Storied climber and legendary rock shoe designer Heinz Mariacher is still in love with climbing. And shoe cobblery. The 55-year-old Austrian spends as much time at the crag as he does at the sewing machine. Matching proactive materials, Active Randing methods, and biophysical ergonomics, Mariacher and SCARPA are creating shoes that showcase Mariacher’s expertise. Their common goal: produce shoes perfect for their function. We talked with Heinz from his home in Italy to share a little about how his passion for climbing created a craftsman at the top of his game.
What were your first memories of climbing?
That brings us back to the sixties. Back then Climbers were not considered athletes, but kind-of-crazy-outsiders who risked their ass every time they went to the mountains. Already as a kid I admired them and dreamed about becoming a real climber. After exploring and scrambling up every freaking canyon around my home town, I couldn’t wait any longer, jumped on my small bicycle. and pedaled 20 miles to a real mountain. I was 12 years old, had no idea about the dimensions, and how exhausting the following approach with one mile elevation gain would be. After an endless 4-hours hike I finally found my wall: vertical, big and frightening. I had no climbing equipment, just well-worn tennis shoes and a dream about living a real adventure. I followed some old rusty pitons, challenged several times the absolute limit of my modest climbing skills and luckily survived (later I found out that the route was 5.8).
How did you first get involved with making climbing shoes? What was missing?
In 1981, on my way back from southern France, I met Alessandro Grillo, a local climber from Finale Ligure, who worked together with Patrick Berhault on a very interesting climbing shoe project. After years of suffering in EB’s, worn at least 4 sizes under street shoe size, I liked their idea of a roomier and more comfortable toe area. I got a little involved with testing, and accomplished [with these shoes] some great new ascents in the Dolomites. Shortly after I was contacted by a very small shoe manufacturer who had been trying to build climbing shoes, but with very little success. Older generations still remember the model “Mariacher” which was the beginning of a very long collaboration that changed everything for the company and also for myself. Over the years I developed many climbing shoe models, changing the basic way of thinking from “how to make your feet work with climbing shoes” to “how to make climbing shoes work with your feet”.
What are the virtues of a good climbing shoe?
As I mentioned earlier, a good climbing shoe has to adapt to the foot and not the other way around. The big challenge is how to combine precision with the flexibility that is needed to adapt to the changing foot shape during climbing movement. There’s also the problem that precision depends on support, but also on sensitivity. I’d say the art of making a good climbing shoe is to combine all these properties that are in conflict with each other. There will never be a perfect solution, but only good compromises, because getting the maximum in one aspect goes at the cost of the others.
How has the evolution changed since you started mixing rubber and leather?
In the past it was all about precision in the toe area and nobody cared that much about the rest of the shoe. In actual times the heel fit is getting equally important as a precise toe area. In addition there’s less tolerance for suffering; climbers expect comfort and precision at the same time.
You’ve been working with SCARPA for some time now, and seem as determined as ever to continue producing top end, functional shoes? Where does the commitment come from?
Climbing is still the center of my universe and, as long as I’m a climber, I like the challenge to get as close as possible to the perfect climbing shoe. It’s fun to play around with rubber tensions, tweak on new lasts, make different materials work together and then test climb new prototypes on rock. I also enjoy working with a great team, really nice people that I respect a lot.
What’s in the future for you?
Man, that’s a serious question! How would I know, I just live the day, enjoy climbing, the Dolomites, delicious Italian food and never refuse a good bottle of wine.