Last month, The North Face Innovation Tour rolled through Beaver Creek, CO and I made the trek up into the hills—along with a handful of skiing media and local dealers—to get a taste of what TNF has in store for fall 2012.
After assembling in the village for a meet-and-greet the gang spilt up. Half the lot opted for a hike while the others went for a jog. In classic TNF fashion, exploration came first. Later in the afternoon we made our way back to the hotel and freshened up before making our way to the lobby for cocktails and our first look at some of the new tech' that TNF plans to release in the fall of 2012. After some hands-on time with the gear and brief run-downs from TNF staffers we headed into the presentation room where TNF executives along with a handful of TNF athletes would further explain the products. TNF's President, Todd Spaletto, was present and also ran through some of the company's history before things got underway. Did you know The North Face opened originally as a store in San Francisco? Did you also know The Grateful Dead played at the opening, and Hells Angels members manned the door? I digress.
There were three items on the menu:
First up was TNF's FlashDry technology. The long and short of this new tech' is that it eliminates perspiration and improves drying time by way of a micro-porous, particle additive layer that's essentially "printed" onto an array of fabrics including knits, synthetics and waterproof breathable laminates. In turn, FlashDry helps you to maintain comfort, energy and performance. For some, a description that includes words like "Micro-porous" and "particle additive" might be a turn off. That in mind, it sure was helpful to have world class endurance runner Diane Van Deren on hand to put things into perspective. This is a woman who runs 300+ mile races in the heart of the Yukon, in -60 degree temperatures, over the course of a week. She even completed a 430 mile race—the first woman to do so. Diane's incredible tales emphasize the need for top-notch equipment. She explained that TNF works extremely closely with its athletes on testing and development, and it seems the brand struck a chord with FlashDry. If Diane was happy with the performance of the product 250 miles into her races, I'd be darned if it didn't go to work for you in any and all endeavors.
ABS PATROL 24 PACK
Next on the list was the ABS (Avalanche Airbag Safety System) Patrol 24 Pack. Hilaree O’Neil, one of TNF's skiing athletes and part-time Telluride resident, was in the house to walk us through the essentials. O'Neill has had her fair share of experience with avalanches (not necessarily something to be proud of, yet certainly commands respect) and her testimony drove home the idea that every backcountry enthusiast should have an airbag pack in his/her arsenal. One TNF staffer also compared the current situation to that of helmets just a decade ago—it's only a matter of time before people realize airbag mechanisms are quite simply a must-have.
Although airbag packs aren't necessarily a new technology, they're continually being improved. In regards to the ABS 24 Pack, here's how: As avalanches have a tendency to rip things away from your body as you tumble with the debris, the ABS Pack is designed to stay close to home. Heavy duty shoulder straps, a waist belt and a crotch strap work to this end. Despite the bells and whistles, the pack is surprisingly lightweight and feels the same on your back as any other pack.
The airbag, when deployed, opens like a giant set of "angel wings." In addition to providing 150 liters of volume to keep you afloat in a slide situation, the airbag also protects your head from trauma. It's not widely known that head and neck trauma play a considerable role in many avalanche injuries and fatalities, but TNF addresses the matter with the ABS Pack.
The original request for TNF to create a product like this came from TNF snowboarder Xavier de Le Rue. Having come face to face with death in a large slide, Xavier managed to escape burial thanks to an airbag pack. The experience inspired Xavier to take steps towards helping others who would ultimately face like situations in the future. Xavier explains his thoughts in this video:
ABS preview with Xavier de le Rue
The pack runs at $1,000. It might sound like a hefty price tag, but as the old saying goes, "The cost of safety has no value." And just how effective is this thing? The Swiss Avalanche Institute has designated the ABS Pack has having a 97% approval rate. Now you can't really argue with a statistic like that, can you?
Lastly, the ABS Pack utilizes a nitrogen tank as opposed to CO2 (Replacement tanks run at about $50.00). As CO2 is not transportable via aircraft, the nitrogen is a nice option for those who are looking to travel with their packs.
The "angel wing" deployment is displayed on the right:
To round out the new technologies that were unveiled we have Thermoball. As I now write this, TNF has actually opted to delay the release of Thermoball declaring, "We’re constantly testing new materials, in the case of Thermoball we recently determined that there needs to be additional improvements in its performance before it comes to market."
Despite the fact that the Thermoball-plug has temporarily been pulled, the story of how the product was tested has not lost its appeal. World renowned climber Conrad Anker (perhaps best known as the man who discovered the remains of legendary British climber George Mallory on Mount Everest) was amongst our group in Beaver Creek, and he explained how he and his fellow climbers put Thermoball to the test while climbing the famed Meru. He spoke of a strong chemistry between the athletes and TNF's R&D team, echoing similar remarks made by other athletes earlier in the presentation. For a taste of what Anker discussed, see the video below:
Meru Preview with Conrad Anker and co.
At the end of the day, I am quite impressed with what TNF is rolling out for 2012/13. The technologies are impressive in their own right, but what resonates most with me is the relentless determination of TNF's R&D teams to fine tune the products to match the desires of the athletes. Nobody has a better understanding of what's needed in a performance product than the athletes, and at TNF they're playing an instrumental role in the production process.