Peter Metcalf- A Life of Climbing

Metcalf

 

Peter Metcalf recently stepped down from his position of President at SLC based Black Diamond Equipment. Since the company’s early days in the late 1980’s, Metcalf has guided the ascension of the iconic outdoor brand from the bankrupt remains brought on by product liability lawsuits, to a global leader in the outdoor manufacturing business. Along the way Metcalf has been a powerful advocate for conservation, and has often utilized his position in the outdoor world to rally support for conservation and outdoor causes. Also an accomplished alpinist, and passionate backcountry enthusiast, he resides in Salt Lake City.

 

What is your personal background? 

I was born and raised first in NYC and then just outside of the city on Long Island. I got hooked on climbing/mountaineering/skiing at a young age and I engineered my life, career and friends to make that the focal point of life. After stints at Cortland State and Colby College Maine, two years of roughnecking as a chain hand on a wildcat oil drilling rig in the overthrust belt, I wrapped up college at CU in Boulder. From there I worked for Outward Bound, leading alpine mountain wilderness courses before ultimately being hired as a 26 year old in the summer of 1982 to become the general manager of Chouinard Equipment, a climbing gear company in Ventura CA. There I met my wife, then the creative director for Patagonia, Kathy.

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What is your outdoor background?

I got into backpacking , skiing, and bike touring at age 12 thanks to boy scouts and by 14 I had attended an Appalachian Mountain Club beginner rock climbing weekend at the Shawangunks that got me hooked. At 15, I lied about my age so I could join Paul Petzoldt on a 5-week long NOLS Alpine Guide course that traversed the Wind Rivers. After that, I hitched to the Tetons to climb the Grand.

The next summer I climbed in the Canadian Rockies and Bugaboos notching the youngest ascent of the Kain Face on Robson. In 1973, my senior year in high school, I hitchhiked every weekend from Long Island to the ‘Gunks to rock climb or during the winter to the White Mountains to make alpine ascents.  After that, with three older climbing partners, we drove to Alaska and did a major technical new route on Mount Fairweather. Our 32-day expedition remains as us being the youngest group to ever do a first ascent on a major Alaskan peak.

What followed were 7 more climbing expeditions to Alaska (in between seasons living in Yosemite, Chamonix and the Tetons) that resulted in significant new routes and significant repeats on McKinley, Hunter, and Mount Foraker.

Perhaps the most significant achievement was the first alpine style ascent of Mount Hunter’s Central Rib of the South Face. It’s considered one of the great epic adventures in Alaskan mountaineering. This climb is well documented in Glenn Randall’s book Breaking Point which describes the hardships Glenn and I shared with Pete Athans.

 

What is the history of Black Diamond?

Black Diamond is built on the tenets learned from hard alpine climbing and applying these lessons to a company’s construct.

Success on any big climb comes from a high level of the terrain encountered, extremely strong teamwork and trust and 100% commitment.

Specifically, BD was formed like the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the bankruptcy of Chouinard Equipment. Black Diamond was founded in 1989, with the strong support of 3 colleagues and the faith of another 30 Chouinard employees. The transaction was epic, took 7 months to complete and was the business equivalent of my climb of Mt Hunter’s south face.

Few believed we could do it. We relocated the business from the beaches of Ventura, CA to the Wasatch Mountains in the summer of 1991 because we wanted our location to reside on the asset side of the balance sheet and be accretive to my vision for BD – “To be one with the sports we serve absolutely indistinguishable from it.”

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Can you explain the split of the company from Chouinard Equipment?

Chouinard Equipment was brought down by “failure to warn” product liability suits – a result of the revolution in Tort Law in America in the 1980s. There were no climbing standards, no Access Fund, no user advocacy groups, no Outdoor Industry Association and our sports were under siege  – climbing areas were being closed, access denied and if you were a skier and skied out of bounds from a ski areas, you lost your ticket, were fined $500, and spent a night in jail.

Hence the sustainable  “why” we created BD was to “make a difference for our fellow community of climber/skiers. The “how” was to bring forth innovative, paradigm changing products and championing the issues of great importance to our community of fellow climbers, mountaineers, and off-piste skiers. The company from the start had substantial employee, friend, vendor, retailer and distributor ownership. In going public in May of 2010 that ownership expanded to all those who believe in the BD way and what we are doing.

Chouinard Equipment also gave rise to Patagonia in the late 1970’s. In 1981, Yvon Chouinard who owned both split the sub $1 million Chouinard Equipment company from the $1.5 million /year Patagonia business and in 1982 hired me to run this little but iconic climbing gear business.

 

Why did you choose to move the company from California to Utah?

The Wasatch offers immediate access to great rock and ice climbing, mountaineering and awesome skiing. Plus SLC gave a manufacturing/engineering/design company the robust business ecosystem and college/university assets, hub airport and central western location we sought.  Add a super vibrant user community and a general sentiment that made us feel wanted. I remain 100% convinced we would not be the great global business we are today had we relocated anywhere else.

 

How has the company grown since its inception?

Steadily at a low double digit compound annual growth rate for the past 25 years. We have never had a non-growth year. Our success has been driven by our passion and intimacy for the sports, and the unique insights gained via that intimacy and active involvement in the climbing/skiing life. This has been the basis for our steady stream of innovative products and entry on multiple occasions into new, adjacent categories of products that our community and ourselves use and need.

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What are some of the influential products that BD has pioneered over the years?

Worlds first:

*  Die Laminate harnesses

* The modern Ice screw

* Wire gate carabiners , non-pivoting locking biner,

*  First magnetic locking biners

*  Camalots – the global gold standard in spring loaded camming devices

* Flicklock and Z-pole concepts for trekking and ski poles

* Avalung and JetForce avalanche safety systems

* First LED, first led/incandescent, first computer chip controlled headlamps

* ATC style belay devices

* First Plastic telemark boot

* First cable Telemark binding, and all modern designs are based on our              concepts

* Our anatomical, curve gripped, one –handed closure, removable liner gloves and mitts were the first on the market when they appeared.

What products have been ‘hits?’ What have been ‘misses’? What product(s) are you most proud of developing at BD?

We have redefined nearly every product category we have entered and still lead in most that we compete in. I am most proud of the Avalung because of the lives it has saved. Additionally, the original medical research we completed to perfect the design included determining whether one died of suffocation or asphyxiation when buried. Our R&D work resulted in a cover/lead article in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). This is the only time in our industry’s history that has occurred. Recently, we learned that Apple Computer has an internal display of Black Diamond’s top products as a source of design & engineering inspiration for them.

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What have been some of the challenges of being a publicly traded company?

The biggest change is on infrastructure with an increased burden in the areas of legal/accounting/financial/business reporting required.

 

What have been some of the successes and challenges of being an equipment focused company, and expanding into apparel?

These are hugely different. One is highly engineered and tested over and over as it passes a myriad of tests and certification. That has a very male /yang aspect to it.  Conversely apparel is more artistic, soft, sensuous and has more of a feminine /yin personality to it.  Nevertheless it too requires a similar intimacy with the sports to gain the insights required to design innovative apparel pieces that bring a big smile to the faces of those who buy them. Both are about “use, design, engineer, repeat”.

The two together create beautiful brand / staff symmetry and balance. By designing and building both we become whole.

 

What are some of your favorite outdoor things to do in the Wasatch, Utah, or elsewhere?

The fire burns hot and I still love to climb whether cragging in Little or Big Cottonwood or taking on longer backcountry/alpine rock routes in the southern Utah desert or the Tetons. I enjoy mountaineering, peak bagging, long technical mountain solos and dawn patrols skis. I also enjoy mountain running and road and mountain biking.

 

Who are some of your outdoor inspirations?

The latest up and coming generation of alpinist climbers such as Kyle Dempster,  Hayden Kennedy and Alex Honnold  The generation that preceded me: Yvon Chouinard ,  Rick Reese,  Reinhold Messner  and great conservationists such as Chouinard, David Brower, John Muir and of course Teddy Roosevelt.

 

Are you able to balance work and play? How often are you available to pursue your outdoor endeavors?

Balance is difficult. Work over the past 25 years has consumed way too much of my waking hours. That said, I have had the discipline to carve out a few hours several days a week for a dawn patrol climb, peak, or ski tour and half of the days on weekends. That is a huge part of the reason, we moved BD here and to where we are located at the base of Mt Olympus. We can be on the West Slabs in 10 minutes or in Little or Big  Cottonwood Canyon in 15 minutes. You can have a day like experience in two hours and a vacation like climbing trip on a weekend.

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What is the outdoor ‘culture’ at Black Diamond like?

 Our culture is rich, deep and the personification of the culture of climbing and skiing. It defines who we are, how we think and interact, what our values are and the look, feel, vibe of the place and that spans all of our offices worldwide.

 

You’ve long been active in conservation causes in Utah and beyond. For you, what are some of the most pressing current issues?

John Sawhill once said “A society is defined not only by what it creates but also by what it refuses to destroy.”

This is a re-occurring and prescient statement.  Today, many special wild places are up for exploitive development – whether it be for oil & gas, coal/copper or uranium, timber cuts, real estate development, rampant motorized use or some combination.

There is a failure by government and many others to realize that at times the best & highest use of natural places is to leave them alone for the benefit of bio-diversity, animals, watershed and potentially some forms of human powered recreation. That really sums up the majority of larger battles. I call it a battle to preserve our humanity as a people. There are also other important battles such as access – whether stream, crag, or mountain and then clean air and climate change.

 

What have been some of the successes in theses causes? Defeats?

As Gale Dick observed when it comes to conservation, “All victories are temporary and all defeats permanent.” That said, I am proud of the influence we have had in support of conservation in the west by tying it to jobs, sustainable and clean economic health and community.

We played a very strong role in Governor Leavitt, Walker and Huntsman moderating their anti-wilderness position. Specifically their support of RS2477, their protesting some specific BLM proposed oil and gas leases and in getting Huntsman to not overturn the roadless rule in Utah. Additionally, we have worked on the BLM themselves pulling some proposed lease auctions to building a movement against House Bill 148 which is about expropriating the Federal lands here in Utah to playing a pivotal role in the anti-SkiLink battle. Recently we worked as a catalyst in getting the Canyonlands National Monument off the ground.  As for defeats, yes there are quite a few and many battles not lost but certainly not yet won either.

 

How do some of the currently proposed policies in Utah, such as the proposed taking of Federal lands back to state ownership, affect outdoor recreation? How would it affect your business?

Expropriating federal lands by the state would be a disaster to our community’s quality of life. It would be devastating to the outdoor industry, and would pose a large economic liability to the state of Utah. Utah’s ideologues don’t let facts or reality impact their horrifically handicapped and non-sensical ideas. Right now Utah’s economy and citizens get a free ride off of the federal lands. Proof of this was Governor Herbert and the legislature passing quick legislation to fund the keeping open of southern Utah national parks to the tune of many millions of dollars during the government shutdown. Why would the state want to incur this cost vs. just reaping the benefits as they do now? And if it is to privatize and sell off these lands, all of us will be the true losers.

 

Last year, Utah Gov. Herbert unveiled his “Outdoor Recreation Vision,” how do you feel this program has progressed? Have their been any notable successes to this program? Is Gov. Herbert a friend of outdoor recreation?

The best way to describe the results to date vs. the vision would be to use a Texas cowboy line – “he is all hat, no cattle”. Unfortunately separate from the vision and the hiring of a booster for the recreation sector there are few to no tangible results, nor policies to point to.  That said, the governor has recently agreed to take on a major role in helping to move forward the Bishop process relative to protecting federal lands in the state.  If they really get engaged and drive this critical process forward, then they will have something material and tangible to point to and I would applaud them but at present time it is premature.

 

The bi-annual Outdoor Retailer Show in SLC brings in thousands of people in the outdoor industry, as well as millions of dollars in local revenue. You notably discussed the option of relocating the show if then Gov. Leavitt and current Gov. Herbert did not change polices regarding land use and recreation, you would lobby for the show to move. What was the root cause of this, and how did it play out?

I was responsible for leading the effort over a number of years to get the OR tradeshow to SLC and received an award from the Visitors and Convention Bureau for that leadership. Hence roughly a dozen years ago when then Gov. Leavitt and then secretary Norton signed to back-room deals to have the feds drop their litigation with the state over the Wilderness Inventory areas and the RS2477 rights of ways, I led the effort to potentially pull the show out of Utah. That developed a huge following and led to the negotiations/discussions with three governors to both develop more favorable wilderness and recreation policies. So, yes I feel we made a real difference though much less so with Gov. Herbert who has resisted thoughtful discussions and material accommodating policies.

 

Do you think the Outdoor Retailer show will eventually outgrow SLC? 

It already has but it has not left. The question is NOT has it outgrown SLC but rather at what point, if ever, does the desire not to restrain its size trigger the departure?  This one is too close to call as the future is uncertain. That said, and speaking personally, I think relocating the show for growth reasons could be very damaging to it and actually have the exact opposite impact.

Black Diamond is very well known for it’s support of local causes and outdoor groups including the Utah Avalanche Center and the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance. What are some others? Why?

BD was founded to make a difference for a fellow community of users. We accomplish this via gear and championing the issues of great importance. Hence, we are a major supporter of the Conservation Alliance, the American Alpine Club, the Access Fund, and Winter Wildlands. Plus appropriate conservation groups with the key ones being  – SUWA, Save Our Canyons and the Utah Nature Conservancy. With the factual evidence of climate change we also support clean energy here in Utah having just completed a major solar installation at BD HQ.

 

What do you do for fun when not working or pursuing outdoor activities?

Engaging in the issues of importance – so working with user advocacy and conservation groups.  And then before passing out because of too little sleep – reading.

 

Aside from outdoor pursuits- what are some of your favorite things about SLC? Utah? 

Salt Lake is a vibrant city that is really quite culturally rich yet small enough to feel more like a big town where everyone knows one another and can work together. The fact that we have great museums,  galleries, restaurants,  hip communities,  great colleges and universities, a major hub airport that is accessible, a major and growing light rail system, a strong & energetic business community to work with. Where else would I have been invited to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve?

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What’s always in your backpack?

Hard to believe but I am most happy when I have the least amount of stuff with me. When I am uncluttered and disconnected from as many material things as possible I am at my best. I think that is not what you would expect from the founder of an outdoor and apparel company but it is the truth.

 

What’s your perfect day off? Week off?

The perfect week off is a week of climbing – could be the Tetons, Sierras or Colorado Front Range. It is about getting into the zone and having the sublime joys of the wild natural world integrated with the partnership of the rope and the physical and mental challenges one encounters. A day – off is the same.  A long day – 15 or 18 plus hours, trying to jam a weekend of climbing into a “day”.

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You’ve resigned your position of president at BD, and plan on stepping down as CEO as well. What does the future hold for you?

My goal is to transition out of the 70 hour/week  & 50+ weeks/year job of CEO and into a 45 hour/week with 5 weeks off a year job as Black Diamond’s Senior VP of Public Policy, Advocacy, Activism, and Culture.  A job where I am more outwardly facing spending far more time in the community of mountain/canyon/crag sports enthusiasts and making a difference for them and for the employees BD.

I plan to be actively consulting with our senior team on product direction and evaluation, marketing and growth opportunities and of course more time for me to indulge my passions for sports while I still have my drive, health, fitness and strength. Lastly and importantly, more time with my wife and grown kids.

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