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.