The Making Of: The Black Diamond HotWire Carabiner
Images: Andy Earl
"So many people aren't able to make that jump from what they've seen … to what could be."
Those words—spoken in a wry British accent—hang in the air. Between bites of tangerine chicken at Salt Lake City's Dragon Diner, the spry, 56-year-old climber sitting across the table picks up what sailors call a "shackle" between his thumb and forefinger—the latter of which is wrapped in dirty climbing tape.
He inspects the shackle through round, wire-frame John Lennon glasses and cracks a grin.
"We thought, 'hell, let's give it a try.'"
Flash back to the year 1993.
The spry Brit is in his mid-30's, and he's already made a name for himself as one of the world's boldest climbers. Jonny Woodward (aka Woody) traded the gritstone of England for the sunny crags of America and was tearing it up. From Yosemite Valley to the Utah Desert, Woodward had already racked up an impressive resume of first ascents and runout testpieces, leaving instant classics like Zion's 10-pitch Moonlight Buttress (5.12+) in his wake.
But on this particular day, during an afternoon at his part-time gig as "junior" Designer for Black Diamond, Woodward was facing a completely different kind of crux.
Thumbing the stiff gate of a prototype carabiner—which was given to him by a coworker who had an inspired vision from a sailing shackle—Woody was contemplating the future of climbing gear … and more specifically, what it would take to make climbing's first wire-gate carabiner.
Smooth As A Beamer's Tranny
The coworker with the vision was none other than Andrew McLean. By 1993, McLean was already making waves in the skiing world for his audacious descents down the Wasatch's steepest couloirs and barely skiable chutes. By combining adroit climbing skills with deft skiing, McLean was redefining American skiing one chute at a time. He and Alex Lowe would rise before dawn and shred the gnar before work, in turn bringing the term Dawn Patrol to skiing.
Yet, his contributions as a Senior Designer for BD were perhaps even more impactful. McLean had already designed the Whippet—an ingenious hybrid of ice axe and ski pole—which was on its way to becoming an indelible tool for any diehard steep skier. And his first projects for BD revolved around the company's hallmark … carabiners.
"I re-designed the Quicksilver—that was one of my first projects—then I designed the Fin," says Andrew.
McLean is sitting next to Jonny, also enjoying tasty bites of General Tso's, while casually recalling his early design projects—which when heard all together sounds like an oral history of breakthrough climbing gear.
"Remember the short-lived Fin carabiner?" he asks Jonny.
Jonny nods while sipping his wanton soup.
"It was a hot-forged sport climbing biner … but was way too big," adds Andrew.
The short-comings of the Fin, however, indirectly motivated McLean to create a lightweight carabiner. He began brainstorming.
"I had been a sailor, so I drew from that experience," he remembers.
Jonny chimes in.
"Andrew just said, 'look at these sailing carabiners. They just have a wire for the gates. It's simpler, wider, and it's one piece. The spring is incorporated, and you don't have to make this complicated gate with all this machining, drilling and assembly."
The crux at hand, literally, was that the gates on the shackles were extremely stiff. They simply wouldn't hold up to BD's standard of manufacturing the smoothest gates in the business.
"There's this BD heritage of having really smooth gates," says McLean. "BD biners were known as being 'smooth as a Beamer's tranny.' They were really well machined and super smooth. So, the goal was to match the current state of the art at the time."
Andrew headed to the shop and began prototyping.
"The first one I made was just out of a block of aluminum and I cut it out on a band saw" he says.
"I just printed it out, glued the piece of paper to a block of aluminum and then cut it out and filed it. And then I just took some wire and bent it into shape for the gate."
Did it work very well?
"Uh, no," he says.
The correct bend and placement of the gate turned out to be the crucial factor. The first prototypes had gates that would stick open or wouldn't close quite right. That's when Andrew strolled over to the desk of that practical joke playing Brit who seemed to climb more than he worked.
The Gate Keeper
Enter the self-taught, self-proclaimed "junior" designer, Jonny Woodward, from Macclesfield, England—a guy who still brags that he's only worked full-time six years of his life (for BD in fact), and who just popped in to the Dragon Diner fresh off a few weeks spent new-routing in the Sierras (hence the climbing tape).
"My background was in math and science up to first year of university where I discovered that if someone wasn't cracking the whip to make me do the work … I'd just go climbing," says Jonny caustically.
Yet at BD, Jonny had found an outlet for his penchant of tinkering in the machine shop and modifying his own climbing gear. Plus, he got paid for it.
"Jonny is responsible for fine tuning the geometry and figuring out how the gate shut, the location of the holes, the bend of the wire and the materials that we used, so it had this nice smooth, opening and closing action," says Andrew.
Image: Ben Ditto.
Jonny went to work, aiming for that BD quality smoothness. The goal was to figure out how to make the spring force fairly constant with the right amount of force through the entire range of motion, you know, like a Beamer's tranny.
"Really it comes down to choosing a wire with the right amount of diameter to have the right amount of stiffness," says Jonny. "And getting the holes as close together as you realistically can, so that you don't increase the spring force as it opens and closes."
Since it's not pivoting about a single axis, the gate, Jonny explains, needs to modularly deform when you open it. In other words, one "leg" of the gate has to compress while the other leg needs to stretch.
"If you look at it really critically, the gate opens, and it moves slightly to the side," Jonny notes. "So, the closer together you can get the holes, the more it's like a single pivot point, so the less it changes as you push on it."
Despite the scientific sounding nature of Jonny's work on the gate, it really all came down to feel. More specifically, what he knew a climber would like to feel.
"You just have to play with those things until it feels nice."
Jonny emphasizes the point by thumbing the gate of a modern HotWire that Andrew brought to the Diner.
Click, click, click.
Meanwhile, Andrew had been perfecting the body of the carabiner. Utilizing cutting-edge technology of computer modeling and CNC (Computer Numerical Control), he had developed a carabiner shape like no other in history.
"The HotWire was one of the first pieces of gear that we used CNC during the prototyping process," says Andrew, which basically means a machine driven by a computer would cut out the body.
"So, with CNC, you could start getting shapes like the HotWire, with contours in the body and irregular angles instead of the classic round bend of oval carabiners."
"The body was beautiful-it was a totally modern body," chimes in Jonny.
And combined with Jonny's smooth action wire-gate, the HotWire, as they called it, was ready for testing.
The Paperclip Biner
The problem was, the HotWire prototypes Andrew and Jonny had made were so different in appearance that climbers balked at testing them.
"It was really interesting," remembers Jonny. "When we started getting these biners with the nice bodies and the gates that worked—and they're totally safe because these things went through a bunch of testing before we sent them out—people would look at these things, with the diameter of the gate being so much smaller, and they just started calling it a paperclip biner!"
However, one well-known climber named Russ Clune—who also repped BD gear when he wasn't pushing the country's current climbing standards—started to take them out in the field and … gasps … even whip on them.
"I was one of the guinea pigs sent out to test them," says Russ. "I guess since I fell a lot and Woodward didn't, they figured I was a better crash test dummy."
When Clune showed up to the crag with futuristic biners on his sport draws, people took notice.
"They were definitely eyebrow raising for a lot of folks at first," he says. "I mean, the things just looked kinda flimsy. I'll admit, the first time I took them to Kingston (where all the routes are hard), I didn't use the prototype until several bolts up a route, just in case something went amiss. But there was never any problem. And when you spent a moment thinking about it, the dang thing made a ton of sense: less weight, more room to clip, etc."
Through Russ's exploits on the rock, the "paperclip biner" began to gain traction.
Lighter. Stronger. Safer.
"To anyone who wasn't freaked out for no good reason, it was a no brainer. It's lighter. It's stronger. And it's safer," says Jonny.
Not only did the HotWire shave considerable grams off every other biner in the world, but it was stronger and … safer?
"One of the things that became obvious with the wire-gate was that, because the mass of the gate is so tiny, it's resistant to gate whiplash," explains Jonny. If you take an old carabiner, and you just bang it on the table …"
Jonny then demonstrates this with a carabiner while simultaneously turning a few heads in the Diner.
Thwack, thwack, thwack!
"You can hear the regular gate opening and closing."
This phenomenon is known as "gate flutter" or "gate whiplash." With the rise of sport climbing in the early 90's, climbers began whipping … a lot. And occasionally, with the right set of circumstances, a fall would load a carabiner just as the gate had swung open. Since the biner's strength was compromised with an open gate, the body would break.
"We started seeing carabiners being sent back to us broken," says Jonny. "We'd look at it and it was obvious it had broken when the gate was open."
He explains the phenomenon further:
"It happens when someone falls off, and the whole carabiner is moving in a certain direction, and it comes to a sudden stop, but the gate, being hinged, can keep going because of its own mass and momentum. And if the actual load comes on to the body of the carabiner when that gate is open, and if the carabiner has a fairly low open gate strength, the carabiner's going to break."
Andrew then mentions that the BD Light D's and the now defunct Quicksilvers had pretty low open gate strengths (7kN) combined with fairly heavy, beefy gates.
But how could they prove and communicate the fact that the new HotWire prototypes were resistant to gate flutter?
Per usual, Andrew and Jonny had an idea.
"There was this high-speed photography lab in town that we decided to take one of these carabiners to alongside the current Light D," says Jonny. "It was very crude, but we mounted the carabiners on an 18-inch-long bar and just let the bar pivot, fall and hit the table so it came to a complete stop. And then get the shots just as it hit the table."
"It was 500 frames a second and it would take 50 frames in a shot, so it was like a tenth of a second," adds Andrew.
When the images arrived, the boys' inclination about the HotWire was confirmed through photographic evidence.
"It was just amazing actually, because in a tenth of a second, you would watch the gate on the Light D open up and just hang against the spine," says Jonny.
As for the HotWire?
"The wire-gate would open and close in about half the time the camera was on," he says. "So, it was just night and day how the HotWire was totally resistant to gate-open failures via whiplash."
OK, so the safer aspect was proven. But what about durability? After all, as Clune admitted, the biners did look a little "flimsy."
To test the cyclical strength of the wire-gate, Jonny and Andrew devised a plan.
"We had this little machine that would open and close the gate 10 times per second. But we had to figure out what the realistic cycle life of a carabiner was."
Here's what they came up with.
If someone racks a carabiner on a gear sling, you take it off the gear sling and that's 1 open and close cycle, you put it on your harness and that's 2, you take it off your harness 3, clip it into the bolt 4, take it off the bolt 5, clip it back onto your harness 6, take it off your harness 7, and clip it back on your gear sling 8.
"We figured every time someone does a pitch, it could open eight times. So, I said, 'let's just call it 10 to be safe," says Jonny. "And someone who climbs a lot goes out 5 days a week. So, 5 times 50 weeks is 250 days a year. Then 10 pitches a day, so 2,500 times 10 cycles per pitch, so now 25,000 times 20 years is 500,000 cycles."
They put the HotWires to the test, having the machine open and close the gate 500,000 times.
"It passed," says Andrew proudly.
The HotWires had durability in spades.
calling it a “truly radical departure.”
Launching Climbing's First Wire-Gate Carabiner
Andrew and Jonny had all the data. They had done all the lab tests, and guys like Clune had taken them into the field. However, there was still some internal resistance.
The fact of the matter was, BD's reputation was at stake.
"It was too radical in appearance for some people," says Jonny.
"And when you have to put your faith into an unknown quantity, there's a certain part of the company that was hesitant."
Andrew remembers that Peter Metcalf—BD's founder and then president—was a particularly hard sell.
"The numbers they were projecting to sell were really small," says Jonny. "And you know, that's understandable. We were throwing this new, bizarre concept out into the climbing marketplace. But within just a few months, it was obvious that this was going to be a big hit."
As soon as it launched, the HotWire caught on like wild fire.
What sold it?
Simply the fact that climbers—the real deal dirt bags out there getting after it day in and day out—completely embraced the HotWire.
"What really sold it was having climbers getting behind it," Andrew explains. "You had aid climbers who were like, 'wow, you just reduced the weight of my rack, and alpine climbers who liked that it didn't jam with snow, and sport climbers who liked the way the gate worked and felt."
Jonny and Andrew were psyched. In roughly 18 months, from the rough idea, to the completed HotWire which launched in 1995, two climbers had teamed up to redefine perhaps climbing's most crucial tool—launching the world's first wire-gate carabiner for the sport.
"Andrew and I were proud of the fact that we'd done something that was a little bit of a game changer," remembers Jonny.
When asked if he still thinks about the influence they had on the climbing world when he racks up with wire-gate biners today, Jonny is poignant.
"I do feel glad I had the opportunity to be living at a time of climbing evolution, where you can have a simple idea like this, perfect it, and have a profound influence on the way climbing equipment is used in the future," he says.
And though he adds that it's definitely harder to do in today's day in age, he still says a climber's perspective is what makes innovation like the HotWire possible.
"The main thing that Black Diamond appreciated was being able to take a concept, and from a climber's perspective, make it as good as it could be."
--BD Content Manager Chris Parker