Last month Elevation Outdoors and Mountain Gazette contributing editor Devon O’Neil was lucky enough to head up to BC to test next year’s skis wiht the folks from Black Diamond. Here’s what he learned…
Do you know who makes your ski gear? Not the company — the actual people: the designers, engineers, manufacturers, product testers. Have you ever met them?
A couple of weeks ago, halfway through a spring day at Whitewater Ski Resort in southern British Columbia, I realized I had never actually skied with someone who made a piece of gear that I relied on to descend mountains. That day was the first.
I was jetting around Whitewater’s easily-accessed backcountry with Thomas Laakso, an unexpectedly hilarious Finnish-American who directs Black Diamond’s ski category and throws Lincoln Loops off of cornices. A few minutes earlier, he had handed me a pair of his personal touring skis to test. “I just mounted them,” he said. “Still haven’t skied them myself.”
I could tell he was only a twitch less nervous than I was to be popping the cherry of a product he designed and adored, and which won’t hit shelves until next fall. Luckily, Whitewater is not the kind of place where you worry about core-shotting new skis in late March.
I had joined Laakso and a handful of others to follow the famous Powder Highway through interior B.C., testing Black Diamond’s new ski products on a custom trip designed by the winter travel gurus at Ski.com. The journey began in Rossland, home to Red Mountain Resort and Big Red Cats; then proceeded up to Nelson and nearby Whitewater, home to the tastiest ski-area food on Planet Earth; followed by a four-hour drive and ferry ride to the powder mecca that is Revelstoke, where we spent two days in the deluxe Sutton Place Hotel and skied long north-facing glacier runs with Selkirk-Tangiers Heli Skiing.
(Don’t worry, on my second day back home after this trip, I tomahawked through a scree field and shredded my shoulder, so the karma has pretty much evened out now.)
You’ll be forgiven if you still think of Black Diamond as the telemark-specific ski brand it used to be. However, few, if any, companies in the snowsports industry have made a stronger push into the backcountry freeride market over the past five years than BD. From a ripping line of skis and boots to its skins, poles, packs, bindings and beacons (the company recently acquired Pieps and distributes Fritschi), BD is intent on owning not only the freeride space but also the snow safety space. And as Laakso explained, this year marks the brand’s most significant effort yet toward that goal.
Last October, Black Diamond opened a solar-powered, temperature- and humidity-controlled ski factory in Zhuhai, China, to bring its manufacturing in-house. It is debuting 11 new or revamped ski designs (highlighted by a cap-to-sidewall construction shift), nine new poles and two new boots for the upcoming winter season, in addition to launching a performance outerwear line.
Among the notable enhancements, Laakso’s ski-manufacturing team adopted a “pre-preg” process that’s less toxic and more precise than the traditional wet-layout model of mixing two-part epoxy and slathering it onto fiberglass. “You can really push the strength-to-weight ratio,” he says. “We were able to add heavier sidewall and thicker edges, but still pull weight out.”
For example, he cites the Carbon Megawatt, a superfat touring ski that debuted last winter weighing 800 grams less than the regular Megawatt (at 188 centimeters). “This year we went to sidewall from capped construction and we still pulled another 500 grams out, which is a great testament to pre-preg construction.”
The most innovative BD product hitting shelves this coming fall, however, isn’t a ski. It’s the three-years-in-the-making, 130-flex Factor Mx
alpine-touring boot, which gets Laakso even more excited than cornice flips. A handful of major brands have introduced removable-sole boots in recent years, allowing skiers to switch between tech-binding blocks and alpine blocks. But the 2,000-gram Factor Mx, Laakso says, differs in that the removable block doesn’t interface with the binding — the lower shell does. This prevents lateral movement and enhances stiffness when skiing downhill.
“You have the utility of a removable block system, but you don’t have the downside of it. There’s no other boot like this,” Laakso says, noting the Mx’s 40-degree range of motion rivals super-lightweight AT boots. “Our athletes [Johnny and Angel Collinson, Callum Pettit and Samuel Anthamatten] are competing on the Freeride World Tour on this boot, they’re filming with the Sherpas in this boot, and they’re touring in the same boot. It’s a freeride boot, hands down. It completely reflects the state of this sport.”
As with any engineer on the sport’s cutting edge, tech talk comes easily to Laakso. What is heartening, however, is that the day before we finally sat down for an interview, I watched this father of three girls rip troughs in the powder, jump off every hint of a natural kicker he could find, then rage deeper into the night than first-year ski bums at the annual Dirtbag Ball in downtown Revelstoke.
Which is just what I want out of the guy who makes my ski gear.