Interview with Ueli Steck
The trust: Ueli Steck and Scarpa discuss their symbiotic relationship of innovation and design.
Literally coming off the heels of their latest collaboration, the new Rebel GTX Carbon alpine boot, speed climbing supercharger Ueli Steck and SCARPA answer a few questions about their decade-long relationship of designing, building and testing the best mountain boots, and how it pertains to the changing state-of-the-art in alpine climbing.
[For SCARPA:] Being a really good climber doesn’t necessarily make someone a great product designer. What makes Ueli stand out as a contributor to SCARPA product design? It is essentially a matter of feeling, and then a lot of experience in mountaineering and climbing. When you feel and use the product as Ueli does, you can also easily imagine it. And what our R&D needs is to make feelings and ideas concrete, and create a product that can be part of the action itself. Ueli has this kind of sensitivity and we firmly wanted him to share it with SCARPA.
[For Ueli:] You’ve actually been working with SCARPA for a while. How long? How did that relationship come about? It started in about 2001. It was actually Romolo Nottaris who supported me first. It was not just a business decision; it was also a personal feeling, which was always very important from the beginning.
[For SCARPA:] What does SCARPA expect from Ueli as a design consultant? How do you use his feedback? His feedback is now extremely precious for us. First, from a strictly technical point of view, we try to create a product which can satisfy the needs of one of the greatest mountaineers ever, and, we also try to understand deeply its sense of speed and lightness.
This last point is one of our main goals: if Ueli and his ideas become a sort of icon in the mountaineering world, this is what we would like to have happen to our products as well. Quality and performance of our products and style are great strengths of our brand, and every day we aim to reach the highest levels.
[For Ueli:] What initially drew you into collaborating with SCARPA? What is the first product you were involved with? The first prototypes I got were the Phantom Light and the Phantom 8000. Erhard Lorethan and I got the shoes just when we went to the north face of Jannu for the first time in 2002. SCARPA managed to build them after the first Phantom Light and Phantom 8000 for the market, which was based on these prototypes. It is pretty nice to see that many other brands are making these types of shoes now. The first season SCARPA came out with them, everybody told us they’re never going to sell, that it’s just something for a very special interest. And now lots of people sell them. It is always hard to bring changes into the market.
[For SCARPA:] Ueli was quite involved in developing the midsole/sole platform on the new Phantom collection. How did his involvement affect and direct that project? Sensitivity, insulation and lightness are the main goals Ueli wants to work on. Due to the fact that these parameters have very different characteristics, it is often difficult to combine them together. In such a combination process, SCARPA can show its know-how and its ability in developing a product. This positive cooperation enables us to create a product that can provide a real innovation and benefit for the user.
[For Ueli:] You’ve been really involved with the new midsole/sole design (and its success) on boots like the new Phantom collection. What was your involvement around that project? What did you want to see SCARPA achieve? What do you think of the results? I was quite involved in the Phantom Ultra and Phantom Guide. The Ultra came definitely only on my demand. Everybody at SCARPA was afraid of the light sole. But that’s what I was looking for. The Phantom Ultra and the Phantom 6000 are very good boots. I also needed some time to convince SCARPA to use the lighter sole on the Phantom 6000 and to use a system to have an automatic crampon. It’s sometimes difficult to make someone understand what exactly we need for climbing. To make the best shoes you can’t always make decisions based on the commercial and production side of the business. You have to find the production solution for the shoe, and you have to find the marketing solution to make the market understand the product. Sometimes it is really hard to bring new ideas. People always think what they used for the last ten years was great. They first need to feel the difference, and for this they have to wear a new product.
[For SCARPA:] What about Ueli’s contribution is unique, and how does that keep SCARPA at the forefront of alpine and climbing product design? We are currently assisting the growth of a new great generation of climbers whose approach to the discipline has radically changed from the past. They do not only climb hard, but they are also changing the way in which this sport is conceived.
Ueli isn’t just a fast climber. He applies his style of speed- and ultra-marathon level endurance to mountaineering that is as revolutionary as Reinhold Messner’s introduction of alpine-style climbing to the Himalayas in the 1970s. Steck is, in effect, creating a new sport, shattering speed records by moving faster over snow, rock and ice than most climbers can imagine.
For SCARPA to be a part of this new “innovative generation”, and have the opportunity to be linked to Ueli with our products, gives us a unique possibility to share our passion for the innovation and for this sport. Eventually, his time record for any given climb may be beaten. The contribution of Ueli gives our company once again the possibility to establish new milestones in history.
[For Ueli:] Where do you get your ideas for product design? Is it something you consider after a trip with regard to things that didn’t work as well as they could, or do ideas come to during actual climbs? Or both?
My vision is actually to combine trail running shoes with mountaineering boots. That’s all you need. Having a warm trail running shoe to climb Everest would be so great. For a technical face you need a climbing shoe that is warm enough. It’s simple. I just try to look at other sports to improve mountaineering boots. I think we can learn a lot. If you look at cross-country ski boots, they are very light and stiff enough to use crampons.
[For SCARPA:] What are the biggest rewards and hurdles with this kind of partnership? The chance to live every day with intense passion of our work, to interpret our mission as a footwear company in a very important, contemporary way, and to imagine and develop products for the climbers of the future. Ueli today represents the future of mountaineering, and the most ethically respectful climber ever.
We ask ourselves during the R&D meeting section “what does it mean for a footwear company to be focused on innovation?” Traditionally, in the climbing world, records were fixed. When a team or soloist bagged a first ascent, that was that. The route could be climbed again, climbed faster, or in a different style, and off course, with very innovative products. But the first ascent stayed on the books. Time-based records, like those in running, only hold until someone faster comes along.
SCARPA has been trying to push the limits of our products for 74 years, and set new standards with the cooperation some of the most important climbers in the world. I’m sure our company, with Ueli Steck at the moment, reaches the highest levels.
[For Ueli:] How does helping design products affect your own climbing experiences?
A lot of ideas come from the fact I did these speed ascents. I needed something light and very precise to climb. And I really don’t like to suffer. Shoes make your life much easier.
I don’t like heavy boots. Think about your normal life. If you wear comfortable shoes at your home, why can’t we build shoes for mountaineering that are also comfortable enough for watching TV? This is what we have to think about. There is still a lot of work, and I hope I get the chance to work on that. I reached a point in my climbing where I cannot improve a lot more; I just can climb another project. I won’t have these mind-breaking changes anymore. Speed climbing is normal now. When I started, everybody thought I was on drugs to be that fast. I am looking for new challenges in my life. Building mind-breaking shoes is very interesting.