Depressing news rolled out of the outdoor industry last week as Clark Shelk told the world he was shuttering the Cordless Group (Pusher and Revolution) after a 19 year run. Clark and company packed a lot of good into those two decades. Not only did Clark revolutionize and popularize the bouldering pad but he oversaw Pusher as it gained dominance in the climbing hold world. He and a few other die hards basically paid for, with their own funds, the original ABS touring system that defined the competitive climbing scene in the United States for a grip of years in the 2000s. Few people know about all the sweat, effort and money he dumped into our sport because he asked for nothing in return. Well, he hoped you’d buy his gear.
Thing is, every boulderer bought Clark’s gear. Wearing a Bruce Lee tee or throwing down a Cordless mat back in the day signified something no other company has come close to since. It signified an attitude. It was a marker with which one drew his/her affiliations in the world of climbing. Simply put, Cordless came to entirely signify bouldering. It was the most bad ass, hardcore brand you could support.
And now, as Clark mentioned in his recent blogpost, he can’t continue to make products in the United States while still competing with the industry giants. Unwilling to ship product overseas for manufacturing, he has chosen to close up shop. Although I’m sure he’ll find a rad new direction in which to focus his abundant talent and charisma, many of us old school boulderers will remember this as a sad day in an industry that used to be all about grassroots, DIY ethics.
Ian Powell is the owner of Kilter, a new-ish climbing hold company out of Boulder, CO. There’s nothing new about Ian, however. Most recognize Ian as one of the pioneering forces behind innovative and quality climbing hold design and shaping, as he’s been a fundamental cog in eGrips, Straight Up and a host of other early companies. He’s been at it for 25 years now, starting back when the nation boasted about four quality climbing gyms. Ian’s getting the young guns into the design game, too. Jimmy Webb is rounding out his first signature set of holds for Kilter as I type this.
Ian hasn’t exactly tap danced his way down easy street. He’s struggled with addiction and subsequently been imprisoned for his bonehead decisions while floundering about in that addiction. He owns it all. Lucky for rock scramblers, he charged out of the cooler roaring with inspiration, motivation and a distilled sense of what the climbing community means to him and maybe should also mean to us.
Clark’s recent announcement and my own constant inspiration by Ian’s story and just the dude he is reminded me of this conversation Mike Brooks and I had with these two fellas last spring. It’s very apropos. In a harbinger of things to come, Clark sounds off on the state of the climbing industry, the frustration and passion pretty evident. He also talks about the inspiration that led him to create Cordless. Ian, of course, talks about his struggles with addiction, where he sees the climbing community going and his own hold shaping history. Together, the gang discusses Joe’s Valley, the late Jack Mileski, Detroit as the new Hueco Tanks, and an interesting offer from Kilter to do some sponsored – “hopefully illegally” – route setting.
I didn’t correct any grammar. It’s written as we spoke it. Although it was recorded in a studio for a radio show, this is not an interview. It is a conversation with two inspirational, cranky, funny-as-shit climbing pioneers who happen to be great friends and former roommies. It will hopefully make you angry. It will definitely make you laugh. I hope it will also inspire you.
Mike Brooks: It’s 9:01 here in Boulder, Colorado and you are listening to the ClimbTalk radio show on Radio 1190. My name is Mike. Dave from [Thundercling.com] is the co-host. Dave, what’s happening?
Dave McAllister: Hey, Mike.
MB: We got a really interesting show tonight. We got Ian Powell, we got Clark Shelk here, and we’re just going to jump right in.
DM: Maybe we could introduce our guests a bit more, too. We got Ian Powell, who was a pioneer hold shaper from way back in the day, done a lot of first ascents in Joe’s Valley, has an interesting life story that was just featured in Rock and Ice magazine [in] an article written by Caroline Treadway. And Clark Shelk, of course, is one of the pioneers of the crash pad as we know it today, owner of Cordless, Revolution, Pusher… So, we’re happy to have them in the studio. Thanks for coming, guys.
MB: Clark, tell me, how did you go from the old days when it was just a little piece of carpeting to the concept of a pad?
Clark Shelk: Well, you know, I always like to lay this out – I didn’t come up with the product or the concept. The first commercial one was by Kinnaloa, which was run out of Bishop. That was Bruce Pottenger. That was his company. And John Sherman put a lot into that design.
The crash pad, let’s say early 90s, was basically: get a piece of carpet so you can wipe your feet off and then get some scraps of foam and put it underneath and then wrap the whole damn thing up in duct tape. That’s what it was. [Some hullaballoo about Clark saying “damn” on the radio]
Ian Powell: I actually have to hold up a piece of paper that says, “No Swearing” in front of me.
CS: Here’s the…local connection to the whole thing. I had a friend who was living out here in Boulder in 1995. I was doing the whole…living in my van. Doing the whole tour out here and had my little duct tape carpet job and then I’d go to areas where you kind of… Horsetooth, Flagstaff, yeah, no sweat; you pull up right there and you could take your little cheesy duct tape/carpet job. But, when you have to hike up to the Ghetto [in the Flatirons above Boulder] or some other areas, that’s not really a handy utensil to haul around with you. So, I went back to my buddy’s house and it was on 28th and Mapleton.
IP: There’s this image of Clark, that last 20 feet to get up to the Ghetto, you know, probably smoking the weed out or something. He’s almost falling over backwards and who knows what kind of epic over there that made him need to get…
Okay, now I gotta add a sign that says “No Drug References.” Boys, that’s gonna be hard with me.
DM: We’re all good. That slides under the radar. We’re in Boulder.
CS: Just tell them you have been excessively drinking Pepsi for many years.
IP: Yeah, I had a caffeine thing. We’re just going to call it all caffeine. So, Clark was too caffeinated to keep his balance with his duct tape lump under one arm and nearly takes the spill off that last 20 feet to the Ghetto. That’s a big part of where his motivation for really cool crash pads came from. I love that little story.
DM: That’d be an epic spill.
IP: Yeah, right.
CS: But it’s not true…
IP: I thought you were the one who told it to me. Maybe I dreamt it. No, no, no. You went up there and you wanted a shoulder strap or something, right?
CS: Yeah, to carry it like a backpack. No, the Pepsi part is not true. It was bourbon.
So, I went back to my buddy’s house after this little adventure. You know, I gotta figure out something better. So, I drew up little goofball ideas and went back to Oregon. I eventually intended just to make one just for myself. So, with just $200 I got a sewing machine, some fabric and some foam…well, it was probably closer to $300. I just made one up for myself. A couple buddies saw it and were like, “Aw, man, make one of these for me, too.” So, I just made several of them and then it hit me. I could make a dozen of these, throw them in my van, drive down to Hueco, at like $130 a pop… You know, you’re not living large in El Paso but you’re at least not eating Top Ramen. You can go to those $5 buffets.
DM: That’s the high end stuff.
CS: That’s living large.
MB: That’s kind of like how Chouinard started, in his van kind of dirtbagging it, making his thing, his friends want the gear… That’s how it started.
CS: Well, see, that’s the intelligent… I mean, I don’t want to sound all cocky and be like, “I’m so intelligent; genius!” But the thing is, obviously Hueco, in the middle of winter, for the bouldering community across North America, there’s only one spot that that community is going to go to. And then when the season’s over they go back to wherever they’re from. They go back to California, Colorado, Arkansas, New York; wherever they’re from. So, all that gear, all my pads that I sold to these guys… Oh, by the way, in the middle of the season, I drove back up to Oregon, made another dozen pads because I sold out of them, and then drove back down to El Paso.
DM: What were you doing for a job at this time?
CS: Just chump jobs like washing dishes, moving furniture. Oddly enough, I hit up Entre-Prises for a job making holds and they didn’t hire me.
IP: You know, this little tale you’re telling brings up, I think, one of the greatest things about our sport. Our sport is our industry. We’re the guys making stuff. People playing pro soccer or football are not designing helmets. They’re not laying the grass. They’re not selling tickets at the stadium or building the stadiums. We do everything.
Our great trade-off is that none of us are making a pile of money. But, the two things you get on the flip-side… Well, the main thing is you get to have creative input all across the board, from where we climb to how we climb to what the gear is like that we climb on. That keeps me super stoked.
CS: That’s true to a point. At a certain point I do get a little bit cynical about that. There are companies out there who are making exceptional gear because they really believe in it and they believe in the sport. Let’s say, companies like Flashed and Organic. And I’m speaking more specifically to bouldering gear. What is really unfortunate is companies who are trying to capitalize on bouldering’s popularity and just making straight-up garbage. Straight-up junk that I wouldn’t… There’s a sign here that says “No Swearing,” which is going to limit how I want to articulate my feelings.
DM: I suppose we can’t name those companies?
CS: Oh, I’d be more than happy to do it. Black Diamond, man, those guys… I see the “No Swearing.” Hey, I have a broad enough vocabulary; I can express myself. Saying things like I’d like to repeatedly hit them with a bus, but there’s a lot of employees so I’d have to take that bus and run them down, repeatedly.
DM: That sounds like a lot of work.
CS: Well, yeah.
IP: Load them all on the bus and drive it off a cliff. This is what I’m talking about: creative input.
CS: There’s just some unbelievably low-quality product. What upsets me is not that it’s a large company who basically makes the majority of their money with telemark skis [actually a very small and shrinking profit sector for BD], trying to get into bouldering, something they do not and have not contributed to. What upsets me is that it’s a large company who can take their resources and their money and really take it a broad step further than small companies like myself or Organic or Flashed. We’re very limited on our resources and our money and all that. But, these huge companies, they could really take this a broad step forward, but instead it’s like a race to the bottom to see who can produce just the cheapest piece of garbage and sell it off. And that also goes for some larger European companies, too, that don’t really have the same footing in this country.
All of them obviously recognize that bouldering is popular and that it’s growing. But, instead of truly contributing and taking it a broad step forward – which they have the resources to do – instead they’re just like, “What kind of sub-par product can we come out with?” It’s very insulting to the people who have worked very hard, very diligently, to develop these product categories in this market.
MB: What can they do, Clark?
CS: Well, taking products forward is one aspect. Look, there’s a lot of things that could be done with all this bouldering gear, as supporting the development of bouldering areas. It’s just like in the same sense as, like, no one will argue that the largest thing that has brought new climbers into the sport is bouldering gyms, right? To support [the] opening of new gyms is only going to benefit everybody in this industry. And nobody is really supporting the development of new bouldering areas. It’s basically guys who do it…they put their own energy into it. They go out and…obviously you don’t need to go out and buy a hammer drill and all the bolts and all the hangers and all that. It’s not like developing a sport area, but it does take a lot of vision, a lot of devotion. And there’s no one really backing that up.
IP: I’m a little out of touch with…I think Petzl run their big rock gatherings and I think maybe they’ve pushed developing. You know, people get there a little early, put up some new routes, and I think maybe they’ve done that with some bouldering, too. Maybe they’re an example of a company that sees that you can spend some money… You know, Joe’s Valley is a great place. We all have to take that trail making and bathroom situation…we need to take Joe’s seriously just because it’s the right thing to do, let alone who knows what kind of hammer is going to come down on us from the state of Utah, eventually. You know, it’s oil land for now, but lord knows they’re going to find a salamander there and we’re doomed.
DM: The SLCA is doing good work up there.
IP: Are they? Good. I haven’t been in a while, but there should be railroad tie switchbacks trails up there… I mean, I remember just kicking up and down that loose dirt.
DM: You’re still doing it, though.
IP: I would love to go help put some stuff in there.
CS: That’s a good point, man. I mean, in Joe’s alone if you were to construct a bridge across that river you would immediately just about double the development in that area. Just a simple bridge going across there. I’ve thought about it. I priced it out and talked to Carbon County…and it’s a hell of a hassle.
DM: Why is it such a hassle?
CS: Look, I can go in there and tie a little zipline… No, I’m talking about a legit bridge. Here’s the story. That river, the lower part of it, private property.
DM: All those ranches and farms?
CS: Exactly. The upper part of it, National Forest Service. So, you’re not talking about state. You will have to talk to state, you will have to deal with Carbon County, but that’s National Forest Service, too. These guys make the DMV look like the Daytona 500.
IP: I mean, come on. Eventually that’s got to be noticed. And like I said, it’s just the right thing to do. Most of us know a little bit about desert environment. You know, cryptogamic soil. I think they may even have some cryptogamic soil there…which is a pretty living soil. You put a footprint down and it’s going to take a long time for it to grow back.
It’s the right thing to do, for us to be proactive and involved. I know Clark, years ago, I think you started to run a competition for people. Look, you can do these great marketing things. They’re good for your company, but they’re smart and they’re positive and it’s not just… I think what Clark was talking earlier about is looking at a product and getting out your Chinese foam producers catalog and seeing how cheap of a layer of foam you can get. You can go that way to make money. Personally, I think that’s not even fun or enjoyable. The other way you can go is you can spend a little bit, spend smart, build a real sense of community. You know, some companies will sit around marketing tables and try to figure out how to “build” a bro image and some companies just deserve a bro image.
DM: Fundamentally, it comes from “bros.” Right?
IP: Well, yeah. Again, that is a beautiful thing of our sport. This is ours to give away, you know? It’s growing, it’s always going to grow… This is our sport to hold onto. Look at what a grip of real quality coolness, the righteous thing to do that the skateboard industry has. Was it Transworld, did an issue years ago where they just went out said, “Look, here’s who owns these companies.” And some companies looked really good and some did not. They just went ahead and published it whether they advertised in them or not. Like, “Hey, here’s a list of all the big companies that everybody knows and here’s who’s owned by whoever and here’s who isn’t.” That’s a great, serious calling out of your industry. That kind of stuff is ours to give away. We have that now and I don’t think we should lose it. I don’t think we should wash it out.
CS: Ian had a real good point there about the outlook of different companies in that some companies are just like, “Here’s the market, this seems to be popular, how do we capitalize on this” instead of people looking at it and being like, “How do we actually expand the sport altogether? Do we just try and squeeze every nickel out of this community of a hundred thousand climbers or do we actively try and expand this to a couple million climbers?” That’s what really is incredibly short-sighted for a lot of these companies is they’re just like, “Oh, look, hey, bouldering. There’s this little community here. How do we squeeze every nickel out of these kids?” It’s, like, “No, man. How do you introduce this to millions upon millions of people around the globe? You guys are looking at it in an unbelievably shallow, myopic, short-sighted manner. This has the potential of being really larger than almost any outdoor sport, other than say jogging, really.” And that’s a bold statement but I’ll back that up.
IP: And also – with product, with sticking to quality – it just hit me that our transition in this country to polyurethane climbing holds is a perfect example of doing the right thing. Voodoo and eGrips, separately, we knew each other a little bit but we didn’t chat, but Voodoo and E Grips chose to go with polyurethane. We were just committed to it once you saw you could bounce these holds off the ground. It always cost us more money. That was serious design. We had to cut the design down as small as possible. E Grips’ little sandstone pitting on the front of all the holds, that was about weight, honestly, as much as it was about having the style of sandstone rock. That was hollow fronting. It’s like drilling out parts of your bike to get it light. Because the urethane is more expensive. We had to do it. We were just committed. I never wanted to see climbing holds break again and I knew that the whole industry would switch. I wasn’t quite sure how long it would take. When I retired about five or six years ago E Grips was still pretty expensive, and Voodoo. While I was gone, all these companies switched to urethane. The margins just force you to raise your prices but the whole market has paid it. People are okay. Trust me, nobody is making any kind of outrageous margin on climbing holds. All of us, because we’re competitive, pay Louisville [CO]. We have our stuff made out in Louisville. We’ve passed that expense onto the customers and they’ve paid it. You know, they’re okay. This hasn’t been an overt conversation but it’s happened and America has the best quality climbing holds in the world.
DM: And it’s objective. It’s not subjective quality, like, “Well, I prefer the crimps that actually broke.”
IP: Right. Shaping is subjective and arguable.
CS: There are some manufacturers out in Europe who are doing a phenomenal job. Shaping is a big part of it. I mean, you can get something that is literally bulletproof and it might be irrelevant if the shape is just completely whack. Whereas, there might be some unbelievably cool shapes that are… I mean, I could name a couple companies that have some really cool stuff but the stuff’s just too heavy or breakable. And so, it is a combination of things.
MB: We only got 34 more minutes. Let’s jump in on a chronology on Ian.
DM: Yeah, let’s hit the rewind button. You were just talking about E Grips and polyurethane climbing holds, so let’s talk about you. You’re via Atlanta, from Waco, up to Boulder, and you walk into this Straight Up studio/shop/warehouse. You’re 19 years old and you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m here to shape holds.”
IP: Just a baby. I don’t know what I was thinking, man. I can tell you that Ty Foose and I were really obsessive. We would smoke all kinds of caffeine and sit around and just theorize and theorize and theorize about movement. We were breaking down climbing movement. I mean, everything, every technique. We were reading exercise physiology books. Just mega geeks on climbing.
So, Ty and I went to high school together. We both wasted a year after high school and then ran into each other at Mineral Wells State Park, which is a goofy little place. I think Daniel Woods said he learned to climb…
DM: That’s Dallas or something?
IP: Yeah, it’s east of Dallas, I don’t know, 45 minutes?
DM: One of those beautiful Dallas climbing areas…
IP: I’m glad you said that because Waco, Texas at the time, there’s limestone all around there but we didn’t know. We were the ones who had to find it. Jeff Jackson, Jack Mileski… Good lord, I miss Jack Mileski. I know Jack’s sense of humor pretty well; I think he would appreciate this story.
I saw Jack, just ran into him, went and had tacos in Colorado Springs and he said, “Man, this girlfriend of mine, she is crazy. She’s got a chromed-out .38 and I swear to god she’s gonna kill me.” And I’m like, “Dude, why don’t you get out?” He’s like, “I can’t, dude. The sex is so good. I just can’t.” And sure enough, girl popped a round in him while he was sleeping.
Jack Mileski is one of those people, it’s so shocking, he’s so larger-than-life, you’re like, “Nothing can kill this man.” I mean nothing. You can’t picture him dying. So, somewhere in Colorado DOC there’s a girl doing who knows how many years for taking out… Jack is just a…if you ever knew him you just can’t forget him. He’s one of the greatest humans ever. I keep dreaming about naming a training device after him. I’m going to come up with something.
Lord, how did I get over there?
So, climbing around Waco, there is a bunch of rock but we didn’t really understand it. So, we started climbing on bridges, churches, this little school [that] was made out of flagstone. My point is, right from the start I was into artificial climbing. I was just into the movement. I would watch these Patrick Edlinger videos all night – same one, a million times – and was just so obsessed with this movement of climbing. But then I’d go out and practice on the side of a church on some chipped out flagstone. It’s all we had!
I went to college for 15 minutes – junior college – and I got sick and it was way too hard and I went to the bathroom and threw up. So, I dropped out of college to climb on a 1907 bridge, disused railroad bridge over the Brazos River. Just swim out with railroad spikes in our teeth and paddle and chip out the hundred year old concrete. So, right away it was about chipping out artificial holds. It was just about movement, man.
So, Ty and I go and we travel around. I break my foot coming off Latest Rage in Smith Rock because its bolted on one side and you climb on the other and I was born without endurance so I couldn’t hang on. We figure out there’s this gym called CityRock Climbing Gym which at the time was huge. Like, the biggest most professional climbing gym at least in this country.
DM: What were there, ten climbing gyms at this time throughout the country?
IP: Dude, there was Rob Candelaria at CATS and there’s Vertical World…
MB: What year are we talking about?
IP: ‘90. And CityRock was for real. It was beautiful. It was a Peter Mayfield dream and a bunch of these people from the Bay Area. It was an incredible place.
So, we read about it or something. Ty gets in a pay phone booth in Smith and calls him and says, “I’m coming down there to get a job.” And they’re like, “Wait. What? Who is this?” He’s like, “Don’t worry about it. I’m coming down there to get a job and I’m gonna be your head course setter.” Ty just cuts them off and goes, “You can either hire me or compete with me” and goes down there and sure enough the kid turned out to be unbelievably talented at understanding the movement of climbing and understanding how to course set. Ty Foose is an incredible course setter. Just unbelievable.
Then he got into shaping holds. I think you can’t course set without wanting to shape holds. I don’t understand why all these course setters don’t make their own stuff. We were obsessed by it. So, Ty gets this crazy, exotic, African hardwood called vinhatico or something. It has the texture of balsawood but it’s really hard and he carves out – again, smoked a bunch of caffeine – carved out all of [these] incredible climbing holds, man. So, he did it before me and I was really inspired.
I ended up in Boulder, I don’t know, like a year later…’91. Drove through Eldorado Canyon, saw Vanessa Crittenden standing on the side of the road. It was like, “I don’t care what I have to do to stand next to that female human.” And then I go in the [Boulder] Rock Club and she’s working at the Rock Club. I was like, to somebody else, “You gotta hire me!” I had to get that job. And, talked her into dating me. It took months, man.
CS: Wait. This whole hiring thing, did you say that to Vanessa?
IP: No, no. I did tell her I could cook which is really funny, as you know. And I think I believed it, which is trippy…
CS: [In a caveman voice] “I’m gonna cook up a whole bunch of eggs for you, woman! Eggs and macaroni! Eat it! EAT IT!!”
IP: Actually, she said… I did some huge dyno and missed it and flew across the gym while working and broke my glasses in half and covered my face with pea gravel cuts. I kind of knocked myself out a little bit. When I came to I was kind of laughing and [she was like] “Oh, that’s cool. If this idiot can laugh at that then he’s alright.”
Somewhere right about then I went up to Chas Fisher. In all my obsessing over climbing holds I came up with these adjustable two-part holds. Weirdly, I was so impressed with the shapes on the market, between [Tony] Yaniro and Jim Karn and stuff Ty had done, I couldn’t think of any climbing holds to make, which is crazy now that I think about it. Static climbing holds, as I referred to them, I couldn’t add anything. So, yeah, these two-part discs and the top had a pocket – two, three or four finger pocket – and then the bottom had these chambers and so you loosened them, spun them, locked them back down. And you switched your two finger top and your four finger bottom and you got these pockets that drove into the sides. Oh my god, I was convinced it was going to be the thing. Everybody was freaked out by them. Everybody hated them.
IP: Well, everybody thought they had a motor in them and they would take off on you and cut your fingers off. Again, there were limitations. The materials, the polyester resin…we had to make a certain thickness so it wouldn’t crack. So, they ended up being these big, diner pancake sized things all over your wall. Whatever.
Chas was patient. Chas has a lot of creative vision. Chas Fisher, who was Boulder Holds and then right about then he had just changed it to Straight Up. Both names are fantastic. He had a little trust in me. There was a kid who was interning with him that summer named Josh – or “The Unit” – who was straight from the Rhode Island School of Design and he understood shaping foam, design foam. The whole industry was just getting… Again, we built this whole thing ourselves and at one time just design foam was a revolution. We were making stuff out of clay. That kid taught us how to use design foam and we took off, man. Once I realized, “Oh my god, you can shape these things and pull on them,” it’s super addicting.
CS: I have to say, definitely Ian has a lot more history behind holds than I do. But, I grew up and I came out of Bend, which at that time and up until the mid-90s, I’ll ballpark about 80 percent of the climbing holds were done in that little town of a population of about 50,000 people.
IP: Yeah, that’s totally accurate.
CS: You had Metolius, Entre Prises, Vertical Concepts and then later Franklin. So, when it came to shaping and a lot of that I was pretty snobby… [To] be honest, I’d never even seen Straight Up because I’d only see stuff around my little circle.
IP: I know how y’all are up in Oregon.
CS: No, it’s not like that. It’s just that we didn’t get to see much of it. It was definitely cool – what I did see – but if you see things a million times right around you… I’m not saying local-centric, like, “We’re so much better than you.”
IP: You’re dead on. I think you could argue that all climbing holds in America up until Chas were probably made in Bend, Oregon. Seriously.
CS: I don’t know when Climb It got its start but that was one of the first non-Bend companies.
DM: They were a SoCal company?
CS: Yeah. Jim [Karn] started shaping for them long before he got in with EP or Metolius. Wow, him and [Mike] Pont did some real cool shit. [You can hear paper ruffling in the background as Mike desperately waves his “No Swearing” banner in front of Clark, causing a few minutes of minor chaos in the studio.]
MB: Now, Mike Pont, he’s a good course setter, right?
CS: Oh, indeed. Indeed. What I was saying was these ones that they came up with were the first time you saw some very smooth, rounded, comfortable edges on things. People would just put big old pointy edges and you’d grab it and you’d be like, “Ow! Why don’t you just bolt a saw blade to the wall?” But these were much more rounded, much more comfortable.
It’s subtle. Unless you’re paying attention you don’t notice. Look, you and me and everybody here, we will not notice the difference between most tires you put on our cars. You might notice studded snow tires versus those big broad racing slicks, of course, but all these little subtle aspects, it’s going to take someone who is really paying attention and can really appreciate that [who] will notice some of those differences.
Like I said, those ones came out and a few other things… A lot of people just thought, “Oh, great. A new set of edges.” No, this is actually a step forward.
CS: Yeah, it is geeking out.
IP: Geeks make the world go round, man. You got to pick something and focus and geek out on it proudly.
DM: So, you got a bunch of geeks making these climbing holds and then the gym revolution kind of kicks off. What’s the chicken or the egg?
IP: Yeah, that’s interesting. Again, I guess I’d like to think that everybody, being focused on quality… In a way, maybe climbing holds are a quick way to tell your product quality. So are bouldering pads, in that you’re going to land and you’re going to feel it pretty quick whether you’re psyched or whether that’s like, “Well, that didn’t help at all, all that did was hide that root”, you know? With climbing holds, you get pretty quick feedback. Maybe right away that quality of product makes the whole indoor climbing experience a little better and therefor motivates people to build another gym. I think it’s just that gyms are inevitable.
By the way, all of these businesses – with the exception of some of what Clark’s talking about, some of the bigger companies getting involved and low-balling products overseas – a lot of our industry is American [made].
CS: In climbing holds… Again, I’m going to get nerded-out if you want the specifics, but it almost necessitates domestic manufacturing.
IP: Right. You got a thousand different little grips in your line or whatever and you got to have one in every color or five in every color… I’m just really proud of our industry.
Tracy and Mike [Hickey] are a great couple that come to mind up in Fort Collins who years ago built that great little gym [Inner Strength Rock Gym]. It’s just a family vibe place. Ian Dory, I think, grew up climbing there and he’s got a great, positive, community vibe to him.
It can be this mom and pop business but also it’s a great thing for kids to do growing up. I mean, all of us know that climbing originally was…you know, you just couldn’t play soccer or football or something and then you found climbing. And that probably still goes on to some extent. It does a lot of good. It’s a great receptacle for people who are maybe having a hard time on the fringe.
CS: I liked it because, at least growing up in Bend, the climber crew were actually even more raw and dirty than even the little skateboard crew.
IP: Right! We cannot cede that territory! We cannot soccer-mom-out more than skateboarding. We have got to keep an edge.
CS: We’re at sort of an interesting crossroads right now. Do we put it in kind of the venue that soccer went in that little kids, like, “Weee, look, we’re all kicking a ball on a Saturday morning! Weeeee!” Or, do we just keep it raw dog the way skateboarding did and you appeal to that part of youth who’s like, “I’m not tryin’ out for the football team. I want to be with these raw individuals.”
IP: Alright, I’m going to make an offer right now. My new little climbing grip company with Dan Howley is called Kilter. A little plug. I don’t know how but I will just personally pay for a free…I’ll make some jibs or something. I’ve got an idea about how to make jibs that are designed to glue up onto property. So, when Kilter’s online, if you want to glue some stuff – hopefully illegally – on some kind of building all over the country, just call me. Don’t worry, Mike, they’re not going to call you, man. They’re going to call me. This is all on Kilter.
CS: Glue ons. I wanted to do that same thing a year ago. Here’s the deal: the back of the hold will need a certain amount of grooves, whether that’s something you put on with a belt sander…so it basically digs in grooves or whether it’s something you put on the back of the mold. Basically, you need some kind of rigid structure so an epoxy adhesive can stick to the hold. But then pow, you slap it up on the underside of bridges…
IP: On a courthouse!
CS: It’s like street skating, in a way.
IP: So, it sounds like Revolution has just signed up for this project, too. Yeah, okay, Revolution and Kilter are going to provide some products. You get in touch with us…
CS: Hey, I wrote an article for Urban Climber about this years ago. I’ll dig it out for you.
IP: I didn’t know you could write in English! That is awesome…
CS: Bwa ha. I’d like to punch you. If you didn’t weight 60 pounds more than me I would slug you in the chest right now.
IP: You got to show me that article. Look, that’s a concrete way we can support “midnight climbing.”
CS: It’s more like the street skating style, whereas back in the day, like, on flat areas and then eventually they figured out, “Oh, these empty swimming pools. We can skate in here.” Or, they’d build a plywood half pipe. And then street style came along – riding curbs, riding hand rails – and all of a sudden the entire world now became a skate park. We’re not developing a certain apparatus for skateboarding. We’re finding what’s already there and finding out how to ride it. And that is the same thing I think as what Ian’s talking about, finding out what is structurally already there and figuring out how we can climb it. What’s very interesting is that this can be done in the most ugly, brutal, industrial areas of this country where no one would ever set up a climbing gym anyway. Pittsburgh could be the next Hueco Tanks.
IP: Detroit. I have a total, serious obsession with Detroit. For over a decade I’ve wanted to hold an invitational buildering comp in Detroit. A roving comp. We fly in there, we check out I don’t know how many world class buildering problems there have got to be in Detroit. You set up on these street corners. Man, some people might get arrested – whatever. Getting arrested ain’t a big deal.
DM: In Detroit?! For climbing? I don’t think there’re going to be insurance companies like, “Hey, you guys got to sign a waiver!”
IP: You never know. The police might be like, “Oh, look at these little white boys. We’re going to arrest this crew because nobody’s packing heat.” What are they wearing, Verve stuff?
DM: “We’re gonna fill our quota with these little dirtbags.”
IP: Yeah. By the way, you get arrested in Verve things, even I can’t help you. You do not want to get locked up in a Verve thing. I love Christian [Griffith] – I love his stuff – but you don’t want to go to jail wearing Verve.
So, yeah, that is world class buildering. You know, Ty and I got into buildering in Berkeley, this Berkeley vibe. The Doe Library traverse was this amazing buildering traverse in Berkeley. For some reason, that group of people; you know, Scott Frye built a finger curl machine. They were into training and climbing on the buildings, again, partly because Berkeley…all they got is that whack little polished pile of rock. So, yeah, they got into buildering.
DM: I’ve seen that courthouse traverse on, like, West Coast Pimp, that old movie?
IP: Yeah! Greg Loh, also an absolute Berkeley star, man. I think Greg showed us how to do it.
DM: I think in Caroline’s article you called that… Is that the one you called one of your hardest moves you’ve ever done? Or is that in Boulder?
IP: That’s in Boulder. That’s the Boulder Courthouse traverse, right on Pearl Street Mall. Look, it’s real simple. Just get on one end – unfortunately there’s a causeway that blocks a complete rotation – get all the way to the causeway and you just walk along at about six inches above the ground; there’s a little footboard, you just walk along. There’s this cool magic way to get around the corners. There’s no down-pulling holds… The best is really when there are no down-pulling holds that exist and that’s basically true on Boulder [Courthouse traverse]. Even if you find some little crimp, don’t get your 135 pound butt out there and crimp on my beautiful buildering traverse and tell me you did it. There’s no down-pulling holds. Just walk yourself all the way around the thing. Getting across, you basically have to do this real balancy jump across the doors and one of them is a true B3. I’ve only done it once. Nobody else has ever done it.
MB: Ian, you have an interesting history. Really, kind of a dark side of your history…
CS: [Working on his Morgan Freeman impression, which he’s been doing off and on the entire interview, to much laughter] I guess Ian had his reasons…
DM: Morgan Freeman, he’s back in the studio. Can’t keep this guy out…
IP: Mr. Freeman and I have been looking for a project to do together for quite some time.
CS: [Still as Morgan Freeman] He decided he needed those credit cards.
IP: I did. Listen, I am paying restitution back to the state of Colorado and to Office Max and Office Depot and any place with a laptop. About five years ago… I mean, what, we got 10 minutes left in the radio show?
DM: We can run a little bit long because I’d like to this story. It’s interesting; you’re making climbing holds and your sculpting career was kind of rockin’ and rollin’, bringing in some more money. So, let’s start it there.
IP: Honestly, I was going to say, let me come back in a few months and we can talk seriously about addiction, about substance abuse, about all that stuff and about recovery.
DM: That’s a promise. You’re back in the studio, for sure. [A couple of months later we invited Ian back, along with Matt Samet fresh off the publication of “Death Grip: A Climber’s Escape from Benzo Madness”. I’ll have that online as soon as I can get to it.] Clark, you’re never welcome again!
CS: Oh, it’s because I said the “S” word in front of Mike!
IP: So, statistically, you look around the climbing gym – I don’t know, there’s a hundred kids in The Spot on a Friday night – 10 of them (more than that?) are going to have a substance abuse issue of some kind or another. And you’re dark night of the soul might only be you’re still smoking cocaine – sorry, I meant to say caffeine – on, like Tuesday.
CS: You can smoke a Pepsi?
IP: Man, you can smoke anything. You can shoot anything. I’ve shot everything. If you can get it in a needle you can get it into your arm.
My point is that because we’re involved in what is, I think, always going to be a fringe sport of some kind, by definition you’re not supposed to climb on the building, lord knows as a human you’re not supposed to climb up the cliff. I mean, this is deep seeded…you could get hurt doing this. Maybe to get some…bird eggs.
Our sport is going to attract fringe dwellers and I’m pretty convinced that we’re going to have a higher population of people with…depression or bi-polar or some kind of challenges and/or substance abuse. I’m sure, man. I’m sure that climbers, we are going to get some issues.
DM: At the very least we’re in such a small community that it becomes much more readily apparent. I mean, soccer players – we talked about soccer – they certainly suffer from the same things. They have their own problems, their own issues, these people just like us. But, it’s a huge population.
IP: Yeah, and our sport is more intimate, right? I’ve been involved in it my whole adult life, so sometimes I forget. And I live in Boulder, the super-groovy place – like the Bay Area – where people connect on a very real and pretty intimate level pretty quickly. But I think, no matter what, you’re spotting, you’re belaying; we are literally saving each other’s lives. There’s something about the way that we communicate… Our innermost thoughts, our scars, are a little more wide open. Like in that article. I mean, god bless Rock and Ice for doing it but I get the sense that they didn’t really want to get into it, they didn’t really want to get into these things.
You know, Matt Samet wrote a thing that I read when I was locked up and I was so proud of him and so interested. He wrote that thing for Outside.
DM: That’s the best article I’ve read in five years in [an outdoor industry] magazine. And his book, the new one that just came out, is incredible.
IP: I saw him the other day and I think he’s got a 50/50 shot of getting on whatever venue Oprah is calling her own now. Again, our sport is well-known by a lot of people. He’s talking about some very real human challenges in a great way, because he’s Matt; he’s a great writer.
There’s another place we can take our little sport and do some good for the whole population. I managed to have turn myself into some sort of a spokesperson for sobriety and that’s going to be one of my roles. Frankly, I don’t want to spend my whole life going around doing that talk. I prefer to concentrate on life itself. But, I do want to have a hobby of talking about sobriety. Lord knows, not in any kind of lecture way. More in the, “If this idiot can do it anybody can” method, which I think has value.
DM: Have you thought about taking Matt’s road? Like, reading the article that Caroline wrote and then chatting with you a little bit here and before the show, that’s seriously fascinating. It’s dark and complicated and a redemptive story.
CS: Let me tell you, I’ve told him to start taking notes on all this stuff. You would be stunned by the stories he’s going to tell you. I mean, he won’t tell you on this radio show, I’ll tell you that! It ain’t gonna get on here. It wouldn’t get on Oprah, I’ll tell you that.
IP: No, no, no. She went through that Million Little Pieces episode thing [the James Frey addiction “memoir” controversy]. If you want to see the kookiest behavior, take the wealthiest culture in the history of the world – America – and then get into injecting one of the strongest collection of drugs in the history of mankind. Just take a hundred people you know and everybody’s got a needle in their arm banging speed.
So, I didn’t sleep for the first year. I slept in a bed twice in a year. Yeah, it’s insane and insanely stupid. I mean, you’re IQ is just unbelievably plummeted. Everybody is crazy and dumb. It’s off the hook and the thing is…a lot of funny stuff happens. A lot of straight-up comedy. So, yeah, there’s a lot of totally hilarious stories.
CS: Stunning nuttiness…
DM: So, when you were in the midst of that spiral, for lack of another word, did you ever even think about climbing?
IP: Yeah, so that article touched on it a little bit. There was so much that Caroline and I wanted to talk about. I didn’t lift weights or climb or anything – I was really out there – for about three years. I had a whole cocaine problem before that…
MB: How’d you stay alive, Ian?
IP: Luck. Honestly, one of my big things is that I’m the luckiest dude I know. Lord knows I don’t believe in god. I’m like a fundamental atheist. I do think that I have a serious debt to pay, just a humanist debt. Like, if you’re this lucky of a human you better do some good. I mean, I had everything as an American and tried to throw it away and still got it back.
CS: There is actually a lot more that he’s not saying in that – this sounds a little corny, but – physically he’s unlike any individual I know. As far as recuperating from serious damage. I mean, I’m no scientist or biologist, but you could make a very strong argument that he is actually Wolverine.
DM: Yeah. For people, you can’t see this program right now, but he looks like a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
CS: No, that’s not it. He has recuperating powers…that are above and beyond most human beings. If I took that pen right there and stabbed him in the chest, within 30 seconds he would be healed.
DM: Can we actually test that out right now?
CS: I don’t think he’d be too psyched about it.
IP: Sober? Ehhhh… You know, I actually think that might be part of being bi-polar because, yeah, sometimes wicked powerful, and then you’ve also seen me, like, watching those episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” under the duvet and crying for a week straight. Well, he wasn’t observing me from the same bed. We live together and Clark will open the door and he’s like, “Hey, you ready to get up? It’s Tuesday, I think you laid down on Friday or something.” I’m like, “Ahhh, I’ll be right there. I’ll get to it.” Yeah, I get wicked sensitive and common colds nearly kill me, too. That’s part of being bi-polar or something.
DM: Well…we definitely have to bring you back for another show where we focus on that journey, you know what I mean?
IP: Yeah. Like I said, a couple of cool things – messages – that I wanted to get across in that article was a recovery one but also just how proud I am of our sport, what a blast it is to be involved in our sport. I, personally, man, I’m still broken hearted that I haven’t climbed 5.14 or V14 or whatever. I haven’t given up yet. I’m not going to give up for another decade. I still want to climb hard.
CS: You got to get outside, man.
IP: Well, I think I’ve proven that I’m no slave to nature. Look, if Flagstaff was Joe’s Valley I’d live up there but Flagstaff is Flagstaff. Mike, I don’t mean to offend you. I don’t mean to offend Mike! This is as bad as swearing. That’s like I’m talking about the Pope here.
CS: He has kind of an odd aspect to dilute things down. I don’t know, maybe it’s some sort of artistic disposition but the last time I saw you genuinely hyper-[active], like really psyched on something, was when you were trying to do a one arm campus move. And you were just like…I couldn’t shut you up.
To be honest, that’s just diluting, if you want to say bouldering is just diluting roped climbing down, well then aspects like this are just diluting it down even further to just finite points. That’s one thing you do. No one nerds out on holds as much as you do. That’s what I mean, just diluting it down [to] more and more finite aspects.
IP: So, here’s another message to those youngsters out there. Man, if you’re twenty-something and you dropped out of college to be a barista/rock climber or whatever and you’re climbing around the country and your elbows are fried and your fingers are fried and you absolutely are crying yourself to sleep at night and want to shoot yourself because guess what, you dedicated yourself to this thing you can feel down in your bones and you’re just not standing on the podiums. That pain is substantial. Oh my god, I was freaking depressed forever. If you’re that guy or girl there is a tradition among all kinds of small sports – surfers are great for this, snowboarders are great for this – stay connected to your sport. Get back in. You know, you design the snowboards. You open a gym. I don’t know how conscious some people are about what a great path this is but I want plenty of people to understand it is a great path, to embrace product and capitalism and creativity. You’re still involved in your sport and, by the way, when you get off the laser focus of just you trying to win a World Cup or something and you get a normal human life, a lot of times you start climbing better. A lot of people have found that. It’s such an addictive sport; we get on our tendons and don’t get off the gas pedal. You get some other aspect that you’re really in love with, you might actually be happier with climbing.
CS: That’s a really good point… Look, if you’re deep down in that sport – living it every single day and living in the dirt – that does have value. You understand the community and you know a lot more about what’s going on than some clown writing copy from their office in, whatever, Cleveland. I mean, we’ve all read some article or something about climbing and you look at it and you’re like, “Man, this is the corniest thing I ever heard. You absolutely have no insight or relation to what this sport or this community is about.” Like Ian said, odds are you probably won’t be standing on a World Cup podium or even get a shoe sponsorship. But, that knowledge that you will gain by being down in the trenches for so long is very valuable.
IP: Yeah, that’s true, quality knowledge. We could make up more jobs! Look, there’s a bunch of charity work we can do with climbing. There’s a lot of good we could do with climbing. You could take climbing, go out and get the Crips and the Bloods or the Nortenos and the south siders, all kinds of gangs that are beefing – you could get gangs that are set-tripping – get them out there and have them belay each other on an artificial wall.
CS: That’s a bold claim.
IP: Seriously. Not only are you not trying to kill this dude from 25th Street, you just saved his life. Now, in reality to all of us who know something about the sport, we’d probably have a little back-up belay or something, right? We could figure that out, man. That is a beautiful use of our sport, right there. Somebody could have a full non-profit job doing that. You get Republicans and Democrats to belay each other…would not be a bad idea.
DM: Better luck with the Bloods and Crips…
CS: That’s actually a pretty deep thing to think about for a minute. How many times have you shown up to a crag and you haven’t gone out there with a partner but you’ve gotten somebody to belay you on a route? I know that’s happened to pretty much everybody here. Now, you think about that. That’s an absolute stranger that you are entrusting in a life or death situation. I don’t think there is any other sport on earth where you pretty much can straight-up walk up to someone and be like, “Hey, man. Yeah, tie in, man. Get me on this one.”
IP: “You want to save my life 15 times in the next hour while I work out the moves?”
CS: And they immediately understand and assume that responsibility. What other activity on earth… I mean, even the military is probably the only other thing where you see somebody wearing the same uniform as you [and you’ll] be like, “Hey, we gotta go over here, man. Will you make sure no one blows my melon apart?” It ain’t the military. This is supposed to be more of a fun activity, of course.
IP: Yeah, well, we all do this. You know, we don’t trip out too much about this.
DM: Alright, Ian Powell and Clark Shelk, thanks for stopping by.