Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Evolution of Plastic.. Metolius Back in the Day

I've been talking to Brooke Sandahl over the last few months about Metolius and how they got started, he kindly wrote up a short piece about how they started making modular holds and how it was back in the day! Thanks Brooke

Evolution of Plastic – Metolius Climbing

Metolius Mountain Products Inc. (now Metolius Climbing) was the first US based company to produce holds / wall tiles / training boards in this country. I believe it was 87/88 we made our first product called Macro Tiles. They were big hexagonal shaped tiles which you could cover a flat wall with. Each one was about 16" corner to corner...we had about 20 different tiles. The mix was quite dry and the texture was very aggressive (i.e. it shredded your skin off pretty rapidly. The actual grips on the tiles were sharp and quite painful too...much like our home town crag of Smith Rock. You must remember, there were only a couple of hold makers on the planet (at this point in time). And they were in Europe, so we didn't really have anything to compare with. Although the texture sucked and the holds were freaking painful...they were super effective & no longer did we have to suffer through winter without any kind of climbing training. We immediately saw that if we could dial in the mix and make less painful holds...indoor climbing could potentially become a huge thing (little did we know how huge). However the real reason we wanted them was for ourselves. Basically to get through the harsh Oregon winter without losing all the fitness you had gained from the previous climbing season. It just so happened, that other people wanted them too and so another branch of Metolius was formed apart from our Metal Shop which produced Slider Nuts and the first TCU's (Three Cam Units, aka mini cams). A big part of the reason that the holds were originally so painful was that we were trying to imitate real rock. Eventually we figured that the edge radiuses should become smoother and our focused shifted to making more comfortable shapes which didn't load the joints like real rock (i.e. save the joints for the real rock).

After we made our Marco Tiles we made a prototype hang board, which a year or two later became the Simulator (currently in its 6th generation and probably the best selling hang board of all time). IT too had sharp edge radii and a texture which was sub-optimal, but we could tell it was going to build contact strength like nobody’s business. Hang boards are super effective training tools for those dedicated enough to use them. We started developing routines and timing each other with stop watches and the whole deal. We were a bunch of training junkies back then, hammering the iron (weight training) and once we had some training specific tools, were into full on into power training and power/endurance training with respect to contact strength (fingers and forearms). After a couple of months in the gym we'd do weighted pull-ups (on the bar and hang boards) and eventually got to where we could do a single pull-up with body weight. For me this was strapping on 3 big plates, plus a few small ones, (45 lb. each big plate, clipped to your harness, your partner would have to help you onto the bar)) and then doing a single pull-up (chin over the bar!). You had to really psych hard for these, but they pretty much defined the term maximal contraction / pure power! We played with all kinds of different routines and edge/pocket/pinch layouts and lots of one arm stuff too. The results were obvious...basically you could get dead strong in the gym over the winter, but you'd lose your footwork/technique to some degree and your head would be worthless for hard leads on real rock...none the less...you could almost start the new season where you had left off the previous year.

Lastly we started working on what we termed "Modular Holds" which could be applied to any wall w/ a tee nut anchoring system, they spun 360 degrees and got better or worse depending upon its orientation. The first "Mods" were super crude, but again highly effective. It was obvious that to really train for climbing...you had to climb. Yes, weight training, hang board training were effective albeit a bit boring...but if you could build a cool wall and put a good variety of holds onto that wall, you'd have the absolute best training venue in the world. And this became our mission. Our production method back then was to shape the holds in clay...yes clay. Then to let in harden to the green state (but not fired in a kiln), we would then take the "green hold" and use polyester resin (catalyzed) and paint the resin on the hold shape and then sprinkle sand onto to it. The sand would stick to the sticky resin and then once the resin went off, we'd have a "moldable master hold" which we could then cover in mold making material. Once we had the mold we could produce a bunch of holds from that one master. Now days you shape in various densities of foam and the pore spaces in the foam give you the texture in negatives. Our original system worked just the opposite, but had largely the same results. We played with a bunch of hold mixes, mold materials, curing agents etc. and spoke with chemist’s at large chemical companies questioning them and trying to get a much knowledge about the resins as possible. Metolius has always been pretty transparent when it comes to sharing technology. I can’t tell you how many “bros” I toured through the hold shop back in the day basically revealing how we did all this. I can think of at least three guys who I toured through the Metolius facility that went home and started their own hold companies. At the end of the day I think this was the best thing we could have done…because it helped the industry reach the “tipping point” way quicker than if we had just horded all the technology ourselves.

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