Black Diamond: There for the Journey

I’ve had the privilege of providing gear reviews to IReviewGear over the last year. Since I already have such an active outdoor life, I feel great about the fact that anything I get sent by my Editor is received on the condition that I wait until I can use it for real. He has been fully supportive of me waiting until the right opportunity to try something out and letting me fill in the space between by reviewing the things I already have.

These days, when I get asked for recommendations, I try to send people to the website. After all, I put my thoughts in writing there, so why repeat them when a link is so much faster?

When that isn’t enough, I’ll try and find out more about their needs. Often I will direct the inquirers to go to an outdoor-oriented store to try things on for size/fit. In these cases, some brand names might pop up, but usually in relation to specific products:
“Running shoes? Well, I’ve been using Asics, but it’s a matter of preference.”
“Gloves? Well, lately I’ve been using Outdoor Research, but there’s plenty to try on and find the right one for you.”
However, there are three brands I have come to highly recommend based on their reputation and my preference for them. The first two, Osprey and Mountain Safety Research (MSR) I have done product reviews for and you can find those on the website to see what I like about them. However, one brand that I have come to use religiously but not put out reviews on (I really should get started on that…) is Black Diamond.

Now to clear up any disclosure concerns, this post is not being sponsored or pushed for by Black Diamond. In fact, I hope they are pleasantly surprised by the fact that I rely on their gear so much that I am driven to rave about them. When my Lead Editor asked me what I thought about various brands and Black Diamond came up, I about burned a hole in my phone at the rate I texted responses. That’s when I realized I had a story to tell…

Black Diamond has a special place in my heart because it’s the name I associate with my blossoming passion for mountaineering. Sure, growing up as a downhill skier, I recognized the name among the sea of others like K2 and Rossignol. It wasn’t until I began transitioning from a hiker into a mountaineer that I realized how much my own story relied on that familiar logo:

Image result for black diamond logo

Scrolling back through photos, I recognize the diamonds everywhere. It’s on the headlamp from my first time leading a friend through Ape Cave near Mt. St. Helens. I recognize it on the purple shell that went everywhere with me as I started exploring the mountains in winter, first as a cautious hiker and then as a confident snow scrambler. The culmination is in one joy-filled photo taken on my first winter-route summit, Foss Peak, located in the Tatoosh Range of Mount Rainier National Park. The ice-axe and shell frame my huge grin as my legs and feet (outside the frame) are warm and dry, protected by none-other than a pair of Black Diamond Gore-Tex Gaiters.

It felt amazing to have transitioned from hiker to scrambler in 2017, care of the Mountaineers’ Scrambling Course out of Olympia, WA. I was tempted to stop there and enjoy the many scramble worthy peaks in my Pacific Northwest home–I would never run out of places to go now that this new approach was opened to me!

Then came the fall, and more of my scrambling friends began talking about taking the Mountaineers’ Basic Climbing course over the winter. I was hesitant–relying on ropes was way outside of my comfort zone. Seeing all of the photos of amazing climbers dangling off overhangs in the desert every time a gear advertisement popped up was intimidating. “I could never do that,” I told myself. “No way could I be that [strong]/[skilled]/[balanced]/[insert any other standard you like].” The closest I came to the climbing side of Black Diamond was a climbing harness buried somewhere in my closet; a gift from my mother when I took a gym-climbing elective in college over eight years ago.

Well, it turns out that my friends are pretty persuasive. I signed up for the Basic Climbing Class in Olympia for 2018 with some misgivings, but once the money was paid I knew I was committed.
At the first classes I was adamant that I would learn the bare minimum about rock climbing but I was really only there for the glacier parts of the course. I got a lot of knowing smiles from the instructors and leaders–they had heard the speech before and knew I would change my mind soon enough.

The first “field trip” was amazing. We took over a local school gymnasium and went to work! Out came that barely used climbing harness and on went the learning. Rope coiling, belaying, using texas prussik to escape a crevasse… so much to learn to prepare me for my career in glacier climbing! The prospect of rock was still not thrilling, so I smiled and nodded through the rock-oriented stations but only felt truly invested when it was a glacier skill.

Fast forward through the snow and glacier parts of class… they were cold and a lot of fun, hard work and I checked the boxes as I went.

Then spring arrived, and with it came the rock climbing focus. I gasped my way up the climbing-gym walls feeling like an idiot on display, yet when I came down, I was complimented. Then I stumbled through our first skill stations day which involved a lot of climbing and belaying and was told I was a natural. Excuse me?! I was out of my comfort zone and freaked out at the prospect of putting complete trust in the system and the gear that held me. A natural? No, “natural” would be staying in control of my fate and not relying on nylon and metal to survive as far as I was concerned. Yet I had come this far and I was determined to pass the class, so I gritted my teeth and pushed through the stations. I admit, I had a lot of fun, albeit peppered with a good deal of anxiety. Maybe I could do this…

Then it was time for the rappel station.

I couldn’t imagine any of those models in outdoor-magazine-gear-ads feeling anything near my level of concern with rappelling. I had three instructors checking my harness and gear, I was on a backup belay, yet I was still uneasy as I approached the edge and checked my carabiners for what felt like the dozenth time. I realized that I had done everything I was taught to do and now it was time for faith. I steadied my breathing, took the final step, and sat back over nothing. My body weight shifted into the harness in a way I had never felt before and I felt the opposite pulls of gravity and the rappel system holding me in place. Then I began inching down and made my way slowly towards the ground. I was elated–it worked!

I came back up for my second rappel with a little less trepidation and now some curiosity. “How can I make it smoother this time?” was the surprising direction my thoughts took. I entered the system, felt my stomach clench as I approached the ledge but this time I knew what was coming and welcomed the steady hug of the harness.

“Huh, I think I got this!”

As luck would have it, I was the final student going through the rappel station for the day. As I prepared for the final rappel (which required a fully loaded backpack in place to complete skill), I noticed that my classmates were funneling outside. “Oh great, an audience…” Only this time, the negative self-talk stopped there. They were all beginners like me and had already been through this, so why worry? I checked over my gear and showed the instructors my system and was cleared to go. I stepped back into the rappel and began to descend.

“Let go with both hands now,” one of my instructors ordered when I was a few feet down. “Feel that it works–feel that its got you!”

I had a moment of clarity then. Although I can’t remember the exact thoughts, I know that the end result was an understanding that all of those professional-level climbers I was intimidated by had something in common. They understood the purpose of every piece of gear they touched and they entered into a relationship with the rocks through the bond of their system, whether that was a minimal amount of chalk on a well conditioned hand, or a loaded rack, harness, and series of bolts that guided the rope along its journey. They felt trust, both in themselves and in all the pieces that had to work together. And finally, at that moment, I felt it too.

So I not only let go with both hands… I let go with both hands and leaned backwards and gave myself fully to the pulls of gravity and the system. It felt amazing!

Climbing has only gotten better from there.

I am still a beginner in the process of trying to complete the requirements of the basic course. There is still a lot to learn, and a deeper understanding of the way my gear and the systems we build with it and around it interact. Yet on this journey, I have come to realize two things. The first is that I have to trust myself–to go through the correct steps, to double check my work, to ask for guidance if I need it and to forgive myself if I feel stuck. That trust is a work in progress.

The second thing I realized is that I have to trust my gear. Not a blind trust; part of climbing is knowing how to properly treat and respect all the tools and equipment that comes with it. I have to trust that my gear will tell me when something is wrong, through wear and marks to changes in feeling and movement. But also trust that there are people out there who dream, design, and create gear not only for the climbing legends, but for people like me who are just starting out the journey and have yet to learn all that they are capable of.

And you know what? Every time I look at the gear I have, and every time I experience the rush of picking out a new piece online or at the store, I’ve finally noticed that those beautiful black diamonds are always there. They’ve been with me since I learned to ski and as I found the joys of nature through hiking. Now they are everywhere, holding me close when I go beyond what I believe I am capable of and having my back when I stumble. I never knew that a brand could be so closely tied to my own story, until now.

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