Raised in the Mormon town of Lindon, Utah, Boone Sheridan Speed, 42, never quite fit in. Speed's was a dual world, with artistic parents (his father, Grant Speed, is a renowned Western bronze sculptor) who were also devout Mormons. Speed left the Mormon fold at 19, and when he found climbing — in the mid-1980s, through a coworker at his dad's foundry — it became his driving force.
Highly creative and nonconformist, Speed has for decades played a pivotal role in our sport: in 1994, he established the first 5.14b on American soil (Super Tweek, Logan Canyon), and has helped develop several major Utah destinations, including American Fork and Little Cottonwood canyons, Joe's Valley, and Ibex. Speed's also worked in brand development, and to this day photo-documents his world travels with an abstract, poetic eye. Click here for a Chuck Fryberger video of Speed at his family foundry.
When did it all begin?Well, back in 1964, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mommy and daddy started kissing. …
Where did your name come from?My Uncles. Speed is a family name and I’m named after two uncles — Boone and Sheridan. So I don’t even have a middle name to fall back on. Boone Sheridan Speed is my full name, and none of those are usual. I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit in. I always feel a little bit different, but I’m at peace with that now. It used to be weird — having a name like Boone Speed in a small high school in Utah, it’s pretty rough. It wasn’t easy at all.
What roles have you played in the climbing industry?Gumby, prodigy, teacher, leader, follower, finder, developer, shoe designer, product designer, photographer, hold shaper, entrepreneur, writer, comp thrower, smack talker, wise man, and fool.
How did you get into climbing?A friend I worked with asked me if I’d like to go climbing. You know why he asked me? Cause he saw me wearing Patagonia shorts. True story. The first days I went climbing, I was bouldering in these Asolo hikers. I had no idea what climbing was — this guy just took me, and I asked, ‘Where’s the grappling hook?’ I had no idea. It was so unknown and I just knew I wanted to do it. From that day (July 28, 1985), my life was different.
[We would go] up in he mountains above Provo, at a place called Rock Canyon, on these little quartzite slabs wearing Asolo hiking boots. The routes are these heinous 85-degree slabs on quartzite dime edges and some of my first leads were on one RP between me and 20-feet. Jagged teeth. You would never do that. That’s insane.
[Back then,] Utah wasn’t on any climbing maps, with the exception of desert sandstone. Not a single climbing gym existed anywhere, three-cam units weren’t available yet, all bolts were hand-drilled, and most of them were only 1/4” by 2” long. Basically, you had to be lucky enough to be exposed to the sport and even luckier to somehow get hooked up with someone willing to be your mentor. I consider myself really, really lucky.
What was it about climbing that hooked you?I always climbed trees as a kid. I climbed counters. It just felt easy to me and fun — and what an adventure! I grew up pretty sheltered. My parents are both super creative, but also they’re very religious too. So it was a weird combination of open-mindedness — the sky is the limit to oppressive Mormonism. It was a really weird thing, and I have already kind of wrestled with that in my late teens — the whole religion thing. None of that really makes sense to me. So when I discovered climbing, it was the next frontier. I feel like I was born in my late teens. I got off to a late start. I never went to Europe until I was 25, and now I’ve traveled all over the world.
Tell me about the Speed family Foundry.Oh, man, where to start. My father’s an artist, a renowned Western sculptor actually, and so I just grew up around all this. Such cool stuff comes through here and so much talent. Artists usually see things a little differently, which I find interesting. Being exposed to art my whole life and being raised by two artistic parents, and hanging out with their artistic friends, has definitely given me the ability to question everything and to see the world askew.
What was the most significant moment in your life?That’s easy — the moment my son Nicolas arrived. It’s hard to articulate…lets just say I was a selfish man when I walked into the hospital. I came out looking the same but my operating system had been rebooted. My needs suddenly became secondary — if not insignificant.
What would your best friend say is your worst personality trait?That I withdraw and go deep inside my cave…
What's the most shameful thing you've ever done?I could say something silly like wearing patterned Lycra, but truthfully it has to be breaking up with my first girlfriend abruptly and never speaking to her again. By far my most shameful thing ...
Who's the most important person in your life?Nicolas — I love sharing with him, and in turn I learn so much from him, too, about the world and life. Seeing and trying to understand the world through his eyes has been tremendously mind-expanding. There’s so much beauty — it’s everywhere — that could easily be taken for granted — he can spot it.
Is it important to have a plan?It’s more important for me not to have a plan. There are so many opportunities presented and I’m happiest in a foreign place, just rolling with it, looking around the corner. I think it’s why I like undeveloped climbing areas the most — no guide, no plan.
I was out having beers with some friends a few weeks ago — they work for Nixon watches — and they were going to China in five days and they were like, “Dude, you gotta see this place, it’s crazy! Come! If you get a plane ticket you got a place to stay and transportation.” And I said, “Can I get a visa that fast?” So I did it. I went straight home that night, booked a ticket and had a visa overnighted. I don’t care if I sit in the back of the plane. I can sit still for 13 hours and just listen to music or read a book, chill out. There’s no cellphones, no Internet, so it’s really relaxing to me actually.
Another example is Randy Leavitt calling me to go to Mexico because he said the swells were coming. He only gave me a five-day notice. You don’t know when the swell is coming, and he was, like, “Boone, I think this is coming and it’s going to be here on this day and you need to be in San Diego so we can drive.” I had to rearrange the scheduling in San Francisco to make that happen. So I like to keep it pretty open.
How are you like your mother?Non-judgmental, strong, creative
How are you like your father?Independent, adventurous, creative
Who's a climber you have respect for? Any climber who’s true to themselves and doing it for the love of what they do. Although, I do have more respect for climbers that give back, especially in the form of development and exploration, probably because I respect people with vision.
How did it feel to be a poster child for climbing?You know … fine … flattering. I don’t think I let it go too much to my head, I am psyched that I can inspire people in different ways but I always knew that I wasn’t even close to the human edge. Today, if I could be anywhere, climbing anything, it would be on perfect limestone, over a 75-degree Mediterranean Sea — it's an acquired taste.
Where is our sport heading?Back to the routes … bigger, badder (is that a word?) Anyway, you know what I’m saying?
What would your best friend say is your strongest personality trait?Commitment and staying true to my beliefs, which are in a perpetual state of evolution. So please don’t hold me tomorrow to what I say today.
Favorite memory from the early days of bouldering?Do I look like the “Highlander”? People have been bouldering for hundreds of years. Midnight Lightning was climbed in the 1970s and was considered a benchmark 5.13 testpiece when I started climbing in the mid-80s. So maybe you mean the days when bouldering grew into its own entity so-to-speak, after John Sherman devised the V-scale? All my favorite memories of climbing and bouldering are from discoveries like new steep limestone cliffs all over the US or when vast bouldering areas like Joe’s Valley were found. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being someplace that others have walked by, or overlooked, and realize it’s a special place. And when you’re running around with your friends and everything’s new — that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m so attracted to creative pursuits like photography, design and other art forms — it’s the discovery process that excites me.
What moments in history have you captured with your lens?The development of new areas, like Ibex and Joe's Valley in the 1990s. Lots of FAs, many starring Chris Sharma and other stars. Also the days of growing popularity of psicobloc in Mallorca and the stuff in Turkey — that will be significant one day. There was also the day in early December 2007 I went out to Todos Santos to shoot a massive swell that rocked the Pacific Ocean. Those swells only come along once in a while and you sorta need an inside track if you're gonna get out to shoot that stuff.
Describe the scariest moment in your life.While approaching an ice climb in Provo Canyon I was kicking steps without crampons and without an axe in my hand. When I got close to the pillar, I went to kick a step, committed to that foot, which glanced off the ice, and I started to slide with increasing speed toward a 30-foot cliff. I couldn’t stop, and I thought, ‘This is the last mistake I’ll ever make.’ I went over the cliff, head first, did a full front flip, landed on my pack and slid an additional 200 feet down a steep chute. My friend Vince, who’d watched the whole thing from just behind me, thought I’d be dead, which I wasn’t, nor was I hurt, so I hiked back up the slope, and we climbed the route.
What’s the most important thing in life?The moment, in all its iterations.
What must we pass on to the next generation of climbers?That we are not the end-all, be-all. And that upcoming generations will accomplish the unthinkable — we can’t spoil their opportunities by being selfish.
What brought you to bouldering?Where I started climbing, the guys I started climbing with, we all bouldered, all the time in the early days. In fact, Mike Call and I became friends on a trip we took to Hueco in the late 1980s. Right after that Hueco trip, we discovered the limestone in American Fork Canyon and at the same time got these brand-new inventions called “power drills”; so we went to work developing the hardest climbs we could.
Between 1989-1991, I/we maybe just forgot about bouldering and how strong you could get from it until we rediscovered the granite in Little Cottonwood ... and then discovered Joe’s Valley and Ibex ... and then we couldn’t be fussed to climb on a rope. It was always the simplicity of bouldering and the camaraderie that was so attractive. But now “bouldering” has become every bit as cumbersome, if not more complicated than, roped climbing. What’s with all the pads and the multitudes of spotters? I still love it, but I’m happiest going light pad or no pad, no guide, just shoes and chalk and skill — old-school style. Or lazy-old-man style maybe.
How did you get into photography?I started in college with black and white and fell in love with the whole process, especially in the darkroom. One of my jobs at the Foundry was processing signage. I’d use a stat camera to make crisp transparencies and then I’d slather photosensitive solution on a bronze plate and expose it in the sun, and then etch the detail with acid. I’ve always been fascinated with the photographic process and manipulating it in different ways. For years I shot cross-processed shots, or I’d shoot with Polaroida or Lomos in low light making pictures with texture, color, light. I like the picture making process — from seeing it, to capturing it, to developing it. I consider myself more of a picture maker than a typical photographer.
What are you up to now?Creative pursuits. Photography is my primary interest right now.
I’d like to have some gallery shows. I’d like to do more artistic stuff. I’d like to get into painting, more into sculpture and somehow work these processes all together. I’d like to transfer some photographs into paint. I think if you want to be an artist, you have to stay put and do it for a while — you have to develop it. This is a work in progress. But, I’m not going to stop traveling and doing what I’m doing right now. I want to enjoy my life. My long-term plan is to be painting and sculpting. … I’ve been taking pictures for 20 years — more like weird art pictures. Pictures that are blurry with textures, space, and weird things that don’t really have a home, other than I just think they are beautiful. I think in the end… I’m definitely steering my life toward: I’m 60 chilling on the beach in Mexico and being an artist.
[Also,] I just finished a big glass job. I documented glass blowing. Andy Cobel and Justin Parker are world-class glass blowers who live in Portland, Oregon, and have a design studio called Esque. They were on the top 50 most influential designers list in Time last year. These guys are taking glass and doing crazy things with it, and individually they’ve worked for Robert Rauschenberg and Damien Hirst. Either collaborating or individually they are brilliant artists and it was a great experience to shoot their most recent catalogue. I literally spent hundreds of hours dealing with the logistics of shooting glass in a studio atmosphere.
Click here to download a Leading Off image by Boone Speed. If you look closely you'll find the climber and spotter in this sureal image captured at the limestone paradise of Castle Hill, New Zealand. web.mac.com/boonespeed
Why have you chosen photography as your artistic medium?Photography is mobile and I’ve lived a mobile life. For the last three years until this December, I had not slept in the same bed for a two-week period. So I’m pretty transient. It’s really hard for me to live outside of the hour, the day, the week, and even setting up an appointment ... it’s like, ‘I don’t know?’ I don’t need a specific time unless I’m forced to.
You were on the cover of Climbing Magazine in 1996 — how did it feel to do 5.14 at that time? Cool. Like. “Wow,” I can do this — that’s so cool. These walls were virtually impossible. It’s really hard to keep pushing beyond the limits — I did what I could and I probably could have done more — in fact, I know I could have done more if I would have taken it a little more seriously and pushed a little harder. I would have never done what Chris [Sharma] and Dave [Graham] are doing, though. My body, my skill set is just not that developed. I did what I could when I did it. I was in the right place at the right time. I wouldn’t even make the B-Team now.
I still wanna go back and do Necessary Evil. It’s going to be a rough one, though. I can’t not take it seriously — I couldn’t do it when I was serious, so it’s unfinished business. I know that once I get started in the process, it’s going to be fun and I’m going to be geeking out over it. I have one more in me, maybe two.
Can you tell me about Smack Magazine?You have to give a lot of credit to MC (Mike Call), whom I’ve worked with on many projects. We’ve fallen into our respective roles as videographer and photographer, and we’ve been doing this for years. Our voice was always inclusive and fun. That’s what we were trying to do with it — to get people psyched.
I’ve backed myself into corners several times. MC has actually watched me get bored and f—k up my whole life just to do something. I feel a level of boredom right now in my life. It’s not a bad thing. There’s just more out there, and I’m a curious person.
How do you measure success?For me, success isn’t always about making the most money or doing the hardest route. The routes that were graded the hardest are not my most memorable. Any route that freaked me out, or put me on the edge, that I was able to pull through, will be the best moment; I didn’t necessarily feel that when I did Super Tweek. I was thrilled, but that was just like punching the clock — getting it done. Sometimes I feel loads of success when I take a photograph that nobody will like, but I know that I nailed it. I got what I wanted out of it, and I just know it. Nobody might ever see it — hopefully, they will — but I succeeded. I have super-high standards and I won’t accept mediocrity as success.
What’s the next level?If the next level has to do with climbing, it’s going to be finding a new area, photographing it, and then turning people onto it. For me, that’s where my contribution to climbing will come from now.
What has been your life's work so far?The usual — inner peace.
Most important life lesson you’ve learned?Treat people with kindness and equal importance, which is sometimes easier said than done.
Daily mantra?¿Porque no? (Translation: Why not?)
What mark do you want to make?A well-placed tick mark, but just a small one, and I’ll brush it before I leave.