Don’t Call It a Comeback

New Metolius holds.
New Metolius holds.
New Metolius holds.

There was a time when every climbing gym in the country was full of Metolius grips. In 1985 the Oregon-based gear company was the first to sell climbing holds to the public, a full two years before the first commercial climbing gym opened in America. Those first holds were tiles that could be fit together to create a route. Most setters today would not recognize these tiles as holds, so much as flat volumes with too many options.

Very old Metolius Tiles.
Metolius Tiles.

Those tiles set the stage for some of the first bolt-on holds shaped by legendary shaper Jim Karn whose shapes are still spoken of with respect and admiration. And for awhile Metolius was the leader in climbing hold sales. They grew their product line to the point of needing to outsource manufacturing to a facility in China, while bringing in $1 million in retails sales through national partnerships with REI and Moosejaw.

Their poly-resin hold line, all poured in China, sold well to the home woodie market. The holds were inexpensive, ergonomic and didn’t take up too much space on a small home wall.

Since then, the climbing gym market has exploded and commercial routesetters moved on to embrace urethane, mega-sized holds and standard colors. During the past two decades Metolius stayed the course, made money and was ultimately left behind. Until now.

Enter The Hold Emperor

Tedd Thompson worked at Metolius from 1989 to 1996, and then left to pursue other opportunities. Now he’s back as “Hold Emperor” at the behest of Metolius CEO Doug Phillips. Phillips wanted to expand into the gym market without disturbing his retail sales. So he tasked Thompson with making Metolius relevant again to commercial routesetters.

To do that Thompson went on an 18 month investigation to find out what routesetters really want from their climbing holds. He talked to dozens of Head Setters all over the country to find out what had changed in the ten years since he was last selling holds. “All my investigation has been talking to setters, setters, setters,” Thompson told CBJ. “Because really, they’re the ones driving this industry.”

Without hesitation Thompson said, “Urethane has changed the most in that time.” At the same time urethane was coming on the scene, impact drivers were quickly taking the place of hand-powered T-wrenches. “Impact drivers destroy poly holds,” Thompson said. “Poly holds are just not as durable of a product. So it just makes sense to go urethane.”

What Phillips and Thompson wanted was to create two distinct hold lines. One for the retail buyer and one for the bulk gym buyer. “We are still doing all our poly shapes … all of those are for the retail market,” Thompson said. “Those holds we pour in our factory in China. Poly holds are just less expensive than urethane, it’s just the nature of the beast.” Because of these factors, he added with confidence, “We dominate that market.”

To adapt to the commercial market would take some changes.

Local Sourcing

New Metolius at the Bend Rock Gym
New Metolius
For Metolius to pour in urethane meant a whole new manufacturing process from the current system they use to produce resin holds. Both Thompson and CEO Phillips knew that if this was going to be a successful launch they needed to nail it on the first shot. They decided that pouring in their China plant was not an option. “Of course we could have done urethane over there,” Thompson said. But trying to come up with their own urethane blend, and being able to color match with what is on the market, “It just wouldn’t have worked,” he explained.

Color matching alone is a major change since the days of swirl-color resin holds. “The color matching is critical,” Thompson said. “If we don’t color match, we might as well not offer a product. [Our new manufacturer] agreed and so for the last three months that’s what we’ve been doing … color matching.”

Metolius makes a bevy of climbing gear, from harnesses to cams and slings. Almost all of it is produced in the USA. Only their poly holds, training line and certain non-structural sewn items are made in Asia. Metolius has been working in China since 2002, like all business decisions, outsourcing carries with it a certain amount of risk. “It’s hard when you outsource something, you’re always taking a little bit of a gamble from the get go until you find the right person,” Thompson said. “And we didn’t want to come into the gym market like that. We wanted our eyes on the product before it ever shipped.”

So Thompson’s next step in the investigation was to find out who was going to pour their new urethane line here in the States. There are perhaps half a dozen pour houses in the USA and the biggest is Boulder-based Aragon Elastomers.

“What we found with Aragon is we were just another piece in that puzzle,” Thompson said. For example, if Metolius gets a late order for a comp and the setter needs holds tomorrow, “That wasn’t something that I was going to get with Aragon,” he said. “Not unless we were holding half a million in inventory. And more importantly we just didn’t have hands-on production.”

He then tested samples from the other manufactures by doing durability and blind testing to see which holds felt better and could stand up to the abuse a commercial environment puts on a climbing hold. Thompson’s team decided that their Bend neighbor, Entre Prises, was the right fit.

A New Era

New Metolius at the Bend Rock Gym
New Metolius

Entre Prises and Metolius are both legacy brands that share a 30 year history, and they have both been selling climbing holds for as long as holds have been around. But this apparent competitive relationship seems to have only brought the two companies closer together. “We look at EP as a partnership not as competition,” Thompson said.

With Thompson’s focus on quality control and customer service, the partnership offered a lot of advantages. EP is literally down the street from Metolius headquarters in Bend, Oregon, and Thompson even climbs with the EP crew. This close relationship allows Thompson the hands-on production he was looking for. “If I need holds tomorrow I can go down there at 6 o’clock in the morning and pour holds with them. Ya know, get it done,” he said.

In addition to the pouring process Metolius also needed fresh new shapes. Their long time shaper Jim Karn, who has done close to 90% of all shapes the company has ever sold, is on board to help with the urethane line and vets all prospective new shapers.

Thompson made another local connection when Bend Rock Gym’s Head Setter Joey Jannsen showed him some shapes he had in the back room. Janson is now the only other shaper at Metolius and Thompson couldn’t be more happy. “He’s a really good sculptor. I saw this series he had done and thought, damn, these are really cool. Then I showed them to Jim [Karn] and he said ‘damn these are really cool!’”

The new urethane line which is focused on the commercial gym market (and also available for retail) will start with 248 new shapes. Thompson wants to keep the new line small for now and said, “The gym market is changing a lot and consistently. I mean you’ll hear setters saying ‘I hate pockets, we never set with pockets’ then all of sudden, ‘dude, we need some pockets, we decided we like pockets’.”

Thompson and Metolius want to keep their options open and be ready to respond to market demand. “I just do what the customer asks,” Thompson said. “We’ll see the input people give me and then design from there.”

This article has been edited for clarification. “Metolius makes a bevy of climbing gear, from harnesses to cams and slings. Almost all of it is produced in the USA. Only their poly holds, training line and certain non-structural sewn items are made in Asia.”