Climbing/Mountaineering at a glance - Summer Market '02

* This report is a part of the SNEWS® team expansion to include veteran reporters who live and breathe a category and write about it for our readers. Our man-on-the-scene at OR (Clyde Soles) filed the following about the state of things in the world of climbing and mountaineering -- all from the eyes of a doer not a wannabe, and someone who knows enough to have a true opinion.
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Ice climbing in August? No, just pathetic planning. Unlike every other company in the outdoor industry, the climbing world has yet again demonstrated that it's unable to show winter products at the winter show. Retailers and magazine reviewers would be furious if they couldn’t view and demo skis at the On-Snow Demo in January (or at least at the regional rep shows), yet this is still SOP for technical ice tools and crampons. There’s little point in even looking at product or planning preseasons in February since most of the releases come just 3 months before the season starts. Guilty players include Black Diamond (new tool may reduce Cobra's appeal), Camp (new tools and leash concept), Cassin (much improved crampons are serious contenders), Charlet Moser (radical crampon binding), DMM (new tools), Grivel (nicely redesigned heads and shafts), Hugh Banner (tool update), Kayland (boot/crampon), Stubai (new tool), Trango (completely new tools look superb). What is so hard to understand? The summer show is for summer products (straight-shafted ice axes, hinged crampons) and the winter show is for winter products (technical ice tools and rigid/semi-rigid crampons). Late releases should be the rare exception, not the norm. Of course, looking at it from the glass-is-half-full side, perhaps we're off base and these intros are actually for Winter 03/04? If that's the case, then the above ice climbing manufacturers should be congratulated for being so far ahead of the curve, and we apologize.

The future of ice. Unlike some companies renowned for their "consumer product testing programs" (read: releasing products before they're ready), Montrail has demonstrated that it cares about its retailers and end-users. The brainchild of veteran Jim Donini, the innovative Integrated Climbing Equipment (ICE), which combines boot and crampon, has been withheld for another 6 months -- plan to have your boat rocked in February…. Natalie Simond was spotted walking the halls so don’t be surprised if her company's fine product line makes a return next year…. While Kayland is delivering its trick ultralight boot with crampons bolted on (Ice Comp) this season, Salomon was showing its eye-catcher, but will hold off shipping for another season although athletes will begin competing in the shoe this winter. Just as ice and mixed climbing were reinvented about five years ago with the refinement and acceptance of clearance shaft ice tools and monopoint crampons, the sport is about to make another big leap with boot/crampon combinations and leashless tools. What is now a fringe in Euro ice competitions will become more mainstream in a couple of seasons as the technology improves and the potentials are realized.

Rock shoe wars have returned. Still feeling the aftereffects of the under-priced dot-coms in Europe (the rising Euro has made the deals less attractive), the rock shoe market has become a battlefield with new players, not much innovation, little growth, and eventual casualties. To add to the turmoil, three of the major brands were without sales reps in the Rockies, though replacements will be announced soon. There were more than a dozen brands of rock shoes at this summer's show vying for retailer's wall space. While there were some nice tweaks to existing designs, only two companies showed real initiative: Five-Ten (new rubber and edging platform) and Mad Rock (dual density rubber). The latter is the newest company to emerge run by Young Chu, who built Five-Ten shoes for many years and is among the most famous Korean climbers. As good, cheap alternatives become more available, and Salomon prepares to enter the market next summer, established brands must prove they are ahead of the curve or perish.

Me-too climbing clothes continue to come and go. While Five-Ten, Metolius and Turbo have checked out, La Sportiva (Eldo) and The North Face (A5) have checked in with lines of cute outfits for girls and baggy basics for guys. What was once rags for the climbing gym and local crags has now evolved into lifestyle pieces equally suited for yoga class, hanging at the coffee shop, and dining out (but not for aerobic sports). Given that it's primarily a youthful audience (read: most Baby Boomers don't have the body to wear this stuff) and there isn’t much to tell the brands apart, the authentic smaller companies (Jade, Prana, Stonewear, Verve) still have a lot of cachet. In case you missed them hiding behind the giant column in the middle of their booth, Blurr was the hot new clothing (and pack) entry that really hit the trend towards urban cragging.

We’ve been hearing about it for ages, but eVENT is only about to become apparent in the outdoor market next year. Sure a few companies (Pearl Izumi, Salomon) dabbled with this waterproof/breathable membrane last season, but most consumers have never heard of the stuff. That may change next year as Lowe Alpine, Five-Ten, and Wild Things introduce products for the high-end backpacking and climbing markets where they have good reputations. The combined SNEWS® staff has gone through more labs, clinics, and tests than you could possibly imagine -- we can talk MVTRs, RETs, and PSIs all you want -- yet we are still confused by all the conflicting claims. Pity the poor consumer. It's bad enough that nobody can figure out what a soft shell is after two decades on the market, now we get to debate hard shells again. Fabric companies need to do a better job explaining their technology or the perception will be that it's all good enough and brand doesn’t matter.

Big wall climbing is another niche that is seriously gear intensive. The technology for living in extreme conditions on steep rock faces is rapidly evolving and climbers are taking full advantage. While The North Face has turned A5 into a clothing line, the original hardgoods line has evolved into Anker Climbing Equipment (ACE). Relocated to Bozeman, MT this is now a pure climbing company (with ties to VF) run by Conrad Anker and a core of guys who get it. The first offering is a much-improved portable ledge system (tents for vertical walls) and an excellent rock hammer. Metolius, who upped the ante in the past few seasons with superior haul bags and ledges, introduced the Septic Tank, an easy to use system for dealing with waste. The most obviously lagging technology at this point is hanging stove systems; Markhill wins by default as the only decent butane offering (plenty of room to improve), but nobody makes a hanging liquid-fuel stove so climbers are forced to jury-rig.

Mountaineering products are many companies’ showcase pieces that are usually sold on pro deals or at deep discounts. Some products are designed more for marketing than performance. For example, with the exception of US newcomer Hilleberg that rocked the SNEWS® team's minds with simple, effective designs, most of the so-called expedition tents are still absurdly complicated and heavy, contrary to the trend for faster and lighter. And while the sleeping bag category remains in the proverbial sales toilet, Mountain Hardwear sleeping bags (Banshee and Spectre) with welded baffles offer something worth talking about beyond price. By eliminating external seams, this construction essentially makes the outer shell a bivy sack; increasing protection and reducing weight.

Plastic mountaineering boots appear once more to be headed for extinction. While the tales of their previous demise (when leather boots reemerged) were greatly exaggerated, this time it may be for real. While Vasque was ahead of the high-tech trend at the Anaheim show, other companies including Asolo and La Sportiva are coming on strong. Traditional plastic boots, such as Koflach and Lowa, won't disappear anytime soon but there are fewer reasons for the general consumer to consider them. The newer boots are lighter, more comfortable, just as warm and not nearly as clunky.

Location is proving to be a stumbling block for Climbing Magazine in its effort to hire a new publisher. While he would have been an excellent choice, Jack Tackle declined the offer largely due to not wanting to move to Carbondale, Col., an Aspen suburb with exorbitant housing costs and limited climbing opportunities (Jack has since been re-hired by a severely-chastised Vasque). Meanwhile, Alpinist Magazine made its debut at the show with a super teaser issue showing off great production values. To be published quarterly, each issue is sure to become a collector's item. At the other end of the climbing world, Vbouldering Magazine's third issue makes one wonder how long they’ll survive; looks good but it’ll be a real challenge to maintain interesting content even for those who never tie into a rope.

Climbing rack-packs have been around for a while but designers are rapidly improving their functionality. Among the newer models are the Backcountry Access Flash Pack, Camp Campack 20, Grivel Manu, and Metolius Big Wall Gear Sling. These are all small volume packs, with well-designed gear loops on both sides, that allow climbing in comfort on moderate to long climbs of all types, not just gnarly alpine routes.

Making buying decisions easier is good for consumers and retailers alike and pre-packaging of climbing gear is finally catching on. Some companies have toyed with the concept in the past but it seems to be catching on as Black Diamond, Metolius, and Trango now offer value sets that make it easier for newcomers to say "yes." Makes sense and it's easy to merchandise.

Other cool things that caught our SNEWS® roving climbing reporter's eye:Mammut 8mm sewn webbing -- Cassin climbing helmet with built-in LED headlamp -- improved material in Misty Mountain harnesses -- MontBell down jacket that weighs the same as a t-shirt -- SMC TAnchors for holding your tent to the ground -- and the Cool Pooch water bottle (a sport bottle where the design allows for sharing between dogs and their master sans doggie slobber), which has been around a few years but finally found an appropriate market in Outdoor where enthusiasts should really take to the item better than a runner.

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