Heinz Mariacher Q&A: Climbing shoe designer listens to his feet for feedback

Despite his own claim that he’s not a “real shoemaker,” Heinz Mariacher is the name behind some of today’s most popular climbing shoes.
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Despite his own claim that he’s not a “real shoemaker,” Heinz Mariacher is the name behind some of today’s most popular climbing shoes.

QA_HeinzMariacher

Early on, he recognized the need to make climbing footwear more comfortable, and now strives on the front lines of the never-ending pursuit of balancing performance with comfort.

He tells us how he got started in the industry, what he loves about the Italian Dolomites and why testing protoypes is the most important step in product development.

How did you get into climbing? 
I grew up in Austria and started climbing at a very young age as a mountain climber. I was attracted much more by pure rock climbing than by real alpinism, where snow and long hikes were involved. I did some stuff in Chamonix, but soon got lost in the Dolomites, to the point that I moved there and have lived there to this day. My concept about climbing was characterized by free climbing long before it got trendy and the Dolomites were the perfect terrain for it. There are 1,000-meter walls you can climb with a handful of draws and sneakers attached to your harness for the descent. Our philosophy in those days was to reduce gear to a minimum and push our limits far from protection.

After visiting Yosemite in 1980, I realized that I could do fast ascents on El Cap and Half Dome, but had no chance to repeat the hard free climbs in the Valley. From that moment I changed my priorities and started to bolt single-pitch sport routes around Arco.

How did you get your start as a shoemaker?
In the ’70s and early ’80s climbing was not as steep as it is now, we climbed mainly on vertical and very technical routes. That's why climbing shoes played a very important role; they needed to be precise and supportive. Our favorite shoe was the EB Super Gratton. We used to wear it four sizes under street shoe size, with plastic bags wrapped around our feet to squeeze them in!

After several years of atrocious pain, I decided to look for something else. It was then that I happened to meet Alessandro Grillo, a close friend of Patrick Berhault, who was developing a new climbing shoe for San Marco, an Italian shoe manufacturer. He helped me to understand many things about climbing shoes.

Modern climbing shoes are definitely a big step forward compared to what we had in the past. The problem is that climbing shoes are not custom made, so the art is to define lasts that fit a variety of feet and then, in addition, use materials that are strong but still have the ability to adapt to different foot shapes.

What is an important part of the shoe designing process for you?
Testing the prototypes personally is a big advantage, because feeling small detail work directly on my own feet is much more efficient than listening to the opinions of other climbers. Of course, I still solicit feedback, but having my own impression makes it much easier to bring everything together. Even after all these years, I don’t consider myself a real shoemaker, but I’m pretty sure I know a thing or two about how to make climbing shoes perform.

What do you see as the future of climbing shoe design?
Just like with running shoes we will see more new upper materials and systems, hopefully there will also be a step forward with sticky sole rubber. Even if climbers get stronger every day, they will still need precision, but sensitivity and comfort will be key. Another changing aspect comes from bouldering and very steep sport climbing — for the new climbing generation hooking is becoming more important than precise toe pointing. Top performance shoes need much more rubber coverage than in the past. There will still be a strong request for all-around models, but many climbers will have several models in their quiver, for different kind of routes or boulder problems.

--BJ Sbarra

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