Remembering Five Ten Founder Charles Cole

By Steve Grossman ,

Ed. Charles Cole, the founder of Five Ten, passed away on July 14, 2018. He was 63. Below, friend and climbing partner Steve Grossman looks back on the times they shared and the routes they authored together in Yosemite.

Charles Cole climbed hard first ascents in Yosemite before going on to establish Five Ten.

Dean Fidelman, Courtesy Adidas/Five Ten

I first met Charles Cole in 1981 as he was sorting gear from an attempt at the third ascent of Zenith on Half Dome with Dirk Havorka. He was keen on another try and after coaxing some much-needed route information out of Dale Bard, Dean Fidelman and I teamed up with him and hauled loads up the slabs to give it a go. Dean didn’t like the scene so Charles and I went to work, eventually reaching the gruesome Space Flake where our meager selection of cams and some nasty looking climbing psyched us both out.

The following season I ran into Charles again. He had soloed three pitches on a new line and wanted to show it to me and see what I thought. As we looked at the route through his Celestron telescope, I knew he had found a classic and proceeded to get in on it. The prospect of a great climb with a great partner was too much to miss. Charles was easy company, intelligent, witty, and quick to mirth. He was talented and tested, having repeated the Pacific Ocean Wall along with several other El Cap routes, and determined to the point of being outright bullish. Very early in his climbing someone foolishly said “Charles, you will never climb El Cap” and it became El Cape for him. Before he had even sorted out the water knot for webbing or the figure eight for tying in, Charles learned on the job and proved him wrong. John Bachar would make the same mistake when it came to bettering Boreal rubber nearly a decade later.

Coming up around the traditional and then Stonemaster climbing culture in southern California gave Charles an old school approach to wall climbing. He felt, as I did, that creating placements with a chisel was personally unacceptable and that if you had to drill a hole it should be filled with a rivet or bolt. He believed in pushing the limits of the available equipment and himself.

My first lead on what would become the Jolly Roger was pure hooking, and I finished it without adding any bolts above his high point which made him content with his decision to take on a partner. With a combination of difficult natural hooking and runout free climbing, we reached the bottom of the Heart Recess placing only a handful of bolts.

Charles didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs but he was very into sugar and caffeine, especially in the form of Coke, the brown fizzy kind. He reasoned that if he was going to haul water weight then he would rather bring his beloved instead. Things are supposed to go better this way, but when we cast off into a heat wave and reached Mammoth Terraces, Charles was wrecked. After belaying me on El Cap’s first C4 pitch the following morning, we carefully descended, leaving a full haulbag. Charles kept babbling incoherently and pointing up at what, it turns out, he thought was the nosecone of a spaceship that was going to come over the rim and vaporize us. Once we got to his car and drank every drop of water, he ate most of a big bag of M&Ms and got a bit crazy on the drive back to Camp 4.

Charles was really just a big, fun loving kid but along with that endearing quality came a fierce temper. At the very end of the Gold Doubloon pitch, parked on a RURP placed behind a thin flake, Charles had to place a single bolt awkwardly off to his right to reach another crack splitting the wildly overhanging headwall above. He was almost done when I heard him squawk “I broke the damn bit!” I could feel the tension come down the rope as Charles wanted to throw a full blown tantrum. Losing his composure would have led to a huge fall, so I calmly got him to clear his driver and start all over.

For the remainder of the climb we both put in our best effort while leading and stuck to the game plan. The greatest uncertainty came from complications with our drilling equipment a few pitches from the top. It became clear to both of us that, barring such trouble, there was much less uncertainty and hence adventure in pioneering new routes as a party of two, whatever the technical difficulties.

My season in 1983 started with a period of observation. I studied the face of the Captain intently in changing light, sorting out where the existing routes went and, more to the point, where they didn’t. I saw six worthy routes and started up what would become the Turning Point with partners, only to wind up attempting it solo before being shut down by the weather at season’s end.

Finishing the Turning Point alone was priority one in 1984. Charles had scoped out a variation just to the right of the Shield and started up it solo while I got going. We climbed within shouting distance for several days until Charles decided that his intended line wasn’t going to work out and exited up the Muir Wall after several challenging new pitches.

We teamed up again for a new route just right of the Nose after our respective solo efforts. Charles and I were both free climbing very well after getting wall fit. Aside from being a striking line, The Competitive Edge (as I called the route) featured some very bold face climbing on several of my leads. Charles was the perfect partner again as he was used to establishing difficult face climbs and I had complete confidence in his ability to handle the situation if things went badly. I felt that we brought out the best in each other which led to the route name.

Charles went on to solo two more Grade VI first ascents, Space on El Cap and Queen of Spades on Half Dome. The confidence, drive, and will power necessary to accomplish these climbs would serve him well in the arena of business as his family circumstances conspired to make his personal failure not an option. He started small with the Five Tennie and hired Mimi deGravelle, now my wife, to be his first rep. She drove all over the western U.S. to spread the word that the stickiest of rubber had arrived. Since then his creativity, charisma, tireless marketing and informed business savvy have truly established an empire befitting his regal demeanor, now operating under the Adidas umbrella.

Grand vessels leave a powerful and lasting wake and losing the expansive and indelible personality that Charles truly was as a climber, family man, athlete, innovator and entrepreneur has spread emotional ripples throughout the outdoor community. He led a consequential life and is deeply missed by his friends and family having left us suddenly and far too soon.

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