Heinz Mariacher’s biggest impact on climbing might be on climbers’ feet—he’s the wizard behind many groundbreaking climbing shoe designs, and likely the only shoe designer most climbers know by name. But his beginnings in shoe design sprang from an intense passion for the sport, and the hard, bold routes he has climbed on the foreboding limestone peaks of Italy’s Dolomites.
Mariacher grew up in Austria, near the Brandenburg Alps, and found climbing on his own. At age 12, he pedaled his bike 20 miles to a mountain, hiked up 5,000 feet, and free soloed his first climbing route in his tennis shoes, following some old rusty pitons. He later found out the route was 5.8. From there, he only got stronger and bolder. At age 18, he was soloing long routes 5.10 and higher in the Dolomites, and in 1979, he spontaneously decided to onsight free solo the 5.10b Solda-Conforto Route on the Marmolada, a feat well ahead of its time.
By the 1980s, Mariacher had embraced sport climbing—even becoming one of its pioneers. He and Roberto Bassi placed the first bolt from above—for the express purpose of sport climbing—at Arco, Italy, which would become one of the world’s sport climbing epicenters (if not the sport climbing epicenter). In 1981, he began testing shoes with some fellow climbers, and realized there might be another way to climb besides the custom at the time—which was wearing EBs fitted four sizes too small. A small shoe manufacturer struggling to develop a climbing shoe line contacted Mariacher, and he began to design shoes for them, the first being the legendary “Mariachers” in 1982. Mariacher added an instep strap and higher heel banding than contemporary shoes, making them more snug and comfortable, giving climbers vastly improved control. Those who tried the Mariachers saw the light—the four-sizes-too-small days could be over.
Mariacher continued to climb hard and put up new routes at sport crags as well as in the mountains—his 1982 5.11d route on the south face of the Marmolada, Tempi Moderni, has withstood the test of time and is still considered an all-time classic. His days climbing continue to be as important to developing shoe designs as his days in the shop.
“I love climbing, and to feel the rock under my toes in the most perfect way is an important part of it,” Mariacher says. The ability to climb hard technical routes — today he climbs 5.13 — gives him an eye into how to develop and improve designs, with performance coming first, as he says. Mariacher was, and still is, often the first to discover and develop new concepts like pre-tensioning, slingshot rands, and most recently, tensioned rubber to control the forefoot area in four different configurations: X-tension, V-tension, Bi-Tension and Tri-Tension. At the crag, he tests concepts and dreams up new ideas, with function always at the front of his mind.