Behind the scenes: product testing in the Austrian Alps
Before any of our products make it to market, hours upon hours of product testing have been conducted. Sometimes we use our elite team of testers. Outdoor experts who spend most of their time in nature’s realm, often in challenging conditions. But other times, it’s our own team of designers and product developers who get outside to put our products through their paces. Our designers, led by Head of R&D, Henrik Andersson, need to know whether the zips work when your hands are cold; whether the hood fits over a helmet; whether the 100% wool baselayer rubs against soft skin. Of course they glean a lot from our test team. But when fine-tuning a product, there’s nothing better than first-hand experience.
“I need to know how a product sits and whether all the details are necessary, or whether there’s anything missing. And the best way to find out is in a real world environment,” says Product Designer Elisabet Elfa.
Our mountaineering collection, called Bergtagen, coming in September 2017, is our most technical range to date. It’s specifically designed for a life above the treeline. Seeing as we hail from northern Sweden, this is a landscape Fjällräven knows well; it’s in our heritage. And it feels like now’s a good time to return to this awe-inspiring territory.
With several new team members as well as a new collection about to launch, Henrik decided a trip to the Alps was in order to test our new gear, learn some important mountaineering skills from Johan Skullman and for the R&D team to get to know each other better. And I – a member of the online marketing team – managed to squirm my way in on the fun.
Awaking on the first day to clear blue skies and crisp, fresh mountain air was enough to get us excited. I was sharing a room with Elva Chen, our Materials Technician, from Taiwan. Unlike the Swedes in the group, who seem to grow up on skis, Elva had never skied before.
“I’m a little nervous. But I’m sure it will be fun. Because I’ve not skied or done any mountaineering before, this trip is really important for me to learn more about how our products work in mountain environments. I just hope I don’t fall over too much.”
As a group, under the watchful guidance of Johan Skullman, we caught the gondola lift up the mountain. The snow-covered landscape was stunning as it glistened in the sun. A little fresh snow the previous afternoon had left a dusting on the pine trees that looked like powdered sugar.
The first test was just to ski down a short and easy blue-graded slope. Some members of the group could have done it backwards with their eyes closed, but others had a little more of a challenge. With saint-like patience Niklas Kull, the best skier in the group, helped Elva to master the basics of skiing, while the rest of us took a few warm up runs.
Johan quickly assessed the group to see who needed help and who could get on with things independently. After a few more training laps, up and down, piste then lift, it was time to ‘skin’ up the mountain, away from the groomed environment of the resort.
“I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” Elva told me. To be honest, neither was I. I’m a snowboarder so learning to ski is like learning to walk. But both of us took on the challenge, along with other newbies to this kind of skiing: Johanna Mollberg and Sara Georgesson. Sara is new to the team, in fact this was her first week at work – not a bad way to start you might say. She’s going to be our new Product Line Manager and while she has skied quite a bit, going off-piste or out of bounds is foreign to her. She’s also totally new to the Bergtagen collection, having seen it just a few days before.
“So I’ve skied before,” she told me, “but this…” pointing to the first members of the group making their way up the mountain on skis, “this is something else. But wow, it’s beautiful up here. And the gear look great.”
Johan Skullman explains to us how to attach the skins to our skis that allow us to walk up without sliding right back down again. We then follow in his tracks as he zigzags up the mountain. “This is how to do a simple turn,” he says and later, “this is a more complicated turn to use on steeper terrain.” Cue falling over like toppling towers of Jenga. Followed by hack-job attempts to stand up again and continue.
It’s warm – too warm for the Alps in February but our new wool baselayers are performing well. Because despite the out of season warmth, we’re not all sweaty and smelly.
During lunch Johan explains how we should use the layering technique to stay warm. It’s about donning a down layer when you stop working and if there’s wind whirling about, it’s important to reinforce with a windproof jacket too. The Bergtagen collection has it all. It’s built upon this system of layers, which allows you to control your body heat by either applying or removing a layer. And actually, although we’d all got pretty warm on the way up, sitting there, snacking on sandwiches, we had all started to cool down.
After lunch we skied down again and prepared for another ascent. We were all starting to get into the swing of things now. The team was discussing how to adjust backpacks, whether the jacket vent placement was correct and also the topic of dinner came up more than once – it’s hungry work this ski touring thing!
Skiing down the mountain to finish up the day was hard going on tired legs, even for the more experienced members of the group. For myself, still in the toddler phase of learning to ski, the thought of a warm shower followed by a hearty dinner got me through the final decent.
At dinner, despite tiredness and a few sore muscles, the conversation was lively and spirits were high. There is something magical about spending an entire day outdoors in the mountains. All other concerns, thoughts and job-related stuff just melt away. And that kind of tiredness, tired from a full day of activity in nature, is so satisfying. Nothing beats it.
Day two promised to be just as rewarding, both spiritually and physically, as well as providing valuable insights for the R&D team. But for me, it wasn’t the product testing that stood out. It was the people. Every member of the team brought so much positivity; there were plenty of jokes; an overwhelming display of patience; true camaraderie and, most importantly, friendship. I knew right then that this was so much more than just a product test. This was the reason we all love working at Fjällräven. And hopefully, it shows in our products.
The Bergtagen collection, a complete system for mountaineering, launches in the autumn.