The Climbing Q&A: Boone Speed

The Utah visionary opens up about his four decades on the rock, a return to his nemesis climb, the craft of photography, and the search for the next great thing.
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Boone Speed at the HQ of Pusher and Grasshopper in Salt Lake City, UT, showing off Grasshopper’s new standardized hold sets.

Boone Speed at the HQ of Pusher and Grasshopper in Salt Lake City, UT, showing off Grasshopper’s new standardized hold sets.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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

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

In keeping with the Boone Speed ethos, Grasshopper has carved a new 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, is three sets of standardized 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 the grips and an accompanying app: the 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.

Interview

Let’s talk about your original industry dream job, at Black Diamond.

Boone Speed: I was under Maria Cranor, my boss and mentor. We were making those epic catalogs—all of those catalogs from ‘91 all the way through ‘97. Maria was the heartbeat of Black Diamond, and she was aesthetically driven. And she knew how to create a culture. And that’s what we did. That’s what we learned.

Why did you eventually leave?

I grew up in Salt Lake. I love it here now—I can’t believe I ever left. But I had to leave. I had to go see what else was out there and experience the world in a different way. Climbing was never held precious to me, nor was my job at Black Diamond at that point. I’d [also] reached a point in my climbing where it was like, ‘How much better am I going to get and what am I going to sacrifice to squeeze another drop out of this?’ And there are other things to do. So when I got the job offer at Fila…

Photography has been a huge part of your life. How did you form your unique eye?

I liked playing with the Polaroids at my father’s bronze foundry when I was a kid. I used to help the professional photographers who shot my father’s artwork. It was never a proper job, but I was nerding out on it—how light worked and all that stuff. When I was in graphic-design school, photography was part of my elective. It was studio based, and that’s what I understood about photography.

What informs your aesthetic?

My graphic design [education], honestly. It’s hard to go out and take photos that aren’t cluttered, but graphic design and not being classically trained as a photographer let me be impressionistic. I’m not afraid of blur or other ways of being impressionistic, instead of being literal. We’re flooded with photography now—it’s fucking crazy. I get tired of looking at it, honestly. It’s nice when you get a calm moment, when you see something that’s so simply beautiful.

Speed back in the day on Throwin' the Houlihan (5.14a), Wild Iris, WY.

Speed back in the day on Throwin' the Houlihan (5.14a), Wild Iris, WY.

One theme in your life seems to be the need for stimulation. Has that changed?

The thing is, I’m running out of new ways to meet that. I’ve experienced so much and done so much that I don’t even know what to do next. Right now, starting a business is full-on and it’s all-encompassing. And that provides enough stimulation. It’s hard for me to just sit and do nothing.

Another big theme is first ascents. Are you still putting up routes?

Not for a long time. When I was doing it, I needed to put up routes that were interesting to me and hard enough for me. Those just didn’t exist—if I wanted to climb 5.14, I needed to find it and bolt it. Now, I’m all about going to Kalymnos and just clipping bolts! I don’t need to carry on [bolting].

Many of your FAs were super-steep, and you pushed that envelope in AF. What drew you to climbing/bolting on that angle?

Steep was the new-new. It was absurd, and we were looking for absurd. My favorite angle is that 20-degrees-overhanging thin stuff like the VRG, though. I like it technical, I like testing my feet, and I like the buzz of climbing dicey shit above a bolt when I’m feeling fit and tuned in. There’s nothing better.

I heard that you want to redpoint your old VRG nemesis Necessary Evil—true?

It could happen, but it would have to happen spontaneously and a lot of things would have to fall into place. I’ve been fighting injuries for 15 years, and I finally feel healthy again. In my mind, I think I could do it. If I get a couple of 8b’s under my belt—a hard route or two, like a repeat in Hell—and if I felt like I was in striking distance, I would go down and try it. It doesn’t seem completely absurd.

What has allowed you to climb hard into your mid-50s?

As a kid, I had a significant amount of depression—from not being able to be stimulated. Between the ages of 5 and 15, I was always combatting my parents. I couldn’t play or do cool shit. I was grounded a lot—I was sassy, iconoclastic. So now, with the virus, being back on a tight leash and not being able to travel, it’s added to depression. I deal with it by breaking the leash, by pouring myself into my work. At 55, I don’t have any grand ambitions of being the Boone Speed of 1994. My goal to do Necessary Evil isn’t to go back and relive a past; it’s to give myself a fun challenge and finish unfinished business. And because people say I can’t—I’m motivated by doubters.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Start a yoga routine early. And understand it. Don’t just go through the motions, but understand what those positions are and why you’re supposed to do them. I discovered yoga in my mid-30s. As I got stronger and more flexible, it exposed other problems; it initially was a deconstruction process, followed by years of reconstruction. These days, yoga is essential to leaving the house.

What should we all be doing better, now, to help our sport thrive?

Our community’s ethos is a strong one and pretty thoughtful. We need to share our culture. Newer climbers need to understand: Pack it in, carry it out. Be more tolerant of others and people who don’t look or think like us. Leave a smaller footprint. You should step into a culture—climbing’s not like roller-skating or laser tag. For me, it’s important to share the stoke, to be happy for people. If you want to save the salmon, there’s a large captive audience at the climbing gyms that is eager for living a more thoughtful life.

A final theme I’ve noticed is perseverance—like taking 25 days over three years to send Super Tweek. Have you always had grit?

The pit bull in me surfaces in climbing. It’s obsession, you know? It gets in the way sometimes. Like, how many days have I sat in the dirt trying to do something that doesn’t matter? But I don’t know how else to be. That’s who I am. I try to do what I say I’m going to do.

Speed’s Top 5 Hardest FAs

  1. I Scream (5.14c), American Fork Canyon, UT, 1997. V12-plus bouldering.
  2. Super Tweek (5.14b), Logan Canyon, UT, 1994. Radically steep power-endurance.
  3. The Present (5.14a), Gorilla Cliffs, UT, 1995. Bouldery.
  4. Route of All Evil (5.14a), Virgin River Gorge, AZ, 1995. Enduro crimping.
  5. F-Dude (5.14a), VRG, 1994.Links cruxes of three 5.13s.

6 Things You Didn't Know About Boone Speed

  1. Speed has been a dedicated yogi, with a focus on Ashtanga, since 2000. Speed credits yoga with helping him work through chronic injuries, including tight hip flexors and back pain from years of climbing, and elbow tendonitis partially caused, he believes, by texting.
  2. Speed and Mike Call, though best friends, have always been competitive. “For a while when we were in our twenties, we watched a ton of skate videos,” says Call. “We tried to learn to skate and would spend hours at the university trying stuff. Obsessed. Same with basketball. Or playing pool. Or golf. He’s competitive, and I am too, so pretty much anything we get into gets competitive.”
  3. Speed loves surfing. His someday goal is to retire somewhere tropical and “just paint and surf until I can’t anymore.”
  4. Speed has designed rock shoes, including for Scarpa from 1993 through 1997 (including the Dominator and the Lightning slipper) and for Fila, which briefly entered the climbing-shoe market in the late 1990s.
  5. Speed almost died ice climbing in Provo Canyon in 1987. Kicking steps to reach The Fang, Speed, who hadn’t yet donned his crampons or an axe, slipped, slid down the gully toward a 30-foot cliff, careered off the drop head-first, and did a front flip. He then landed on his backpack and slid another 200 feet. Unhurt, Speed hiked back up the slope, after which he and his partner completed the climb.
  6. Speed eats a big bowl of ice cream most every day—organic chocolate and mint chocolate almost exclusively, says Bailey.