Black Diamond started as a backyard project aiming to make climbing safer, easier and cleaner. The company soon ventured to producing skiing equipment and is now popular for an array of technical equipment designed for, but not limited to rock climbing and skiing. Black Diamond ski poles have been seen away from the slopes and their offspring are now found in many bushwalker’s daypacks. Black Diamond headtorches stand for rugged, bright light at a small weight and are definitely not only for night climbs and caving adventures but great for running and hiking.

Dave at Paddy Pallin was lucky enough to recently have a chat with Tor who is Black Diamond’s Mountain Category Director.

Paddy Pallin: G’day Tor, Can you tell us a little about yourself, and Black Diamond?

Tor: Hello from BD headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah! I’ve been back at BD for nearly two years as the Category Director of Mountain products (Lighting, Trekking Poles, Gloves, Tents and Gaiters). I say “back at BD” because I was the Product Line Manager for the Ski Category from 2007 to 2010 then went to Nike for 4 years managing several product groups from bags to running apparel while my wife completed a master’s program in Portland, Oregon. I was lured back to BD last year because of the culture: great people, work environment, and of course the amazing Wasatch mountains which lie right at BD’s doorstep. BD is a great brand to be a part of on many levels and the amazing location is unparalleled in the outdoor product industry.

What was your journey, how you found yourself at Black Diamond and your role?

I turned 40 this year so life has now been long enough to look back on and truly feel like it’s been a journey! My path to BD began with my passion for skiing and working in the ski industry. Right out of university I landed a job as Director for a small cross country ski area near Lake Tahoe, in California. Having studied Literature I was not intending for a life in business but I learned a lot about how to manage a business, read a P&L sheet, and manage people over that 6 years in Tahoe. The biggest thing I learned during that time though was that I really loved the challenge of managing a business. During my last couple years in Tahoe I started working with Fischer skis on an idea I had for terrain park skis that were sort of a hybrid between alpine and Nordic skis. It’s a long story but the short version is I ended up going to work for Fischer in Austria. That’s when I was introduced to product creation and product management. I spent a winter in Austria working on the product as well as the marketing behind them, and even though the product did not become a commercial success, I realised that Product Management was exactly what I wanted to pursue. That job experience led me to my first tour at BD.

Do you remember your first outdoor experience?

I grew up in the mountains of California and was always outside so I don’t know what I’d call my first outdoor experience. One of my earliest skiing memories, I think I was about 11, that certainly helped fuel my passion for skiing, was cross country skiing with “Big Tor”; a Norwegian friend of my parents who I was named after. He took me on my first true backcountry ski adventure and I loved the idea of packing food and extra gear and heading out for a whole day of exploring on skis. When we stopped for lunch he showed me how to carve out a bench in the snow and lay my skis next to each other to sit on. That’s when I first understood the concept of “best practices” in the outdoors to improve either your safety or comfort level and better the experience.

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Tor Ski Mountaineering at Chamonix

Where is your favourite skiing spot?

It’s pretty tough to beat the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Lake Tahoe area of California for a lot of outdoor sports. Having grown up there and working there after university I did a lot of skiing, running, mountain biking and climbing in the Sierras. Now that I live in Utah, I have to say the skiing here in the Wasatch mountains is simply unbeatable. The snow and the access to it are the best in the US, in my opinion.

Tell us, where is your dream skiing location is?

Several years ago I had the opportunity to ski in Hokkaido, Japan. I had a powder day there that I’ll never forget where I had to time my breathing between turns because I was literally engulfed over my head. I dream of someday going back to Japan to do that again!

Why do you love skiing so much?

I’ve loved being outdoors and being active since I was a kid. I feel the most alive and the most my-self when I’m out there surrounded by nature and focusing and breathing hard on some adventure. The combination of sport and nature has the unique effect of being both meditative and thoroughly invigorating and inspiring at the same time. That combo is addictive!

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What is the current relevance of Black Diamond for Australian skiers, hikers & travellers?

I’ve never been to Australia, but I’m quite certain that climbers and skiers in Australia want the best gear they can get. BD strives every day to make the best climbing and backcountry skiing gear possible so I hope BD is always relevant to any Australian who engages in those activities.

How much does the Black Diamond ‘brand’ enter your design decisions? How different would your designs be if you were designing for yourself rather than for Black Diamond?

Every brand seeks to establish and maintain their own identity and unique point of view. That point of view is manifested in product through its inception via a brand filter. That filter, which always asks “is this a BD product?” is applied to everything we make. What I love about BD products is they are usually exactly what I would make for myself.

How does Black Diamond continue to resist the pull towards almost every other generic outdoor brand?

BD is a company full of passionate, talented athletes who live the outdoor lifestyle, who test and use our gear every day. That “culture of gear users”, at such a high level, really gives BD a big advantage over many brands in the space. We demand best in class functionality, durability and appreciate clean, precise designs. All that passion and expertise shows in everything we make and helps BD stand apart from other brands.

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Who sets the design briefs? And which customers guide your efforts?

Our Category Directors, like myself, write the briefs. Briefs are only written for those products which make it through a series of crucial steps. Good ideas or concepts for products can come from a wide variety of sources but ultimately they all have to make sense to BD’s target consumer(s). The BD consumer is always forefront in our thinking and selection of product concepts. Who the target BD consumer is can vary by product type but still have to pass through the brand filter. The saying “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is certainly a part of that filter. We only want to make things that our consumers really need and want to achieve their goals.

What is the process & how many prototypes do you go through before a product goes into production?

Most of our products are on an 18 month timeline which usually works like this: The best ideas get narrowed down to the best of the best and then only to the ones we are confident we can execute on and make sense for BD. Those products get briefed and designers begin working their magic. We typically go through two or three design rounds before they get handed off to development. Developers, who work with our manufactures (including our in-house manufacturing and overseas manufacturers) go through several rounds of protos which get reviewed with design to dial everything in. The number of proto rounds really depends on the product and how complex it is. At some point during proto rounds, we have protos worthy of testing so they start undergoing various tests in our quality lab and out in the field. Once the product performs and looks exactly how we want it to and passes any certification it may need, it moves into a commercialisation stage where packaging and marketing materials are created. That’s a pretty grossly simplified version of how it goes, but that’s the basic framework and it’s a fairly standard process across many product companies.

There is an obvious industry trend towards making lighter weight gear. How do you think this impacts durability & is it possible to satisfy both requirements?

Lightweight and durability are often at odds with each other and create the challenge we are often trying to solve. I like the saying “if it doesn’t work, it’s not lightweight”. In other words, if you go too light and sacrifice too much on functionality and/or durability and your product fails the user, it simply becomes a useless and therefore a “heavy” thing. The best products, the ones that make it through the BD brand filter, achieve the highest level of functionality and durability and are lightweight.  While BD makes several products that are the lightest in their class, being the lightest is only one of many potential goals of our products.

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How to you see in the future unfolding for outdoor equipment companies selling into Australia and the global market?

One of the biggest challenges all global companies face are currency exchange rates. When the US dollar is super strong and key foreign markets are weak like we see in Europe and Canada right now, it puts a lot of pressure on US companies to grow even more domestically or in additional emerging markets to help offset lost revenues. On the flip side though, by being global, risks can be mitigated by spreading it out. These days it’s a very global outdoor market and any brand of significant size that wants to keep growing will have to keep figuring out how to succeed despite the challenges.

Which design or product are you most proud of?

During my first tour at BD we created our line of Z-poles. Z-poles were the first folding trekking poles to enter the mass trekking pole market and they really changed the game. All the other top trekking pole brands had to react to and follow BD. Now folding style poles represent nearly half of our trekking pole business and a very significant portion of many of our competitor’s businesses. Changing the game with totally new concepts in gear categories, after years and years of similar products, is one of the most exciting and rewarding events within product creation.

What’s next for you guys?

I can’t give away any secrets, but we are super focused on and committed to innovation and we have some great things in the works within several of our key categories. We plan to continue bringing vastly improved and totally new, very inspiring products to market that improve the performances and experiences of our athletes and consumers.

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Top tips for new skiers/hikers/travellers/climbers etc

Go with experienced people you trust and mix it up with different people. You’ll be safer, learn a lot more, and enjoy the experience more than going alone or with the same person all the time.

Top 3 pieces of equipment you always take with you?

When I’m skiing in the backcountry, besides my avalanche safety gear, food, and water, I always have a few extra, compact things in my pack: a lightweight insulated top, a pair of insulated mittens, a warm beanie, and a headlamp. Putting on warm, dry layers when it gets cold and having light when it gets dark may seem obvious, but a lot of experienced skiers tend to skip the basics to save weight. Being over confident when you head out in the morning that you’ll be back before night falls can be a costly error and it’s worth the extra weight just in case

Paddy Pallin and their customers are very environmentally aware. Can you tell us about what Black Diamond is doing to help the environment?

Our biggest environmental efforts are local; right here in Utah our public lands are constantly threatened by various political and industrial actions. We actively support several groups in Utah who seek to protect public lands where we love to ski, climb and hike. Within our supply chains and manufacturing we are constantly looking at ways to reduce waste and lessen our environmental impact. A couple examples are our closed loop anodization process for carabiners and our Mojo Repo chalk bags which are built with reproposed fabric scraps.

Cheers Tor & thanks for your time.

Thanks, I appreciate you including BD in these interviews and I wish you guys a holiday selling season!

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About The Author

Dave Casey

Dave has worked as an International Expedition Leader and in Outdoor Education for over 15 years. He has extensive travel and guiding experience in Australia, NZ, Asia, South/North America and Europe. In his spare time Dave is a keen bushwalker, mountain biker and climber while also dabbling in some mountaineering and sea kayaking. He is currently working at Paddys as the National Account Manager, to fund all of the above.

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