Gear Gurus: Black Diamond’s Kolin Powick Talks Inflatable Helmets and Strong-as-Metal Fabrics

"That’s really what innovation is, looking outside of your bubble and seeing where you can pull ideas into your world."

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Gear Gurus is a new series of interviews from Backpacker with some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry. We’re catching up with the movers and shakers, from CEOs to lead product designers, that dream up your ultralight tents and engineer your wind-proof stoves. Where do they find inspiration? Where is outdoor gear headed next? Stay tuned to find out.

First up, we sit down with Kolin Powick, Vice President of Product at Black Diamond—a brand born from climbing gear, now known for everything from high-end trekking poles and headlamps to softshell jackets and ski equipment. Powick, a mechanical engineer by trade, ended up at Black Diamond in 2002. In his words, his first job was to be “the quality department,” making sure the company “didn’t accidentally kill anybody.” A climber at heart, he spent 18 years ensuring that every carabiner latched closed and each trekking pole locked into place. In 2019, Powick took on the role of VP of Product for everything Black Diamond makes, which now includes climbing, mountain equipment, ski and snowboard, footwear, and apparel. 

Backpacker: What’s the one piece of gear that got you hooked on your industry in the first place?

Kolin Powick: When I think of Black Diamond, I think of the Camelot (BD’s a spring-loaded protection device for traditional climbing). When you are a mechanical engineer like me, and you start getting into climbing, and you see something like a spring-action cam, you’re like, “that’s what I’m talking about.” It’s a no brainer. Now, the Camelot is made with dyneema cable, with the lobes cut out, and 20 percent lighter than the generation before it. We’ve had different versions of the dual-action Camelot through my whole 20 year span here.

BP: What’s one product from another company that you love?

KP: We make a lot of products—for almost everything. When I’m going on a trip to Alaska to try some new alpine route or whatever, I go to my gear shed to pack my stuff and lay out everything on the floor before it goes into a duffle bag. If it’s not from Black Diamond, then I ask myself: Why don’t we make it? 

There are only a few things we don’t make, and one of them is stoves. I almost always have a Jetboil stove in my pack when I go to Alaska. I remember when that thing first came out, beause there was almost no white gas, and you were almost always burning your tent down. When I think of a Jetboil stove, I think of the sound: just like a jet engine turning on, and then, poof, the water’s boiling. Those things are pretty rad.

Black Diamond Camalot
Black Diamond’s dual-axle Camalot changed climbing protection. (Photo: Courtesy of BD)

BP: What do you think the next big issue in the outdoor industry is?

KP: I go straight to education, for people in the outdoors in general, but especially climbers. It’s so important to educate today’s climbers for the future both for how to treat the environment and how to be safe out there. The climbing gym is kinda one step away from an amusement park ride. Yes, you can get hurt for sure, but it is relatively controlled. Then you see these people getting outside—and I’ve seen stuff that I can’t unsee. Trying to have these young climbers of today understand that it’s dangerous, that you gotta be focused—it’s a tall order. And for everyone that goes outside, how to treat the nature we are privileged enough to be in. I see people just leaving crap around and not cleaning up all the time.

“There’s going to be things that didn’t use to be considered sustainable or recyclable that are in the future. Part of the challenge is figuring out what’s going to be recyclable tomorrow, today.”

BP: What do you think the next major advance in gear or technology might be?

KP: Trying to balance weight and durability. If you look historically, across the board, there haven’t been a bunch of huge leaps in tech that take it to the next level. I think we’re going to start seeing materials in places that we didn’t use to see them. For example, could you make a fabric that is strong enough for a structural application? Are there fabrics you could use to make a carabiner out of instead of aluminum? That’s really what innovation is, looking outside of your bubble and seeing where you can pull ideas into your world. I think more sustainability is coming too. There’s going to be things that didn’t use to be considered sustainable or recyclable that are in the future. Part of the challenge is figuring out what’s going to be recyclable tomorrow, today.  

BP: What’s the latest outdoor gear trend that you’d like to see die?

KP: The little Bluetooth speakers hanging off of backpacks. Come on! Wear headphones if you wanna rock out, but don’t put it on a fanny pack or backpack and annoy people around you. When people show up at the cliff and they have a little boombox, it’s just like, give me a break. It kind of goes back to what I said about teaching these younger people who are new to the outdoors—there’s ethics in the outdoors with respect to cleaning up after yourself and looking after nature, but there’s also courtesy stuff. Part of the reason a lot of people go into the wilderness is because it’s “The Wilderness.” 

BP: If there were no limits on cost or technology, what would your dream piece of gear or apparel be, and what would it do?

KP: I’m all about stuff that packs small when I’m climbing. One of the biggest, bulkiest things to pack is your helmet. If I could have a pill, and at the base of the cliff, I could just pour water over the top of it, and it expands into a helmet, that would be sweet. Getting something small enough, packable enough, and still do what it’s meant to do is the challenge. So, yeah, an inflatable helmet. This is also a little crazy, but I want something so that if I’m free soloing and I fall, it turns into a big marshmallow suit and I just bounce on the ground and I’m fine.