As a young man, I was attracted to climbing and mountaineering because I loved problem solving. As I progressed and became more ambitious, I found myself in more and more extreme environments. I often felt that the clothing and equipment available wasn’t good enough.
Loss of body heat from the wrists was a serious problem that I discovered while climbing in Scotland during winter; there always seemed to be an irritating gap between the cuff of the jacket and the start of the glove. Before my first big trip to the Alps, I began experimenting. I converted thin woollen socks into long, fingerless under gloves that bridged the gap. As well as keeping warm another obvious concern when climbing a mountain is the weight of equipment and clothing; it is hard enough fighting gravity and the effects of altitude, without adding unnecessary weight.
In the high mountains, we nearly always wore waterproof gaiters to keep the snow out of our boots and most waterproof trousers were heavy and often difficult to put on over big mountain boots. I decided to innovate. Luckily, my mother was a seamstress and we had a good sewing machine at home. I got her to make a pair of very light waterproof pants that reached to just below the knee with side zips, so they could be put on fast. I wore them that summer in the Alps, including an early ascent of the Jori Bardill Directissima, Central Pillar of Freney, Mt Blanc (Ed 2). The problem was that for most of the technical rock climbing I was wearing rock climbing shoes without gaiters and so (as well as looking ridiculous) they gave no waterproof protection whatsoever to my lower legs.
For many years, I thought that the stoves we used at high altitude were grossly inefficient. Our team had to carry too many heavy fuel canisters to melt snow and ice into hot water for tea and food. Before tackling the Himalayan North Face of Changabang, my climbing partner Brendan Murphy, who was a Cambridge engineering graduate, and I made a stove that out performed anything we had used before.
I understand that the spirit of innovation embraces potential failure, particularly in the early design process. The short waterproof trousers weren’t so good, however the stove proved excellent. The point is that you must experiment to move forward, but you need the space to play around in the first place.
Many of the biggest technical outdoor brands began because individuals recognized the inadequacy of existing equipment. Often the innovators were pioneering climbers, as in the case of Rab Carrington and the Lowe brothers. In turn, they developed partnerships with cutting-edge fabric manufacturers, jointly searching for better performing materials.
One of the key elements of product innovation (or service innovation) is prototyping. Commonly, it is difficult for organisations to find space in their hectic schedules to commit time and resources to innovation and prototyping. It’s clear though, unless you want to create a brand that constantly looks over its shoulder at the competition and merely copies what others are doing, you must find a source of inspiration. Creative brainstorming and solid prototyping can help develop fresh and inspiring designs.
As well as being a motivational speaker, I am a sponsored athlete and brand ambassador for Lowe Alpine. I am lucky enough to sit in on product brainstorming sessions with an excellent team and to go out with others to test prototype products, feeding back the results. The role entails being honest about how things perform; the excellent, the adequate and the not so good. It is vital to keep the end user in focus. You might argue Apple’s success is built on this premise.
Sometimes I get given one-offs for an expedition. This bespoke equipment is a more refined form of what my mum was making for me at the start of my career. Occasionally, these innovations, tested on expeditions, go in to full-scale production, sometimes particular features appear in future collections. Either way, it is a powerful message to the consumer. It gives credibility if something has been tested rigorously by pros on a pioneering expedition, and that instills trust in a brand.