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Super Tweak: Boone Speed, the first American to climb 5.14b, and his visionary creativity

In the 1980s, when I was getting into the sport, I had a climbing calendar in my bedroom. One month, the photo was of a lanky climber named Boone Speed on Freebase in the Cocaine Gully at Smith Rock. It seemed like a put-on. Someone named “Speed” climbing Freebase in the Cocaine Gully? When my mom saw the calendar, she shook her head and said, “I don’t know about this climbing thing, Matthew.”

I couldn’t have known, but this Speed dude was poised to become a pioneer of American climbing—a guiding force behind the country’s steep-rock revolution as launched in American Fork Canyon, Utah, in 1988; the first American to establish 5.14b, with Logan Canyon, Utah’s Super Tweek in 1994; equipper of America’s first 5.14c, Necessary Evil in the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona (FA: Chris Sharma, 1997, at age 15, with Speed’s support); and one of the first Americans to send 5.14c, with the 1997 FA of I Scream in AF’s Hell Cave. Speed was also integral in fostering the bouldering revolution of the late 1990s, through helping develop areas like Joe’s Valley, Ibex, and Little Cottonwood Canyon—including coveted double-digit problems like Copperhead (V11) in LCC and Finger Hut (V10) at Joe’s—and through his work in marketing and product design at the hold company Pusher. He has consistently been an innovator, from his climbing, to his photography, to travel and exploration, to product design.

Speed’s routes, as I’d later learn during my travels, follow a certain aesthetic: clean, sweeping, nails-hard, and with tiny holds—usually pockets and crimps. There is no fat, and you have to pull. It is performance climbing distilled to its essence, and the line matters as much as the moves, speaking to an aesthete’s vision of what climbing should be.

Today, Speed is 55 and living in Salt Lake City. He mostly sport-climbs and boulders with his wife, Christine “Bailey” Speed, with whom he is partners in the wall company Grasshopper Climbing Systems as well as in a successful freelance photo business, providing imagery for clients like Patagonia, Nike, ESPN, The North Face, and Adidas. Speed’s images are iconic: Sharma, back rippling on the 5.14c Spicy Noodle in China; Sharma again on American’s first 5.15b, Jumbo Love, on the cover of Climbing No. 271; or Emily Harrington, bat-hanging in a stalactite-studded cave. The shots have a kaleidoscopic tactility, and Speed often plays with tools like blur, sunburst, and washed-out backgrounds that lure the eye to unexpected places. His photos also evince a reverent sense of place, with the backdrop of the cliffs, sea, or canyons shown large. As his longtime creative partner Mike Call puts it in his recent film about Speed, The Artist, “Boone’s photos have an opinion.”

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One of Speed’s most iconic photos, showcasing his savvy use of dynamism and texture. Here, Chris Sharma makes the FA of Spicy Noodle (5.14c), Yangshuo, China.
Boone Speed

Speed grew up in an artistic family in Lindon, Utah, south of Salt Lake City. His father, Grant Speed, who died in 2011, was a famous Western bronze sculptor, and his mother, Sue Collins, still works designing store displays in her 80s and has 6,200 followers on Pinterest, aficionados of her paintings and beadwork. The Speeds’ was a strict Mormon household, and while Speed and his sister, Samantha, were given lots of love and encouraged in their artistic pursuits, Speed, he says, “couldn’t play or do cool shit.” His father hailed from San Angelo, Texas, and had worked as a cowboy and later on the rodeo circuit—riding saddle bronc, steer wrestling, roping, and riding bulls—to put himself through Brigham Young University (BYU). Not surprisingly then, Speed was kept busy, cowboy-style, on the family property with chores like building fences and mowing the grass. (Speed had another sister, Peggy, who died at age 6, when Speed was a baby, during heart surgery for a congenital defect.)

As a child, Speed was also brought into the fold at his father’s bronze foundry, Wasatch Bronze, and would assist the professional photographers who shot images of his father’s sculptures for his sales. He’d play with the cameras lying around—old Rolleiflex and Polaroid models—familiarizing himself with their workings and taking shots.

Speed started climbing in 1985 when a co-worker at Wasatch Bronze, noticing Speed was wearing Patagonia shorts, asked if he wanted to go climbing. “I had no idea what climbing was,” Speed said in a 2008 interview with Climbing, recalling that first day out bouldering in hiking boots in Rock Canyon. “I asked, ‘Where’s the grappling hook?’” That day, he met Jeff Pedersen, who with Bill Boyle took the young Speed under his wing and taught him to climb and then to bolt. It would be this trio who, in 1988, began to develop the blocky limestone of American Fork Canyon, taking a then-radical, anything-goes approach to cleaning and gluing the chossy rock, creating the template for overhanging sport routes in America. (See climbing.com/americanfork.) Speed would go on to author dozens of FAs; he cites the 1988 FA with Boyle of Fear and Loathing (5.12a) at Red Rock, Nevada, as his finest. Eight bolts long and 25 degrees overhanging, this crowd-pleaser was one of the States’ first super-steep clip-ups.

I first met Speed in American Fork in summer 1991. Starry-eyed kids visiting from New Mexico, we were thrilled when Speed asked for a belay on his new climb I’ll Take Black (5.12c). Here was a real-life 5.14 hero from the magazines climbing with us! While his blunt-spokenness, booming voice, and intense gaze have at times earned him a reputation—as friends and even Speed have conceded—as “a bit of a dick,” he was supportive of our climbing, even though we were nobodies. That day, I was transfixed by how smoothly and powerfully Speed climbed—with highsteps and long, cranker reaches—for a guy who stood 6’1” and had such long levers.

A stint at the gear shop International Mountain Equipment in SLC was Speed’s first outdoor-industry job. From there, as he was concurrently taking graphic-design classes at BYU, Speed moved into a role as marketing coordinator at Black Diamond. (Speed dropped out of school after his junior year to take the position.) At BD, Speed was in charge of photo editing for the catalog and ads, as well as product design and innovation, including being on the team to develop the HotWire, the world’s first wiregate carabiner, launched in 1995. Speed’s stint at Pusher ran from 1995 through 2001—and again now, after Pusher’s hiatus—and it was here, with Call, that he helped define the modern bouldering aesthetic, sculpting hold sets like Granite (the first holds featuring broken texture), Cobbles (inspired by Maple Canyon), and Sandstone (inspired by Joe’s Valley) that are still emulated today. Pusher also promoted a lifestyle, with posters, apparel, videos like Call’s of Sharma on the FA of Necessary Evil, and minimalist, eye-catching ads that often featured Speed’s photos, like that of the chalk-covered crux pocket on Black Lung (V13) in Joe’s Valley. These ads marked Speed’s start in climbing photography.

Through his career, Speed has been most interested in being a pioneer—in being the first to attain a new grade, or to discover a new area, or to, through his photography, shine a light on some incipient destination or discipline, as he did in 2006 with Mallorca’s deep-water soloing (Climbing No. 252). Almost like a toddler, he’s in constant need of stimulation—to be experiencing something new, to travel, to always be creating. “I have trouble sitting down and doing nothing,” says Speed. “It’s a superpower and also an affliction.” And, as Bailey puts it, “He is incredibly restless if he’s not engrossed in something.” On the flip side, this energy is infectious-—“He makes you feel like you are equally as creative and innovative. That if you just keep moving forward and trying, you too will do something great,” she says.

These days, Speed is putting his try-hard into Grasshopper, which shares warehouse space in western SLC with Pusher. He and the industrial designer Jeremy Huckins co-founded the company in 2017, before Speed returned to SLC after various stints in Portland, Oregon, where he’d moved in 1998 to take a design job with Fila and where, with his ex-wife, Kim, he raised his son, Nic, now almost 20 and an occasional climber himself.

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Speed tuning up his famously strong fingers on a Grasshopper Master wall.Mike Call

In keeping with the Boone Speed ethos, Grasshopper has carved a niche, making adjustable climbing-wall frames for gyms, workplaces, and homes. The idea came along at the right time, and during the coronavirus lockdown months of April and May, the company was selling about one wall a day. Their latest invention, out in October 2020, is three sets of standardized LED/app-connected holds to use on a Grasshopper frame or in conjunction with another hold set. Working with Josh Larson, the head coach at USA Climbing, Speed has developed Grasshopper’s Flow set of two-sided blue warm-up jugs, the Engage set of orange first-pad buckets, and the Masters set of small black grips for advanced movement. The goal is functionality: warming up, engaging specific muscle groups, and even facilitating downclimbing so you can train endurance circuits on a small wall.

As Speed and I caught up over Skype in July, he’d just finished pouring holds, and held one up for me to see, proud of his latest creation.

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