Game Changer

Peter Metcalf Wields the Might of the Outdoor Industry to Protect the Wild

It’s in adventure gear companies’ interest to guard the public lands their customers depend on.

Illustration: Sam Kerr for Bloomberg Businessweek

Growing up in the suburbs on Long Island, Peter Metcalf thought exploring the outdoors meant biking around a decommissioned air base near his home. Then a couple of Boy Scouts took him backpacking in the Catskills; by the time Metcalf turned 18, he was the youngest person to complete a first ascent of a major Alaskan peak—the glacial Mount Fairweather, which tops out at 15,325 feet. “Climbing and mountaineering became the focal point of my life,” he says. “It’s what everything else I did was pressure-tested against.”

Metcalf’s mania for climbing led him to Chouinard Equipment, founded by the man who went on to start Patagonia Inc., where he worked as general manager. In 1989, after Chouinard Equipment went bankrupt, Metcalf raised about $1 million from “friends, family, future employees, and fools,” took on $3 million in debt, and bought the remaining assets. He named the new company Black Diamond Equipment Ltd., moved it from Southern California to Utah, and soon became known for developing improved versions of trekking poles, carabiners, and avalanche safety equipment, among other outdoor gear.

Metcalf has long pushed the industry to embrace activism. “Peter is like a pit bull. He won’t let go of your ankle until he gets what he’s looking for, which is why he’s so accomplished in business and climbing and everything he touches,” says John Sterling, executive director of the Oregon-based Conservation Alliance, which links businesses with environmental groups. “He’s a moral compass for the industry.”

It’s in the interest of outdoors-oriented companies to protect public lands: They depend on the wilderness being accessible to customers. Between gear and tourism, the industry wields serious economic power, adding more than $887 billion to U.S. gross domestic product and employing more than 7.6 million people. In 2016, Metcalf started lobbying to use Outdoor Retailer—the largest trade show for gearmakers, which had been held in Utah since 1996—as a bargaining chip. If state political leaders didn’t drop their support of plans to strip public lands of federal protection, the industry would decamp with its gathering and the 40,000 visitors and $50 million in direct spending it generates each year. Beginning in January, the more conservation-friendly Colorado will host instead.

Metcalf stepped down as Black Diamond’s chief executive officer in 2016. Since then he’s reveled in escaping the grid; recent adventures include climbing in Kalymnos, Greece, and ski-mountaineering around the Sawtooths of California. He joined the board of the Salt Lake City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in 2014 and just launched a political action committee to fund candidates who support public lands. Asked why he doesn’t run for office himself, he says, “I’m not the masochist that I used to be.”

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