He Reimagined Climbing and Rock Shoes. He Hates Hype. You Can Thank Him Later.
Heinz Mariacher has spent four decades creating rock shoes. As a cutting-edge climber of the 1970s and ‘80s, he’s used both his experience on rock and his eye as an artist to catapult footwear from clunkers to the precision tools we use today.
Heinz Mariacher sits at the kitchen table in his home on Karerpass in the South Tyrol province of Italy. The drizzly snow of an early-fall storm blankets the Dolomites, preventing the 65-year-old from climbing at a secluded crag in a nearby alpine valley. The climbing area is home to some of Italy’s original top sport routes, yet has stayed off climbing media—just how Mariacher prefers it. “Climbing has always been about having fun and personal challenges,” he says, “not fame or a high profile.” In this quiet valley, Mariacher also owns land where he’s restored a farmer’s hut to relax, climb, test shoes, and develop routes—away, ironically, from the masses drawn to the sport he’s helped elevate.
Out the window, the clouds transform the sea of red Dolomite peaks into a dreary grey that spreads east toward the Marmolada and Sass dla Crusc—mountains where Mariacher helped shape free climbing, starting in the 1970s. An hour’s drive in the other direction lies Arco, where his fire for free-flowing movement helped ignite sport climbing in the 1980s.
As we chat over espresso, Mariacher disappears upstairs, returning with a black gymnast’s shoe. “This slipper is from 1970,” he says. “I discovered it in a shop in Innsbruck and immediately fell in love with it!” When Mariacher began designing rock shoes for the Italian shoemaker La Sportiva in 1982, he couldn’t wait to design a climbing slipper—though his first task was to design a stiff, high-topped boot. After the Mariacher (the high-topped shoe) came out in 1982, Mariacher continued on to create some of the sport’s most iconic rock shoes, including many for Scarpa, where he now works.
The jovial animation with which Mariacher explains his love for this slipper—and the sport—balances the meticulousness of his orderly mind. He has a generally reserved personality that is often seen as obstinate, especially on social media or his website, where he is unrestrained in his opinions about how modern-day climbers have become too obsessed with image and media presence. As Mariacher’s co-worker Nathan Hoette of Scarpa R&D puts it, “To Heinz, climbing is about being outdoors to focus on the moves, not being surrounded at a crag by a bunch of noise, people, and hype.”
A few days later, after the weather clears, I visit Mariacher’s secret crag with him and his wife, Luisa Iovane, so he can shoe test. Here, at this limestone cliff high in the Dolomites, deer roam and wildflowers line the rock. That afternoon, Mariacher erects a stone barrier to protect some late-blooming edelweiss. The climbing here is thin and stout, the routes requiring precision footwork up water-streaked walls. It’s classic Mariacher terrain.
Given his resistance to change, it might be easy to paint Mariacher as an old hippie, one of those wizened locals with a bottomless well of crusty opinions. But he’s a much more complex, quirky character, one who also embraces technology, modern luxury, and new ideas—in fact, Mariacher is always eager to listen, laugh, and share a story with others who hold a similar view of the sport.
Matt Lavender, an old friend of Mariacher’s from the USA, recalls a visit to Italy 20 years ago when he gave Mariacher a call, hoping to be dragged up something on the Marmolada, a mountain whose free-climbing history is inextricably linked with Mariacher’s own. “There was no ‘How’s life?’ or ‘It’s been ages!’” recalls Lavender. “Instead, he immediately replied, ‘I have a new girlfriend.’”
Lavender was confused—Mariacher has been partnered with Iovane (also a top climber of her time) since the late 1970s. Then Mariacher said, “Her name is nine-one-one. She’s a Porsche.” He’d been enjoying railing the über-tight turns of the Dolomites’ winding roads at tops speeds, in his new precision machine. Mariacher then offered to partner up with Lavender on a 1,000-foot 5.13 with a crux midway up protected by a nest of bad pins.
“Heinz, who, unlike me, climbs calmly with his mind instead of his body, would certainly find joy in a route like this,” says Lavender, who skipped out in favor of something “a little less committing.”
Born in Wörgl, Austria, in 1955, Mariacher began climbing when stiff-soled mountaineering boots were the norm. As a child, he and his brother, Rudi, 12 years his senior, were raised in a traditional keep-your-head-down and work-hard manner. But, as he recalls, “I had total freedom as a kid. After school, I would just leave with my bicycle and go to the woods and play trapper, or explore canyons from the riverbed to the top, disappearing until dark.”
At age 11, he pedaled his bicycle 30 kilometers, and then hiked three hours to the vertical east face of Rofanspitze and free-soloed it. Later, in the guidebook, he found out he’d combined two routes with difficulties up to 5.8. By the time Mariacher was 16, climbing had become a significant focus, yet he coudn’t find any partners willing to cast off the traditional, heavy-boots-and-aid-ladders approach. Instead, he continued to explore climbing by himself, soloing or going with the occasional partner. By age 17, Mariacher had soloed the most challenging routes in the Kaisergebirge, his home mountains—at times using a rope, belay, and points of aid (pulling on pins), but mostly free soloing. Sometimes, Mariacher would even stop to “remove pitons, as the routes were overprotected, and I could use these pieces later for new routes.”
A year later, Mariacher began to adapt this spirit to the intricate, ominous walls of the Dolomites. In 1974, at age 18, Mariacher linked the Cassin (5.11+ A0; 500 meters) and Comici (5.10c; 500 meters) on the Tre Cime in under four hours. On the former, he looped a rope through two fixed pitons, knotting the rope end for a pseudo-self-belay and pulling on two pitons on the hardest move “because there was a big, loose block.” On the latter, he went ropeless and free. He went on to solo Lacedelli (5.10 A0; 500 meters) on Cima Scotoni, self-belaying on the first pitch, and then soloed the Vinatzer (5.10a; 800 meters) on the Marmolada, in 1975 at age 19, self-belaying on only the sixth pitch.
“To me, climbing has always been about moving light and fast and enjoying the physical experience, not just conquering a face or mountain at all costs,” says Mariacher. His less-is-more approach shook the Dolomites to its core. Hoette finds Mariacher’s ethos remarkable given the notorious rock in the range.
“The rock is complete brittle crap; a hold could break off in your hand at any moment,” Hoette says. “Honestly, it’s lucky he didn’t die in those early years. He wasn’t pre-inspecting routes or reading topos and books; he would just walk up to the wall and start climbing.”
In his early 20s, scaling back his job as a land surveyor, Mariacher took up summer residence in his car and moved to the Dolomites. His climbing ethos and vagabond lifestyle were an affront to the local ethics, not to mention his notoriously late starts and unique fashion. Mariacher wore brightly colored homemade clothes, feathered hats, and John Lennon glasses, “a rebellion against the tradition of the boring brown and grey worn in the mountains in those times,” he says. Within his rebellion, however, were also strict rules: No bolts, no resting or pulling on gear (a development after his early days), and only climbing ground-up, even if it meant bailing to come back another day.
Mariacher put up numerous routes in the Dolomites throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He is most associated with the Marmolada and its 900-meter south face, where he opened 12 new lines between 1977 and 1982. His collection here includes Abrakadabra, the first 5.10d on the wall, in 1981, and Tempi Moderni (5.11+; 900 meters), a masterpiece that, as he explains, is “a line I viewed as the last hope for the classic idea of free climbing, where a route was put up without pre-inspection” and pins were used as protection only—not points of aid. This was an accomplishment undertaken with Iovane, whom he met while climbing in 1978 at Passo Sella. Iovane in her own regard was an excellent alpine rock climber and went on to become one of the best sport and competition climbers of the era, with eight Italian Championship titles, international podium finishes, and a second-place finish in the 1989 World Cup behind Lynn Hill.
“I was 17 when I first met Heinz,” recalls Iovane. “I had already had very outstanding partners, but he was by far the best climber and the fastest. And he didn’t mind me climbing in shoes with smooth soles and without a helmet, because he did too. I could happily fill pages and pages of my climbing diary with our ascents. After the first summer, though, I also had to accept the fact that sometimes we kind of ‘wasted’ a perfect-weather day with an unsuccessful attempt on a new route, just because of his strict ethics.”
Yet by 1980, after a trip to Yosemite with Iovane to climb Half Dome, the Nose, and Salathé Wall, Mariacher reconsidered bolts. He says, “In Yosemite, I saw climbing as a sport, and in a whole new way for the first time. John Bachar was showing off on Midnight Lightning, and Ron Kauk impressed us with crazy moves on a bouldering traverse. I came back to the Dolomites and did Abrakadabra and Tempi Moderni. After that, I decided to dedicate myself to sport climbing, because it was clear to me this was key for climbing harder in the mountains, so I went to Arco and started developing routes.”
In Arco, Mariacher was drawn to the sea of untouched limestone slabs. In 1982, he established the area’s first real top-down sport route, Specchio delle mie brame (5.11c), telling himself, “Fuck it, this is down in the valley; it’s not alpine, and should be considered training.” Bolting these otherwise unprotectable faces let Mariacher “reinvent climbing for myself,” focusing solely on the movement.
From 1982 through 1984, Mariacher put up some of Arco’s most challenging climbs, routes like Super Swing (5.12d) and Tom and Jerry (5.12d). Both ascend nearly vertical walls, the rock so smooth you must delicately transition from foot to foot on tiny smears while holding minuscule crimps. The Norwegian climber Magnus Mitbø, who climbed both routes in 2019, says, “The holds are terrible, and you feel like you will be spit off the whole way up. The routes also feel way harder than the grades. People were really good in this style back then, and maybe humbler too.”
During this renaissance, Mariacher held—as usual—to certain principles: “Routes could only be bolted top-down by assuming the best place to clip, and moves could never be tried off-lead,” he says. Even with bolts, the climbing, done properly, still required continuous movement, and he did not believe in dissecting, practicing, and memorizing micro-movements on toprope. When the area gathered public attention and routes started to see toprope inspection, Mariacher moved on in dismay. First to Lumignano, making the first redpoints of open projects like Atomic Cafe (5.13b) and El Somaro (5.13b). Then, in 1986, to Val San Nicolò, where he established Kendo, one of the world’s first 5.14a routes. And then, that same year, the ground-up bolting and freeing of Tempi Modernissimi, an eight-pitch 5.13a on the Sasso delle Undici of the Marmolada massif.
In 1981, La Sportiva approached Mariacher about becoming a sponsored athlete and to help them develop a new rock shoe, both rare opportunities at the time. Although La Sportiva had made a name for itself with its lumberjack and mountaineering boots, the then-53-year-old company had failed to break into rock climbing. Their first shoe, the Yosemite, released in 1979, fizzled.
Up to this point, rock climbers primarily used Edmond Bourdonneau’s smooth-soled, blue-and-white Super Gratton rock shoes (aka “EBs”), sometimes sized so small that a plastic bag was required to slip your foot into the footbed. However, Mariacher had always had a passion for rock-testing different, random, non-climbing footwear, including models like the gummy-soled Italian Superga street shoe, which he wore out climbing “simply because they looked cool on Dolomite big walls,” he says.
Through him La Sportiva released its second rock shoe, the Mariacher, in 1982. The purple-and-yellow high-top took Europe by storm. Mariacher had chosen the midsole and worked on the last shape and rubber, which he figured out by testing different ideas on rock. “I would then come back, and we fine-tuned the stiffness, tension, and volume,” he recalls. The result was a cotton-lined suede upper wrapped around a three-millimeter leather midsole and finished off with a smooth rubber outsole. The cotton lining and softer leather made the Mariacher leagues more comfortable and sensitive than older rock boots.
By 1984, the shoe had reached North America and officially garnered a global cult following, going head-to-head with the Boreal Firé, released in the States in 1983—and the first rock shoe to incorporate a sticky-rubber outsole. The Gunks climber Russ Clune recalls climbing in the Mariachers after Heinz gave him a pair in 1985 in Italy. “When I got back to the Gunks, I started using the Mariacher and loved them; the rubber was almost as good as the Firés, and they were better for edging for sure,” he says. “It was the fit that won it for me, though. It was no secret that the Firés weren’t a great-fitting boot, and the Mariacher definitely fit better. I used those boots for the highest-end soloing I would ever do.” That year, Clune climbed the Gunks testpiece Super Crack (5.12+) ropeless.
Mariacher got to release his long-awaited slipper, the Ballerina, in 1984; it was the first slip-on climbing shoe, as well as La Sportiva’s first slip-lasted design. In contrast to the traditional board lasting, in which a shoe’s upper is stretched over the last—a 3D footlike shape—and then affixed to a stiffer material (the board), which is then attached to the midsole and outsole, slip lasting utilizes a sock-like upper. Its introduction allowed for softer, more sensitive rock shoes—and more dexterous footwork.
Shortly after the Ballerina, the Mega arrived in 1986. It had a more asymmetrical toe and a downturned form, letting the climber dig into small holds. The Kendo came out in 1988, introducing the slingshot rand. “Before these shoes, the rand went around the bottom of the shoe like a mountain boot, put there to traditionally protect the upper and stitching. But without anything to lock your foot in place, your heel would slip,” says Mariacher. “So I asked the guys to put the rand above the heel. This has been on every shoe since.”
Kurt Smith, who began climbing for La Sportiva in 1991, recalls a leap in performance (e.g., his first 5.13b onsight) from the Kendos—though there was a price. “The slingshot really crammed your toe into the toebox, giving you a new level of precision; this allowed you to feel the rock and stand on holds better, with power in your toes. Before this, you just blindly put your foot on and hoped it held.”
In 1991, Mariacher spent eight months developing the Mythos, a shoe that 30 years later remains a go-to for technical face climbing. The German legend Alex Huber is a diehard fan. “I climbed almost entirely with the Mythos even though you would see me on occasion with other shoes—this was mostly because these were the new designs which should get promoted,” Huber says.
In 1993, at 38 years old, Mariacher transformed from athlete and designer to the vice president of R&D and a shareholder in La Sportiva North America. He felt, he says, “too old to keep up with the athletic evolution of sport climbing, and I wasn’t interested in playing the mountain hero to extend my athlete status for another decade.” Keeping the focus on shoe design in Italy while growing the brand in North America, Mariacher, along with business partners Colin Lantz and Ed Sampson, continued to introduce performance shoes like the Miura and Testarossa.
In 2005, Mariacher parted ways with La Sportiva with the idea of dedicating more time to climbing and hiking in the Dolomites. However, he was soon offered a position at Scarpa, a then-67-year-old footwear company known for its mountain, telemark, and ski-touring boots. Lured by the shoe factory in Asolo, Italy, and the chance to revamp the brand’s climbing shoes, Mariacher joined up as rock shoe category manager. He says, “Designing and testing shoes is fun; I still had a lot of ideas, and I knew rock shoes had not yet met their full potential.” In what he describes as “the natural progression of knowledge and future wants in shoe construction,” Scarpa in 2006 released the Mago—an asymmetrical, semi-stiff steep-rock shoe. Mariacher then began developing entire shoe families (with matching lasts) that offer varying degrees of smearing, hooking, and edging fluency—e.g., the Instinct line. Nina Williams, a Scarpa athlete using the Instinct VSR to project the radically overhanging Simply Read (5.13d) in Rifle, Colorado, says, “There is something special about the toebox. I can see a small foothold, and all I have to do is aim and the big toe then guides the point of the shoe right onto the hold.”
Mariacher still works much as he originally did: He comes up with a concept of materials, shapes, and lasts, has a prototype assembled at the factory, and then climbs and adjusts. Testing is typically at his secret crag, where he can utilize specific routes and footholds as gauges. While Mariacher is known for his fluid, natural climbing style, when he is testing, he says, “I am instead climbing with more awareness on how each hold feels, and I’m fully aware of what I am doing with my feet to get feedback.” With this feedback logged mentally, Mariacher returns to Scarpa to fine-tune details with the product manager. As he puts it, “This is a process I could continue forever because there is always something to make a shoe a little better”—though at a certain point the shoes need to go to market.
“As long as I can keep testing my designs and through my own knowledge understand what needs to be changed and adapted, I will keep working on climbing-shoe projects,” Mariacher tells me. As we watch the weather clear outside his kitchen, we make plans to climb at his secret crag as soon as the rock dries. There, he’ll slip on a pair of unmarked prototypes and float up a sparsely bolted 5.12d, returning to the ground to examine the shoes, making a mental note for some future change.
What follows, in a rare interview, Mariacher shares his thoughts on the evolution of the sport since he started climbing, as well as the future of shoe design.
Climbing: Before the Mariacher, what did you climb in?
Mariacher: When I first came to the Dolomites, I used leather hiking shoes with a lugged Vibram profile. This was before smooth rubber. For several years, though, the EB was my main shoe. These were very precise but painful. I wore them three sizes below my street shoe, and they were stiff and insensitive …. But you could see tiny holds, put your foot there, and know it would hold. I also tested out other ideas, like the Superga shoes because the rubber was stickier, and they looked cool.
Climbing: You don’t call yourself a shoemaker. Can you explain your role?
Mariacher: A shoemaker knows a lot about cutting patterns, assembling parts, and has specialized training and skills. In shoe development, I come up with the idea from my collective experience and not just technical training—I can put my foot in a shoe and understand how the construction is affecting it, and the subtle differences for what is working or not. At times, the product manager also adds interesting details because, over many years of working in various categories, they have lots of experience.
Climbing: After starting at Scarpa, what was the first problem you addressed?
Mariacher: Making a shoe that can fit your foot in a more relaxed way, where you don’t have to size down so aggressively to get performance.
My goal was to create shoes that allow and stimulate natural movement. How to do that? Use dynamic materials and systems that move with the foot like a second skin. Instead of relying on a stiff board for support, [you will find that] your toes instead become stronger, and the overall climbing experience is much more enjoyable. Certainly, there will always be routes, especially on granite, that require real stiffness provided by a “serious” midsole, but those are exceptions.
Climbing: What are you working on now?
Mariacher: Innovating the toebox to use a soft rubber that holds your foot in place but is still supportive enough that you don’t just push through the shoe. This will give you a tight but comfortable fit. I am also continually trying different materials in different zones of the shoe. The Chimera is an example of this where I applied a polyurethane-coated microfiber upper to create a unique flex, so the shoe is soft but precise under the toebox.
Climbing: Are new materials the future?
Mariacher: New materials are important, but more important is knowing how to put different materials together in specific ways to get the exact performance you want .… Most materials don’t hold their shape over time. Understanding how to use different materials in different areas, changing the density of materials throughout a specific zone, or applying glues and rubbers to have the material react and move in a particular way is the real secret. Rubber is also where the most significant improvements could come.
Climbing: How can we create futuristic rubber?
Mariacher: There is a lot of room for improvement. Think about Formula 1 racecars and how essential the tires are for transferring the car’s energy to the track, allowing low resistance for fast speeds along with grip. Rock shoes don’t have this level of precision yet, and just using compounds from other industries won’t work. So, it’s going to take a significant investment to improve rubber for climbing.
Climbing: How have competitions and indoor climbing influenced your design?
Mariacher: Competitions require a soft and sensitive shoe where you are doing a lot of hooking with your toes and heel, and a lot less standing on small holds. That’s why I came up with the Drago. This has also carried over to outdoor climbing, where the focus is on big hooking moves and less and less on the technical precision of slab moves that require stiff shoes.
So, in general, in recent years, I worked on softer shoes, giving precedence to sensitivity. I also believe that soft shoes are better for new climbers because you learn to feel each hold instead of just stepping on it, and soft shoes are great on bigger holds and volumes.
Climbing: You experienced the sport when free climbing was in its early days. Do you miss those old days?
Mariacher: In a certain way, yes. Less people means a bigger world. We were only a few, and the world was wide open. I grew up surrounded by mountains to explore, long before they got populated by outdoor people. I was not much interested in alpine history; I was keen to discover climbing by myself. Even if these days are long gone, I remember those first years as the best. It’s a beginner’s-mind story: The less you know, the better it is.
I always liked an individual lifestyle—this didn’t exclude meeting other climbers and having fun together, as long as it was a limited number. I enjoyed meeting cool persons, and I stayed far from people who were overly competitive and full of themselves. Today, everybody talks about climbing as a community thing; I can’t identify with this. To me, community thinking limits freedom! I like to be alone, or with a few select persons; I don’t like to be with “people.” I’m definitely not a Herdentier (gregarious animal).
Another difference is that climbing was an instinctive feeling; I remember looking at walls and getting that feeling in my chest. It was a deeply felt sensation that had nothing to do with rational thinking. For most climbers, the love for climbing had no explanation.
Climbing: After 40 years of designing shoes, what do you see as the future of rock shoes? And what’s next for you?
Mariacher: I will continue trying to “think different,” even if climbing is becoming a mass sport. I’m more interested in inventing shoes that are fun to climb with than following the general and mostly fake performance hype. Let’s be clear: A well-fitting shoe that you trust can make you climb better [and] make moves easier and more fun, but a really strong climber can climb hard grades with any shoe.
Ideally, I’ll keep designing shoes as long as I’m still climbing and have ideas—and obviously as long as I’m useful for a brand. For me, developing climbing shoes is not just a job; it needs to be challenging, interesting, fun. My future? A simple life: Stroll around in the forests and mountains with no destination, watch clouds in the blue sky, admire the eagles’ flight, cut firewood for winter .…
Tristan Hobson (@tristan_hobson) is a freelance journalist based in South Tyrol, Italy.
Heinz Mariacher —A select Ticklist
Mariacher has been setting standards in both sport and alpine climbing since the 1970s. “In the mountains, I refused to use bolts and cultivated a ‘less-is-more’ philosophy following an ethic of minimalistic protection, so that risk became part of the grade,” he says. “V+ (with bad or no protection) in the Dolomites can be challenging—translated in French grading it’s only 5a—5.7 USA—which sounds ridiculously easy! [But] in the old times we used to move a lot on extremely loose rock.” Mariacher’s 800-plus-meter routes on the Marmolada’s South Face highlight the challenges of his singular approach, in which first ascents were done free, without bolts, and in a day.
Here, some career highlights:
Marmolada First Ascents
1977: Harlekin (5.10a) on Punta Rocca. First ascent with Reinhard Schiestl.
1978: Hatschi Bratschi (5.10a) on Punta Ombretta. FA with Luggi Rieser “Darshano” and Reinhard Schiestl.
1979: Vogelwild (5.10a) on Punta Ombretta. FA with Luggi Rieser “Darshano” and Luisa Iovane.
1979: Zulum Babalù (5.10a) on Punta Ombretta. FA with Egon Wurm.
1979: Don Quixote (5.10a) on Punta Ombretta. FA with Reinhard Schiestl.
1980: Abrakadabra (5.10d) on Punta Ombretta. FA with Luisa Iovane.
1980: Sancho Pansa (5.8) on Punta Ombretta. FA with Luisa Iovane.
1981: La Mancha (5.10a) on Punta Ombretta. FA with Luisa Iovane.
1982: Umbrella (5.10b) on Punta Penia. FA with Luggi Rieser “Darshano.”
1982: Tempi Moderni (5.11+) on Punta Rocca. FA with Luisa Iovane.
1986: Tempi Modernissimi (5.13a) on Sasso delle Undici. FA with Luisa Iovane.
1987: Via Attraversa Il Pesce (5.12c) on Punta Ombretta. FFA with Bruno Pederiva, with alternate pitches.
Initial Sport Routes Bolted in Arco
1982: Specchio delle mie brame (5.10d)
1983: Super Swing (5.12c)
1983: Pipistrello (5.12b)
1984: Tom Tom Club (5.12b)
1984: Tom & Jerry (5.12d)
1984: 007 (5.12d)
First 8b/b+ Routes in Italy
1986: First redpoint of Kendo (5.14a), Val San Nicolò
1988: First ascent of Looping (5.13d),Val San Nicolò