In the world of climbing, coming up with a game-changing, nay, life-changing, invention like Stealth Rubber was like inventing the Internet.
Sure, many outdoor athletes at the top of their sport have started companies (Royal Robbins, Scott Shipley, Gary Fisher and the list goes on), but people like Charles Cole— true innovators who elevated not only their own sport but affected outdoor play forever in so many sports—are pretty rare. They tend to be at the top of their game, in whatever chosen discipline of pain and fear it may be, and in Cole’s case, that game was big wall first ascents.
And so through his passion for climbing he founded Five Ten: a.k.a. the company that invented sticky rubber, invented the first approach shoe, developed the first down-turned climbing shoe (The UFO in 1991), the first women’s climbing shoe, the first pull-tabs on shoes, the first Velcro on climbing shoes and the first water shoe (the Water Tennie).
“Everything we were doing was completely different,” says Cole. “The key to success was to develop a product that was not somewhat better but significantly better,” he explained. “In dangerous sports, where people were risking their lives, people appreciated what we made. It changed the way climbing was done.”
Cole started the company with his mom back in 1984-85, needing to find a job after his father had a stroke and a heart attack. Cole was a top Yosemite aid climber, specializing in solo routes. Despite being a self-admitted climbing bum, he did also have an undergraduate degree in Engineering from USC and an MBA from the University of Michigan.
“It’s the only sport I know of where the shoes can define whether you can do a route or not. In climbing, it’s an absolute certainty your shoes can make you or break you,” says Cole. “Why can’t anyone copy our rubber? First of all you have to be a climber. It’s much easier to teach a climber rubber chemistry than it is to teach a rubber chemist climbing.”
Secondly, Cole said, he was able to put together a million-dollar chemistry lab on the cheap. “All the manufacturing in the U.S. had gone to China, so this machinery was left just sitting around.”
With the original Five Tennie, he launched the “approach shoe” category. His initial goal was to create a multi-use shoe for climbers to wear before and after ascents. In 1985 he began doing serious research and developed the first Stealth Rubber.
Because rubber cannot be re-engineered from the finished product—it requires a secret formula—once he developed the formula, people couldn’t copy it like they could so many other outdoor products of the day like frame packs, tents or down jackets. Since the late ‘80s, Stealth Rubber has been considered the highest-friction rubber available, used by the military, NASA, and even other companies that secretly buy Stealth Rubber for resoling.
His products are protected by more than 10 patents and a secret rubber-research facility in Redlands, Calif. “It’s like Coca Cola—nobody knows the recipe,” Cole says.
Jump to 2013, and Cole has other firsts on his mind. At January’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City, the company was honored with Gear Institute’s Best In Show Award for its new Stealth MI6 rubber. Cole is extremely passionate about this latest innovation and believes it will create another “soft revolution” in shoes.
He initially created this newest, softest rubber for Tom Cruise to scale glass buildings in Mission Impossible 4, and in so doing found it had the most incredible cushioning and shock absorption he had ever developed. According to Cole, dropping a weighted ball on a Vibram sole leads to about a 75 percent rebound; the same drop on MI6 rebounds only 8 percent, absorbing 92 percent of the shock. And, incredibly, the material has the same durability as Stealth S1 or C4 rubber.
“It just has this insane wear residence,” Cole said. “In the lab it measures about 10 times the abrasion resistance of our normal climbing rubber. But I was able to soften it so it has a durometer rating of 48, and most climbing rubbers are in the high 70s. It has this massive friction where if your foot just touches something it will interlock with the surface. People who have put the shoe on don’t want to go back to the old shoes. It’s a pretty big change.”
MI6 rubber will be on Five Ten’s new Team VXi shoes this Fall (the lightest performance competition climbing shoe available at 5.1 ounces per shoe), and the Freerider Pro VXi Element–a winterized all-mountain flat-pedal bike shoe. And Cole sees even more applications on the horizon.
Cole still believes that authenticity is the key to success, especially in the extreme sports world. “Back in ‘85, my mom was in charge of the present. I was in charge of the future. And future is by definition, new.” He adds, “You don’t make a business by winning awards, you make a business by making great products.” No surprise, Cole is also a master in chess and plays tennis and mountain bikes every day. “I don’t like to get caught up in a routine,” he says, “it begins to feel like work. Everything in my life’s a bit tied together. I like doing new things.”
One of those new things included selling his family-run, U.S.-manufactured business to shoe and outdoor giant Adidas in 2011.
“For 28 years, my mind was on Five Ten 80 to 90 percent of the time. The other 10 to 20 percent used to be on tennis. Now I mountain bike every day,” Cole said. For almost three decades he competed against larger companies through innovation, not price wars, and he’s been able to make a critical difference not only in the sport of climbing, but also in paddling and cycling, among other human-powered sports. (“We don’t make fly fishing shoes because you can’t die doing it,” he says.)
“All the innovations I do now, I get to see other people put to great use, and I get a lot of gratification out of that,” Cole continued. “If I can positively change things by an invention, I get really psyched about it. It’s very motivating for me to get it right–just like doing stuff that’s new. I guess that’s why I did so many first ascents.”
As a climber who started a climbing business, Cole couldn’t be happier to relinquish a little bit of control. “I’m still the president. I don’t really consider myself a businessman… I didn’t care about control or some of the things that someone in my position might. If I want to sit around and make rubber all day I can do that.”
This year, however, you might be able to find Cole sitting around his new ranch… if you can find it. He recently purchased what he calls his dream property, situated deep in Dinosaur National Park on the Yampa River, a private adventure playground of rocks, cliffs, trails and rivers—perfect for putting up new routes, and probably trying out a few new sports as well.
Aaron Bible writes about gear for Sporting Goods Business and other publications from his home in Frisco, Colorado.