Three (or more) Great Things Black Diamond Did for Ski Touring


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | November 12, 2015      

Whippets on Denali, Foraker in background.

Whippet Self Arrest Ski Pole Grips
If I had to choose Black Diamond’s #1 contribution to our sport, I’d go with ski poles. Dilemma is do I go with the Whippet self arrest grip or FlickLock adjustment clamp? Since most people using Flick-lock poles never use the lock past their initial length adjustment (even though it works well), I’ll give the Whippet 1st place. If equipped with Whippet grips in alpine terrain, you’ll find yourself constantly using them, seemingly by instinct. It’s like they become an extension of your hands.

Andrew McLean with one of his prototype Whippets.

Andrew McLean with one of his prototype Whippets. Click to enlarge.

Ski pole self arrest grips (help stop a fall down steep snow) have been around forever. But prior to the retail introduction of Whippet in 1996, most (if not all) offerings were about as good as using a toothpick to hook a shark. The Ramer Claw was one of the first. While somewhat effective, it was bulky and constructed entirely of plastic, thus lacking mass and penetration in harder snow. Another company, Gipron, sold a ski pole grip with a removable self-arrest prong, which Black Diamond distributed. The Gipron simply was not strong enough nor the correct shape.

Industrial designer Andrew McLean changed all that. In 1995 he was working for Black Diamond as a product designer, and doing quite a bit of steep skiing. He wanted arrest grips that were effective, so he worked on his own ideas as a “skunk works after hours” project that eventually became a BD product.

Gipron self arrest grip was made in Italy, innovative in that the blade was removable.

Gipron self arrest grip was made in Italy, innovative in that the blade was removable. Unfortunately they were weak and the shape of the pick wasn’t effective.

Gipron with blade removed.

Gipron with blade removed. In the 1990s I got quite used to removing and attaching the blades when needed, so it took me years to get used to the fixed Whippet. Now I see the genius of Andrew’s approach, which is basically less fiddling and always having the tool at hand. Caveat, do use the tip protectors supplied with the Whippet if you don’t feel you need the sharp.

Andrew told me that due to the limitations of the Ramer and Gipron, he and others were skiing with an ice axe. Doing so was awkward and perhaps even dangerous due to the challenge of controlling a large tool with two sharp sides. “I mounted an ice axe head on a ski pole,” Andrew said, “and the adze dug into my wrist while making pole plants, so I ground off the adze then began grinding down the axe pick until it was the right size for skiing.” Andrew added the flange on the pick so it had more resistance during self arrest in soft snow, eventually proposing the product at a BD sales meeting. The Whippet required no tooling as it was laser cut, so cost of entry was low and Black Diamond went for it.

Whippet grips have since become a defacto standard of ski alpinism, used as much as a climbing aid as a safety device. (Grivel also makes a spike grip, with a folding pick, they’re bulky but worth considering as well.) It should be said that once you’re moving down steep terrain and take a fall, even an ice-axe can be minimally effective — and Whippets less so. More, it’s worth reminding ourselves to avoid any sense of false security that you could succumb to while sporting these tools. Nonetheless, the McLean Whippet has doubtless saved hundreds of lives including those of this writer’s closest friends and family members. What kudos for a product designer, to actually save a life!

Check out Andrew’s design portfolio.

Ascension Climbing Skins
In the early 1990s and before, we were stuck with climbing skins from Europe, mainly, Coltex. In cold North American conditions, Coltex glue stuck about as well as a Post-it note covered with dandruff, and wore out as fast. Black Diamond bought Ascension in 1999 from Ascension Enterprises, the guys who formulated a super-sticky glue and sourced a nylon conveyor-belt plush that climbed like a monkey. Ascension Enterprises also innovated retail and DIY skin trimming for shaped skis, and worked hard on innovating better plush and tail attachment systems. Thankfully the original Ascension philosophy of sticky glue and ultra-grippy plush still provides fans of steep skinning with the tools they need for their craft. Kudos, BD has kept the faith and still sells what we’ve always called the “Orange Ascension,” as always optimized for grip. If you want ultimate durability and traction, look no farther.

Diamir Fritschi Bindings
Despite our lumping frame bindings with outdated technology such as carbureted engines and dial telephones, one must give credit where credit is due. The “plate on a hinge” way of creating a working touring binding was where virtually all innovation happened up to about 1987 when Fritz Barthel began retailing his tech binding invention. So, many years B.F. (before Fritz), Chouinard Equipment’s Yvon Chouinard worked with Paul Parker and others to import alpine touring gear from Europe. My recollection is their first effort was to bring in the Salewa — a problematic frame binding that you couldn’t ski without accidental ejection unless you essentially locked out all your release.

In 1995 Black Diamond began partnering with Fritschi to do North American distribution of the first model Diamir. While the binding was not without hiccups, it was in my opinion the first truly “modern” frame binding in that it incorporated an alpine style heel and a faux alpine toe. The Diamir thus showed North American skiers that yes, it-just-might-be-possible to have a touring binding that was an alpine resort binding. The rest is history.

Much could be made of other BD innovations over the years. I especially like how they’ve kept at it with skis, morphing from telemark touring in the early days, to a brief attempt at being an alpine ski company (that was interesting, to put it mildly), and now back to a solid line of core backcountry planksCarbon Convert is still the apex. I tried to dredge up memories of exactly when Black Diamond began selling their own branded skis, rather than the Tua brand they sold in the old days. Near as I could glean, they began having the branded skis made by Atomic in 1990. One of the best of the early BD branded skis was the Mira, a lightweight cap constructed ski with a 78 mm waist. Amazingly, if you google the Mira you’ll still find some that are ostensibly for sale more than 20 years later!

We should shout out the Jetforce avalanche airbag project as well. The “fan ballon.” I’d imagine Jetforce was ridiculously expensive to develop, but at the same time I’m certain it is revolutionary.

It’s no secret that Black Diamond is going through changes these days. The details are complex and I’m not a financial analyst. Suffice it to say that in our opinion the BD brand is still incredible, and if they look at their history and stick with their roots they’ll do fine. And no, they don’t need to make ski boots to be a ski touring company.

Oh, and here is our requisite shopping link, this time for Whippet.



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Comments

26 Responses to “Three (or more) Great Things Black Diamond Did for Ski Touring”

  1. hairymountainbeast November 12th, 2015 6:23 pm

    I do wish bd would make a fixed length whippet.

  2. Tabke November 13th, 2015 12:48 am

    Undoubtedly it is a superb tool for certain users in certain scenarios, but I feel the claim that the Whippet is a “defacto standard of ski alpinism” that has saved hundreds of lives is a little hyperbolic. I used one once, and found it to detract from my ski experience such that I never picked one up again. Also, I have rarely seen skiers in the Alps climbing and skiing with a Whippet (though I see the Grivel tool for sale in all the shops), which is strange as it seems like conditions and terrain there would be perfect for the Whippet-enthusiast. Which makes me wonder: why the apparent lack of consensus for a seemingly fundamental piece of equipment? At the risk of becoming hyperbolic myself, when it comes to descent, perhaps Whippeteers and non- are practicing entirely distinct disciplines.

    I think Megawatts, Avalungs and Factor boots stand out uniquely in BD’s gear heritage. Definitely not en vogue products today, but at the time were definitely pushing conceptual boundaries.

  3. Rooy November 13th, 2015 4:01 am

    If the whippet is so defacto in ski alpinism, why have I never seen or heard of it until reading this page? Absolute nonsense. They’re hardly even used by BD’s own athletes, let alone the backcountry masses. And hundreds of lives? Don’t make me laugh!

  4. Zootroy November 13th, 2015 4:02 am

    Shame that BD can’t make a stainless steel crampon that doesn’t snap. Every year loads of reports of crampons breaking.

  5. Greg November 13th, 2015 10:39 am

    Flicklock adjustment mechanism is the hands down winner in my experience. Just about everyone I ski with adjusts poles for several times a day for up/down/hiking. With the Flicklock it’s so easy and secure. Twist-lock mechanisms are now pretty much extinct with other manufacturers using Flicklock-type camming mechanisms.

    Makes me wonder if BD’s patent has expired or if other manufacturers are licensing the technology?

  6. Jason November 13th, 2015 11:46 am

    Count me as a Whippet enthusiast but I’m also a splitboarder so my options for an open-handed descent are easier. I’ve self arrested a fall that resulted from a poorly placed kickturn on frozen corn. Life saving? Probably not but a lot better than sliding into a stand of small trees. The pick also makes for really easy heel lifter operation but that seems to only be a thing for splitboarders and a few hold out tele skiers.

  7. ptor November 13th, 2015 12:04 pm

    Gigawatts far and above at the top of the list. Second would be split skins. Third would be Megawatts. Have to agree with Drew…Whippets are so hyperbolic 😉

  8. alpenist November 13th, 2015 12:17 pm

    Black Diamond jumped the shark when they decided big money was the goal and started to manufacture low quality gear in China. I like the story about the whippet though and have a couple of them which are beat up with use. You ski on glaciers and you’re carrying an axe or a whippet or you’re so cool and skilled that accidents won’t happen: an axe works a little better but i prefer the whippet because it’s small/simple and lightweight. Rooy, I can only guess you are one of the superhumans or you don’t get out into big mountain ski terrain much. I have self-arrested in extremis twice with one so thanks to Maclean. Had no idea he took the idea from the euros, improved it/Americanized it in an effective and relatively inexpensive fashion. Lou, I respect your corporate loyalty and also want a lighter option to heavy canisters, but that avy fan is a long way from prime time, kinda violates the too-many-moving-parts KISS principle, especially when you add mountain/cold weather into the equation.

  9. Cam November 13th, 2015 3:14 pm

    Although I buy and admire many Black Diamond products, the top 3 list are comprised entirely of refinements, rather than innovations, gear that has been tweaked or re-branded rather than any true creation. I wouldn’t expect any less from a product designer from any gear company.

  10. Lou Dawson 2 November 13th, 2015 3:34 pm

    Hi Cam, Pretty hard to come by year-one innovations in any arena. I guess the snowboard would qualify? Perhaps one such innovation from Black Diamond would be the Flicklock ski pole? Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? Lou

  11. Tom November 13th, 2015 5:38 pm

    Jetforce avalanche airbag was in 99% developed by Pieps and BD bought entire company just to get it along with portfolio of all other Pieps products (which are in many cases still sold under Pieps brand, including Pieps version of Jetforce). Yes, BD is great in finding, acquiring and rebranding products with big potential , developing … hmmm?

  12. Lou Dawson 2 November 13th, 2015 6:18 pm

    Sheesh, the blog post title is “did for.” As for Jetforce, they had an engineering team at BD in SLC that did a ton of work. If BD bought Pieps, then it’s BD… semantics? Point here is that BD has been doing a ton of cool stuff for a long time. Just trying to have a positive take. Lou

  13. hairymountainbeast November 13th, 2015 6:19 pm

    I still want a non adjustable whippet. 😉

  14. Lou Dawson 2 November 13th, 2015 6:25 pm

    Hairy, agree. We could build one, but a person is only allotted so many minutes for mods in their lifetime, and I’m more interested in bindings and Duramax trucks, when it comes to mods. Lou

  15. Brian November 14th, 2015 5:45 pm

    I have mixed feelings on the Whippet. I mostly see them used by sweaty, Gortex clad BC skiers on powder days. Pretty silly and entirely unnecessary. I agree with another commenter(s) that I never saw any in Chamonix or anything like one. Even the prolific, late Fransson was never seen with one but rather chose to hold an axe and his pole together when it got really sketchy. The truth is that if you fall on steep firmness, you’re going for a ride. The speed at which you’ll accelerate will be shocking and no tool will be helpful. I’ve witnessed it.

    I’ve used one negotiating steep chokes where a combo of side slipping and stepping got me through. It felt helpful there. And they’re handy without having to unsheathe an ice tool from your pack or harness in the same situation. And even if their actual effect is all psychological, the increase in confidence may be all one needs.

    But mostly, I think they’re an American phenomenon driven by marketing of the ubiquitous equipment supplier to North American skiers.

  16. See November 14th, 2015 7:32 pm

    Making a range of quality gear widely available here in North America is something I credit BD with. I still have the remnants of my Chouinard Equipment poles in a parts box, and my first soft-shell pants were BD’s (before soft-shell was cool). Ascension skins, Avalungs, Fritschi Bindings, Atomic Havocs and Verdicts, Megawatts, Firstlight tents…

    (If the snowboard is a “year one innovation,” I assume your referring to the Snurfer.)

  17. wyomingowen November 15th, 2015 8:25 am

    good conversation, but no hats off to Rick Liu (Ascension Founder)???
    the only thing BD did for that product is to scale it, i.e.; the marketing, production and distribution.

    As for Whippets, check out the Grivel Condor, IMHO way more refined, but as most have pointed out never as good as an axe.

    I think in years past BD has had the guts to bring to market many products, I’d be curios as to what would make a “worst things” list, start w/ the pitbull binding

  18. Lou Dawson 2 November 15th, 2015 10:00 am

    Let’s keep it positive on this thread. My angle is what BD did. Sure, all products are either acquired through a purchase, or acquired through the brains of someone who is “purchased” as an employee or contractor. My take is of BD as both an aggregator and innovator. Even the fan airbag is not an original concept, nor are carbon skis, nor the ice pick ski pole grip. And once BD was doing skins they did innovate some tail fix systems that are pretty good.

    I like the Condor, but I like the Whippet for me feels much less like skiing with a heavy club in each hand. Facts that Whippet does _not_ fold up and is not removable (it used to be) can be considered nice, or not, depending on your preference.

    Perhaps the main thing about these ski pole “arrest” grips is they honestly should be considered more of a “safety aid” and climbing aid than anything that’ll really stop a fall on steep terrain. Where I think they come into their own is 1.) actually on lower angled but glazed or icy terrain. 2.)while stopping or standing on steeper terrain. 3.)unplanned encounters with icy snow in steep terrain, when you realize your edges might not hold and you may have to climb out, or very carefully sidestep down a ways.

    I also know of a few times guys have been knocked off their feet or otherwise caught in smaller avalanche that had big consequences due to dangerous terrain. With Whippets they were able to stop by ramming the picks into the bed surface, thus having the slide leave them behind. Without Whippet they would have been helpless.

    They’re also quite useful for skiing on glaciers, unroped, when the route is generally safe but you could slide into a crevasse of to the side of the beaten path with no way of stopping yourself. I’ve had Whippets in my hands in that situation many times, and was very happy with them.

    Where Whippets are used, or not, in my view doesn’t change how effective they can be. I know from experience and many words from other people that they work for many situations. In other words, I know Chamonix sets the standard in all of alpinism and what people do there is what we should all do, but that doesn’t change the fact that things like Whippet can be very nice to have in your hands in many situations.

    Whippets do look geeky and there is indeed the question of what happens during a tumbling fall. They’re also obnoxious on cable cars. Those things might have something to do with their popularity or lack thereof. I know more than one person who uses Whippets without pole straps. That might be a good way to go.

    Lou

  19. XXX_er November 15th, 2015 12:49 pm

    How about the popular pastime of the interweb tough guys to slag on the chinese made BD skis? But IME the 2 pair I own were cheap to buy, came flat and didn’t break whereas the old Verdicts made at atomic were concave and required a good stone grind

  20. harpo November 15th, 2015 10:43 pm

    I am with you on the whippet, Lou. It has saved me with death or serious injury at least once.

  21. Sky November 16th, 2015 9:31 am

    I dislike both adjustable poles and whippets. Broke too many flicklocks for a few years there then decided to stick with old school poles usually obtained for $5 at a lost and found. Also, when something sharp sounds nice, a real ice ax inspires so much more confidence.

    Never tried any of their skis.

    Good skins are essential and my first skins were Ascensions.

    Camalots? Yes please!

  22. noah howell November 16th, 2015 4:59 pm

    Without a whippet how will anyone know you are doing ski-mountaineering?

    I do like the Whippet for steep firm snow when you know ice won’t be encountered. I think that’s why they are popular in North Am, but haven’t become in fashion in Europe where your chances of encountering ice are very likely. When you do find ice you want technical tools.

    In my experience they are not a good option for self-arresting.

  23. Tahoebound November 16th, 2015 5:51 pm

    Surprised to see no mention of the Avalung – seems to have been largely replaced by air bags, but seemed innovative before air bags decreased in price / increased in prevalence.

  24. wyomingowen November 16th, 2015 5:55 pm

    I 2nd xxx on the chinese skis working great and holding up, but that plant is now shut.

    Being realistic though, during my tele days (I now refer to as “the lost years”),
    I had not 1, but 2 pit bull failures that I’m lucky I was not hurt or too stranded.
    I can’t avoid commenting on the words BD & innovation. Don’t worry I still buy their hardgoods Carbon Converts are excellent.

    Just like the king pin failures, I’m very critical when the consumer is part of product testing. I don’t want to deal with insurance companies, mine or theirs. That’s time spent not skiing.

    On the condor, agreed on weight, but when you’re punching the slope the handle frame protects your hands.

  25. Colin November 20th, 2015 4:04 pm

    BD’s greatest innovation in skiing for me has been enormous:Gigawatts, Megawatts, Factors, Avalungs, Guide Glove, articulated grips of ski poles, and, of course, Telekneesis knee padss for snowboarding. All are lifechanging innovations for me.
    Big kudos to BD’s Laakso, the late Billy Poole, all the BD ski innovators, and of course my bro-in-law, Andrew.

  26. Lou Dawson 2 November 20th, 2015 5:17 pm

    Colin, thanks for calling those out! The Guide Glove especially. Lou





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  • Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free ski touring news and information here.

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