Black Diamond puts an ACE up its sleeve

The recent acquisition of Anker Climbing Equipment (ACE) by Black Diamond Equipment is the latest and hopefully final home for a brand that was once known as A5 Adventures.
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The recent acquisition of Anker Climbing Equipment (ACE) by Black Diamond Equipment is the latest and hopefully final home for a brand that was once known as A5 Adventures.
 
In the climbing world, the smallest niche is big wall climbing: It's gear intensive, relatively dangerous and scary (that would be the appeal too). It is likely that only high-altitude mountaineering has fewer participants willing to take bigger risks and spend more money. Thus, companies supplying aid equipment to the big wall market segment have always been tiny or very small departments within the umbrella of a much larger company.

In 1986, John Middendorf founded A5 Adventures in Flagstaff, Ariz., manufacturing equipment such as haul bags, portaledges and a rock hammer. In 1997, Middendorf sold A5 to The North Face. As a result of the sale, several employees lost jobs and Middendorf moved to TNF's headquarters in San Leandro, Calif., to oversee design and production. Insiders told us then that it was a bad marriage and it was no surprise when Middendorf moved on a couple years later.

It did not take TNF long to realize it could make more money selling apparel under the A5 brand name, and in short order, A5 morphed into an urban lifestyle collection for wannabe climbers. That shift left some nifty designs for haul bags and portaledges homeless.

Longtime TNF employee Conrad Anker, a well-known climber, convinced the powers that be to let him start up ACE as an independent hardware division within TNF. That division eventually spun off into a separate office and production facility in Bozeman, Mont., with a couple of employees.

Anker took the previous A5 designs for ledges and haul bags and updated them with newer technology and some of his own design improvements. While the ACE ledges were arguably the best around for severe weather on big walls of remote corners of the globe (think Baffin Island and Baltoro Glacier), they were very expensive and overkill for big wall adventurers heading to Yosemite and Zion.

SNEWS® was told that it didn't take too long before ACE sales numbers no longer made sense to TNF and as a result, ACE was cut free, losing its space at Outdoor Retailer inside the TNF room in the process. Thus, with limited marketing resources and limited demand, ACE has been in limbo for a couple years -- until Black Diamond decided it would be the perfect addition to its climbing quiver, landing ACE in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Under Black Diamond's ownership, Anker will continue to develop products from Bozeman through 2008. Manufacturing and marketing will move to Utah and eventually the line will likely consolidate. The ACE line will be shown at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market with delivery scheduled for April 2006.

SNEWS® View: This is a win-win for both Anker and Black Diamond. For Anker, he gets to stay in Bozeman and keep playing in the mountains. He is a devoted husband and stepfather of three great kids and active in promoting the legacy of Alex Lowe, his deceased climbing partner, and operating a charitable trust that teaches Sherpas safe climbing techniques.

Although Black Diamond already has a line of decent haul bags, it has not offered a portaledge since production of the SkyLounge stopped a couple years ago. From this acquisition, Black Diamond gets one of the best ledge designs around, along with some other good products, and will once again be able to compete head-to-head with Metolius (the other premier big wall company) and Fish (which owns the "best value for the buck" category) in this niche market.

Black Diamond also gets to take advantage of Anker's considerable expertise as a climber and gear tinkerer, and in our view it'd be remiss not to listen. The company's harnesses and gear slings for big wall climbing are very dated and could use some of Anker's input to spruce them up. And the ACE rock hammer is a superior design to anything yet offered (no word yet if it will go into production).

Big wall climbing is never going to be huge. But for the real core climbers, and companies that sell to them, it is an important part of the game and Black Diamond just became a very serious player, as it should be.

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