A Conversation with Charles Cole
By Seth Lightcap
Where would we be as explorers of rock, trail and waterway without Stealth Rubber? Whether paired with a Five Ten shoe design or used as a resole for another brand shoe, the stickiest of all sticky rubbers has been crucial equipment for many of the most groundbreaking adventure achievements of the last 25 years. Stealth Rubber has been championed as the rubber to trust when loss of traction could have serious consequences.
Matching Stealth Rubber with a steady stream of innovative shoe designs has led Five Ten to grow from a niche climbing shoe company to one of the premier action sports footwear brands in the world. This evolution has been led every step of the way by Five Ten founder and Stealth Rubber inventor Charles Cole. A pioneering Yosemite climber with a stacked resume of bold El Cap ascents, Cole started the California based shoe company in 1985. Cole’s invention of Stealth Rubber and other climbing shoe innovations laid the foundation for a company that became known for it’s progressive athlete driven designs.
In 2011, Five Ten marked another milestone as Cole sold the business to shoe industry juggernaut Adidas. The merger has not slowed down Five Ten, nor the cutting edge climber turned rubber scientist Cole. In fact, the pace of progression has only picked up for the company. Adventure Sports Journal caught up with Cole to talk about these latest developments, the roots of Five Ten and the legendary polymer known as Stealth Rubber.
ASJ: What inspired you to stop climbing and start a climbing shoe business?
When I got down from the last major aid route I did on El Cap, Space, there was a note on the board at Camp Four that said, “Call Home.” That had never happened before. So I found out that my father had suffered a stroke and a heart attack. All of a sudden my family had no money and no means of support. I was 30 years old so I knew I had to do something for my family. I had always told myself, “You love climbing so much, don’t ever get into the business of climbing.” But in the end, if you’re trying to make money and that’s the one thing you know inside and out, go with what you know. It was obvious that I should go into the climbing industry.
ASJ: Why did you decide to make shoes and not cams or carabiners?
One of my assignments in business school was to make a list of ideas that I thought could make money as a new business. “Make a new rubber for climbing shoes,” was one of the ideas at the top of my list. No one had actually done any research on rubber for climbing shoes at that point. Climbing was just too small of a market, so the shoe companies had only been working with existing rubbers. With my engineering background I knew that it would be fairly easy to invent a new rubber, especially if no one else was working on it. I ended up creating an entirely new rubber compound. That was Stealth Rubber.
ASJ: How did you begin the process of inventing Stealth rubber?
I started by questioning what makes rubber have friction on rock. I came up with a few theories and then went to the Cal Tech library and read all the books on rubber to learn as much as I could. Then I took a bunch of rubber samples to a rubber company and asked them to duplicate the samples. Turns out you can’t reverse engineer rubber. But after reading all those books I could speak the rubber language so I started talking to the chemists at the rubber company about producing my own formula. My first formula was not all that great, but it was good enough. Then I got a call from the rubber factory about another formula I had been working on. They said they had screwed up on the sample but asked me to come check it out anyway. At first I said“No way, just throw it away and make the stuff I ordered.” But I went and checked it out anyway. The rubber was actually significantly better than the stuf I had formulated! So of course my first questionwas, “What did I do wrong?” That wrong formula became right, and we went on researching from there. I got a little lucky.
ASJ: How do you produce new rubber compounds now?
I have a world-class rubber lab 30 feet from my office. I put it together for fivcents on the dollar by buying equipment from eBay and bankruptcy auctions. The big rubber companies were never that interested in us because we didn’t do enough volume. As a result I could only get a new rubber sample made every two months and it takes ten to 15 samples to get a new rubber. Now that I have my own lab I can produce four samples in a day. For the Tom Cruise movie MI4: Ghost Protocol they asked me for a special shoe to climb the outside of the tallest building in Dubai. I made a brand new rubber formula that was ideal for climbing glass and metal in three days and had it on a pair of shoes in two weeks.
ASJ: The first FiveTen shoe was an approach shoe. Why did you focus on making an approach shoe before you made technical climbing shoes?
A climber in Joshua Tree had found a discount tennis shoe in Poland called the “Scat.” It wasn’t a very good name, but it was a good climbing shoe because it had this spongey rubber on the bottom and it was way more comfortable than the EB’s we had been climbing in. It was like a real shoe. They weren’t designed for climbing so the rubber wore out really fast, but they were like ten bucks a pair. All of a sudden everyone in SoCal was climbing in these Polish tennis shoes. So we had this wild idea to put our old EB or Boreal rubber on these Scats. As it turned out, the resoled Scat was a much more comfortable climbing shoe. So that became my original idea for the company. We would make this hybrid shoe with climbing rubber on the bottom that was really comfortable. The term approach shoe didn’t exist at the time, but we ended up making the first one.
ASJ: Beyond the high friction rubber, Five Ten was also the pioneer of several other innovative climbing shoe designs, including the first down-turnedclimbing shoe. The down turned last is now an industry standard. How did the idea come about?
I was bouldering in Red Rocks at the Craft Boulders with Randy Grandstaff and he wasn’t wearing my shoes. So I asked him, “Why aren’t you wearing my shoes? You’re my buddy.” He told me my shoes had so much “rocker” in them that it made it hard to pull in when you’re bouldering because the toes stuck up. So I was like, “What if I made the shoe flat, orbetter yet, what if I make it down-toed?” I got very excited about the whole idea, immediately called my patent attorney, and then drove straight to Wilson’s in Bishop, CA. They made custom climbing shoes at the time. I worked with Tony Puppo and Dan Asay to make the firstprototype of a down turned climbing shoe. Five Ten produced it a year or so later and called it the UFO in reference to when you were falling off of a boulder problem. The UFO also had split velcro flaps whichhad never been done before either. That shoe really put us on the map and began to change the look of the modern rock shoe.
ASJ: What inspired Five Ten to jump into the cycling shoe market?
We had been giving our climbers approach shoes to ride mountain bikes in for years before our first cycling specifishoe hit the market. But starting in 2000 we had a major change when the cyclists really started to discover our rubber. I remember seeing a rider on the cover of dirt magazine wearing our shoes, “Holy cow is that our shoes? Who is that guy? He’s number one in the world!” Soon after we worked with Jeff Steber from Intense Cycles to produce the first bike shoe withStealth rubber.
ASJ: What do you sell more of now, cycling shoes or climbing shoes?
The bike shoe market began very small, but it has doubled nearly every year. It was only a short time before cycling caught up to the climbing market. I am pretty sure cycling shoe sales will top climbing shoes for the first time this yea, and we will definitely have more cyclingshoe models than climbing.
ASJ: Five Ten has also begun to make shoes for other action sports such as slacklining, base jumping and free-running (parkour). How do you decide which sports to dive into?
We found ourselves doing very well in cycling and in climbing but the two disciplines were difficult to markettogether. We began wondering what the two sports have in common. Well, they are both dangerous. It took us awhile, but we finally came up with “Brand of theBrave.” None of the big shoe companies wanted to say that they were making shoes for the world’s most dangerous sports, so we ran right towards these sports and ended up capturing the niche. “Brand of the Brave” became a very easy slogan to apply to what we do. It describes all the sports we do perfectly, and it defines what we want to do.
ASJ: In 2011 you sold the company to Adidas. Why?
I’ve had design ideas for the last ten years that I couldn’t afford to make happen. With Adidas I can make them happen. It was the perfect match. We were doing things that they can’t do under their own name, and they brought in much needed capital. There is a lot of innovation going on now at Five Ten. We’re working on some really beautiful and elegant solutions for a few long-standing design problems. I only felt I could sell the company when I had a good feeling and trusted the buyer. Adidas is athlete-driven and they realize that we are experts at what we do. We have become a bigger company, but no one wants us to diverge from our roots. At this point they are still allowing us to do all the crazy stuff that we always have.
ASJ: What can we expect in the near future from Five Ten?
We will be introducing at least two new and very different technologies into both climbing and cycling soon. We’ll have a new BMX shoe in 2013 and a new climbing design. For this climbing shoe, I used the Anasazi design and pushed it into a wider shape that has the same power, but is more comfortable because your toes aren’t so crimped. This will result in a completely new shape and feel. For many applications, it will be our highest performing shoe yet.
ASJ: Five Ten climbing shoes are made in California, while all other Five Ten shoes are made in China. Will this production plan continue?
Manufacturing climbing shoes is a speciality operation. They are all hand made. I can make far, far higher quality climbing shoes here in the US than in China even though I am going to pay a lot more to make them here. Our company is about quality. We’re never going to be a price point company.
ASJ: What do you think has been the secret to Five Ten’s continued success?
Our key to success this entire time, has been to listen to the athletes. For example, I was climbing in the Frankenjura in Germany with Ben Moon and Wolfgang Gullich. Moon, being the Brit, was making fun of all my products, “Oh yeah, I never climb in your shoes, look at those toes, they are dead flat. I need a pointytoe. Your shoes may work on granite, but they don’t work on limestone. See how I can put my foot in these pockets.” They were all wearing Boreals. So I was thinking to myself, “Fucking pointy toes, I’ll give you some fucking pointy toes!” I went home and made what became the Anasazi. That shoe blew everybody’s mind because it had a really pointy toe. I’ll always listen to constructive criticism about our shoes. I really listen because I know that if I do what is best for the athletes, we will be in good shape as acompany.
NEW FOR 2013