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Hello Hello Hello

FRB Archived Interview
Clark Shelk

late October, 2002

Clark Clark Clark Clark Clark

FRB: How did you get into climbing Clark?

Clark: I grew up in Portland and in Bend and Redmond, Oregon, which is close to Smith Rock. Back in the day it was THE crag. I'm not sure how I got started climbing but I was really into it once I started in the late 80's.

FRB: Why bouldering instead of
          trad or Sport climbing?

Clark: When I was 15 or 16 I didn't know any other climbers, so I rarely got anyone to belay me on routes out at Smith Rock, so I just screwed around on the boulders. Then I started focusing on bouldering and realized that there was this whole underground bouldering culture within the climbing world. I think boulderers were looking for athletic climbing but something deeper than sport climbing.

FRB: What are your current goals for climbing?

Clark: I'm psyched just going climbing, I don't think I have any projects or big goals, but there are lots of highballs in Little Cottonwood I'm working on now and then. I do have a really big goal that I want to make happen, and that is to develop bouldering itself. This is the type of goal that would take a lifetime, but it means a lot more than doing some individual hard problem. I really believe that this sport can be an activity for just about anyone and all over the world. My first trip to Fontainebleau really opened my eyes to the potential of bouldering. There is perfect bouldering rock all over the world, it's easy to develop a bouldering area, it's a really cheap sport compared to biking or skiing or even skateboarding. It's free. Little kids, adults, old folks, any one can do it, except really, really fat dudes and cripples.

FRB: Have you done any first ascents?

Clark: Hundreds. Maybe only a dozen sport or trad routes, but I love putting up new boulder problems. I can't stand doing the same problems over and over, unless I'm warming up. Most of them are in Central Oregon and Utah, a dozen or so in Hueco, a fair amount in Bishop, too. The stuff around Bend is pretty cool, but each area has about 60 or 70 problems maximum. There are about 8 or 9 areas like that, so no real concentrated area. Little Cottonwood is awesome. If that place did not exist, I would go insane in this town. There are still hundreds of problems to be done up there, if you're willing to do a little hiking. Joe's Valley is another good example of what is out there waiting. That whole range of hills stretches north and south for 50 miles or so and they all have sick bouldering potential.

FRB: Where and what were you doing when
          you got the inspiration to start Cordless?

Clark: In 1995 I was using one of those haggard duct-tape and carpet jobs for a pad, so I drew some designs while I was staying at a friend's house in Boulder. When I got back to Oregon, I went and bought a cheap sewing machine and some fabric and made a pad. Another friend of mine saw it and asked if I could make one for him, too. So after that I made 15 or so pads, a bunch of chalk bags and drove my van down to Hueco and sold the stuff out of the trunk. When I got back home, everyone I sold a pad to in Hueco had 4 or 5 friends who wanted one too, so I thought I should start a company.

FRB: Why did you move to Salt Lake?

Clark: I came out here in 99 because it's just cheaper and easier to run this company here. Plus the climbing in this area always got me psyched and I had been climbing in Oregon for over a decade and I wanted to see something new.

FRB: How many employees do you have?

Clark: 10 or so, that's for all three companies.

FRB: How many pads do you make in a week?

Clark: Sorry, chief, I can't tell you that kind of info. Let's just say there's a lot.

FRB: What part of the country do
          you sell the most to?

Clark: All over, California, Colorado, New England and the east coast, Canada, Japan... those places do the most.

FRB: What do you sell the most of?

Clark: Crash Pads of course, the holds move really, really well, and the S7 clothing is going off, too.

FRB: How do you constantly innovate new
          and better bouldering gear?

Clark: I just sit around and think a lot. I think about what would be a really cool piece of gear and try to make it happen, usually it comes out of necessity. Another consideration is the people who would buy it. For example, I could make you the most high tech brilliant crash pad ever, but it would cost you $1000. So when I make something, It has to be the best for $150 or so. Climbers don't have a lot of dough.

One thing I can't stand is the shameless knockoffs. I'm not saying we invented climbing holds or crash pads, but we put a lot of time, money and effort into our gear: paying shapers for new holds, making protos of new pads, etc. because we want to keep this gear and the sport evolving. But sometimes it just seems futile to continue to do what we do when there are so many companies waiting to copy our latest stuff and do a half-assed job copying it. I wish the other companies would take some pride in what they're doing and be original. I mean, is there that little imagination in the industry? It's just pathetic.

FRB: What kind of product testing do you do?

Clark: The basic rule is: Beat the Holy Living Jesus out of it. Not very scientific. I'll just make up a few prototypes and hand them off to people and tell them to give me their opinions. Foam is a little more complicated.

FRB: How did you hook up with Pusher?

Clark: I had known the Pusher guys for a few years, and when I moved the Cordless to Salt Lake they had space for rent next to their shop. About 7 months after that we decided to team up, because we had different products but a similar view.

FRB: What about S7?

Clark: In early 2000 we started talking with Ben Moon about distributing his S7 line here in the US and now the clothing is getting off to a good start. All three of these companies started in three different areas of the world but with the same vision of producing products for bouldering.

FRB: Pusher has been controversial in the
          recent past, can you shed any light on
          the subject?

Clark: Controversial how? We're not Penthouse or Juggs magazine, we're not telling the youth of America to worship Satan, we make climbing gear, people, chill out! True, we have put a lot of money into promoting our companies and bouldering in general by doing a lot of advertising, a lot of internet coverage, throwing parties, sponsoring climbers and sponsoring big comps like the PCA, but I think the slander is limited to a small amount of people who like to shit on anything that's not theirs or that they don't understand. Nowadays those people are called "haters", they just try to bring you down because they're jealous. That kind of cynical mentality has existed forever in the climbing world, only the target changes.

What people should understand is that for us, this bouldering thing has been one of the dominant forces in our lives for years and years. It stopped being a hobby a long time ago. We want to promote this whole bouldering movement and only now that we are more visible are people commenting on it, nobody complained and nobody was trying to ride our momentum when we were doing this in a garage. It's something that no climbing company has ever tried on this level and naturally a lot of people are wary.

There are also a lot of crazy rumors about us personally. Really bizarre rumors. Actually, I think they're funny, especially the one about me stabbing someone at a trade show.

FRB: Is Pusher on shaky ground financially?

Clark: More Rumors. I've been hearing that about almost every other climbing company for years. Why is Boulder such a breeding ground for retarded rumors? There is so much cool stuff to do there, why do people waste the time with pathetic gossip.

FRB: Is one chalk better than another?

Clark: The chalk they use in schools is better for drawing dead-guy-chalk-outlines. No really, try it next time you see a dead guy. Climbing chalk just comes down to personal opinion, but Pusher chalk is of course the best.

FRB: What are some of your favorite climbing gyms?

Clark: The Front in Salt Lake rules the world. They are one of the first gyms to take indoor bouldering seriously. I'm really psyched to see The Spot Gym open up in Boulder, it looks like they have put a lot of effort and money into taking climbing gyms to the next level.

FRB: Where are some of your favorite
          places to climb/boulder?

Clark: I really like clean granite so Little Cottonwood and Yosemite, I've never been to Squamish. I like sandstone a lot, so Joe's and the stuff in Colorado. I like the ambiance of being in the woods, too, so Flagstaff, Little Cottonwood, areas around Mammouth Lakes. Hueco is awesome, not only for it's climbing, but the fact that for years it was the headquarters of what was going on in American bouldering. It was cool to have a community from all over the country hanging out in the middle of the desert and having a good time. But in my opinion Fontainebleau is the shit. The quality and quantity of what's there and the way that bouldering has evolved there is incredible. Too bad it rains so much.

FRB: What are some things you don't like
          about the bouldering scene?

Clark: One of the main things that is taking the soul out of bouldering is number chasing. The type of mentality that if it's hard then it's automatically better than other boulder problems, or you're cooler than other people if you can do those hard problems, or that V13 or V14 or V20 is the main goal of this sport. That's the sport climbing mentality that turned a lot of people off and made them pursue bouldering. Of course problems of the highest difficulty are important, but there are a lot of other aspects of bouldering that are being ignored by having a myopic view that difficulty is everything. Think of it like martial arts: there is a deeper meaning to it than the ability to kick a hole in someone's chest.

FRB: What direction do you see bouldering going?
          What direction would you like to see it go?

Clark: I hope people don't get too tangled up in the "elitist" bullshit. Climbing and Bouldering are participatory sports, not spectator sports. I think when non-climbers or beginning climbers realize that bouldering is actually the easiest, safest and most accessible form of climbing you'll see something phenomenal happen. Look how popular skiing and snowboarding are, but you have to wait for winter, go to the rare mountain that is developed for skiing, pay for a pass, stand in line half the day and freeze your ass off. On the other hand, almost every major city in this country has a free bouldering area within a half-hour's drive, it's a year-round sport and for 200 or 300 dollars you can get all the gear you'll need for years. Most climbers today don't want to see that many people at any bouldering area, but there is more than enough rock to go around in this country.

FRB: Some of the bouldering areas are
          showing evidence of overuse, what
          do you think should be done to mitigate
          or minimize the impact?

Clark: One of the main answers is to keep pad use to a minimum. If it's a 12 foot, straight-up problem, you don't need to pad a 40 square foot area. A good spotter can do the job of 5 pads and make less of an impact. Clean off your chalk once you're done. Stay on trails. Don't pull up trees or plants.

I'm a little jaded on this issue because a lot of areas in Oregon were closed because the BLM or Forest Service wanted to look like they were doing something so they came down on the smallest and least vocal group - Climbers. You can rip around in a speedboat or an ATV or an RV or a mountain bike on all this public land, but ooooooooooohhhh, chalk use is really bad. Yes a lot of climbing areas are getting banged up, but there's a lot of politics involved. But please take care of your crags and join the Access Fund.

FRB: Any words of wisdom for someone
          just starting out?

Clark: Don't get tangled up in the numbers, they are absolutely irrelevant. Try to find something deeper in bouldering, more of what John Gill was trying to communicate. Do your own thing. But if you do get famous, watch out for them groupies.

FRB: Thanks for the interview, Clark.



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