The Climbing Q&A: Kolin Powick

How this guitar-obsessed “5.9-with-a-pack mountain guy” is working with the team at Black Diamond to drive refinement and innovation in their climbing gear
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Black Diamond’s Climbing Category Director Kolin Powick at home in his gear room in Salt Lake City, Utah, pointing out the difference in the cam lobes between the Camalot C4s and Ultralights—both products he helped design and refine.

Black Diamond’s Climbing Category Director Kolin Powick at home in his gear room in Salt Lake City, Utah, pointing out the difference in the cam lobes between the Camalot C4s and Ultralights—both products he helped design and refine.

Kolin Powick (aka “KP”) played a power chord on his Paul Reed Smith guitar, his fingers moving expertly across the frets, launching into Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” at Your Mom’s House, a dive bar near the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. It was the summer 2019 Outdoor Retailer Show, and this performance marked the 10-year-anniversary gig for the BD (Black Diamond) Band, a five-member rock band that Powick has played with since their inception at the Black Diamond offices in Salt Lake City.

Even if you haven’t heard Powick, the climbing category director at BD, jam on one of his 22 (yes, 22) guitars, you likely know him through his gear videos and articles. Or maybe you’ve seen the infamous April Fool’s videos—think of the nonexistent HonnSolo 11 inflatable free-soloing backpack or the Hot Forge Heated Chalk Bag. And you’ve almost certainly used one of the dozens of pieces of gear that Powick has helped adapt or refine for BD, in business since 1989. For two decades now, Powick’s been a fixture on the scene, a friendly face around Utah, the Canadian Rockies, Colorado, Europe, or one of the many other venues he and his wife, Ellen, get around to. He’s also a big-time dog lover. And, of course, a gear nerd.

Powick was born in 1968 in Selkirk, Canada, to father, Kip, a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and mother, Diane, a stay-at-home mom. Along with his older brother, Kevin, and younger sister, Kelly, Powick lived the peripatetic military life as the family moved to various bases, from Ontario to Colorado to Nova Scotia, before stopping back in Ontario where he finished high school. Powick graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston in 1992 with a degree in mechanical engineering. After traveling to Australia to participate in a cross-country solar-car race, he headed to British Columbia, working as a janitor at a ski hill and being a mountain bum. In 1993, Powick started climbing at the University of Ottawa (where he was working on a teaching degree), traversing a concrete wall with glued-on holds; he practiced placing Stoppers at the base of the local cliffs, working up to leading a trad 5.6. “I would read books and go out to the cliffs,” says Powick. “If we survived the weekend, then it was a success.”

Powick moved to Calgary in 1994 to take an engineering job—and plugged into alpine climbing, driving every weekend to climb on Mount Edith Cavell, Mount Temple, and other Canadian alpine giants. “I’m a 5.9-with-a-pack mountain guy,” says Powick, citing alpine favorites he’s done like the 2,000-foot Beckey-Chouinard (5.9) in the Bugaboos, Ham and Eggs (VI 5.9 A4) on Alaska’s Moose’s Tooth, and the German Route, a 2,600-foot 5.6 up the Triglav in Slovenia. He’s also sent hard sport routes like Joe Six Pack (5.13a) in the Virgin River Gorge and Vagabond D’Occident (5.12d) in Céüse. Ellen, whom he originally met in engineering school but became reacquainted with in 1997 at the Stronghold gym in Calgary, is perhaps the crusher of the family, having sent routes like Pipe Dream (5.14a) in Maple Canyon and Queen Line (5.14b) at the Poptire Cave. After the two were married in 1998, they quit their engineering jobs to take a one-year honeymoon with their yellow Lab, Yukon, and chocolate Lab, Ellis. The Powicks drove a 21-foot RV all over America, ending up in Utah.

After a stint at a Salt Lake City machine shop, Powick in 2002 began working for Black Diamond in Quality Assurance (QA). Powick and his QA engineering team were responsible for testing the soon-to-be latest and greatest BD climbing gear. In their free time, the crew also played with things like figuring out how much a Stopper girth-hitched to a bolt hanger could hold or the breaking strength of a worn belay loop. Beginning in the early 2000s, Powick’s QC Lab began publishing these findings online (climbing.com/qclabs). In 2010, Powick presented testing on the dangers of worn carabiners after a Red River Gorge climber cut their rope on a sharply grooved fixed carabiner and decked. Digging deep, Powick uncovered information about which biners get badly grooved (typically the first bolt, crux bolt, and out-of-line bolts) as well as how to mitigate the dangers of a rope getting sheathed in a fall (have the belayer stand below the first bolt, use steel biners, inspect biners often). As with the 34 other installments in his QC Lab series, it’s helped climbers be safer.

Kolin (leading) and Ellen Powick (belaying) romping up the classic 5.9 Outer Space, Snow Creek Wall, Leavenworth, Washington.

Kolin (leading) and Ellen Powick (belaying) romping up the classic 5.9 Outer Space, Snow Creek Wall, Leavenworth, Washington.

Knowing the intricacies of gear launched Powick toward a position as the climbing category director, a role he’s held since 2014. Powick operates as a human funnel, defining which products should be brought to market according to customer demands, cost, and available technology. “It’s pretty rare that someone understands the engineering side and is good at marketing, too,” says Alex Baker, a BD design engineer who worked under Powick in Quality Assurance and then helped Powick with his first category director job: revamping the company’s cams, in 2014. Powick attributes his marketing acumen to the fact that he uses the products he helps create. “I’m able to put myself in the end consumer’s shoes,” says Powick. “When it comes to climbing gear, I am the customer!” (Adds Baker, “We appreciate that he’s a legitimate climber, from sport climbing to alpine climbing to traditional climbing.”)

Along with the 20-plus BD engineers, designers, and developers he works with, Powick has successfully revamped packs, ice tools, carabiners, harnesses, slings, draws, helmets, and protection, including the Camalot, which in spring 2016 resulted in the Camalot Ultralight after an 18-month R & D process.

“At first we didn’t even know if it was going to work,” recalls Baker of their attempts to slim down the iconic double-axle cam. Replacing the traditional steel cable with Dyneema required re-engineering the stem and crossbar. Making the cams lighter would also involve redoing all the other components—an intricate, laborious process. “Even the plastic of the thumb loop is custom engineered to protect the Dyneema and give the cam the right stiffness,” says Baker. Despite the difficulties, the team successfully reduced the cams’ weight by approximately 25 percent. (The project in turn informed BD on how to revamp the regular Camalots, the latest version of which came out in 2019.)

These days, you’ll find Powick at his desk at BD giving input on the team’s latest creations, his fox-red Lab, Rumple, curled up at his feet.

Interview

What would you tell someone who wants to invent gear?

Kolin Powick: You can try to get a job at a climbing company, though that’s tough, as there aren’t that many jobs and generally people stay at these companies for a while. Or you can work up your ideas, ideally to the functional prototype stage with IP [Intellectual Property] protection, and pitch them to companies. We get that a lot.

From an educational standpoint, the most obvious answer is being an engineer, usually a mechanical engineer, or designer, though there are needs for industrial designers, manufacturing, electrical and metallurgical engineers, and such. It seems that there are many engineers who climb because of the problem-solving mentality. Engineers are problem-solvers, and a climb or a route is just a big problem that needs to be solved.

You’ve seen cams change from dual stem to single stem, from heavy to light, and from slow-to-place to fast, a progression mirrored in other products. What has most helped gear evolve?

Technology, from material development and improvements in manufacturing capabilities to computer modeling—which allows designs to be more refined as opposed to the “trial and error” of the recent past. Also, there are more companies doing cool things. Good competition is healthy and forces everyone to up their game. Finally, just the pure number of climbers out there creates a larger pool of creative, smart people who can help take gear to the next level.

Powick busts out his “5.9 guitar skills” at home in his music room. Powick owns 22 guitars, which he plays to relax in his downtime.

Powick busts out his “5.9 guitar skills” at home in his music room. Powick owns 22 guitars, which he plays to relax in his downtime.

You’ve been injured a lot—herniated disks in your neck, finger injuries, a burst appendix at the base of El Capitan, and six surgeries in the past 10 years. Bad luck, bad genetics, or ... ?

When my shoulder started acting up years ago, I went through all the stages of attempted rehab. I did PT for six months, no climbing, some climbing, injections, voodoo, the whole deal. Unfortunately, I ended up having surgery. My doctor said the root cause was “pushingfortyitis.” My body was wearing down. I do think it’s a matter of genetics because I don’t climb that hard and never have. My wife has been crushing for 25 years and has never missed a day of climbing because of an injury. She’s never even taped a finger. I’m taking the injury-hit for the Powick family, and that’s OK, because if Ellen was sidelined, that would be bad—really bad.

What sort of feedback did you get on the QC Lab pieces?

It’s been super successful, and it usually sparks good discussions. I wish I could do more, as I have a list a mile long in my head. But testing with the QA guys and then writing it up takes time. We’re all pretty maxed, so we just try to squeeze this stuff in when we can.

The HonnSolo 11, Hot Forge Chalk Bag, and Honnold Spatula have all been April Fool’s jokes—what’s the appeal of the pranks?

We wanted to show the community that we don’t always take ourselves too seriously. We also wanted to keep people on their toes—the confusion of an absurd product, followed by the double-bluff of a product that didn’t seem like a product that actually was (and still is), followed by the ridiculousness of the spatula. Ultimately, it’s all in good fun.

When or how do you know a product is ready for market?

The first step is knowing when we’re “on to something”— basically, if you have a prototype on your desk and it constantly disappears, or people often “forget” it at home after a weekend of testing, then that’s a good sign. As far as knowing when it’s ready for market, first, it has to pass all of the structural and functional internal R&D testing, then the rigorous field-test program. The manufacturing process has to be assessed and approved. The climbing gear needs to be certified (climbing gear needs CE certification to be sold internationally; voluntary UIAA certification is seen as above and beyond CE certification). We need to ensure costing is appropriate, and we need to get buy-in from our reps and consumer base. Once all that is accomplished, then we’ll feel ready to release it to the market.

How much field testing do you do or oversee yourself?

It starts with a few key members of the design team taking a prototype out over the weekend or before or after work. They’re aware of how sketchy something is and know how to not get killed. In my case, unfortunately for Ellen, the person on the receiving end of a lot of this testing is my wife, but she puts up with it. Once a prototype gets more dialed, we’ll do more testing, still from usually within the building—climbers in other departments, etc. And the next stage is getting the product to our field-test team, to get unbiased, real-time feedback so we can iterate and tweak until we’re ready for production.

What do you see as the future of climbing gear?

It’s [already] pretty darn strong. You don’t hear of gear breaking that often under normal circumstances. Also, it’s inexpensive: Carabiners can cost down to $6, and you can buy a harness that lasts a half-dozen years for the cost of a dinner for two. Sure, people always want things to be less expensive, and often unnecessarily stronger, but the future will be in technology. Ultimately, I think tech will allow gear to be more functional across a broader range of conditions or use-cases, lighter, easier to use, and in some cases “safer.”

The Powicks and Rumple at the City of Rocks, ID, in 2009, celebrating their anniversary.

The Powicks and Rumple at the City of Rocks, ID, in 2009, celebrating their anniversary.

Dogs are a big part of your life—and a key part of the workplace at BD. Will Rumple make CEO this year?

On any given day, there are upward of 20 dogs in the office. It’s a great stress reliever—just lying on the floor with your dog or someone else’s. As far as Rumple goes, he’s already running the place! He's been here longer than lots of the people, having celebrated his eleventh year in the office last fall. He's definitely a crowd favorite. 

Kolin Powick picks the top 8 pieces of revolutionary climbing gear

  1. Technical ice gear: Reverse-curve picks along with front points on crampons allowed vertical ice to be climbed without chopping steps, opening steeper lines.
  2. Tubular ice screws: Placing ice screws became easier, and ice climbing became significantly safer.
  3. Dynamic ropes: Climbing on stretchy ropes allowed climbers to safely fall, and hence push their limits.
  4. Wiregate carabiners: Lighter biners that don’t freeze in winter conditions and are less likely to have gate whiplash made the sport infinitely safer.
  5. ATC-Guide/plaquette/assisted-braking devices: The ease of belaying the second and the ability to dog routes helped increase free-climbing standards.
  6. Cams: While complicated, these devices made crack climbing easier, faster, and safer, and helped cement the clean-climbing revolution, allowing climbers to maintain the integrity of the rock.
  7. Helmet tech: Air vents, lighter materials, better buckles, enhanced fit, and better style made it so climbers would actually wear helmets and ultimately be safer out there.
  8. Gyms: While not a technical piece of gear, climbing gyms and the training tools developed there have let us push the limits.