excellent breathability, as well as controlled stretch where we need it, without excess stretch throughout the rest of the shoe. The result is exceptional performance, great fit and unparalleled comfort.
  • Black Diamond Aspect Climbing Shoe


  • Black Diamond Momentum Climbing Shoe

    Men's Momentum

  • Black Diamond Women's Momentum Climbong Shoe

    Women's Momentum

Black Diamond Climbing Shoes

We also introduced moulded rubber. We are 3D moulding the rands and outsoles which allows us to vary the thickness of the rubber and subsequently the amount of stretch and tension on the shoe.

We’re also 3D moulding our Pebax mid-soles so we can fine tune the stiffness of the shoe. This allows us to tweak the performance characteristics of the shoe as well as scale the stiffness for different size shoes (stiffer for larger shoes and softer for smaller shoes).

We’re using three different types of rubber: our base rubber for durability, our harder Force rubber for edging and our softer Fuse Rubber for superior grip on steep routes. We put the right rubber on the right shoe. It’s the right-tool-for-the-job mentality.

Unlike the rope lineup, we didn’t come out of the gate with every shoe that every climber needs. Instead, we currently offer a range of shoes that will suit the first time climber, the trad climber, sport climber and boulderer. But we’re not done. There’s more in the works, so keep your eyes out for more new BD shoes to further fill out the line!
  • Black Diamond Focus Climbing Shoe


  • Black Diamond Shadow Climbing Shoe


Black Diamond Climbing Shoes

Ok, now onto hardware. In particular, offset cam and nuts. Some older climbers will remember offsets from decades ago. Do you want to talk about BD’s new offset cams and nuts and their benefits? And maybe take a stab at dispelling the myth that they are only useful for aid routes?
Kolin Powick: Ah ha – yes. When it comes to cams and stoppers, Offsets aren’t just for pin scars anymore. I think it’s a legacy thing. The best known early offset cams (offset aliens) were used for pin scars while aid climbing in Zion or Yosemite. And the old HB offset nuts were mainly used for the same purpose. They were all great in pin scars. Well, I’ve been an offset fan for decades and let me tell you, there are way more uneven cracks on this earth than there are perfect Indian Creek Splitters. I literally never leave the ground without my X4 Offset cams and new BD offset stoppers. They are incredible for free climbing, and of course still work great for aid climbing.

I highly recommend checking out offset stoppers and offset cams for free climbing. I need all the help I can get when climbing, and trust me, they help.
  • Black Diamond X4 Offset Cams

    X4 Offset Cams

  • Black Diamond X4 Offset Cams

    X4 Offset Cams Detail

  • Black Diamond Offset Stoppers

    Offset Stoppers

Black Diamond Offset Gear

I also noticed that BD introduced new harnesses that feature some innovative construction techniques. Can you discuss the general construction, the benefits that it offers as well as talk a little bit about the specific new harnesses?
Kolin Powick: The Solution is our latest harness and it brings a new tech called Fusion Comfort. The harness is thin, low profile and super comfortable. It’s also kind of unbelievable what you get for the dollar. This thing is a steal at $69 USD.

We’ve subsequently used this same technology in our four-season (adjustable legs, ice clipper slots) harness called the Technician, our higher-end lighter sport climbing harness called the Zone, as well as our mountaineering harness called the Couloir.

The way we construct the harness allows for really great weight distribution. You don’t need a thick, super-padded harness for comfort. Instead, you want a wide harness to distribute the load. This wide shape (and the Fusion Comfort construction) makes the harness more comfortable for those long belays or dogging sessions. The waist belt and leg loops are wider than you may be used to seeing. This really makes for a comfortable and still unobtrusive harness.
  • Black Diamond Solution Harness

    Solution Harness

  • Black Diamond Zone Harness

    Zone Harness

  • Black Diamond Technician Harness

    Technician Harness

  • Black Diamond Couloir Harness

    Couloir Harness

The new Black Diamond Harnesses with Fusion Comfort construction.

Just a couple of more questions. When I started climbing, it was almost unheard of to wear climbing helmets when cragging. Today, climbing helmets are almost de rigueur at most crags. I have some ideas as to why helmets have become popular, but I’m curious to hear your insights in regards to this change in attitude. How do you think BD’s helmet program has helped contribute to the increased popularity when it comes to wearing helmets?
Kolin Powick: There is no doubt that there are more people wearing helmets nowadays than ever before. I often equate it to the skiing scene. When we were kids, no one wore ski helmets. If you now go to a ski hill, you’d be hard pressed to find someone not wearing a helmet. That’s what’s happening in climbing. Helmets used to be for ice and alpine, and multi-pitch rock. Helmets are now trickling into trad cragging and even the sport climbing scene. I’m seeing tons of folks at sport cliffs wearing helmets, and you can’t argue that it’s not smart. I do notice that it’s an age thing. Old-time climbers typically don’t wear helmets at sport crags, while the younger generation is more receptive to wearing helmets while sport climbing. I’ve seen some 20-somethings sending 5.14 wearing helmets. And I’ve also seen, though only a few times, folks wearing helmets at the gym!

There is no doubt that as the tech improves, helmets make more sense. Some helmets are more durable than ever before, and some are lighter than ever before. And let’s face it – they just look cooler than ever before. All of these factors contribute to people being less wary about wearing a helmet.

You're going to continue seeing folks wear helmets climbing, and you’re going to keep seeing brands bring a new level of technology to climbing helmets in the near future.
  • Black Diamond Vapor Helmet

    Vapor Helmet

  • Black Diamond Vapor Helmet

    Vapor Helmet

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet

So we’ve gone through most of the BD product line. I guess it’s time to talk about biners and draws. Anything new happening in this line-up? And if you had to choose, what would be your choice of draws for sport climbing, trad climbing and a mix of the two. Can you tell us why?
Kolin Powick: Just like in all of our product categories, we try to offer an option for all levels of users. From the new climber to the seasoned pro – we have carabiners and quickdraws that will suit your needs.

The reality is that pretty much any quickdraw can be used for anything, but when you really want to optimize, there are the right tools for the job. And everything ultimately is personal preference.

For sport climbing, I like solid gates. I just do. Our Nitron quickdraw is an awesome sport climbing draw. And the vari-width dogbone is great for grabbing (or so I’ve heard).

But our FreeWire (wire gate), Positron (solid gate) and PosiWire (mix) are all super-quality and affordable draws that you can use for sport, trad or alpine.

When weight matters (alpine climbing and rock routes with mega approaches), I use the Oz quickdraws. They’re a great size, light, not too small and the keylock feature on a wiregate is great for not getting hung up on slings, pins or bolt hangers. For ice climbing, I typically use our HoodWire. I like the larger size as it’s easier to manipulate when wearing gloves, and once again, the keylock feature on a wiregate is great.

If I could only own one BD quickdraw though, it’d probably be the FreeWire. It's the least expensive draw in our whole lineup. Two wiregates with a great dogbone – it's totally at home clipping bolts or in the alpine or ice. It really is the one draw that does it all!
  • Black Diamond Nitron Quickdraw

    Nitron Quickdraw

  • Black Diamond FreeWire Quickdraw

    FreeWire Quickdraw

  • Black Diamond Positron Quickdraw

    Positron Quickdraw

  • Black Diamond PosiWire Quickdraw

    PosiWire Quickdraw

  • Black Diamond Oz Quickdraw

    Oz Quickdraw

  • Black Diamond HoodWire Quickdraw

    HoodWire Quickdraw

Black Diamond Quickdraws

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important question, how is Rumple doing?
Kolin Powick: He’s amazing. He’ll be 10 in September, and is getting a bit gray – but still out climbing and hiking every weekend. And he accompanies me to work every single day. He’s been at BD longer than many of the employees! #rumplethedog on Instagram!

Here he is at work – typical.
  • Rumple at the Black Diamond office

    Taking a break at the BD office.

Rumple at the Black Diamond office.

You can find out more about the new Black Diamond gear at http://www.blackdiamondequipment.com/.
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Gus Alexandropoulos is a freelance writer who has been involved in the outdoor industry for over 35 years. During his career he has been the editor at Canada’s national climbing magazine, as well as the gear editor for a national cycling magazine, triathlon magazine and running magazine. His work has been published in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and he has been a guest on television and radio broadcasts. His passion for climbing began in Ontario in the mid-80s and he continues to travel extensively in search of crisp conditions and steep rock.