Mountain King

For the recent West Highland Way weekender, the team on foot were equipped with Trail Blaze poles courtesy of Mountain King.
As they wandered into Tyndrum, one of the first things I heard was that the poles had got one pair of feet to the half way point and had kept the other pair happy. We’ll be coming back to that whole thing in the future, but I was reminded by what the boys were saying of my own first reaction to when I used the Trail Blaze for the first time.
I was immediately excited when I saw the pre-production versions, it’s not often a bit of kit just smacks you in the head like that. I hounded MK for a test pair, and after using them for many many miles I found myself unhappily faced with the prospect that they might not make it to the shops for a long time, if at all.
Luckily with plenty of real-world testing if became obvious that these poles were stronger than they looked and were ideal for the outdoor activist that needed low weight, packability, peformance and wasn’t planning to spend the day leaning over their poles catching their breath. Compromise-free kit it was indeed.
When my original bent and scraped pair went back to Mountain King to be trailed arpound the trade shows they were replaced by an early production run version which still needed a couple of tweaks, that’s the black pair which have been well seen around this parish.
Now though, fresh from MK, I have a pair of up-to-date Trail Blaze, fully sorted and also in purple. Help ma’ Boab.
The finish is crisp, the widgets are secure , the handles and straps are neat , the little velcro tag is slippage-free, the internal cord holds everything nice and tight. The even smell new.

I think the Trail Blaze is a fantastic piece of kit, it’s very different to other poles both in construction as well as scope of use. Taken to the extremes, I can stow them in a trouser pocket for scrambling sections, but snowshoeing made them nervous.
In some ways they ask something of the user, they’re not a leaning-pole or a walking stick, and you have to tune into them or they won’t work well or you will have issues.
Bearing that in mind, failures have been very low, and that to me says that the public can be trusted with quirky or complex equipment. Score one for us and zero for the nanny state.

I spoke to MK main-man Simon KIng (see, it’s not a random name on the poles…) as I was interested both in the outdoor aspect but also in the fact that MK are still manufacturing in the UK.
As a fellow small businessman I know how difficult it can be at times in the current climate, and also when fighting against that never ending search for a bargain.

When did Mountain King start, what brought you into the world of trekking poles?
The company started in 1995.  Carolyn and I had done the Tour of Mont Blanc a couple of years earlier, backpacking and wild camping as much as we could.  We bought a pair of poles in Courmeyer because they looked like a good idea.  After finishing the TMB and realising how useful they were and yet at that time not many people using them decided to manufacture poles in the UK. 
At that time most of the poles were made in Europe and we wanted to introduce a good quality British product to the emerging UK market.
Pole use has changed over the last 10 years with poles now being accepted as a mainstream accessory.

In a tight design format like a trekking pole, where do you draw your direction, do you design from scratch?
The designs for poles are driven by customer demand – the challenge is for lighter, stronger poles.  We are constantly trying new ideas out – not all of them make it to market.
How much of the actual pole production do you do yourselves?
We buy in raw aluminium tube made to our specification and start from there. We do all the processsing and assembly work here in Newcastle.
How many operations go into the manufacture of a single pole?
There’s approximately 20 main processes. Some of the main ones are, cutting, grinding/cleaning tube, painting/powder coating/anodising, screen printing, over laquering, deburring, assembly.  All in a day’s work

As a small independant, do you feel you have a speed advantage over large companies manufacturing wholly overseas in being able to react to trends, feedback and changes in materials technology?
We still need a certain amount of lead time to turn the aluminium into poles, but yes, we can react to demand.  We can also modify/introduce new poles to meet demand.
What about product quality and costs?
Hard work, attention to detail and making sure the quality is good!  Only by doing as much as is possible in our factory can we keep strict control of the quality.  Also we are not paying other factories to work for us and so we can keep the costs down.

The Expedition Carbon poles have an interesting construction (carbon/alloy), was there a reason you chose not to go down the pure carbon fibre route?
The properties of carbon mean that you can damage it one day, but it may shatter at a later point in time.  this is a problem that afflicts carbon fishing rods as well.  Carbon/alloy has the best properties of both materials – it doesn’t shatter, it is light weight and the locking mechanisms work.  It is based on the same principle as the composite material used in the fuselage skin of the Airbus A380.  Effectively the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and offers a very strong material for its weight.  Also it is more affordable than carbon fibre which itself can any combination of glass fibre and carbon fibre and still be called carbon fibre.  Like all poles though, it isn’t indestructable

What are the challenges and hurdles to pass to get a design like the Trail Blaze that is such a departure, off the drawing board, through testing and into the shops?
Manufacturing challenges include – sourcing materials to make the pole e.g the right alloy to give the right characteristics of weight and strength , the right type of adhesive – there are three diifferent adhesives holding each pole together each of which has to be extensively tested prior to production. How to put it together efficiently and then testing to see that it does the job. Then we are faced with the difficult challenge to get the retailers to introduce new products, otherwise however good we think it is, the public don’t get the opportunity to buy.

Antishock is always a talking point, what’s your view?
There are advantages in absorbing shock, but like all things it is personal preference.  Adding a spring adds weight and for some users the choice is to keep things light weight.  The two springs in the Experts are great for coming downhill with a full rucksack and like most of our poles the antishock can be switched off for up hill sections to avoid wasting energy.

There are still a few independant UK outdoor manufacturers making cutting edge, quality kit.
If you are going to manufacture, you have to focus on a good quality product otherwise where is the pride in what you are doing.  There are a lot of products designed in the UK but manufacturing is outsourced to the far east, east Europe.  What we wanted to do was keep production under our control so we see all the poles and know that they meet our rigid standards for quality and performance. At the end of the day each pole has my name on it.
The quality is then reflected in the low level of returns we get, plus we are able to repair poles that have had the misfortune to be trapped between rocks or had their handle eaten by the family labrador.
What’s next for MK?
We are constantly reviewing the range, looking at better finishes grips/straps etc.  The Trail Blaze and carbon poles are still very new additions and we would like to see more shops stocking these and giving people the opportunity to try/buy.

The economic climate is on all our minds, what’s your feeling on where it’s taking the outdoor trade?
Who knows what the overall impact will be  – so far the feed back from retailers is quite positive.  To quote ‘people are still going out to play’ and ‘people are looking to spend more wisely on good quality products that will last’.
The fact that outdoor products are not traditionally bought on large amounts of credit, that people aren’t going to give up all their leisure activities and that we don’t need our customers to order months and months in advance may act in our favour.

I’ll have updates on the (purple) Trail Blaze and Carbon Expedition poles once we’re into winter.

40 thoughts on “Mountain King

  1. I’ve got short 110cm Trail Blaze’s in Blue. Wish I’d got 120’s as I find they are a little too short – I was concerned that on setting my BD’s to 120 they were much too long.

  2. I have the 120 Trail Blazes in that purple (yay!), their coming up a year old now. I like ’em a lot, and although I’m tall and slightly longer would be better I find I can get away with the 120 pretty well as they’re so manoeuvrable and easy to place and when moving faster I find my center of mass lowered slightly anyway.

    One thing I find a bit annoying is the knot in my cord to hold the segments tight needs to be a touch lower as the segments are starting to have tiny gaps now after a bit of use. And can I get that knot lower to make the sections a snugger fit? Can I balls…

  3. I got a pair of the 120cm Trail Blazes, in black, pretty much before they hit the shops, and I love ’em. They go everywhere, there’s just no reason to be pole-less now, and when I do use them, they’re great.

    The only minor drawback is that they can’t be shortened if MoS wants to use them….

  4. I use 120’s, it hits a sweet spot for most folk that I know that’ve tried them it seems.

    Benjamin, it’s easy to do a new knot. Undo the toggle on the end of the cord (trust me, it’s can be done) and just take the pole apart. Re-tie a knot (or two) and put it back together. No problem.
    I’ve done it lots it times with the testers, changing sections and the like.

  5. Embarrassingly I didn’t even think about whether the toggle could be undone, that’ll make things an awful lot easier!

    Ah the joys of being stupid…

  6. Like the look of the poles, apart from the purple. They look like a late eighties mountain bike.

  7. Aye, purple bike components were everywhere and then nowhere.
    They’ve made a comeback for trials/steet bikes, I gota pair on purple anodised bar ends for my bike :o)

  8. Same design as my Camp Xenon poles, which thankfully come in a longer length too. Poles like this are excellent for running, and going like hell.

  9. The market for the Trail Blaze was to be racers and runners. The other original prototypes were used on a trans-alp race if I remember right.
    It’s odd that kit (not just the poles) designed specifically for “going like hell” is often viewed with sceptecism by less demanding users and “the media”.
    Ach, I back to my performance-for-all high-horse again :o)

  10. Fleece and craghoppers trousers are easier to sell on the high street, and the magazines feed the masses.

  11. Aye, the magazines create a market by saying “A” is good (be it product, method or whatever) and then have to stick to that story for ever more.
    That’s where the internet is better and worse. It allows for free evolution and also creates the most narrow minded of individuals who will argue their single cast iron point ad nauseum while folk are trying to say “Look what I’ve found!” over their shoulder.
    The magazines are just as much a product of personal opinion as a blog or a forum though, but for better or worse that printed page still carries more weight than a lit-up screen.

  12. Magazines are worse, they have advertising space to sell!
    Let them cater for their demographic, I no longer buy any magazines, the mountain bike mags tell me a need 5″ of travel front and rear, trying to sell a product that is more technical and more likely to need field maintenance! The outdoor scene is worse still, at least bike shops are staffed by gear freaks, most outdoor shops are staffed by numpties earning a little beer money. The rules were written years ago, and won’t be rewritten any time soon! When someone can explain how the latest Gore jackets are commanding £400+ price tags I’ll listen again!

  13. I got fed up with bike magazines, I think the notion that you have to have both the latest kit and be able to ride like a pro or you’re somehow inadequate runs right through them big and wide.
    I’m excluding Singletrack from that though.
    Outdoor magazines will probably never be the same for me again now either.
    No doing well am I?

    Gear costs? I can answer that.
    Everything from taking the oil out of the ground, welding the pipes that carry it, to the man watching the gauges in the refinery, to the truck driving the barrels to the factory that makes the polyester, to the maintenance parts for the weaving machine, to the factory that’s sewing the fabric that has upgraded to eco-friendly specification, has had to raise wages and supply a health plan for its workers to keep the contract, to the costs of fuel for the ship, the import fees, the distributor, the courier and the rates of the shop that sells it. All of it has suddenly got more expensive.
    The prices we’re faced with across the board are partly because far east production is in some areas no longer about exploitation and more about employment.
    Take all the transport out of the equation and if we still had all the infrastructure in the UK, we have the raw material resources, we should have the talents (although all the machinery is in China), you have to wonder what prices would be today?
    The last UK made Karrimor waterproof was the Diamond (made at the Phoenix factory in Amble I think?), and it retailed at £275 in 1997. Production went east becasue the public wanted cheap kit but bigger wages at the same time, so the only way to do that was exploit the piss poor wages and working conditions of the Chinese.

    I was part of a discussion a while back of how to lose 50cents from a product production costs which had to be done to make the item a sellable price in the UK.

    There’s much more than manufcatureres being greedy, when it comes down to it they get the smallest cut of the price tag.

    While I’m as horrified at the new price lists as anyone else, with hindsight it was always going to happen. The future will go one (or both) of two ways. We’ll bite the bullet, pay the money and the kit will be produced in increasingly ethical and environmentally sustainable conditions, or production with shift to some unregulated backwater and we’ll expoit some poor desperate bastard once again to get free kit.

    It’s all about choice.

    And detail, that’s what makes things expensive too!

  14. Hi, New to this forum but like the kit reviewed as I have been using Stateside oriented lightweight kit for years and see its benefits(especially as I am getting older)
    Very impressed with the Trail Blaze. I have been using for a year or so, but was initially a bit reluctant to stop using my carbon Lekis as the spiggots/ferules on the TB’s didn’t strike me as being very ‘snug’ (seemed quite rattly and engineered to not very exacting tolerances). They now always seem to be my pole of choice but was wondering if the new stock seem to ‘fit together better?’
    I was also hoping someone could have a word with MK and suggest they made a 2/3 section carbon pole with a ‘snug’ join as surely this would be the ultimate solution for strength/flexibility/weight? Four sections just seem a bit excessive and surely add to extra potential points of failure–?

  15. Agreed costs have gone up, but the discounts that can be had without asking are crazy! Everybody points to costs, but look at the pricing across the board, $100, €100 and £100. It’s price fixing, read this and something stinks

    http://www.alpkit.com/spotlight/moshing-at-outdoor

    [i]However we just couldn’t sign up on the dotted line because they work with REI who sell one of their items for US$80 and all their new European partners where happy to sell this particular item for €85. We have looked at all the shipping costs, sales taxes and duty rates and there is no reason for this disparity in price. The simple reason was these European companies were willing to accept the difference, not one of them questioned it. These are big companies with clever people, but they are happy to pay more for stuff than they need to.[/i]

  16. Hi m8tey, the purple ones feel tighter all over to me, but it’s hard to tell as the other pair I’ve got have had a bit of a kicking now, and have had replacememnt sections etc
    One I’ve used them a couple of time I’ll be able to tell better. There was a lot of changes made to the components at the stsrta and there’s going to be some fine tuning now as they’re in production I’d think.
    The only thing about a three-section poles is that the length advantage of the four section is lost, you end up with a pole the same length as everyones elses. It would still be a cool pole, but the tiny size of the Trail Blaze made it a winner I think.

    DNF, I have inside info on both REI and Alpkit which fills in some blanks there, we’ll talk about that on the hill one day :o)
    REI basically make the market what it is, they’re so big that they dictate to even the major brands what models to make, what features to include and what price point to hit.
    What’s annoying is that despite that power they’re quite ethical from a manufacturing and environmental approach.
    Alpkit? They operate completely differently from everybody else, and because of that they find issues and barriers that others don’t. They might look lke a cheery bunch on the surface, but underneath they’re fell running all the time. I’ve done some pre-production testing for them and I know what they’re up against.

    Price fixing? Aye that’s happening I don’t doubt, there will be a lot of taking advantage of the expectation of price rises, and when VAT goes back up in January we’ll see some changes again, “rounding up” and the like.
    The manufacturers are neither innocent parties nor evil overseers, just somewhere in the middle I think :o)

  17. Re the poles, My Carbon lights have been abused on nearly every trip since we were all being blown about on Stob Ban earlier this year. They’ve not been babied and have been used to hold up tarps and my Shangri La 3. Fantastic poles! They’re showing signs of damage though on the midle sections where I’ve overtightened them.

    I like the idea of Trailblazes but my poles are always set at 125cm, can you get them that long?

  18. Nah, they’re 110 amd 120. Next time we’re out try mine and see what you think.

    There’s no reason that’s immediately obvious to me (other than cost) why MK couldn’t do single section in shorter or longer lengths so that folk could fine-tune their poles.

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  20. :(
    One of the grips of my Trail Blazes slipped down the pole yesterday as I pulled the cord to assemble it. Anybody else had any failures with them yet?

    I’ve emailed Mountain King to see about repair options so we’ll see what they say.

    On a more positive note the Fizan Compacts were excellent in the fresh powder on Glyder Fawr :)

  21. Great service from Mountain King!! :))

    I emailed Sunday, they replied 9am Monday. I posted the poles off Monday afternoon, got them back this morning – both handles refitted, and with new covers on, and a pole-tip ferrule re-fixed while they were at it. All looking as good as new. And no charge.

    It’s the sort of customer service that leaves you with a lovely, warm glow… :))

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  23. Ok so I’m probably a moron, but everybody seems to be using poles and I’m feeling left out.

    We used them years ago and in the end just ditched them because we never felt that much of a benefit (I also wrecked my wrist by slipping with the loop on).

    I trust your wisdom Pete. What am I missing? I’ve still got a Leki somewhere.

    Hit me with some science.

  24. This is a personal perspective. I often use poles when I’m carrying overnight kit, it’s going to be a long day or maybe there’s a long steep descent, they’re a mix of stability and propulsion.
    Poles help my posture, I straighten up and the upper body movement from the pole movement helps balance and stability. Some weight is taken by the poles too, your arms are driving your torso forward and taking some of the load off the feet.
    Technique is a thing as well, pole tips always hit the ground beside or behind me, never in front where you can lean on them or use them to drag yourself forward, that upsets your balance and posture.
    There’s a rhythm to pole use that I like, on the Fisherfield trip poles were vital, especially on the walk out, I kept them out even on the old tarmac near the end where they helped no end.
    I think if you look at poles as a positive influence on your movement rather than a crutch to lean on it changes they way you use them, that’s what I did and I now I know they do help.
    But on rougher ground they can be a hinderance as you can spend as much time trying not to jam them in rocks as you do using them properly. That’s why I love them Trail Blaze poles, they work as well as any other pole but they’re light and short enough to pack away.

    Pole use is a personal thing, it works for me but I don’t use them on every trip. Some trips I know they’ve made a huge difference, both making things easier and sometimes helping me get the pace up.

    It’s actually quite hard to explaine this stuff!?!

  25. Thank you kind sir. You’re explaining it just fine.

    I possibly used them on the wrong sort of ground – I certainly remember them getting in the way.

    Is there any point to using just one or do you really need a pair?

    My mind, is as always, open. Or at least empty.

  26. Pairs are best, with a single pole you start leaning to one side, but then again it hasn’t stopped shepherds or stalkers crossing the hills for centuries with single sticks, so it could be that we’re just saft :o)

    I too have an open mind, trying new stuff is always good, I like to be convinced if something’s as bad as I suspect it is :o)

  27. There are quite a few walking poles around in the cupboard. B.D. Leki etc etc. Having weighed a few they seem considerably heavier than the M.K. lightweight variety. I sort of like the heavier version as they seem to get a good swing.
    BUT
    Always willing to be converted
    SO
    How do you find the lightweight versions as opposed to the heavier type.
    AND
    The tent pole type…….apart from the handiness just how do they stand up to rough usage? I.e. are they likely to fold if say you put weight on them the wrong way?

  28. A single pole also allows you stand with one hand on hip whilst looking at the view and also you have one hand free to keep a firm grip of your pipe, a vital mountaineering accessory.

    Now, these light poles I took to instantly. I got the pre-production to try and destroy and I didn’t. A couple of times I slipped and put my full weight on them leading to some slight bends, but it took my mate Phil falling headlong into the scenery on top of one with a productioon pair to actually break one.
    The lighter weight means less energy lost in moving the pole, but the same momentum and stability from use.
    The flex of the thin shaft takes the sting out of hard surfaces, what the heavy and pointless antishock mechanisms do elsewhere.
    But, all the advatages come at a price, that’s learning to use them right. Hanging off the Trail Blaze as you pant to the summit will bend them, place them behind you nordic style and use them as a stability and propulsion device instead of a support system and you’re away.

    I took to them right away, but I still use other poles as I get them in to test. What’s happened though is I use other poles the same way and find them all less intrusive when I’m on the move.
    I’ve got a pair of Leki Microsticks just in, they fold like the Trail Blaze but are stordy like regular poles, a good all round compromise maybe?

    By the way, when I did the West Highland Way over a weekend I spent much of the last 30 miles hanging off my poles and it got me home, so there’s room for a little of everything :o)

  29. The pipe will hang un-aided from my firm and determined mouth, thus leaving the free hand to rest upon my tweed clad hip.

    Checked out the Trail Blaze poles. They look pretty dam good.

    For God’s sake man you keep making me want to buy things.

  30. place them behind you nordic style……….Pretty much how I use them as in a former life I used to do a fair bit of cross country ski-ing. The track kind not the mountain kind.

    Thanks for the info I’ll have a think about them.

    By the way does the peep keep off the midges?

  31. They are worth a look. Mountain King were nervous about releasing them as they were convinced folk wouldn’t get it and just break them. But, most of the pole manufacturers are having a go at a similar design, always a good sign.

    Midges? Nothing keeps them off, they’re just temporarily confused, the question is for how long…

  32. Purely as a matter of idle curiosity do you double pole at all. I use it a lot but, of course, it’s a carry over from the cross country.

    Would you believe yet another question! Fizan V M.K.? Any comments?

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