Our special agent in Switzerland

09 January, 2015

Albert WenkAlbert Wenk has seen a great deal of change in the outdoor trade during the forty years he has worked in the business. Most of them have been spent at Mammut involved in product development, sales and marketing. Since leaving Mammut in 2009 he has worked for DMM as their Swiss agent.

Meeting him at his home in the small village of Hendschiken, ten minutes from Lenzburg, his bright-eyed enthusiasm for climbing quickly becomes obvious. Spritely and lean you would be hard pressed to guess that he was seventy years-old. Moving with the times Albert climbs regularly at the impressive Kraftreaktor climbing gym in Lenzburg and every year since 2004 he has been going to Kalymnos for two or three weeks with the Remy brothers.

Over coffee and croissants DMM put a few questions to Albert to give a 'then and now' look at his involvement in the world of climbing and mountaineering.

What's been the biggest change in the climbing equipment market you've seen?

Climbing is so much bigger now. When I was at Mammut in 1974 the sport department only had 8 people and just 30-40% of its business was recreation related. Now it is all sport. At that time Mammut also distributed Joe Brown helmets and Clog climbing equipment.

I started climbing at 16 years of age in eastern Switzerland (Alpstein) with a rope tied around my waist, wearing heavy leather boots and no helmet. Protection was mainly steel pitons. That says it all really. On the Eiger's Lauper route we wore cotton clothing and had ten-point crampons.

You're credited with developing the first stretch pants for climbing that became the forerunner of soft shell fabrics?

It was an existing idea that hadn't been introduced to climbing: two-way stretch fabric. I was working in product development and given the idea of using Schoeller fabric with Lycra® fibres to give fast-drying, stretchy and lightweight material for trousers. Its introduction in 1983 had a big impact. Other 'stretch' trousers we had been testing ended up 10 cm longer at the end of the day.

I also produced the first nylon sling with a graduated 'rainbow' colour scheme and found a way of changing the pattern of a rope, at the half-way mark, but using the same coloured threads. The Duodess rope was born making the two ropes halves clearly obvious.

Along the way you must have worked with some of the big names in climbing?

For a while I was also responsible for sponsorship and producing the Mammut catalogues. When we were distributing Boreal boots Wolfgang Güllich was one of our sponsored climbers and he would get 50 Pfennig for every pair we sold in Germany. I tried to make sure every catalogue had one feature that I felt was likely to be an important future aspect of climbing, like the John Bachar article on training in the 1983 catalogue.

Wolfgang introduced me to the Australian hot-shot climber, Kim Carrigan, who came to live in Switzerland for six months in 1986, to help me develop climbing harnesses. As part of the deal he got half-a-Swiss Franc royalty on each sale. In the end he got a job as Export Manager and stayed for four or five years before returning to Australia. He has now got a successful business making bread.

You've also been involved with the UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation)?

For ten years I was the Swiss delegate for the UIAA Safety Commission, developing and maintaining safety standards for climbing equipment, but stepped down in 2004. In recent years, CEN (European Committee for Standardisation) adopted the UIAA safety standards and any climbing safety equipment sold in Europe must meet these standards and be CE marked.

Manufacturers quality management systems are very important because certification doesn't guarantee consistency. I remember when a bad batch of Rocklands bolts were used in Kalmynos and they started breaking. A product may have worked in testing, but some problems may only show up with use, as with the elastic lanyards used in the via ferrata sets recalled in 2013.

How was it getting established as an agent selling DMM equipment in Switzerland?

I was convinced about the quality and the philosophy of the company but the hardware market in Switzerland isn't so big. The military were very helpful when I started. Their order of 5000 Shadow biners and a 1000 steel screwgates was a big boost. I think it was the first time the Swiss army had made a hardware order out of the country.

Albert Wenk at home near Lenzburg © Ray Wood
As I'm an agent, when I get an order, DMM send the products direct to the customer but I now also hold a small amount of stock. Since starting in 2009 I have around ten new customers every year. Customer contact is key. The mainstay of my marketing is taking a customer to Wales to see the hardware being manufactured and meet the people who are proud to make the products.

You now have a small team of DMM sponsored climbers in Switzerland?

Yes, I felt it was important for there to be a connection with the younger climbers. And for me it's the type of person and not just the grade they climb that is important. So I now have three climbers - Tabea Schwab, Andy Winterleitner and Tom von Arx - that I give a bit of support but they don't take a lot, only what they need.