BLACKYAK Born In the Mountains
Sponsored by BLACKYAK
By Owen Clarke
By Owen Clarke
The year was 1996. 47-year-old Korean climber Tae Sun Kang was trapped, stuck in a blizzard en route to Camp 1 on Cho Oyu (26,906 feet), the world’s sixth highest peak. Visibility had soured as he began his climb, and a snowstorm of disastrous proportions was growing around him. Now, still far from his goal of Camp 1 at 21,000 feet, Kang could see no more than a few paces ahead through the driving snow.
All he could do was wait, and hope that conditions improved. Kang waited for two, then three hours for the storm to clear. Temperatures were dropping to -35 degrees, and nightfall was coming. The driving wind was enshrouding the mountain in blankets of snow. Kang began to suspect this might be the last night of his life.
Now, he was better equipped and back on Cho Oyu, but fearing this attempt would be his last. Night was falling fast and visibility with it. Through the haze, he couldn’t travel without potentially plunging into a crevasse or another hazard.
Suddenly, out of the gloom, a faint black dot appeared, tracking down the mountain. Without any other options, Kang began to follow the black dot. As he approached, he discovered this black dot was a lone yak. Without any other options, Kang followed the yak, which led him down the mountain and out of the storm, to the safety of base camp.
His Cho Oyu ambitions may have been dashed again, but Kang promised himself that he would learn from his experience. Though this failure wasn’t a result of faulty equipment, he returned to Seoul with the gift of life, given by the yak, and christened a new name for the brand he’d founded back in 1973, BLACKYAK, dedicating himself and his brand to providing high quality, technical outdoor gear to the mountaineers and adventurers of the world. The company began in Korea, and quickly branched out into China in 1998, and later Nepal. By 2012, BLACKYAK had 200 points of sale in China and 345 in Korea, and was one of Asia’s dominant mountaineering brands, acquiring a name synonymous with top notch technical equipment for athletes and adventurers operating in extreme conditions, high elevations and rugged terrain.
After this great success in the Asian market, Kang’s son and business partner Jun Suk Kang, who believed strongly in the importance of globalizing the brand, began to urge him to branch BLACKYAK out into the international market. Together, father and son began working to position BLACKYAK as a global brand. “[Kang] had a lot to offer from his successes in Asia, and wanted to bring all this experience, all these technologies, to the global sphere,” said BLACKYAK’s Managing Director Maximilian Nortz. Unlike most market newcomers, from a revenue perspective BLACKYAK was already on the top end thanks to their success in Asia, which put them in a unique position. Namely, they had the ability to be targeted and precise in their entry, accepting nothing less than the best in terms of quality when designing product lines.
Still, there are inherent pros and cons in entry into the global market from a Asian-only base. Everything, from product design to sizing to function, was reworked from the ground up for the global market, all the existing product lines were passed over in favor of new products fit for a global consumer. “In Asia,” said Nortz, “it’s style and then function, but in Europe and the West, it’s function and then style.” A marriage of these two preferences gave BLACKYAK a basis for unique standards of development, and it paid off. The brand spent two years developing new products for the global line, attending ISPO, the world’s largest sporting goods trade fair, in 2014 without any actual product, only prototypes and concept ideas. “People thought we were crazy,” said Nortz, but the very next year, they earned 11 ISPO awards for the most innovative products in the industry. To date, BLACKYAK has earned 24 ISPO awards, more than any other brand on the market.
These awards don’t come easy, and BLACKYAK’s product development and testing process is as rigorous as they come. The brand can afford to operate like this largely thanks to deep, deep pockets from their successes in the Asian market. David Randall, BLACKYAK’s European Design Director, spoke a bit about the design process. “We wanted to do things differently, we weren’t afraid to hit the marketplace at the top end of the price category, and this allowed us lots of opportunities with design and development,” Randall said. “It allowed us to throw the rulebook out the window.”
Though BLACKYAK typically spends twelve to eighteen months on development and testing before sending the product into the twelve month industry standard cycle, a single product from BLACKYAK can take years from concept to fruition, as the company hones the product over multiple seasons in the alpine. BLACKYAK’s new Watusi expedition down suit, for example, has been in development for over four years. “That’s just how long it was before we felt it was ready and as good as it could be,” Randall said. “Rather than release a product that’s wrong to meet a deadline, we bring the product to a place where we are happy and proud to release it to the market.” This modus operandi paid off, GearJunkie awarded the Watusi their Best in Show award for the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2018.
“We realize for certain things, you’ve got to pay a little bit extra and maybe take a little bit more time,” said Randall. “Thanks to the brand’s success in Korea and China, we’re in a financial position to stand by this outlook with regards to designing our products.”
As a relatively small brand on the international radar, BLACKYAK’s cadre of product testing athletes is comparatively small but, like their products, it is representative of a quality over quantity mentality. One of BLACKYAK’s main testers is the German wunderkind Jost Kobusch, who at age 21 became the youngest person to free-solo Ama Dablam (22,349 feet). Another primary tester is Polish alpine legend Adam Bielecki, who holds the first winter ascent of both Gasherbrum I and Broad Peak, two 8,000ers, the former without bottled oxygen. He also has attained the summits of several other 8,000ers, including K2 without bottled oxygen.
In January of 2018, Bielecki was testing BLACKYAK gear, including the aforementioned down suit, on K2, in hopes of making the mountain’s first winter ascent. As Bielecki and his team prepared to climb, a distress signal came out from nearby Nanga Parbat. Two climbers, Tomek Mackiewicz and Elisabeth Revol, were stranded high on the 8000er, after making a summit bid from around 24,000 feet. Bielecki and the three other Polish climbers with him sprang into action, boarding a helicopter which dropped them off at Camp 1 on Nanga Parbat (14,000 feet). The team began a blitz up the peak, climbing eight hours through the night, in temperatures reaching -40 degrees. Bielecki and fellow Polish climber Dennis Urubko found Revol at 19,700 feet, descending after the summit, and safely rescued her.
Unfortunately, they were not able to recover Mackiewicz, who was stranded much higher on the peak, suffering from altitude sickness and snow blindness. Sadly, he did not survive. Urubko later said, “At that time, we had to make a decision: either to help Elisabeth survive or to continue with little hope of finding Tom. We also had a very bad weather forecast for the next days. It was obvious that we had to stay with Elisabeth, who was very poor and that’s why we decided to focus on her.”
Tragic as it was, the Nanga Parbat rescue is indicative of both the mentality of the brand, the athletes and innovators it works with, and the kind of rigorous testing all BLACKYAK products undergo. In the mountains, whether it be the Rockies, the Alps, or the high ranges of the Himalaya and the Karakorum, things can and will go wrong. BLACKYAK aims to be a step ahead of the unexpected. “This is something we’re very proud of, and this is something that I would say is more important than business, the human element in developing product,” said Randall. “These guys, the ones who actually go and abandon their own summit attempts to help people, these guys are heroes. We’re proud as a company to develop product for this type of athlete, products that keeps them safe in these extreme environments.”
Another edge BLACKYAK holds comes in the form a top-end Swiss development house, Development Never Stops (DNS), which hones the concepts behind BLACKYAK’s products. “This name really indicates their central philosophy,” said Randall, “that belief that you can always push a product further, that design and development never stop moving.” Development Never Stops is headed by Marcel Geser, a Swiss tailor based out of Zurich. Geser and Randall work together to design every product from the ground up, highlighting “essentially, what problem does this product have to solve,” said Randall. “We don’t just want to release a nice jacket to the marketplace, we want to innovate, to find an answer to a question people have.” From integrated snowskirts to hood sizing, Geser and Randall fine tune all the design concepts, and the function and material combinations. Geser then gets materials woven per BLACKYAK’s special requests, going down to a micro level with textile development, working directly with weavers and manufacturers. “He makes sure these materials are constructed exactly the way we want them, fitting in with our feels good, functions good, and looks good formula,” said Randall. The development team then establishes functional systems and technicity with regards to building the product, and only then, “with an understanding of exactly where we want to go and why,” said Randall, does Geser go away and makes the product.
Development aside, one of the unique things about BLACKYAK’s product line is the design layout of the products. Each product line is segmented by condition, not sport. “A lot of companies will speak about themselves and say, ‘We’re a ski company,’” said Randall, “and that company will probably build products that are very, very good for skiing.” But BLACKYAK wants to avoid being pigeonholed in this manner. “We don’t want to be sport specific with our clothing. If you’re a skier and you’re happy to wear our stuff skiing, great,” said Randall. They design products with condition and altitude in mind, as opposed to activity. “If you go mountaineering, we want to give you solid product for mountaineering, but the idea is that our products will also serve you very, very well in a wide range of mountain sports.” With their Asian heritage, where style plays a larger role in the outdoor culture, BLACKYAK is also trying to build collections of products that look good in addition to functioning good. “An outdoor alpine piece can tell a unique story about you that you might not otherwise want to say,” said Randall. BLACKYAK prides itself on being a brand which delivers products for all walks of athletes, with equipment that is just as useful in a weekend jaunt up a 4,000 meter peak in the Alps or Rockies as it is on an 8,000 meter peak in the Himalaya or Karakoram. Still, the primary focus, said Randall, “is that we want these products to be technical products that can perform at the highest level.”
BLACKYAK also focuses on giving back to the mountains the brand was born in. After Nepal’s earthquake in 2016, Kang donated $1,000,000 towards relief efforts, in addition to opening a school in the country for 300 kids. He also flew 300 Nepalese villagers to Korea last year, to teach them agricultural techniques to implement in their home region, such as high altitude coffee farming. When the villagers returned, planted and harvested their coffee, Kang purchased the entire harvest from the villagers in order to kick start their agricultural enterprise. Every year the company also has cleaning days, where the employees go into local mountains to pick up waste and refuse. “We want to leave these mountains in a condition for our children to enjoy the same way we have enjoyed them,” said Nortz.
Branching out into the global market hasn’t been a cakewalk for BLACKYAK. In some cases, such as the Watusi down suit, it’s taken years to bring products to a level where the brand is both ready and proud to release them. Still, Nortz, Randall and the others are enthusiastic about what BLACKYAK has to offer the global consumer. “Our focus is on being top of the line from both a quality and a functional perspective,” said Nortz. “We want people to buy one jacket instead of three jackets. Whatever you do, it’s your choice, your mission. We just want to support you on whatever that mission is.”
More importantly, Nortz emphasized that BLACKYAK never looks to other brands for ideas or concepts. “With our products,” he said, “we want to tell a story based on real experience, real conditions. With each product, we’re trying to answer questions that haven’t been answered, problems that haven’t been solved.”