I still vividly remember the day I bought my first pair of climbing shoes. The first thing that hit me was the leathery smell that wafted out as I opened the crisp box lid and saw the shoes packed carefully in white tissue paper like some sort of perfect Japanese melons. The light disappeared into the blackness of the new rubber soles, and the laces begged for immediate bondage.
But, as much as I loved the physical stuff in the box, what was most exciting to my 15-year-old mind was the very idea of what the shoes promised: Climbing! Adventure!
Breaking in new climbing shoes is a ritual, and I’d read that the best way to break in new shoes was to get them wet and then wear them around (this is actually horrible advice, but on par with the other advice I was getting as a teenager). I started with taking a shower while wearing the shoes. My mom is still annoyed about the black marks the soles left on the shower stall walls; she just couldn’t understand how they got there. (You can friction off of even wet tile if you try hard enough.)
After getting them good and wet, I wore them around the house for another hour. I’d like to say that I then went climbing in them, but it was February in Canada and climbing gyms hadn’t been invented yet. I waited until a day that was barely above freezing and then traversed back and forth on the wall of the local Texaco until the manager busted me in the same hard-ass way he busted skateboarders. Even though the shoes were ridiculously tight, I still ran.
And was back later that day.
Since that first pair of rock shoes, I’ve worn at least another 100 pairs. Shoes have gone from hard boards with edges sharp enough to chop lettuce with to gloves that would put most other primate’s feet to shame. Drop-toes, tensioned heel rands, stickier rubber, Velcro … the list of inventions is endless, but the result is the same: we go up.
A about 10 years ago I was in Italy, and the normally sunny climate turned into some sort of bad Noah’s ark movie. After we’d sampled enough wine to turn semi-pro in the drinking game we had a look at the map and realized we weren’t too far from the SCARPA factory in northern Italy. Unannounced we turned up, and hoped that the powers that be would recognize us as SCARPA athletes from North America. Sandro Parisotto, the big cheese, warmly welcomed us, then took us on a tour of the gleaming factory floor.
An odd thing happened on that factory floor that explained a lot about SCARPA to me. I met a stylish older gentleman cutting thick leather off the sides of a beautiful pair of mountain boots with a big, sharp knife. The flow of Italian was faster and more furious than the driving to the factory had been, but eventually I realized that the old guy with the big knife was Sandro’s uncle, or maybe cousin, but a relative, and he owned a percentage of the company. What I had thought was a some sort of senior-citizen abuse was actually a guy who loved making shoes, and even though he didn’t have to be there, there he was, huge knife flashing inches from his leathery hands.
I often think of that guy when I pull my latest shoes out of the box, inhale the smell of the leather and dream of the climbs yet to come. For I am now sure that climbing shoes have more than just soles, they have souls that appear when you open the box for the first time.
Will Gadd has been a SCARPA team member for more than 10 years. He’s been in the vertical game for a while now, long enough to enjoy that vintage photo of himself from back in 1984.