Approach an industry with the perspective of every level. Think of the owner and the setter, the climber and the pourer. What is it that you are building?
“I call it the 51:49 rule, shaping’s gotta be for me first.”
Ian Powell is an artist. He is a climber, a shaper, a setter, and one Kilter’s two owners. Kilter is one of the largest hold companies in the world. He and his partner Jackie Hueftle have over 50 years of setting experience between them and have become two of the most prominent names in indoor climbing. Their company is an industry landmark.
Their story begins in the 80s when Powell found climbing. By the early 90s he’d begun applying his lifelong love of art to product design, innovating from the beginning in a still-young industry. Fast-forward through 20 years including another hold company started and sold, an art career, and some more colorful pursuits, and Powell returned to climbing. His timing was just before an industry boom, and Powell was older, wiser, and had a new partner. Using years of experience and only the best materials, they turned the opportunity into the industry-influencing Kilter Grips.
Though Kilter is home to Powell’s most successful shapes, it is not the first time he went in on hold design. After working with the Boulder-based Bolder Holds and Straight Up in the early 90s, Powell and one of his original climbing partners, Ty Foose, came together on a new company that would become E-Grips.
Though originally pouring holds out of polyester, “Ty and I knew that the whole industry would be polyurethane holds at some point.” Polyester is delicate and requires care when it is used. Though the cool-to-touch surface of polyester allows for a comfortable grip, Powell said, “You cannot taper polyester holds. Super-tapered stuff has to be urethane so it doesn’t chip.”
This conversion to urethane would change the way climbing holds were built in the United States. The flexible material was resistant to cracking and chipping. This elasticity allowed for each grip to tighten flush against the irregular “real-rock” surfaces that defined the modern climbing gyms of the past. After E- Grips was sold in Powell’s late 20’s, he threw himself into the arts. Following a 10-year sabbatical, Powell would return to climbing hold design with a renewed appreciation for the craft.
“The Spot welcomed me back and gave me a job. Dan Howley, who owns The Spot, is a very old friend. I was cleaning holds, cleaning floors, doing odd tasks, and then one day Dan bought me a piece of foam and said, ‘You should try shaping again.’ By 2012, I was shaping climbing holds behind the climbing wall. Tim Fairfield, an old character in American climbing, called us up one day saying, ‘I heard you guys have a hold company. I hope so, because I have a $10,000 check for you.’”
Powell laughed, “‘Okay, just send us a check and we will make a hold company,’ and so we did. With that check, we molded the first 350 holds.”
As Powell paused, Hueftle, Kilter’s COO and Director of Sales, picked up. Hueftle had been working at The Spot when Powell came on board and had known Powell long before he had disappeared from climbing. She would become the other half of Kilter Grips, spearheading the marketing aspects of the now world-renowned American Grip designers.
Reflecting on their beginnings, Hueftle said, “The first year we had 36 sets. I was the Head Setter at The Spot so when they got the first holds back, I was pretty psyched. I started to set with them and help sell them alongside Scott Rennak.” Rennak was another manager at The Spot, though he may be best known for founding the American Bouldering Series (ABS) and for his much beloved (now-defunct) Crater Holds. These days Rennak spearheads Climbing Business Journal.
Hueftle continued, “Then things ballooned. It ended up with me and Ian and a third partner setting up Kilter as a separate LLC. In 2013 we had 36 sets. In 2014 we added 10 more, and then we added a ton that next summer.”
Over the next four years, Kilter would expand to include their lines of bigger shapes. This was a big step for Kilter and the climbing hold industry. At the time, the only big hold that any gym might save up for was The Boss from Pusher Holds. Kilter would join Kingdom in double-hitting the market with shapes worth well over $100.
Powell said, “We always give Kingdom a lot of credit, they really were the first company in the modern age to release like this. They didn’t do one, or five, or ten big holds. They did something like 40. You just couldn’t ignore it. Nobody could ignore that. And yeah, they were like $200 or $300 which was crazy. Kingdom changed everything.”
Hueftle chimed in, “We had around nine Kaiju at first. They seemed huge at the time. We didn’t even make them in plastic for a year or two because we weren’t sure people would buy them. The foam shapes just sat in Ian’s workshop behind the walls at The Spot. Then we started to see Kingdom’s and that encouraged us to mold them.”
While Kilter waited for molding, Kingdom would show the world that big shapes were possible. Soon, Kilter would release their world-famous Kaiju. Powell continued, “I think it was really lucky that we had two companies coming out with this commitment to such big holds. We were lucky that the market bought them. To me, that started this Golden Age of climbing hold design that only stopped last year with COVID.”
This Golden Age is defined both by modern wall design along with the volumes that detail their features. According to Hueftle, “You want to have lines that people want to look at. When large holds joined the market, fibreglass wasn’t really a common thing. Nicros had some and a couple of wall companies were starting to make bigger shapes, but the technology wasn’t great, so the quality wasn’t great. Bigger fibreglass shapes came along a few years later. The big plastic holds helped people make that leap to spend the money and to expect to see big shapes on the wall.”
Nodding, Powell added, “With the modern gym, you have to have wooden volumes, fibreglass volumes, and big holds. You gotta have something to break up the pattern, otherwise it’s almost ‘two-and-a-half dimensional.’ Climbing wall design has come so far, but if there is a big gap between the macro shapes of the wall and the dots over them, it’s not fully three dimensional. It is something lamer than that.”
To accommodate the disparity between the large shapes of modern climbing walls and the small shapes of older grip design, a new approach was required. For Kilter, their small holds had to be related to their big holds which, in turn, had to be related to the volumes and then the wall itself. Different sized shapes were required to fill the gaps in between. For Powell, this meant working in systems. It meant shaping hundreds of holds that worked with one another to create an aesthetic and flowing route.
By working in large systems, even the new climber could quickly understand what they were meant to be climbing. Kilter joined the International push toward using colour-based route systems. This contrasted with the more old-school tape-based systems that made it difficult to see the route itself. Though old-school climbers might argue that taped routes allowed for greater variety in the setting, it is not the old-school climber that needs to be convinced of climbing’s radness. It is the novice: the new climber that is deciding whether or not the sport is for them.
To that effect, Powell said, “We started pushing clients to grab our biggest shapes for their easiest client. Build V2s with these giant holds that are fun. If we want to grow the industry, we better make sure the V2 climber is thrilled. Not that you shouldn’t make brilliant V10s, but you probably don’t have to worry much about the V10 kid quitting. If big shapes were only for the hard climbs, I think the new climber would feel cheated.”
Hueftle agreed, saying “That is a big topic we address in some of the setting clinics we teach at the Routesetting Institute. You’re creating a system that pulls new climbers in and helps them progress instead of a system of exclusion which has happened in the past. Excluding new climbers does not help your member-base grow.”
Considering the new climber has been instrumental to the development of Kilter’s holds. Comfortable shapes are not only more fun, they can help reduce the likelihood of injury.
Hueftle said, “If somebody gets hurt on their fourth day in the gym, they’ll probably stop rock climbing forever. We–setters and hold designers–have a big responsibility. That means we take what we do very seriously. It means that we cancel holds if we think that they are dangerous or if we missed something about them. We really want to be doing as much as we can to help our customers succeed with their customers.”
Powell expanded on this concept. “There is a valid line among setters, Tonde is the one who pushes this more than anybody: ‘You should be able to set great routes with bad holds.’
Sure,” Powell laughed. “You should be able to win a race with your third tire blown out if you are a monster rally car driver, but you probably shouldn’t start the race with three tires.”
“For me, I take the exact opposite idea and live by it. We should be making holds that are so good, you can’t mess up the route setting.” Ideally, the perfect route exists as a function of both practices. Though a great route can be made of foot chips, how much better could that route be if the holds were meticulously designed for performance?
This consideration for performance comes from Powell’s desire to create a high-value product. He recognizes the sheer cost of climbing holds and is constantly trying to reduce the cost of his products for the benefit of the industry.
Powell recognizes that Kilter’s holds are examples of high-quality sports equipment that will last 10 to 20 years, but, having grown up in a climbing hold industry with price caps around $120, he does understand the sticker-shock in some of climbing’s newest shapes.
To counter this trend, Powell has worked to create greater variability in his grips and spends time working out how he might reduce the costs or, barring that possibility, increase the value of some of their newer shapes. What does that mean? Well, Powell has been working on exponentially expanding the variation of each climbing hold. These are Kilter’s Complex Holds.
This product is Kilter’s solution to maximizing the number of unique grips a customer can get for each hold they purchase. Complex system grips work together so the setter can easily modify the grip to dial in the difficulty they want. At their core they are still individual holds, meaning if you do not wish to use them as blockers, they are simply high-quality Kilter grips. The advantage of their being Complex Holds, however, is that they have been purposefully designed to work in tandem with one another. Normally, blocked holds appear as slots on the wall or only allow the climber to use part of the edge as the blocker slides from the left to the right. This may not be the best use of blocking technology because the climber may wonder why the setter did not just use a different grip instead of blocking the hold. It may be more focused on the look than the function of the block.
The Complex system allows many different ways of blocking that give both aesthetic appeal and specific function. For example, with many of the larger Complex holds, various blockers are designed to allow the climber to use the entire length of the base grip while the blocker simply decreases the hold’s depth. This means one giant feature can be used as everything from a ledge jug to a small incut to a sloping lip seam. Other blockers have cut outs to allow the setter to select the best part of the base grip for the climber to grab or step on–forcing precision in the climb. Due to the fact that they are Kilter, the grips are comfortable, for the texture is fine and the edges have a comfortable radius. As such, the climber is never crimping their life away on the acute corner of some poorly blocked hold.
A person might respond, “That is cool and all, but what is the point? I would rather spend the money on other grips for my competitions and my gym.” As Hueftle explained, “It’s a system that gives you exponential possibilities. I can make a climb a V4, switch the blockers and now it’s a V8, switch the blockers again and it’s V12. Same moves, same base holds, completely different grade of climb. That tool can help you teach a member how to climb better.”
This makes it easy to train someone to climb a harder difficulty by allowing them to become used to the movement of a single climb and make the holds poorer, over time, until they are climbing at level beyond their previous maximum. The skills learned on that one route transfer easily to other boulders or routes.
Perhaps what is more important is the effect that such a product can have in youth competitions. No longer must routesetters create three sets of five boulders for Youth A, B, C categories. Instead, they can spend more time setting one five-boulder-group of high-quality boulder problems and swap out the blockers to adjust difficulty between the age-group categories. This saves time between rounds, both for the event and for the routesetters themselves. To that effect, these holds work in conjunction with other hold sets and function independently. It is not as though every hold must be a blocked hold for aesthetic continuity, but the Complex system gives you more options. By their very design, Kilter Complex holds allow for greater variability and greater potential to create unique indoor climbing.
Imagine Hold A; Hold B; Hold C; Hold D where A and B are base holds and C and D are blockers.
If you combine these in unique two-hold patterns you end up with:
Hold A&B; Hold A&C; Hold A&D; Hold B&C; Hold B&D; Hold C&D. In conjunction with the four original holds that can exist independently of one another, the routesetter has a total of 10 hold options for the cost of 4. Add another set of Complex holds and the number of combinations increases exponentially.
Add a Hold E, for example, and now you have the additional Hold A&E, Hold B&E, Hold C&E, and Hold D&E. Each hold that is purchased is multiplied by the number of holds you already have as each hold is unique. For the climbing gym on a budget or simply trying to purchase as many unique holds as possible, this is incredibly useful. What is even more significant, is that the above principle assumes that you are combing each hold combination in the exact same way each time. If you put these in the hands of a routesetter, the number of combinations are almost as expansive as the routesetter’s creativity.
Though this is a cutting-edge idea that will take some time for setters to understand and adapt to, it is exciting to see indoor climbing in constant development. These are but one of the many projects Kilter is working on developing, but as one of the most unique they help demonstrate the vision for the climbing industry that Kilter is continually striving to actualize in products that will keep us all moving forward.