About two hours north of New York City, on the westernmost border of the Hudson Valley, the Shawangunk Mountains bulge out of the Earth like a giant crease in a vast green carpet. It’s early October, and the first sparks of autumn are beginning to set the trees ablaze with orange and red and yellow — prime Gunks climbing season. The mountains themselves, a craggy ridgeline of hard, silica-infused quartzite and sandstone not so different from granite, are among North America’s legendary climbing destinations. It is the East Coast’s Yosemite.
At the base of the 275-foot-high crag, Kolin Powick, the climbing director at Black Diamond, zips open his backpack and dumps several odd-looking rubber shapes onto the leaf-littered ground. The shapes are Black Diamond’s first-ever climbing shoe prototypes. Each of them is unique, but one is unlike any climbing shoe before.
Why the climbing shoe is ripe for reinventing
This fall, Black Diamond released the Momentum, the first-ever climbing shoe to use engineered knit technology, a polyester-propylene fabric virtually identical to the kind used in Nike’s global-sensation Flyknit collection. By using this technology, Black Diamond is making a pointed effort to address a problem that has forever vexed climbers.
“The issue we saw was that [climbing] shoes aren’t super comfortable, or at least most people think they can’t be comfortable,” Powick said. “But, especially at the entry-level, [climbing] shoes can be comfortable. So, we set out to make a rock shoe that’s comfortable and breathes well, especially in the gym, when you don’t take your shoes off for the whole session.”
The influx of entry-level gym climbers represents an enormous opportunity not just for Black Diamond, but all outdoor brands.
Whenever Powick talks about the Momentum, two phrases frequently pop up: entry-level and gym climber. These key demographics have never been bigger. Climbing is no longer a fringe activity; every year, it looks more and more like a mainstream sport. According to the Climbing Business Journal, there were 414 climbing gyms in the U.S. at the end of 2016 — 26 of which had just opened that year. Most major U.S. cities now have at least one climbing gym. According to a report by the Physical Activity Council, from 2014 to 2015, over 148,000 people in the U.S. tried climbing for the first time — a huge spike in popularity, compared to the sport’s seven years of sluggish growth from 2007 to 2014. During that period, only about 19,000 people tried climbing. Last August, as part of a larger effort to appeal to a younger audience more interested in up-and-coming sports, the International Olympic Committee added climbing to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The influx of entry-level gym climbers represents an enormous opportunity not just for Black Diamond, a 28-year-old company regarded as one of the world’s largest climbing brands, but all outdoor brands. With the Momentum, perhaps the most innovative climbing shoe in years, Black Diamond is hoping to seize that opportunity, and once again reign supreme in climbing. “Not only do the [new climbing products] reflect a return to our climbing roots, but I think a lot of other products do, too,” Powick said. “We haven’t been super focused on climbing in the past few years. In the last year, we’ve bolstered our R&D teams. We now have a team of guys who work just on helmets, a team of guys who work just on shoes, a team of guys who work just on belay devices. We’re focusing our energy back on the climbing stuff, which is awesome. I’m super psyched.”
Inside the design process
Five or six years ago, when indoor climbing began to boom in earnest, Kasey Jarvis was cautious. As the Vice President of Design at Black Diamond and ex-Nike lead designer, Jarvis didn’t want to make just another unspectacular climbing shoe. He wanted to create something different, something that made sense in a rapidly changing sport.
“I kept joking, saying ‘How do we know this isn’t the next CrossFit? Let’s be careful.’ Since then, it’s just kept growing, and I see firsthand how enjoyable [climbing] is. I think because of the progression curve; it’s the kind of thing you can get into and enjoy for life. I think it will keep growing.” Jarvis said.
Black Diamond knew a climbing shoe collection was on the horizon. But assuring the powers that be about the promise of engineered knit technology, something Jarvis continues to evangelize after his career at Nike, wasn’t easy.
“I kept joking, saying ‘How do we know this isn’t the next CrossFit? Let’s be careful.'”
“The first time we went to our board and said ‘Hey, we should make climbing shoes,’ we linked the presentation with the explosion of the climbing gyms. I think we actually talked them into getting into the climbing gym business instead of the shoe business. So, it backfired a little bit. After that, we decided to take it on a little more stealthily,” Jarvis said.
Over the next two years, Jarvis and his team continued to design the climbing shoe collection behind closed doors. They traveled back and forth between Black Diamond’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah and the climbing shoe factory in Osan, South Korea, which is operated by Butora, one of the youngest and most innovative climbing shoe manufacturers today.
“It was very obvious to me within the first day of visiting the Butora shoe factory that these guys were professional, high-end shoemakers,” Jarvis said. “As I was touring the factory and making these very hard questions, it was obvious that [they] had worked really hard to solve some of the problems. For example, they let the shoes sit for 24-48 hours resting once they’re constructed. That makes a huge difference in the final shape and the permanence of a shoe. But it takes way more work logistically.”
Butora’s unique rubber synthesis and engineered knit construction methods, Jarvis said, allows Black Diamond to engineer the entire climbing shoe in a new way; a method proprietary to Black Diamond. “We can control where it stretches and where it doesn’t; where it breathes, where it doesn’t. We’re able to make the molded rubber components with individual pieces — like making one cookie at a time, rather than die-cutting a ton of them out. It’s very different,” Jarvis said. “The rubber is mixed from scratch in the facility; then it’s extruded to be just the right thickness, then it gets molded. Nobody is molding parts like that. It gives us crazy consistency in the rubber. It’s also more sustainable — the footwear industry, in general, generates a ton of waste. Knit shoes are more sustainable because you don’t have as many die-cut scraps to throw away.”
The Momentum is only the beginning. This November, Black Diamond released the Aspect, a modern take on an outdoor trad shoe; two advanced sport climbing shoes, the Focus and the Shadow, both of which use engineered knit technology, are releasing in spring 2018.
What these new construction methods and materials accomplish is a shoe built with the future of climbing in mind: a shoe more comfortable, more breathable and more sustainable than its traditional leather counterparts will ever be.