The Making Of: The Black Diamond WhippetMonday, February 13, 2017
Andrew McLean was out for his daily winter ritual—an early morning mission to ski untracked powder in the backcountry. The previous day’s storm had coated the Wasatch Mountains with 18 inches of Utah’s finest cold smoke, and the conditions, albeit dangerous on steep slopes, were too good to pass up. So McLean kept it mellow, skiing low-angle terrain and avoiding anything above 32 degrees.
But as he traversed through lower elevation, he crossed what he describes as a steep pocket.
“It ended up breaking loose on me and avalanching,” says McLean, his voice showing absolutely zero sign of heightened emotion.
“But as soon as the slope started to crack and fracture, I rolled over and dug my Whippets down into the bed surface and the avalanche washed down underneath me.”
McLean casually mentioned this story between bites of spicy Tangerine Chicken procured from one of his favorite Salt Lake City haunts—The Dragon Diner.
The kicker, however, was that he wasn’t recalling some distant experience.
“That was yesterday morning,” he deadpanned. “So, yeah, I use the Whippets all the time.”
If you’ve done any steep skiing in North America in the last 20 years, you’ve likely heard of McLean. Now 55 years young, McLean is an indelible figure in the world of ski mountaineering. From his witty columns in backcountry skiing magazines, to his cult classic guidebook, The Chuting Gallery, for the Wasatch Mountains, McLean is a bonafide steep skiing pioneer.
But perhaps his greatest contribution to the world of skiing has been his invention of the Black Diamond Whippet.
Though subtle in design, the Whippet—which is virtually a ski pole outfitted with a specialized ice pick—has become a time-tested, stand-by for steep skiing aficionados. Adept at climbing terrain such as icy couloirs, the Whippet also has self-arrest capabilities, making them a clutch addition to any ski mountaineer’s arsenal.
McLean developed the Whippet out of necessity, he explains. Having secured a position as Senior Designer at Black Diamond in the early 1990’s, McLean joined a hard-core crew of employees that were pushing the limits of climbing and skiing.
Once alpinist Alex Lowe joined the tight-knit BD crew as Quality Control Manager, McLean’s pre-work ski adventures (eventually coined “dawn patrols” by Lowe) took on a whole new air of seriousness.
“Once I started going out with Alex, I was like, ‘oh, this isn’t just about walking up logging roads and skiing low-angle powder. You can combine mountaineering and the climbing aspect with skiing.’”
As a result, they pushed their gear to the breaking point. And when the old gear broke or was inadequate, employees like McLean went to the open shop after hours.
“I could go in the shop, make a prototype, and then use it the next morning,” says McLean.
The first piece of gear that inspired the Whippet came from the Italian company Gipron, who manufactured Black Diamond’s ski poles at the time. One of Gipron’s models provided the basis for McLean’s “whippet” idea.
“They had a pole with a self arrest grip … but it was super flimsy,” says McLean. “Those worked really well for climbing up stuff—if you had two of them and you were going up a steep chute you could really motor. But it was obvious that they were really fragile. If you were taking a sliding fall and you stuck them in, they would just bend.”
Another piece of gear that caught McLean’s eye was Stubai’s interchangeable ice axe system. Basically, you could outfit one axe shaft with multiple tools—say an adze, or a hammer—by screwing on the different components. Plus, they even mounted that onto a ski pole.
“But it was really heavy,” says McLean. “Because it was based on a technical ice axe.”
The Making Of
So with these two designs as inspiration, McLean spent a couple of late nights in the open shop, blasting tunes and tinkering.
“There was a whole late night culture at BD during that time,” says McLean. “Work would stop at 5 o’clock and people would leave, but we’d go to the shop, crank up the music and make gear we were passionate about.”
“Yeah, it was a dream job,” he laughs. “It was too good to be true. You know, being able to dream of going skiing or climbing, and then design stuff for that, and then build the product. It was awesome.”
McLean first took the classic BD Alpamayo Ice Axe, cut it down, and mounted it to a ski pole. But the problem he encountered was the adze. Particularly, when you articulated your wrist to make a placement in snow or ice, the adze would dig in to your arm. Plus the picks were too long, making for way too much leverage.
So he started modifying.
He cut the adze off, made the pick shorter and the Whippet began to evolve.
“The name came as a play on the idea of a fast dog,” says McLean, “but also because they were always there to save a fall, so you could just ‘whip it’ out.”
One subtle but crucial design element can easily be overlooked.
“Always from the beginning the pick had that little canard wing on it,” says McLean of the fan of metal laterally extending from one side of the Whippet’s pick. “If you were climbing firm ice you could just stick the picks in, but in corn snow or something, you needed to keep the pick from just slicing through.”
McLean’s first generation Whippet was removable, but he tweaked the design, leaving it fixed for the next iteration, and since circa 1995 it has remained virtually unchanged.
The Word Spreads
The Whippet had a small but devoted following. Skiers like Doug Coombs were charging steep lines with Whippets in hand, and at one point, Reinhold Messner even climbed Everest with one.
“There was a growing interest in steeper backcountry skiing,” says McLean. “So this was a tool that was new and actually worked.”
The Whippet’s popularity grew mostly by word of mouth, and occasionally a high profile, Whippet-wielding ski mountaineer would be pictured on the glossy pages of a mag. However, BD also put together its own guerilla marketing plan and McLean took part.
“That’s actually how I got in to writing,” he says.
McLean began churning out articles for Black Diamond catalogs, in which he’d regal his latest adventures while also introducing the world to products like the Whippet.
Now McLean is a respected author and columnist, not to mention still a major proponent of the Whippet.
A Devoted Following
When asked how many times a Whippet has saved his life, he answers matter-of-factly:
“Probably 20 times. Even on low-angle powder days they come in handy … like yesterday.”
But he stresses:
“That’s not an approved avalanche avoidance method … though the Whippets do have a lot of ulterior uses.”
McLean also recalls the many times he’s been scrambling through steep, rocky terrain where a slip could be seriously detrimental.
“But if you have a Whippet, you just cruise right through and don’t really think twice about it. Did that really save your life? I don’t know … maybe.”
McLean says he’s had a lot of great experiences and that the Whippets have always been there. “So maybe it’s a bonding thing,” he laughs.
“I think it’s cool that it’s enduring,” he adds. “You know, it was never a huge seller to begin with, but it’s got a core following.”
Today, McLean says he still receives the occasional email from a skier who says the Whippet saved their life. The traumatic experience, McLean says, invokes the need to reach out and thank him.
“If people are still going out and steep skiing, and they get into situations where the Whippet saves them, that’s good for everybody,” he says.
“And not only does that keep the product alive, but it also keeps the spirit of the activities alive … and that’s what really matters to me.”
—Words: Chris Parker