Outdoor Innovators: Derek Ryden

Blizzard Survival Jacket

Derek Ryden, is an innovator and entrepreneur who has designed a couple of pieces of equipment that many climbers, mountaineers and hill walkers may well have in their rucksack or on their racks. If you don’t then maybe after reading this you’ll think again. Originally from Lancashire, Derek spent ten years in the South West of England, where he climbed extensively, and pioneered first ascents on some of the more adventurous cliffs in the area.

I first met Derek when he was lodging at a friend’s house in Llanberis, as he was designing and prototyping Reflexcell™ technology. He had managed to make a rather ‘Heath-Robinson’ construction that allowed him to manufacture some sample fabric, and the first sleeping bag. During this time his landlady was rather taken aback when he turned up at the house with an ‘adult inflatable doll’. Which in lieu of a formal assessment from a costly testing agency served as an experimental subject for measuring the rate at which the said doll would cool when filled with hot water, and comparing it’s cooling to sleeping bags of different rating. This lead to him realising that the product was incredible good at insulating his PVC friend, who was a busy girl with three working orifices, ideal for more core readings of temperature!

Eventually he set up a factory in Bethesda, and Blizzard Protection Systems was born, it is still in the same industrial estate today, but had to move to a bigger unit to allow for growth. In those early days he employed people like myself to make the bags, and I was amazed at the ingenuity, and design of the bespoke machine that welds the material together. When I first worked there the controls were manual, and there was as much waste as actual material made, in part due to my inability to follow a repetitive pattern! Whilst the material manufacturing is now automated, turning that into a bag, blanket or jacket is still a hands-on affair.

I haven’t been to the factory in years, but a few years ago the innovation went into overdrive, after it was tested by the US military, in the pre-hospital life support manual in the US military, it reads, “…after life-threatening injuries are addressed…. the casualty should be placed in a Blizzard Survival Blanket.” There is now a blanket under the seat in all US Military Vehicles, just consider that for a while, that’s a lot of blankets.

Whilst the Blizzard Blanket was the first innovation that I knew Derek for, after a while he let slip that he was the mind behind the Wild Country Ropeman. Something that many climbers have on their rack for those just in case moments, as it was the first mechanical ascender that was about the same size and weight of a prussic!


After putting a few posts up on the history of science and innovation in climbing, I thought that it would be interesting to try and get and interview from Derek on what inspired him to conceptualise, design and then build these great innovations. Here is that interview.

How did you come up with the idea for a ropeman?

Before I moved to Wales I remember staying at a house in Clwt y Bont, looking at an old Petzl ascender and noticing the elongated holes near the top. I realised that if you put the krab through two holes, it would encircle the rope, and that if you could make the krab move in the right way, you could actually make it trap the rope to give a very simple ascender. I came up with two designs which did this successfully – one was the Ropeman, the other was identical to the Tibloc. I didn’t think there would be a market for both of them, and eventually plumped on the Ropeman because I thought it was the better device. I think Petzl came up with their design independently, but now I really wish I’d patented it myself when I had the chance.

Where did the inspiration come from for Blizzard Reflexcell™ Technology?

When you pack a regular sleeping bag, you are actually squashing the insulating layer and making it thinner. When you unpack the bag, you are then asking this material to bounce back to its original thickness. This is a tall order – there are only a few materials which will do it, and the best, goose down, doesn’t work at all when it’s wet. Anyway, I figured that if you could have a material which could be compressed in a controlled way, like a concertina, then you could get a highly insulating product which would pack down incredibly small. The first attempts weren’t so good. I tried an early prototype on a bivvy on Dartmoor in a snow storm, and it slowly disintegrated as the night wore on, until at about 4am I sacked it off and went home. The breakthrough came when I added the elastic. That was actually an accident – I was trying to use it to generate a type of lumpy, “egg box” shaped sheet, but I suddenly realised it was the solution I had been looking for as it keeps the cells inflated and gives the material its “body”.

The amazing Reflexcell TM technology - So you know what we are talking about!

How long did it take for Blizzard products to take off?

I first met my fiancé about a year after we started Blizzard, and I told her that it would take another two years to get the business on its feet so that I could spend more time with her. I really believed it, but it’s actually taken a total of eleven years to get to that stage. The company was on very shaky ground for the first four years – until the US military started buying the blankets – the outdoor market alone just isn’t big enough to sustain the company.

How have you approached the design process for all your innovations?

I have the sort of brain that can’t help trying to solve mechanical problems all the time – sometimes it drives me nuts. But having ideas which solve a problem is not always the hardest part. One of the difficult things about being an inventor is recognising the crap ideas early on, before you’ve wasted a lot of time on them. Not everyone is able to do this (which is partly why inventors have a reputation for being mad). Having a good grounding in basic physics and mechanics is really important. But designing climbing gear is incredibly satisfying – really elegant designs make every component do more than one job to save weight – the krab in the Ropeman closes the device; it also provides the bearing surface for the rope – and it’s not even a part of the device itself.

Where will things go next?

Attempts to predict the future of technology usually fail. The trend towards lightness is already reaching the limits, so there probably won’t be any really big changes there. New materials will make a huge difference – look at what nylon and aerospace alloys have done for rock-climbing; changes like that are very hard to predict, but there will surely be more of them. It’s tempting to suggest that electronics might make the cross-over into protection devices (for example to sense acceleration or velocity of the rope or the climber – think air-bags) but my bet is that this won’t happen due to cost (relatively low volumes) and unreliability in such a harsh environment.

What’s Next?

Well I’m working on re-releasing “Slugs”, which were a curved slide nut, and were actually my first invention back in the 80s. I’m thinking of making them myself, for limited release. I’ve been working on the perfect belay device for about twenty years now, going round and round in circles, but I think I’ve finally got a pretty good design. The problem is that more complicated devices like that take far more time and resources to develop than something relatively simple like the Ropeman. Petzl have a whole bunch of people working on things like that full-time, but when you’re basically doing it as a hobby, it’s really hard to find the time. Anyway, watch this space – it will be light, semi-automatic, lockable for abseiling and rescue, and work on two ropes independently……. I’m working on a couple of other ideas, but these are not to do with climbing. I’m also having a great time learning the Saxophone, and I’m getting married in June!

Well, I have to say a massive thank you to Derek, and I really enjoyed reading through that before I put it up online, and I found out you design another piece of kit I have heard of!#mce_temp_url#

I have to say that the Blizzard bag is something that sits in the bottom of my rucksack along with my first aid kit whatever I am doing, whether its climbing, out with the Mountain Rescue team or working as a Mountain Leader the Blizzard bag is such an amazing piece of kit compared to the traditional orange plastic bivy bag. I know a lot of people avoid that added cost of a Blizzard Bag, but having the knowledge that you have a 2 season sleeping bag in my rucksack at all times is great, and not that Derek wants to here it, but I have had the same one for about five or more years now!

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