By Noah Rezentes, John Burgman and Joe Robinson
From an economic standpoint, this year has been perhaps the most challenging in the history of the industry. As COVID-19 swept across the globe, the ongoing pandemic prompted the temporary closures of hundreds of climbing gyms—a phenomenon unlike anything ever experienced in the climbing world, and a challenge that gyms continue to grapple with amid their respective reopenings. And since the sales of most climbing hold companies are made up of primarily climbing gym orders, hold brands were hit equally hard by the COVID-19 crisis.
However, one result of climbers being cooped up indoors for months on end in self-isolation mitigation efforts was a veritable boom in homewall construction, beginning around March. In response, many hold companies shifted their business models to accommodate homewall orders; CBJ even unveiled a Homewall of the Week featurette to profile specific DIY structures.
There are reasons to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel—for the industry at large and hold brands specifically. For example, several new gyms have opened since the COVID-19 crisis began, and a number of other projects from organizations like 1Climb are proceeding on schedule as well.
So how has CBJ’s annual Grip List adapted to the current climate?
In short, we decided to hand out more awards than ever. For the first time, we are holding the Favorite Homewall Holds and Volumes awards, in addition to the classic Setter’s Choice awards—Favorite Holds, All-Time Favorite, Favorite Wood Volumes—and People’s Choice award. On top of surveying professional routesetters of climbing gyms and competitions for the main vote, we gathered the preferences of homewall routesetters as well. Altogether, this year’s Grip List Survey saw the highest voter turnout ever, and more than twice as many routesetters responded as last year. Additionally, hangboards have been flying off the wall right now, and like Fiberglass Macros are now staples of gyms around the world—so we added extra awards for these votes too.
After tallying the results, familiar names kept a tight grip on the Setter’s Choice – Favorite Holds, but there are new feats and surprises beneath the tip of the iceberg:
- One powerhouse became the first hold company to don double-digit awards since the Grip List began in 2014.
- A popular German brand blocked the winning streak of a mainstay in wood volumes.
- Fiberglass macros from Europe are flattening any lingering doubts across the pond.
- At least one hold company is energized from the recent homewall boom.
- A resurging brand nearly enticed enough votes to break up the Big Five.
- And one hangboard maker is setting a new standard for beast mode.
Keep reading to find out your winners of the 2020 Grip List Awards!
#5 Rock Candy (5th year running in top 5)
Rock Candy of Akron, Ohio, has grown significantly in popularity since its launch in 2006. In fact, only one other climbing hold brand has earned more Favorite Holds awards over the years than Rock Candy (6). With the inception of its Support Your Local Routesetter initiative in 2016 and the launch of a hold borrowing program, the American-born company has continued to provide exposure to setters and gyms across the nation. Rock Candy also offers free setting clinics at Rock Mill Climbing, its home base.
That place among the top five favorite hold companies of professional routesetters has diminished slightly though. After placing 3rd in 2018, Rock Candy dropped to 4th in 2019 and 5th in 2020. Since last year, their percentage share of the vote was cut in half (4.8%). But earning a Setter’s Choice award for five years straight makes a lower finish going forward hard to imagine.
Rock Candy fans consistently vote the brand towards the top of the main vote for multiple reasons. Eli Johnson, Head Routesetter at University of Colorado Boulder’s climbing gym, summed up a few of them: “Rock Candy creates flexible and comfortable holds. They do a great job of making holds directional, allowing us to use the same holds for both easy and hard climbs, which is very important for a gym with a limited budget.” The functional Dots extension this year to the beloved Blockus line fit that description, as well as the comfy Champs released last year, Bucket jugs, classic Dents, and varied Brachiopods. Rock Candy also launched Downclimb Rings before the pandemic hit.
Besides being directional and multi-functional, another feature of Rock Candy’s hold business remarked by setters year after year is appreciated off the wall. One voter put it plainly: “really great shapes, turnaround time and customer service.” That practical benefit could explain in part the slight drop in Rock Candy’s share of the vote this year, with hold orders taking longer to ship due to COVID-19-related delays. Right now, the Rock Candy website reads: “All holds are made to order and are estimated to ship within 3-5 weeks of the order date,” which is longer than the ten business days it took for some holds to ship out in February.
We reached out to Rock Candy to get the inside scoop on what’s in store for the future: “We’ve just tried to adapt and take things in stride,” says Nick Muffet, Director of Marketing at Rock Candy. “Climbers are a resourceful bunch and seeing the surge in homewall construction has been inspiring. We’ve done what we can to make sure holds are shipping out so people can keep climbing.”
#4 Teknik (3rd year running in top 5)
A consistent contender in both the main and All-Time Favorite votes, Canadian hold company Teknik Handholds has stood the test of time. With eight Setter’s Choice awards— five Favorite Holds and three All-Time Favorite—Teknik is the second-most decorated hold company from North America. That popularity has only increased since last year, as Teknik rose from 5th to 4th place in the main vote and increased its share by 3 percentage points (8.8%), despite dropping in the All-Time Favorite vote (11.6%).
Well into its 21st year of operation, Teknik is famous for serving minimalistic styles and “bread-and-butter” shapes for indoor climbers to enjoy. As Tony Brengosz, Director of Routesetting at Adventure Rock Climbing Gym, said: “Great line of simple yet dynamic shapes, and a good selection of holds of every type and difficulty.” Comments also included words like “clean,” “classy” and “elegant,” and the footholds were not overlooked by the professional routesetters. “The Loafers might be the best all-around foothold ever shaped,” said Aaron Davis, Head Routesetter at Rockoon Climbing.
Teknik also placed second in the Favorite Homewall Holds voting, which exemplifies the ability of Teknik holds―which range from pinches to pockets, slopers to screw-ons―to excel across multiple skill levels and climbing environments. The brand new Ridgelines, Skylines, Horizon Line and Finite Line debuted at USAC Bouldering Nationals in January, and it’s hard to think of more stylish jugs than the Cobras.
Seth and Zoë Johnston, owners and shapers of Teknik, plan to keep it up: “We [have] four new sets of huge screw-on shapes that we haven’t had the chance to put up on our website yet; they will be added shortly. We actually had released them earlier this year at USAC bouldering Nationals and the Japan Cup, but haven’t really put them out to public yet. We also have a whole bunch of shapes sitting here ready to go for molding. We’re quite excited about these and they should be released later this year.”
They also thanked climbers for ordering holds even through the COVID-19 lockdown: “We are humbled by the number of climbers who love our shapes through their experience with them at the gyms and have chosen to order Teknik for their own wall. All of these homewall orders have absolutely helped Teknik through this challenging time and we couldn’t be more grateful! We are now starting to see the gyms opening again and we hope for the very best!”
#3 Cheeta (2nd year running in top 5)
Although French-based climbing hold maker Cheeta Holds has been around for nearly eight years, last year was the first time we saw them grab a Setter’s Choice award. After a giant leap from outside the top five to 2nd place last year, Cheeta’s share of the main vote (10%) dropped marginally this year. But the staple on IFSC World Cup circuit walls still finished among the top three brands that routesetters consider to be their favorite, was runner-up in the new Fiberglass Macros vote, and took 4th in the All-Time Favorite vote.
Backed by world-class routesetter and shaper Laurent Laporte, the company has continued to make a splash at both commercial and competition levels. Their catalog includes holds for all-use cases, including tiny and sometimes heinous Kalymno Flowers jibs, unique applications of dual texture like on the Planet macros and wooden Boomerangs, stackable Sky Ball volumes, and their famous sectional geometric crack volumes. Distributed in the U.S. by the Premium Holds group, at the end of 2019 Premium Holds announced Cheeta USA, which will manufacture its own wooden volumes in house.
“All of the new Fiberglass from Cheeta has been really amazing,” said Premium Holds Director Canon Huse, when asked about his favorites from Cheeta. “Taji Pinches, Waves, and new versions of the Taji and Taji Bubble have really diversified the Cheeta fiberglass range.”
Laporte’s shapes will be under an even bigger spotlight soon. Before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed to next year, the IFSC T20 Catalogue was released which lists the official holds, macros and volumes for sport climbing’s first Olympic Games at the adult level. Cheeta is the only brand to have all three varieties (holds, macros and volumes) listed in the catalogue. Some of the holds set to appear on the Bouldering and Lead walls in Tokyo include the famous dual-tex Craters and Boomerangs, the beefy Taji macros, and the wooden Ball volumes (not to be confused with the Sky Balls). So why do all-star athletes and gym-goers alike love these holds?
“A great variety of shapes with some very unique designs (see: Boomerangs). Great texture that holds up to abuse and power washing. The dual-tex is some of the best in the industry―very slick, achieves what it’s intended to do. And while the holds are comfortable and ergonomic, they’re also artfully crafted and pleasing to the eye,” summarized Travis Kaney of Focus Climbing Center in Mesa, Arizona.
#2: Flathold (4th year running in top 5)
~Favorite Fiberglass Macros~
Since the North American release of their Tokyo 2020 series and steady involvement in climbing competitions in a number of countries, Flathold—based in Moutier, Switzerland—has been warmly welcomed into the American indoor climbing sphere. 3rd last year in the main vote, Flathold returned to the number two spot it secured in 2018, with a large share of the vote (13%). Also of note is that Flathold is now making a strong showing in the All-Time Favorite vote and tied for second place this year (11.6%).
Flathold’s progression indicates that the brand’s continued efforts in the North American market are resulting in a broader awareness of their offerings by the American hold-buying public, which first gained access to the holds and volumes in 2015. But arguably most indicative of that conclusion is Flathold’s finish in the Fiberglass Macro vote. Flathold gained a whopping 34.9% of the fiberglass macro vote in its premier, more than 20 percentage points above the trailing brands.
The company has made 33 macros and 22 hold families available in North America so far, and many of them are set to appear at the Tokyo Olympics as well. The Creature of Comfort line which began in late 2018 and smooth dual-tex Damage Control holds are among the shapes listed in the IFSC T20 Catalogue, as well as an extensive range of memorable Flathold fiberglass macros. A few names on the list include the Borderline and Golden Leaves, which were introduced at Halls & Walls at the end of last year and became available in February, and the Tsunami series launched in 2018.
Most of Flathold’s voters expressed admiration of the holds’ power to create movement, adaptability, directionality and striking design. “I love the variety and versatility of their holds. You can set technical, burly, or easy climbs…simple or really complex movement with the same hold,” stated one reviewer.
During the COVID-19 period, Flathold’s co-owners Manu Hassler and Mathieu Achermann have been able to work on their upcoming projects, including the dual-tex Lucha Libre series which also previewed at Halls & Walls last year and became available in June. This new hold family introduces the idea of “imperfect” dual-tex to the Flathold line.
“Since we worked a lot during the past months, we should be able to present a lot of different new shapes for the end of this year. We hope to be able to present a second part of the Damage Control range by the end of 2020. Around 100 new shapes with different types of grip will complete the range with more variety,” Hassler told CBJ.
#1: Kilter (5th year running in 1st place)
When Boulder, Colorado-based Kilter released their first holds in 2013, they were a stand-out brand right off the bat, only offering a handful of hold sets. Ian Powell, the renowned shaper behind the brand, made the decision early on to focus on keeping a high bar of quality. He has even retired some of the earliest Kilter holds that no longer meet their standard of ergonomics. The brand is constantly evolving under the leadership of co-owners Powell and routesetting expert Jackie Hueftle, and aided by a team that includes Griffin Whiteside, U.S. sales representative Kiel Mahar, Canadian sales rep Kaleb Thomas, and jack of all trades Anders Rasker, each of whom has set routes at multiple facilities.
This evolution has contributed to Kilter earning the title of favorite climbing hold brand for five years running. No company has more top-five finishes in the main vote (7), and Kilter is the only brand to don double-digit Grip List awards over the years (10). For the third year in a row, commercial routesetters of gyms and competitions voted Kilter their All-Time Favorite brand too. Even with all the chaos of COVID-19, the company’s share of the main vote (16.5%) and All-Time Favorite vote (19.4%) increased slightly from last year.
The love for Kilter is not only felt behind the wrench either. Both setters and climbers have been showing their appreciation in the Grip List survey. In the two years the People’s Choice award has been in existence, Kilter finished in second place both times―despite the shift this year from an on-site to online vote due to the cancellation of the CWA Summit 2020 and accompanying Shape Gallery at Wooden Mountain.
In the past seven years, Kilter has developed a reputation for making some of the best holds around. Commonly cited by voters were Kilter’s constant innovations, ever-growing catalog, and uncompromising design. From the minimalistic Winter series to rock-realistic Granite and Sandstone families, their shapes are praised time and again for their elegance and simplicity. According to Liam Shea of Summit Climbing, “Ian’s rock textures could give Mother Nature a run for her money.”
Kilter is also known for the vigilant attention to detail that comes with having an all-star cast of shapers. Powell’s expertise was again cited by voters, and the company’s Haptic sub-line is developed alongside other well-known shapers Peter Juhl of Urban Plastix, experienced routesetting director Jeremy Ho, and professional climber Jimmy Webb, among others. And with the evolution of 3D scanning and printing technology, Kilter is now bringing Nick Diederich’s High Alert hold―one of the crux holds from Circadian Rhythm (V13) in Colorado―to indoor climbers.
John Marlatt, Wall Manager at Colorado State University’s Rec program, had this to say: “Kilter is one of the few companies to really hit almost every selling point in the hold market. Whether you’re looking for a smooth, modern shape for competition, a finely sculpted realistic texture for aesthetics, or anything in between, Kilter has you covered. Their holds also manage to look at home anywhere, from the largest commercial gyms to the smallest university wall. Their attention to detail and consistent release of new shapes make it my go-to for any order.” Another one of those new releases since the 2019 Grip List was a Downclimb Jug for gyms.
A testament to the value of Kilter holds, from everyday use at gyms to high-level competitions, is that they are the sole North American-bred hold brand in the IFSC T20 Catalogue for the Tokyo Olympics next year. In addition to the Granite and Sandstone holds, the unforgettable Teagan Stalactites―among the Kilter holds used for The Project competition in Stockholm―modular Smooth Tufas and Geo Complex are also in their Olympic T20 holds selection.
Kilter’s take on the blocking-and-stacking concept, titled Complex, continues to expand, with geometric, sandstone and even granite styles. The idea has become increasingly popular thanks to the possibilities the holds provide for routesetters. “Instead of just thinking about shaping holds, what’s interesting to me is shaping holds that fit into sets, sets that fit into styles, and styles that fit into systems,” said Powell.
Favorite Wood Volumes: Blocz
Chemnitz, Germany-based manufacturer Blocz has been producing volumes since 2013. In Europe their rise to fame was swift, but the brand faced significant competition in North America. Last year Blocz missed out by less than one percentage point on overtaking Dimension Volumes of Canada, which had extended its winning streak to three consecutive years. This year though, for the first time since the inception of the Favorite Volume award, Blocz secured the honor with 23.5 percent of the vote. That was about the same share Blocz earned last year, but Dimension’s share fell by eight percentage points.
Many voters praised Blocz’s volumes for their durable-but-semi-fine texture and diverse color selection; voters also liked Blocz’s broad catalog. To date, the company has been expanding their catalog to nearly 100 plywood shapes as well as ramping up production of fiberglass macros and polyurethane holds.
Juliane and Kyle McCoy, who lead Blocz distribution in North America and distribute a number of other European brands, said, “Our favorite series of volumes that we’ve released in the past year are the Bigboards and Megaboards. They are super low-profile, technical, comp-style volumes. Together with the Miniboards, Microboards, and Spears, they form a big family of unique volumes that you can use together.”
Though Dimension fell to second place this year, they continued to maintain a large percentage of the votes (18%). Cheeta, another European volume maker with a global presence, earned third place this year (7%). And it’s worth noting that previous year’s Grip List awards in this vote did not differentiate between wood and fiberglass.
Favorite Hangboards: Beastmaker
Climbing holds and volumes aren’t the only things climbers are gripping in climbing gyms. Hangboards have been used by climbers for decades, and in April we noted that the pandemic and the surge in popularity of homewalls was also creating an uptick in hangboard usage and home training in general. “Amid such uncertainty, it is understandable that homewalls…and necessities such as…hangboards are being seen by many climbers as more certain—and now long-term—alternatives,” we reported.
Other publications became cognizant of hangboarding’s newfound at-home popularity around this time too. Rock and Ice released a guide to hangboard training, and Climbing magazine released a tutorial titled, “How to Make Hangboarding Easier or Harder.” Orbiting around such a profusion of training advice were some interesting happenings related to hangboard production and design that CBJ reported on earlier this month.
It all meant that there was enough verve and momentum in the niche of hangboarding to give hangboards their own Grip List award this year. For its first foray in the annual survey, we wanted to start by hearing from the professional routesetters choosing them for their climbing gyms as well. Voters indicated a wide range of hangboard brand partialities—but it was clear that UK-based Beastmaker was the preference of commercial routesetters.
In fact, Beastmaker earned nearly half of the vote (48.4%), with many voters commenting on the comfortable feel and training advantages of its two classic all-wood hangboards for beginners and elite climbers. “All you need is a 1000 Series and 2000 Series and the facility is all set for hangboards. Wooden hangboards are essential for long sessions on a hangboard and the variety of holds offered by Beastmaker makes it the industry standard,” said Marco Santos, Head Routesetter at Threshold Climbing + Fitness.
Beastmaker also produces wooden handholds and chrome footholds for training boards and homewalls. All the wood used for Beastmaker’s products is certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council, to ensure it comes from forests managed in an “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable manner,” reads the company’s website.
Tension, Trango, Metolius and So iLL all received solid votes. Tension, in particular, earned almost a quarter of the hangboard vote (25.6%). Another interesting note about the voting was a three-way tie for sixth place between Escape, GripMonkeys and Eva Lopez. The presence of all these brands and others means that this vote could become even more competitive in years to come.
Favorite Homewall Holds: Atomik
The inclusion of homewall data in this year’s Grip List gave us an abundance of information related to which brand “people”—meaning non-occupational routesetters—preferred. Other brands—Kilter, So iLL, Teknik, eGrips and Rock Candy―earned a lot of votes, but it was Atomik Climbing Holds that was the runaway winner for two categories: Favorite Homewall Holds (23.8%) and People’s Choice (16.5%). Homewall routesetters also enjoyed Atomik’s mini volumes and larger volumes which propelled Atomik to 3rd place―alongside homemade wood volumes—in the Favorite Homewall Volumes vote (11.5%).
In fact, Atomik has been a staple for routesetters and homewallers alike since its inception approximately 18 years ago. The company produces its popular holds―such as the Golfus and Facet sets, Scoops and Yaniro Pockets―in-house in Provo, Utah. Additionally, the company’s Down Climb Jugs & Rings have long been common sights on the walls at a number of gyms around North America.
Atomik experienced high demand from homewall users during the pandemic, no doubt due in part to the company’s service and prices. Atomik continuously updated their website and social media with shipping information and guided buyers on which items could be shipped the fastest. Cost-effective “Deals of the Day” kept garages, guest rooms and backyards around the country stocked with affordable yet varied and durable holds. “Lightning fast turnaround and great pricing,” summed up Andy Raether, Head Routesetter at Origin Climbing and Fitness.
Atomik’s owner, Kenny Matys, told CBJ that the new Golfus holds―which are shaped by Randyl Nielson―are his personal favorite. “The texture is amazing,” he said. “The design forces the climber on to the Golfus divots. I love it when a design style is what you grab onto.” Matys also hinted that “Water Clear” holds are in the works. A clear polyurethane option would make for a total of 39 available colors, another aspect voters loved about Atomik.
Favorite Homewall Volumes: Stoked
Stoked is run by married couple Travis and Kimberly Williams, who hand-make their products. They operate out of Marceline, Missouri, a town of around 2,000 people, and only employ two other locals to help with volume production. Such homegrown roots belie the reality that the company is a national powerhouse, producing mostly large-scale gym orders. In addition to producing climbing volumes and holds, Stoked makes clothing and handmade chalk bags and sponsors prominent athletes—including American competition star Maya Madere.
But it was the company’s volumes that resonated most with our homewall voters for this year’s Grip List; nearly 15 percent of voters chose Stoked as their go-to volume producer for their home setups. Part of that is likely due to Stoked’s popular “Daily Deal” on its website, which offers discounted volumes. The popularity of Stoked volumes among homewallers is also likely because the company offers “DIY Volumes” that are essentially plywood and hardware kits—“great for the budget homewall.” And the basic geometric shapes of volumes such as the Nose and the Wedge―which come in all sizes, from extra-large down to extra-small―are versatile for the wide array of sizes, styles and angles of homewalls.
Speaking to CBJ, Travis Williams voiced his dreams for the future of his company, including possible forays into more climbing hold production and even overseas distribution. However, he also emphasized his love for small business operations. “I came from somewhat of a corporate world where I didn’t like how things had to get done…I don’t like the big-business side of things,” Williams said.
Williams expressed his appreciation for the homewall community and those who voted for Stoked, saying, “It just shows that we’re doing what we want to do—which is just to get people stoked. Even just that they were thinking of us…that’s pretty cool.”
Stoked also offers homewall hold and volume rental programs―in addition to its commercial rental programs for gyms―that range in price, charged by the month. In other words, it’s clear that Stoked is also one of the leading companies when it comes to altering production and sales to fit the homewall boom; the proof is in the voting.
Even some of the brands that did not make the Setter’s Choice or win other awards deserve mention. For instance, Missouri-based So iLL and Colorado-based eGrips have been among the most consistent companies in the history of the Grip List, populating the top ten for multiple years. Utah-based Pusher garnered enough votes in 2018 to finish in 4th place; however, the brand fell to 6th place last year and finished in 8th place this year. Still, Pusher placed 5th in the All-Time Favorite vote, and its famous Boss hold was recently cited as a favorite by Eddie Morillas, Director of Routesetting at The Front Climbing Club.
Started in 2015, Decoy Holds has experienced a resurgence of late, almost enticing enough votes to break up the Big Five. While also keeping a solid showing in the All-Time Favorite and Homewall Holds categories, Decoy just missed out on a Setter’s Choice award this year by a razor-thin margin of 0.18 percentage points. Head shaper Dan Yagmin introduced nearly 80 new holds in 2020, powering Decoy to a very good finish in the main vote (6th place).
Finally, while Flathold was the clear favorite in the Fiberglass Macro vote, the Premium Holds group still made a strong showing. When combining three of the brands that the company distributes (Cheeta, Squadra, 360 Holds), Flathold’s lead reduces to 6.6 percentage points. Blue Pill and XCult, also based in Europe, performed well in this vote too—the new rainbow-colored Fiber Impressions from Blue Pill (produced by Blocz), for instance, have certainly made an impression. Altogether, these six European brands accounted for 82.7% of the fiberglass macro vote.
Curious how we determined the winners? Click here to learn about the methodology for the 2020 Grip List Awards and see a full breakdown of the data.
Climbing Business Journal is an independent news outlet dedicated to covering the indoor climbing industry. Here you will find the latest coverage of climbing industry news, gym developments, industry best practices, risk management, climbing competitions, youth coaching and routesetting. Have an article idea? CBJ loves to hear from readers like you!