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This Is What It Takes to Make the Best Rock Climbing Product Even Better

Behind the scenes at Black Diamond’s intense gear testing lab and headquarters.

It seems unlikely that the next big idea would come from a junior designer. It seems even less likely that the world’s biggest climbing company would listen to said designer. But in 2015, when Black Diamond’s Climbing Director Kolin Powick was approached with a vision to make its flagship Camalot considerably lighter, he thought the idea was crazy – maybe just crazy enough to work. After two years of arduous design and development, Black Diamond introduced the Camalot Ultralight, an innovative update that shaved more than 25-percent of the weight off its existing line.

The original C4 line of Camalots has been updated only twice in the thirty years since its first release – the last update prior to the most recent one coming in 2004 – a testament to its initial brilliance. Camalots, for those outside the rock climbing world, are spring-loaded devices used to protect climbers from big falls, placed in cracks and secured with a carabiner to the rope. The real genius of the Camalot, or cam for short, comes in the lobes, which are designed with a logarithmic spiral shape. This shape results in a constant angle between the cam and the rock, providing more friction and a higher likelihood that it holds in place.

While the first three updates to the Camalot were focused on user experience, durability and weight – intuitive thumb loops, stronger metal cables and sculpted lobes, respectively – the fourth generation Camalot will be a top-to-bottom refinement of the industrial design. With rumors that the new C4s will hit shelves as early as January, I began to wonder what was driving new innovation at Black Diamond. How does the climbing powerhouse integrate the demands of a growing market, filling the needs of a new wave of climbers, while satisfying the establishment? Wanting to see for ourselves, I visited the brand’s headquarters to find out.

For context, Black Diamond has long been the industry standard for climbing gear such as harnesses, carabiners and belay equipment. Founded in the early 1950’s by Yvon Chouinard (of Patagonia fame) as the Great Pacific Iron Works, the company’s first products were steel pitons, made by hand and sold out of the back of a truck in Ventura, California and the campsites of the Yosemite Valley. After a lawsuit forced Chouinard to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Peter Metcalf bought the assets in 1991, renamed it Black Diamond, and moved the brand to Salt Lake City, Utah to be closer to the mountains. Sitting at the doorstep of the Wasatch Range has allowed Black Diamond’s engineers to test new products in some of the most rugged mountains in the country.

The brand’s headquarters has an open floor plan that’s filled with banter, stacks of prototypes and fast moving ideas. Its testing facility is in the same building, and a large part of manufacturing is downstairs, allowing engineers to be part of the entire process, from concept to commercialization. By keeping everyone under one roof, Black Diamond is able to improve quality, manage short production runs and test products faster. In a single morning, I was able to see Camalot prototypes get tested to failure, watch locking carabiners come off the production line and play with early prototypes of the newest Camalot. For those outside of the industry, few outdoor companies are this closely integrated.

The design teams are loosely organized by category – ski, climbing, apparel, mountain and so on – but most conversations flow fluidly between them. At Black Diamond, work and play are seamlessly integrated as one. What the designers do on weekends is a great way to test new gear. The designers at Black Diamond use the products they make on a weekly basis, before and after work and on weekends. This passion drives the company’s long standing standards of quality and innovation.

While the lauded strength of the C4 Camalot line will continue to be the main design tenant, Black Diamond saw room to improve, especially for fast-and-light missions. Long trad routes in the Wasatch often require a double rack (or two full sets of Camalots), including the larger cams sizes. This takes a lot of space, weighs a ton and was identified as a key area to address. When asked who inspired the new changes, Kolin replied “almost everyone — sales reps, dealers, friends, my wife, our user-employees, customer feedback, athletes and of course myself. We use this stuff all the time and feed the things we learn back to the design team.”

While the design process is a collective effort, it’s far from chaos. Kolin aggregates and distills all this information into a product brief, which outlines the features of the product including functionality, size, weight, strength requirements, sizes, colors, costs, packaging, certification requirements, and a timeline. Once complete, the brief is passed to the design team and development begins – a process that takes considerably more time than most people would guess. When I asked about the general design process, I was shocked. “It starts with the initial concept, then design, prototypes, development, sampling, lab testing, field testing, iterations and more iterations, final design, fabricating samples, certification and production. The majority is testing,” said Kolin. “The sheer volume of testing Black Diamond does is mind blowing.”

As I wandered around the facility, I quickly started to understand why. The variety of testing equipment in the lab is astounding. Functional testing, ultimate strength testing, corrosion testing, thermal shock testing, cold weather testing, fatigue testing, durability testing, misuse testing and on and on. There’s an entire room of Frankensteined machines built with the sole purpose of pushing Black Diamond prototypes to a breaking point. The facility tests both individual components and finished goods. Kolin admitted that “there are no standards for a lot of these tests; our crew of climber engineers developed each machine over time, as we’ve learned the critical failure points of each product.”

After a prototype passes all of the lab tests, it’s sent into the field to be tested by employees, athletes, professional guides and a designated team of field testers. Once approved, the product heads to certification testing, commonly called CE. And still, when it passes CE, more testing. As products move into mass production, there is an entirely new team tasked with maintaining the requirements set out during the design phase. These tests include raw material testing, work-in-process testing, proof testing, destructive batch testing and quality inspection. To be honest, I found it hard to wrap my head around the process fully. Kolin summed it up by saying “any product that leaves Black Diamond and has been put through the absolute ringer.”

The new Camalots are no exception. Through rigorous testing and dozens of iterations, the design team improved the C4s top to bottom. New sculpted metal lobes, leveraging lessons from the Ultralight cams for a 10-percent weight savings. They also have a new tread pattern, variable stiffness stems and notably, a trigger keeper on the larger cam sizes that holds them in a retracted position, minimizing the amount of real-estate they take up on a harness.

Despite the detailed nature of the work, what struck me was the intense passion around the office. It’s a team of opinionated tinkerers, who want the best gear for everyone. At one point, Kolin said to me, “I don’t think I’ve gone climbing once in the last 16 years when I haven’t been testing something, and most the people here do the same.” That insatiable passion translates to Black Diamond making some of the best gear out there.

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