By John Burgman, Senior Editor
There are more hold brands in the CBJ directory than ever before. And since 2014, CBJ’s Grip List has been a tool that provides insight into which brands routesetters are finding particularly useful in a given year.
But this year’s Grip List is not just the usual annual roundup of hold companies ranked by the routesetters. With a new “People’s Choice” category, the Grip List is also a gauge of what shapes and styles the more casual climbers are enjoying. Also, at the suggestion of long-time shaper Ty Foose, voters were allowed to pick their top three favorite companies with an allotment of five points for their absolute favorite, four points for their second favorite, and three points for their third. CBJ is confident that this tweak to the format, minor as it might sound six years into the Grip List’s surveying, has ultimately made the results more comprehensive and more informative.
If there are any broad takeaways this year, it is that the hold industry is booming. There were 61 separate brands that received at least one vote, with the top five brands receiving over half of the tallies. And the volume industry—if there could be such a designation—is competitive too, with 25 separate brands receiving at least one vote.
But keep reading for more subtle takeaways too.
Teknik is in the midst of its 20-year anniversary. Climbing on plastic has evolved a lot in that span of time, so it’s impressive that the Canada-based company has been such a mainstay at the top of the heap. Teknik has also taken the Grip List’s All Time Favorite award (in 2017), and in terms of Grip List survey responses, does not show any signs of slowing down with shapes that are, according to one voter, “simple and highly functional.” In the past year alone, new sets released included the Slippers, Duck Pods, Deep Pockets, Flat Pinches, Curled Edges, R Series, S Series, and a host of other shapes. Upcoming releases for the current year will include Longy Long Fat Pinches and Fatty Fatty Fat Pinches—both sets of which are expansions of older series—and an entirely new series with Ridgelines, Skylines, and other holds.
Zoe Johnston, who co-founded the company with husband Seth, said of Teknik’s success and longevity: “[Seth and I are] both still active climbers, still keeping current after all of these years. Seth started climbing in 1987 and I began in 1989 and have been obsessed with indoor climbing from the start. We still really love climbing—and most importantly, holds! And I think that our long term experience and deep understanding and love of holds comes through in our shapes. We try to make sure that anything we make will be a ‘must have’ for a gym’s collection, will serve a nice purpose within our line, and most importantly will be fun in some way.”
One voter agreed with that sentiment of Teknik holds serving certain purposes, saying, “The simple designs are multi-purpose and allow for fast tweaks and edits during forerunning.”
In fact, a number of routesetters repeatedly used the words “simple” and “clean” and “functional” when describing what makes Teknik’s holds so preferable in a gym.
Perhaps one voter said it best by stating that Teknik “continues to be the bread and butter of many routesetting programs across all types of grips.”
4. ROCK CANDY
Part of the appeal of Ohio-based Rocky Candy is not just their holds (which are “the best quality to price at the moment,” according to one voter), but also their consistent promotion of routesetting as a craft and career. Rock Candy hosts multi-day routesetting educational clinics at gyms, and their Support Your Local Routesetter program includes providing holds (for free) to gyms that host competitions.
Still, the foundation of all this is that the company consistently produces holds that routesetters enjoy and find useful. The brand’s pinches and Champs XL jugs—as well as the brand’s customer service—received particularly rave reviews from Grip List voters this year.
“The plastic is bomb-proof,” said one voter. “And most importantly, their hold selection is solid. Not a single set of holds comes with a dud. Where some companies go for quantity, Rock Candy goes for quality.”
Another voter also praised the customer service and hold variety: “Rock Candy has very affordable holds that ship quickly to accommodate our [gym’s] sporadic budget. The shapes have been very versatile across angles, which serves us really well with a smaller hold inventory. The affordability means we have been able to introduce bigger shapes to our climbers while still staying within budget. The Mesas, Diatoms, Sledges, and Buckets have been particularly great.”
Flathold has held firm near the top of the Grip List since earning second place last year and third place in 2017. The Swiss brand is well known in the climbing industry for its goal of creating movement rather than just shapes, and this was evident in the comments received during the Grip List voting period.
“They’re subtle, directional, and give routesetters the ability to set outdoor, fricton-style climbs,” one voter noted of the shapes. “No other company does that quite as well.”
In fact, an interesting detail for this year’s Grip List was that a number of routesetters specifically cited Flathold’s “outdoor” style, when it comes to shapes, as part of the brand’s main appeal. The Electric Flavor and dual-tex Damage Control were two shapes specifically praised during the voting period. Voters also voiced appreciation for the company’s bolt hole plugs.
In 2018, the company released a full range of 105 new holds (known as the Creature of Comfort series) in Europe, and all those holds are currently scheduled for North American production later this year. Yet, Flathold’s co-owner Mathieu Achermann noted to CBJ that the shapes and the series that the company is proudest of are those that are yet to be released—those that are still being developed in the workshop. “We already have around 60-70 new shapes to complete the range of Damage Control,” Achermann specified. “All those shapes are now in the molding process, and we will present them at the end of this year.”
Undoubtedly some of the biggest news to come out of this year’s Grip List results was the ascension of Cheeta. Not only was this the first year that the French brand broke into the Grip List’s coveted Top 5, but it rocketed to earning the number 2 spot.
Some of that surge in popularity is likely due to Cheeta’s prevalence on walls at IFSC World Cup competitions, as some voters praised Cheeta shapes for being well-suited for setting “comp-style” boulders in the gym. Dual-tex was another preferable feature cited by voters, with specific shapes such as the company’s huecos and the pockets getting mentioned too.
“The more I use them, the more I find out about how they were designed, the more I see how much can be done with them,” explained one voter. “There are no better holds on the market for producing interesting climbing at all levels.”
Another voter stated, “Cheetah is producing some truly outlandish holds that are really killer looking on the wall and also incredibly functional. The Urban jugs are fantastic for setting comfortable flow routes, the Boomerangs are super sick-looking and great for setting tension (plus, they just expanded the line massively to include neat jugs and really slender toothpick-looking edges). It’s great to have more European shapes hitting the U.S. market.”
Canon Huse, the director at Premium Holds and Volumes (which distributes Cheeta holds in the U.S.) told CBJ that Cheeta has been doing a lot lately to expand its American presence. Efforts have included sponsoring USA Climbing and having a Premium representative at every USA Climbing competition. And Cheeta’s mastermind, Laurent Laporte, visited the U.S. and taught two setting clinics last year. “Since the beginning, [Laporte] has always been trying to push the limit of what kind of shapes you can make,” said Huse. “He wanted to make shapes for the World Cups that created movement that had never been seen before. Not just singular shapes, but shapes that interact with one another. This has led to some of the most classic Cheeta shapes such as the Ball volume, Craters, and most recently the Sky Ball. One of the things that makes the shapes stand out is the use of dual-tex on almost every single hold. Designed with a purpose, it is both functional and aesthetic.”
For the fourth year in a row, Boulder, Colorado-based Kilter earned the top spot on the Grip List. And while Kilter, under the creative guidance of founder Ian Powell, consistently receives reviews in the annual Grip List survey praising the uniqueness and creativity of its shapes, it was the comfort of Kilter holds that seemed to garner the most praise from voters this year. Those routesetters surveyed specified everything from the dual-tex surfaces to the ergonomics shapes and the directionality as reasons for Kilter’s dominance yet again (the brand having also won in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018). And, the fact that Kilter has a massive catalog of holds (“over 4,000 shapes in many styles, innovative, comfortable,” a voter noted) was acknowledged as well.
“Kilter makes the most comfortable grips on the market, period,” said a voter. “Ian Powell is constantly pushing the limits of plastic—especially with Kilter’s new modular tufa system, or their complex blocker series, or with screw-on plates that can subtly change the contour/texture of the face of a volume. While still offering holds for every conceivable need, they still maintain the highest quality, comfort, and aesthetic design that makes them a joy to set with. Kilter’s the best.”
But the company is hardly resting on its back catalog of older shapes. It released 764 holds last year, and has already released 328 new holds this year. One of the most noteworthy releases recently was the modular Smooth Tufa system—150 linear feet of climbing holds that connect in a myriad of ways. The system includes a number of different shapes, including pinches, slopers, jugs, incuts, edges, wedges, and end caps. “These new shapes break up the monotony of climbing walls and help gyms get away from dot-to-dot climbing,” Ian Powell, founder and co-owner of Kilter, told CBJ. “People are building 6 million dollar gyms and filling them with little lumps, and it’s up to us as shapers to step up and fill these expensive, well designed spaces with a quality of hold that matches the quality of the walls.”
Also of note is that Kilter officially launched its adjustable Kilter Board in partnership with Aurora Climbing and built by Lemur Designs; customers can also build their own wall or choose from several other wall manufacturers. Before finalizing the set, the company spent over a year developing more than 800 shapes and tweaking layouts for its version of a system board.
“We spend most of our money on foam and molding,” Hueftle said of Kilter’s craftsmanship. “Ian [Powell] and Peter Juhl are still improving as shapers because the more you shape the better you get. They end up desperate to mold as much as we can get molded because they know the newest sets are that much better and more exciting than the oldest ones. Like typical sculptors, they always feel the strongest about their latest work.”
There was definitely no gimme for this year’s All Time Favorite. Last year proved to be a close battle between Kilter and Teknik (with Kilter emerging victorious by a single vote), and this year saw those same two brands emerging at the top. But nipping at their heels were Cheeta and Rock Candy, which tied for the third-place slot. Flathold, Kingdom, and eGrips were near the top too.
So, while Kilter is once again crowned the Grip List winner and Teknik is given the runner up award for 2019’s All Time Favorite, one can’t help but wonder if this long-standing coupling of Kilter and Teknik might get shaken up next year. We’ll just have to wait and see (and count the votes).
For a third consecutive year, routesetters voted Canada-based Dimension as their brand of choice for volumes. With a staff of eight people, Dimension creates volumes that are used in gyms—and the highest level of competitions—around the world.
Louie Anderson, who represents Dimension in the U.S. market, noted that the company made more than 2,000 volumes in 2018—and he estimates that the current year will easily surpass that output. Since all Dimension volumes are produced on a made-to-order basis, the brand is working on expanding its staff and facilities in order to shorten turnaround time for orders this year.
It is worth noting that Blocz earned the Runner Up spot in the Grip List’s volume category—and the total votes were really close (separated by only 2.88 percent of the votes). And, together with Dimension, the two brands earned 50 percent of the total vote. So, it’s clear that Dimension and Blocz are the go-to volumes for routesetters around the country who participated in the Grip List survey.
While the routesetters are the ones setting the routes at gyms, they are factually only part of whole routesetting equation. There is an entire other segment of people whose opinions on holds and shapes matter: the gym patrons. For that reason, CBJ decided to do something new this year for the Grip List and unveil a People’s Choice category for voters who are not necessarily routesetters. Our laboratory for study was The Shape Gallery at Wooden Mountain during the week of the Climbing Wall Association Summit, where anyone and everyone could climb on holds from a host of more than 20 companies and then vote for a favorite.
The company that took the winning spot—Grizzly Holds—is brand new to the market, having launched at this year’s CWA Summit. It is rare for such an upstart company to have such a large, immediate impact. (And, it should be noted, Grizzly is not an American company. They are based headquartered in Milton, Ontario, Canada, although the shapes are poured by Aragon in Colorado). Grip List voters expressed an immediate liking of Grizzly’s “simple” shapes and hold variety.
Grizzly is the brainchild of co-owners Anthony Richard and Tom Wojtkowiak, who started the company because it seemed like a great way to blend their business aspirations with their mutual interests in climbing and routesetting. Their initial line was five hold sets, which resulted in the production of 173 total holds—a modest number in comparison to the output of some other brands, but Richard notes that plans are already in motion to release four additional sets in the coming year.
“We have some big plans for this year, and we are psyched to get as much out to the world as we can,” Richard said.