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Will Gadd Unleashed

Tuesday, January 16, 2018
BD Athlete Will Gadd has won ice world cups, climbed the gnarliest frozen waterfalls around the globe, and been at the forefront of ice climbing equipment for 25 years. But behind his next-level abilities is a strong work ethic, and his close-knit relationship with Black Diamond’s product engineers. For nearly three decades, Gadd has been putting BD equipment to the test, and in doing so, he’s helped create the future of ice climbing.

Roughly twenty years ago I won the X Games on a set of prototype BD Cobras. They were radical looking, all curves in an era of straight thinking, and made of unspeakably expensive and sexy carbon. They looked like they’d been catapulted into our hands from the future, or fallen off a secret military jet. Everyone was convinced they would break because the heads were only glued on, and gluing carbon to steel couldn’t possibly really work? I still have that pair of tools. Together we’ve climbed thousands of pitches of ice, from Norway’s Fjords to Canada’s backcountry, won the Ice World Cup in 2000, beat pitons on alpine routes, and outlasted relationships, vehicles and a million swings into ice, dirt, rock and even firewood (no shit, I split firewood in the Ghost one night with ‘em). The glue held, as I knew it would.

Images: Christian Pondella

The reason I knew it would hold is that I watched BD’s quality manager at the time, Chris Harmston, take a Cobra and beat the living concrete out of a city curb. It was first-degree murder kind of product testing—there were chunks of cement flying, carbon pieces popping, rage and a premeditated plan to destroy gleaming in everyone’s eyes. But the bond to the head held, even when the tool was little more than carbon strings flopping in the cold wind. BD’s product testing division has become more sophisticated since then, but the same spirit is there: Over-test so the gear will survive in combat, not just a lab, and use the designers and athletes as test pilots.

For more than 25 years I’ve been testing and developing product for BD. As a kid my parents would buy me new toys like, say, a new wagon, and I’d do the logical thing and see how far I could jump it. Inevitably it would break, and unhappiness would ensue. With BD, my job has been both to push for more futuristic gear, and to really test new products to failure, and I have done both enthusiastically. Sometimes this testing has been more engaging than I expected. I remember being most of the way up New Hampshire’s Black Dike on a solo speed link-up mission involving Lake Willoughby, Cathedral and Frankenstein in addition to Cannon. It was all going great, and I was loving the prototype, well, let’s call them “Tuna” crampons. Crisp, super light, and sharply effective, like throwing knives for my feet.

Except all of a sudden, the frontpoints on one foot weren’t working. The first time my foot slipped I thought I’d placed it poorly, and just re-set. It slipped again. I looked down and the frontpoints looked normal, but when I kicked they didn’t go in. Turns out the plastic pieces I was testing had broken, and the frontpoints would fold back under when I kicked. This was really exciting when 400 feet off the deck soloing. The crampons had about 50 pitches on them, and had worked fine for 49. To their credit BD didn’t fire me when I reported the failure with the same bluntness, force and subtlety as a swung mace. They got it. Because from my very first days of working with the BD crew more than 25 years ago they have always been one thing first: Climbers. They get that climbing isn’t golf even though both use carbon tools.

Climbing isn’t just a sport, nor even a “lifestyle.” When I say, “I am a climber,” it’s a definition of who I am, of my freedom to move vertically, a commitment to do something meaningful and real and difficult and bloody and desperate, and of the heaven-splitting joy I find from going up when giving up would be easier. I don’t keep the tennis rackets or kayaks I used 25 years ago, but the relationship between climbing gear and climbers is deeper. I keep those Cobras to remind me of where I’ve been with them. Pins I’ve pounded, routes I’ve sworn up and cursed down, routes that define the very best in me and my partners, competitions won and lost, friends here and friends lost.

Today I still write over-the-top emails about gear to BD’s engineering team regularly. The new head of climbing design, my good friend and longtime climber Kolin Powick, often responds with, “I suck.” He says that not because he truly sucks, but because he gets that I, and everyone else, wants the future, now. Today there is more genuinely great, futuristic climbing gear in the climbing prototype pipeline at BD than I’ve ever seen. You’re gonna love this stuff. Some truly amazing pieces of engineering, several of which I’ve been unable to destroy. But I will keep trying as I travel this winter, from China to Greenland, searching for new lines, new gear ideas, testing gear and living the dream. Because to call the last 30 years of climbing anything but a dream would be to sell it short. I’m lucky, and I know it and appreciate what I have. From winning sport climbing comps to losing friends, it’s been a big, wild ride. Thanks to BD for making the gear, and dream, a reality. Now if I could only get those carbon screws ...

--Will Gadd, September 18, 2017


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